An Overview of the Ancient Greek Legal System

by Legal Author on February 5, 2013

Guest legal blog post regarding the ancient Greek legal system.

Ancient Greece was the incubator for many of the concepts of democracy, including the basics of court systems. The United States court system is an extension of the English common law system because the Founders were familiar with the concepts, but wanted to implement some needed changes. The First Continental Congress placed in the original Constitution that colonists were entitled to “life, liberty, and property…and the common law of England” (http://www.radford.edu/~junnever/law/commonlaw.htm).

Accusation

Methods of accusation in Ancient Greece were different also, and the process was highly political in some cases. There was no prosecutor or police. The political component is clearly true of the most famous case associated with the Athenian court system, which is the prosecution of Socrates. The trial of Socrates provides significant understanding of the trial process in Ancient Greece. Although there was no uniform Greek law system, the basics of the trials were the same everywhere (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greekcrimpro.html).

Indictment

All that was necessary for indictment in the Ancient Greece legal system was an accusation from a free Athenian citizen. There were no parameters for acceptable charges. The charges were presented in a hearing before a magistrate. The plaintiff was required to file the charge in writing, notify the respondent, and post it conspicuously near the local court yard for the community to see for a reasonable period. There was no concept of bail, as defendants were allowed to stay at home until the day of the trial (http://greece.mrdonn.org/athenscourt.html).

Jury

The jury in Ancient Greece was different from the contemporary U.S. court system. With no prosecutor and no system indictment process, the jury was chosen by the court administration from a pool of around 6000 people. All jurors were required to be at least 30 years of age. The King of the particular city-state often functioned as the judge, and all trials were completed in one day. The jury size was determined by the regional population, but the Athenian court chose 500/501 jurors to avoid possible bribery (http://constitution.org/elec/f41l1.html#4.0).

Trial

The plaintiff presented their evidence during the morning session, as the defendant used the afternoon session for rebuttal. Once both litigant presentations were completed, there was a vote among the jurors. The decision was democratic, with the case being won by the litigant with the most votes. There was no deliberation among the jurors. The democratic use of the vote suggests that the burden of proof for the voting juror was preponderance of the evidence in criminal trials as well as civil trials (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greekcrimpro.html). The U.S. legal system recognizes the burden of proof at beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal conviction, reserving the 51-49 concept of preponderance for civil tort claims.

Punishment

Concepts of punishment were significantly different from the U.S. system. The state did not practice incarceration as a criminal penalty. The litigants were also allowed to request a specific legal remedy, which essentially was a form of negotiation. The judge also had the authority to determine if a claim was sufficient for “polis” classification, which indicated a crime against the state. The trial of Socrates was for the polis crime of “corrupting the youth,” which was based on the religious impiety by vocally rejecting state-approved deities (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greekcrimpro.html).

Ancient Greece clearly had an impact on Western Civilization through the concepts of justice and fairness. Civil tort trials, or trials that were requesting financial retribution, were usually settled by arbitration, though theft was criminal. Cases that did not rise to the level of the death penalty would often result in exile to a specific region or island. If the punishment was death, a number of processes were considered, along with the requested punishment by the convicted individual. The jury could essentially convict the defendant, but issue little punishment in the second-phase penalty vote (http://cco.cambridge.org/extract?id=ccol0521818400_CCOL0521818400A013).

About the author

This article was composed by Dennis Welby, a freelance writer and blogger based in the great city of San Antonio. Welby focuses his work on law, history, politics, ethics, philosophy and other subjects. For those who have legal needs be sure to view a top Bay Area Lawyer.

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Legal Author

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  • Very interesting post. I have always been a history buff and being a lawyer, legal systems of the past have always been of interest. This was a nice change from many of the articles I have read.

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