Administering Justice in Fifth-Century Athens

face of a prisoner

In fifth-century Athens, citizens actively participated in the justice system. The Athenian justice system did not have a public prosecutor. Ordinary citizens initiated all legal actions. In 96% of the cases for which records are available, the prosecutor was the victim of the wrong or personally involved in a dispute with the defendant.^ Juries made up of at least 200 citizens heard individual lawsuits. Magistrates, numbering about 700, organized and supervised cases.^ Magistrates were chosen by lot from among a pool of eligible citizens and served a one-year term in office.^ In the litigious society of democratic Athens, ordinary citizens had considerable opportunities to experience being a prosecutor, a defendant, a jury member, and a magistrate.

Punishment ended cases. Punishments included fines; loss of rights to speak in the assembly and the courts; loss of rights to enter the assembly, the courts, and the agora; public exposure in stocks; exile; and death. Athenians used punishment to resolve anger, to restore right order, and to cure the disease of wrongdoing. Punishments of citizens in peacetime were designed so as not to draw blood. Bleeding bodies indicated anger, disorder, injury, and ill health. Punishment in democratic Athens was meant not to create anger, disorder, injury, and ill health, but to eliminate them.^

The Athenian justice system provided important context for Athenians’ experiences of tragic drama at city festivals. Athenian tragic poets authored tragedies in competition for acclaim from the Athenian public through a formal process of judging. Tragic plays were in effect an alternate form of public discussion and decision-making about justice.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *