History of Law in Ancient Greece

History of Law in Ancient Greece

8th century BC was the beginning of Greece’s emergence from the Dark Ages into the Archaic period. For a majority of history, humanity has been ruled by either a monarchy, led by a single person, or an oligarchy, leadership through a select group of persons. And this was very much the case in Greece just slightly different.

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Following the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, which was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, city-states across Greece overthrew their kings and set up constitutional governments. However, if some city-states kept a king, the power of the king was drastically reduced and was seen more in a context of religion or as a symbolic figurehead. Majority of nobility disagreed in the idea of taking a subservient role under a single person and thus coups were made to overthrow their monarchy and it’s hardly surprising that Greek city-states adopted an oligarchy instead. The aristocratic families that made up the Greek oligarchy however could end up facing issues due to the competition between the families and possibly lead to civil war. In an effort to counter such possibilities, their constitutions allowed a temporary, absolute ruler also known as a tyrant and in times of crisis the tyrant would be called upon to lead the state until his end term or when whatever crisis passes. As is only natural in positions of power, many of the tyrants refused to give up their post.

Prior to the 6th and 7th century BC, Ancient Greece didn’t have any official laws or punishments. Many conflicts were settled between families, if a murder were to happen members of the victim’s family would go and kill said murderer thus resulting in many blood feuds. Around the middle of the 7th century BC came the emergence of established laws in Greece. Draco was an archon in Athens and was the first recorded legislator and made several reforms to the law. One of his most important established laws was making murder punishable by exile. Draco’s laws, termed the Draconian constitution was thought to be very brutal and so the term draconian tends to be used in a context that means excessively harsh or severe. Prior to Draco’s reformation of the code of law, law was oral and only known to the aristocratic class, with his introduction laws became written and thus any literate citizen would know the law and was in a sense equal. Aristotle was the main source of information about Draco and one of the rumors about the severity of Draco’s laws was that his laws were written in blood rather than ink.

While Draco’s laws were in general pretty fair due to the fact it could be applied to anyone regardless of status, the consequences were extremely strict. Many criminal offenses, according to the Greek biographer Plutarch, was punishable by death even the smallest one such as stealing produce. Additionally, small offenses could also turn a free citizen into someone’s personal slave if they had wronged someone else. As mentioned before, homicide was punishable by exile, but if that’s the case then why were much minor offenses punishable by death? Well one of the most recognizable traits of the Draconian laws was the distinguishing of murder and involuntary homicide. Where intentional murder would result in death as punishment, involuntary homicide resulted in exile.

In the 6th century BC, Athens moved into an economic, social, and political crisis. From the economic standpoint, the population of Athens had grown to such a large scale that feeding its citizens was a struggle. From the social side many citizens grew into debt and for one to obtain a loan the individual would have to put himself as well as his family as collateral which oftentimes ended up in debt slavery. From the political side, the competitiveness between the aristocratic families were driving the city of Athens into chaos. Athens held nine rulers called an archon which was the chief magistrate in many Greek cities whose term lasted one year, but as mentioned Athens had a council of nine. Many of the problems that were prevalent in Athens went unaddressed and so the city of Athens elected the lawmaker and statesman, Solon to rule as tyrant.

Solon was born in Athens around 635-640 BCE into a distinguished family but one of only moderate wealth. Following the war between Athens and Megara over control of Salamis, Solon gained more popularity and was made an archon in Athens. Additionally he worked as a trader in his early life. Aside from being a legislator and commander, Solon was also a poet of decent fame amongst the lower Athenians, many of his writings inspired the public that were suffering under the Draconian laws that were still in place. This is also partially why he was elected into the tyrant position. Once elected, Solon acted decisively. In an effort to solve the economic problems of Athens he encouraged the planting and export of only olive oil, any other exportation of other foods abroad were forbidden.
In an effort to solve the social problems of the citizens, Solon made away with debt slavery and declared it illegal for an Athenian to own another Athenian. Additionally, he went even further and wiped the slate clean for every citizen by abolishing all former debts owed.

Ancient writers suggest that, in a radical move, Solon proposed to cancel all debts. This plan was referred to as seisachtheia or ‘shaking off of burdens’. In practice, it seems more likely that the hektemoroi still had to pay off some debts but were given the right to own the land they worked. To prevent poor workers slipping into slavery, Solon also forbade the use of one’s person or family members as security on loans. Those hektemoroi who had become slaves through debt were freed from their bondage. (Cartwright).

It was Solon’s political solutions that made the most impact in Athenian society however. To weaken the power of aristocratic families Solon changed the qualifications for political power from lineage to wealth. This didn’t really affect the aristocratic families since they were already wealthy but this change extended political power to a much larger pool of people and ensured that the poor had a voice in politics as well. He allowed all citizens in the realm to vote thus electing their own rulers. The general assembly had the final decision in electing public officials and Solon also created a council of citizens to act as judges.

Through his reformation of the Athenian social system, he remade the class system in Athens by creating four classes whose hierarchy would be based off of agricultural production. The tier list was the pentakosiomedimnoi (the top class of citizens), the hippeus (the second highest), the zeugitai (the third highest), and the thetes (the lowest class). The pentakosiomedimnoi was the estate that could produce at least 500 medimnoi (a Greek unit of volume) per year and thus were eligible for the all of the top positions of government. They could serve as one of the nine archons, in the Council of Areopagus (ex-archons that elected the current archons), in the Council of 400 (ran the daily affairs of the city), and could serve as generals in the Athenian army.

The hippeus were knights and could also serve in a position of high political power. The zeugitai were craftsmen that could serve in a minor position and the thetes were the lowest class as laborers. Every single one of these classes, however, could serve in the Athenian general assembly and jury. Afterwards, Solon made away with many of Draco’s laws and only kept the law regarding homicide. Having completed his reforms of the law Solon relinquished his position as tyrant and left the city of Athens. Soon after the Athenian aristocrats managed to undermine the system again. However, in time, his reforms’ effects had such a deep impact on Athenian society that they continued to be felt even after the period of tyranny was over and eventually became the foundation for classical Athenian democracy. (Karasavvas).

After Solon relinquished his power, Athens fell under the tyranny of Peisistratos. Peisistratos was a distant relative of Solon and generally ruled fairly, shared wealth and power, and made an effort to protect the poor. Unfortunately his son Hippias was not as benevolent and began a reign of terror. With the help of Sparta, the aristocrat Cleisthenes drove Hippias out of power and took over. Cleisthenes’ fame became more prominent when he was made an archon during the rule of Hippias and his political power rose. Eventually his family became less favorable amongst the Athenian officials and Cleisthenes was exiled. The Greeks were a religious people and thus took the word of the gods very seriously. During his time in exile, Cleisthenes supposedly garnered support from the oracle at Delphi and utilized this to convince the Spartan king Cleomenes I to help him and the Athenians overthrow the tyrannical Hippias. Similar to Solan, Cleisthenes was more interested in reforming the system of law than holding power. However, immediately after overthrowing Hippias, Sparta and Athens turned on each other, Cleomenes I installed Isagoras in the archon council as pro-Spartan.

Isagoras backed by other aristocrats drove Cleisthenes out of Athens and was thus unchallenged in power within the city. Isagoras ignored the reforms Solan put into place, abolished the general assembly and imposed a new and un-Athenian system of government in which a select few aristocratic families held absolute power.

With the abolishment of their general assembly the Athenians were furious, eager to prevent Athens from becoming Spartan ruled, Cleisthenes garnered the support of the lower class and a revolution took place and Isagoras was overthrown and Cleisthenes was called from exile and was given free reign to complete his reforms. With the Athenian population backing him, Cleisthenes created the first government of the people by the people for the people resulting in the first democracy, breaking the power of the Athenian aristocratic families and unified the regions of Attica. The most significant part of Cleisthenes’ reform was his division of the Athenian population into tribes, the tribes spanned different regions and broke up traditional ties to powerful families, one’s loyalty no longer belonged to a single lord but rather to the whole tribe.

In an effort to ensure no aristocrat could drive the running of the state into chaos again, Cleisthenes introduced the policy of ostracism. Once a year the Athenian general assembly could vote to exile a single citizen based on any factor such as being too powerful, too dangerous, or just simply not being popular. The exiled citizen’s property was maintained however and he was allowed to return after a decade. As a result of the introduction of ostracism, if the people of Athens thought someone might set himself up to be a tyrant, they simply had to vote for him to leave and by law he was required to obey.

With his new democratic reform, Athens was sheltered from the aristocracy. Cleisthenes placed the running of the state within the hands of the general assembly. Every citizen, regardless of status, had a single vote. The positions of archon and the Council of Areopagus was still in place but their power was drastically reduced. Proposals of measures and election of archons was transferred over to the Athenian general assembly. The old councils of archons simply took a role of offering advice and overseeing trials for murder, treason, and religion criminals were punished by fines, their right to vote taken away, exile, or death. Imprisonment was generally not used a method of punishment. In context of religion The ancient Greeks believed the gods on Olympus watched over them and it was a crime to offend the gods. Offending the gods brought upon bad luck on himself, his family, his friends, and descendants. Additionally to this it brought upon shame and ill fortune upon his city. There are numerous mythological stories of offenses to the gods such as the story of Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Arachne. But the final verdict of the criminals still lay within the assembly.

This direct democracy was unprecedented in history, other city-states had incorporated some form of democratic aspects but these held little to no political power, simply acting as councils in which leaders could ignore, none of it was to the extent of Athens. The general assembly of Sparta was restricted to a small percentage of the population and only voted on issues presented to them by their Council of Elders whom served a life term. Athens was new and fresh and filled with excitement as it appealed to the independent nature of Greek culture, the other city-states assumed that this fresh experiment would drive Athens into ruin. The Spartans held their system of government together through brutal social programming and militarism yet this intense system was constantly under threat of revolution by slaves and could be undermined by outside influences, it was believed that if Sparta was barely keeping it together what hope did Athens have? Evidently Athens didn’t combust. By giving every citizen a voice in the state the Athenians achieved unity and strength.

Athens flourished, accumulating wealth and power, emerged as the region’s second superpower. While Solon was known as the father of western law and his reforms as being set for the foundation of Athenian democracy Cleisthenes was titled the father of democracy. Despite the immediate effects of his reforms being immediately apparent in ancient Athens, his greatest accomplishment will always consist the fact that democracy, since then, has evolved and expanded to most countries of the modern world, and is still considered by many today (2,500 years later) as the best system of government. (Karasavvas)

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