Ancient Athenian Legal System

Ancient Athenian Legal System

By Milana Carse

It is widely known that modern American democracy takes inspiration from that of Ancient Greece. The word democracy itself is derived from the Greek roots dēmos, meaning “the people”, and kratia, meaning “power or rulership”. However, other practices from Ancient Greece have found a place in modern American society. For one, not only is the structure of the American government influenced by that of Ancient Greece, but the American legal system is as well. Like the Athenians, the United States utilizes juries to determine guilt in court, as part of its emphasis on equality and democracy. However, though the legal system of Ancient Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE was similar to the modern American system, it differed in several key ways.

Although Ancient Athenian litigants argued their cases before a jury of citizens, heavy emphasis was put on rhetoric and persuasive speaking, as opposed to modern American courts’ focus on
presenting evidence. Furthermore, defendants would argue their own cases, acting in the role of both lawyer and defendant. As a result, skilled speakers and debaters held a significant advantage in legal proceedings.

Other interesting aspects of the Athenian justice system include its large juries, sometimes with thousands of jurors, and the lack of a judge to preside over a trial. The Athenians preferred large juries to avoid bribery and other forms of corruption. Juries were also composed of an odd number of jurors in order to avoid ties. Unlike in the American legal system, jury verdicts were final and could not be appealed.

The Athenian court system also handled crimes in different courts, depending on the type and context of the offense. For instance, homicide cases were judged in separate courts from lesser offenses. The Ancient Athenians recognized the importance of tailoring prosecution to the crime and context, a lesson that I believe the United States criminal justice system could benefit from.
I believe that the modern Western world can and should learn from the Ancient world, and apply that knowledge to ameliorate today’s inefficiencies and inequities.