Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Facts & Truth.
Steven Johnstone, edition of March 22, 2003
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Ferreting out the truth behind competing claims is not easy, especially when we have only one of them. While we can be reasonably certain of some facts, those that the son of Teisias granted as true—that his father built a wall, that there was a flood which caused some damage to Kallikles’ farm—there are others which must remain in doubt, critically, whether the natural course of the arroyo had ever flowed through the son of Teisias’ land. Notice how the son of Teisias’ attempted to refute this. First (sections 12-15), he offered “proofs (tekmeria) stronger than testimony”: there are tombs and cultivated trees on the land, and no one would put these in a public watercourse. The argument here is indirect and inferential, what the Greeks would call an argument from probability. It goes like this: people don’t put such things in arroyos, such things exist on his land, therefore it’s not an arroyo. He then attacked the reasonableness of the idea that his land is a natural arroyo by saying that dry washes never run parallel to roads (sections 16-17). (This is another argument from probability.) Finally, he tried to reduce Kallikles’ position to absurdity: if he let the water onto his land, he’d get sued by the person whose land it ran out onto—unless he drank it all up himself (sections 17-19). Reviewing these arguments, a skeptical modern reader might begin to suspect that the fault did indeed lie with the son of Teisias. After all, these are all indirect evidence for the absence of an arroyo, and none of the witnesses seem to actually have said that no arroyo existed on the land. (In his recapitulation of their testimony—section 15—the son of Teisias said that they testified to the presence of tombs and cultivated plants, not directly to the absence of a wash.)
Though skepticism is a reasonable approach to any Athenian litigant’s arguments, I would temper it in this case for two reasons. First, the son of Teisias was not alone in endorsing tekmeria (circumstantial proofs) over direct testimony. Though such endorsements were often self-serving (because they justified the argument the litigant was making at the time), the fact that some litigants provided circumstantial proofs in addition to direct testimony suggest that Athenian jurors would have found them compelling. Second, in a society where objective, written records were rare, people often relied on the persistence of physical objects to help remember the past. (This is how Herodotus proceeded in Book 1 to reconstruct the early history of the Lydians and Greeks, by relying on stories attached to physical objects, especially dedications at religious sanctuaries.) Note that the son of Teisias attempted to prove the antiquity of the state of affairs by saying that the trees were established and the tombs old already when his father bought the land. Still, even-tempered skepticism may be enough to doubt the son of Teisias on this point.
It is fairly clear, however, that the son of Teisias included a lot of irrelevant information: whether Kallikles was plotting against him, after all, doesn’t matter to the question of whether he’s at fault for the damages. The conspiracy narrative which frames the speech sheds light on Athenian social relationships—on antagonisms and the ways they could turn into feuds, and on the ways that litigation might be used in pursuit of these (especially because all prosecution was private)—but it offers little to help decide where the truth lay. Indeed, many scholars have concluded that the persistent inclusion of such irrelevant material by Athenian litigants demonstrates the fundamental weakness, the capriciousness, of the Athenian legal system. The son of Teisias said nothing about the law, provided no direct testimony to the crucial fact in dispute, and attempted to inflame the jurors against the prosecutor by impugning his motives. It is difficult to decide whether this tells more poorly for the son of Teisias’ case or the common operation of the Athenian courts. Discovering the truth behind the litigants’ speeches is not only a problem for us, but must have been for Athenian jurors as well.
Well, that’s how a lecture on the subject of the truth behind litigants’ speeches might go.
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