Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Athenian Democracy: the People’s Court.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003
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Of almost equal importance to the Assembly and Council, and probably of greater importance (if not greater prestige) than the Areopagus was the People’s Court, the Heliaea and other courts where juries of citizens would listen to cases, would vote on the guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens, and vote on punishments for those found guilty.
Since Athenian law is the subject of this discussion series, the present introduction to Athenian democracy will not describe the lawcourts in as much detail as it has given to the Assembly and Council.
Athenians who served on juries received one-half drachma a day, or three obols, for their service (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 62.2). Payment for service was a democratic innovation, of course, because it allowed the poorer citizens to participate in the governance of their city. There was no property requirement for service; any citizen who did not owe any debts to the treasury, was at least thirty years old, and had not lost his citizenship through any legal action could serve as a juror (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 63.3).
Aristotle’s description of the Athenian lawcourts and the juries that served on them focuses on the elaborate systems that seem to have existed to thwart attempts to bribe juries (this description starts at Aristot. Ath. Pol. 63.1). These anti-bribery measures seem to have focused on making every aspect of jury selection and allocation among the various courts as unpredictable as possible. Jurors would be selected, randomly, from the pool of people willing to serve. The would be divided into groups, one group for every active courtroom, randomly and at the last minute. The individual groups would be assigned to individual courtrooms randomly and at the last minute. And there were elaborate checks to ensure that only authorized jurors entered each courtroom.
Since the lawcourts were charged with hearing, not only cases of criminal and civil matters, but appeals on the part of citizens who were unsatisfied with rulings by the Council or Assembly, this elaborate effort to ensure that the juries were truly honest embodiments of the Demos makes sense. The courts were the ultimate guarantor of democratic rule, and so the juries that ruled those courts had to be as democratic as possible.
Timekeeping was also important during the course of trials, to ensure that the plaintiff and the defendant had equal time to speak. Aristotle describes the water-clock (klepsydra) that measured the time for each side’s speeches. One of the jurors, appointed by lot, poured water into a large jar from which the water ran out in a steady stream; when the jar was empty, the speaker’s time was up. The amount of water poured into the clock varied according to the magnitude of issue at stake. For suits involving sums of money up to 2000 drachmas, each side got to speak for seven measures of water, for suites between 2000 and 5000 drachmas, nine measures of water, and for suits of over 5000 drachmas, ten measures. For cases in which the defendant stood to lose all of his property, his citizenship, or his life, the whole day—eleven measures of water—was given over to the trial. (See Aristot. Ath. Pol. 67).
Juries varied in size from 501 jurors in lesser cases, up to 1500 for the most important matters (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 68.1). Decisions did not have to be unanimous; after both sides in the case had given one or two speeches, the jurors voted by dropping ballots into two jars. Each juror had two ballots, one representing the plaintiff and the other representing the defendant. One after another, the jurors inserted their ballots into two urns. The bronze urn was for the vote that counted; the wooden urn was for discarding the unused ballot. As each juror voted, he was given a token which he could redeem for his juror’s fee of 3 obols (one-half a drachma). (See Aristot. Ath. Pol. 68). After the voting, the courtroom attendants emptied the bronze urn in full view of both parties to the suit and counted the ballots. Whichever side received the most votes won (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 69).
While the Archons were responsible for ensuring the proper running of the Athenian courts, they did not serve as judges. In fact, there was no one in an Athenian courtroom who was a recognized legal authority, except for the several hundred (at least) jurors chosen from the Demos generally. Plaintiffs and defendants, at least those with the laws of Athens on their side, had to rely on the citizens’ knowledge of the laws. In a speech before an Athenian jury, the orator Demosthenes reminded them that, “You have sworn to give a verdict according to the laws, and to the decrees of the People and of the Council of Five Hundred” (Dem. 19.179; note that he mentions the laws before the decrees).
But with no presiding judge, plaintiffs and defendant also had to rely on the jurors’ just-mindedness (or susceptibility to rhetoric), especially when the law was obscure or non-existant. During a different trial from the one just mentioned, Demosthenes reminded another Athenian jury that, “Again, men of Athens, you must also consider well and carefully the fact that you have come into court today, sworn to give your verdict according to the laws… and where there are no statutes to guide you, you are sworn to decide according to the best of your judgement” (Dem. 20.118). So in the absence of clear laws, jurors were free to vote according to unwritten laws, or their own understanding of justice (or their own prejudices).
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