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Athenian Popular Courts: Democracy in Action

Have You Ever?

Have you ever heard of jury duty, where citizens are selected to serve on juries for court cases to decide whether people charged with crimes are guilty? These are often called juries of one’s peers since their members are ordinary citizens. This practice originated in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens.

Explanation

Not only did ordinary citizens comprise the juries in Athens, but they also controlled all aspects of the popular courts. It was an overwhelmingly amateur system with no judges, state prosecutors, lawyers, or police officers. 

Athenian Popular Courts

The Athenian popular law courts, or the dikasteria, were the signature institution of democratic Athens where citizens presented legal disputes in front of juries of their peers to resolve arguments in a fair, democratic manner. 

In the law courts, citizens were free-born Athenian adult men. Women, slaves, foreigners, and children were not considered citizens within the realm of the Athenian government. 

How They Worked

The popular courts were one of three types of courts in Athens, along with the homicide and maritime courts. Among these three, the popular courts heard the widest variety of cases, which were one of two types: public or private. Cases were considered public if they concerned the Athenian people at large, while disputes confined to individuals were considered private. In private cases, the only person who could bring the suit was the victim or the victim’s family, whereas in public cases, any citizen who wished could bring the suit. 

The defining characteristic of the popular courts was the role of the jury. In Athenian trials, cases were heard by anywhere from 201 to 501 or more jurors. The jury selection process was randomized and democratic. In a given year, any citizen was allowed to volunteer to serve as a juror for that year. From the group of citizens that volunteered, six thousand would be chosen randomly to serve as jurors. Then, every day that the courts were in session, the number of jurors needed were randomly chosen from the group of six thousand and assigned to different courts using a complex randomization machine. These extensive randomization measures were implemented to prevent the bribery of jurors. One of the most democratic features of the juries was that jurors were paid a modest wage for each day that they sat on a jury, which ensured that poorer Athenians could participate. In practice, this resulted in most jurors being older and poorer than average.

All trials in Athens began with some dispute or conflict. To illustrate the procedure that led to a trial, let’s say there are two men, Ariston and Conon. Ariston believes Conon stole some property from him, so he goes to a magistrate, a citizen who was appointed to serve in the government for one year, and makes a complaint about Conon. Then, the magistrate holds a preliminary hearing where Ariston and Conon present evidence and question each other about the issue. After this, the magistrate sends the two men to public arbitration. During arbitration, the two men present evidence in support of their respective claims and an arbitrator gives his decision on what he thinks is the fairest course of action. If either Ariston or Conon disagrees with the arbitrator, they can choose to have a jury trial instead. At every step of the process, citizens were responsible for providing their own evidence and representing themselves, as Athens had no police and no lawyers. However, professional speechwriters would write speeches for litigants to deliver in court. In fact, most of the evidence for how the courts in Athens worked comes from surviving court speeches.

A trial in an Athenian popular court consisted of speeches by the plaintiff and the defendant and a vote by the jury. No trial could last more than one day. Both parties represented themselves unless a woman or slave was involved, in which case a citizen man would speak on their behalf. During a trial, the litigants each had a specific amount of time to plead their case, with the plaintiff speaking before the defendant. Litigants could also have evidence such as laws or witness statements read aloud for the jury to consider. Only evidence that was first brought up in arbitration could be used in a trial. Immediately after the litigants were finished speaking, the members of the jury voted anonymously and decided the case by simple majority. If the defendant was found guilty and there was no set penalty, the plaintiff and defendant would each propose a penalty and the jury would vote to pick one of the two. A jury’s decision was final with no opportunity for appeal since Athenians considered the jury to represent the people of Athens as a whole, and the People were the highest authority in Athens. 

So What

The popular law courts epitomized the democratic ideals of ancient Athens. They gave ordinary citizens an opportunity to have an influential role in the government and put the supremacy of the People in Athens on full display. Furthermore, the Athenians’ concept of justice, which was different from modern notions of justice, adhered to these democratic principles as well. The Athenian system favored broad discretion for the jury rather than strict adherence to specific rules like many modern courts. It favored flexible, individualized solutions rather than predictable, standardized ones. It preferred amateurs over professionals. It favored arguments that took context and a person’s character into account that modern courts would consider extra-judicial and irrelevant. However, it was also susceptible to persuasion by the biases of jurors and the rhetoric of litigants, it relied on the judgement of citizens with no formal legal expertise, and it was occasionally exploited by malicious prosecutors looking to gain money or political advantages. While the Athenian approach seems unusual by modern standards, it pursued justice in a way that aligned with Athenian democratic values.

Think Further

  1. How does the Athenian notion of justice compare to modern notions of justice? What seem to be strengths and weaknesses of each?
  2. Do you think a legal system run by amateurs or experts is more inclined to deliver justice? How might you explain the Athenians’ preference for amateurism? 
  3. How did the popular courts in Athens align with Athenian democratic values?

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  1. Bers, Victor, and Adriaan Lanni. “An Introduction to the Athenian Legal System.” Demos, edited by Christopher W. Blackwell, The Stoa Consortium for Electronic Publication in the Humanities, 15 Mar. 2003, www.stoa.org/demos/[email protected]=all&greekEncoding=UnicodeC.html.
  2. Demosthenes. Against Callippus. Translated by Norman W. DeWitt and Norman J. DeWitt, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1949, www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0080%3Aspeech%3D52%3Asection%3D1.
  3. Lambert, Kelly. “Law and Courts in Ancient Athens: A Brief Overview.” Kosmos Society, Center for Hellenic Studies, 20 Sept. 2018, kosmossociety.chs.harvard.edu/?p=40452.
  4. Lanni, Adriaan. “’Verdict Most Just’: The Modes of Classical Athenian Justice.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, vol. 16, no. 2, Jan. 2004, pp. 277-321, https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1289&context=yjlh.
  5. MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1978.