SMNR: Ancient Greek Law

Class Unique: 29165
Greek law was, in certain respects, very different from modern Western legal systems. Most strikingly, it was almost entirely in the hands of amateurs. In Athens, litigants came to court themselves and pleaded their cases directly to large juries composed of ordinary citizens. There were no trained judges, lawyers or legal scholars. There were also no public prosecutors and no police (except for a few slaves who helped with crowd control at public gatherings). Legal actions were initiated by the individuals who were directly or indirectly affected. Traditionally legal historians have regarded such a legal system as a recipe for certain disaster, but more recently scholars have begun to recognize that it actually worked quite well and that it was in fact not so different from our own system as one might think. We are particularly fortunate to have about 100 speeches preserved that were delivered in actual trials in Athens during the period 420-320 BCE. These speeches take us directly into the world of litigation, and they show that in many respects, issues, attitudes, and legal strategies have changed little over time. Most of this course will be structured around the reading of a selection of these speeches, and we will focus on the nature of law and litigation in Athens in this period. But we will also examine the historical background to Athenian law and the evidence for law in other Greek cities (especially the law code of the city of Gortyn). These will help us understand Athenian law in its proper context. The aim of this course is to understand Greek law both in itself and for the light it can shed on the nature of our own law and law in general. To this end we will try to understand the attitudes and assumptions that lie behind the speeches, as well as the issues that are addressed explicitly. In the course of reading the speeches we will also consider legal issues relating to social class, sexual roles, slavery, rhetoric, truth, political ideology, and others. Ultimately we will be asking why these litigants are using the legal system and how well the law is serving their needs. The course will be structured as a writing seminar. During the first few weeks students will choose topics (I will be quite flexible about the topics), and will prepare first an oral presentation in class and then a substantial seminar paper (20-30 pages) on this topic. The class will be small, and class periods will be devoted primarily to discussion, both of the reading and of the other students' reports. There will be no exams. The final grade will depend largely on the paper, but the student's oral report and participation in discussion during the semester will also be counted.

Class Details

Meeting Days Time Location
Thursday 3:30 - 5:20 pm JON 3.212
Evaluation Method Date Time Alpha Range Room

Additional Information

Course Type


Gagarin, Michael Gagarin, Michael