Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Narratives in Dispute.
Steven Johnstone, edition of March 22, 2003
page 5 of 7
Plot on a Map
There is much I could say about how the transformation of a dispute into a legal case affected the parties involved in Athens, but for now I want to concentrate on the particular resources available to the parties involved. Because Athenian litigation depended upon the speeches of the prosecutor and defendant, the primary resources of litigation were rhetorical resources. And because much of what litigants had to say was to tell about the dispute, many of these rhetorical resources were narratological, that is, they were about the kinds of stories litigants told. (There were other rhetorical resources as well—for example, the means by which litigants made arguments about the meaning of a law—but I will concentrate on narrative.)
Prosecutors’ stories exhibited several characteristics. 1. In conjunction with the institutional setting of the courts, they dichotomized the dispute. They made one party the perpetrator, one the victim, and reduced all others to secondary status. 2. Because only men spoke in court, and usually only citizen men, prosecutors tended to tell stories in which the conflict happened between two male citizens. 3. Prosecutors singled out a specific action as a focus of their stories; loosely we might call this the “crime.” (I would put this word in quotation marks because our notion of a crime involves a violation of criminal, but not civil, law. Since Athenians had no such division of law, I use the word to denote any action which could be claimed as the basis of litigation.) 4. Prosecutors evaluated this action in light of laws; the ethical categories they invoked were legal.
These characteristics were essential to a prosecutor’s story, but they were minimal. Because no judge prevented a speaker from going beyond such legal narratives, they could add more. In addition to legality, they might judge the defendant’s action in light of its good for the polis, or beyond the “crime” they might tell of other bad actions by the defendant (e.g., Ariston in Demosthenes 54, “Against Konon”). Although some prosecutors did not limit themselves to these features, all of them usually included at least this much.
You should also note that this form of story was contingent and contestable. There could be other ways of narrating a dispute which changed the parties involved, the acts in question, or the proper field of judgment. As I noted before, part of a dispute may be a struggle over the form the dispute takes. And, in fact, defendants frequently resisted the prosecutor’s assertion that the dispute should be understood as a legal case.
Read about the evidence
Antiphon (Antiph. 5).
Defendants had many rhetorical resources at their disposal: they could deny the narrative coherence of the prosecutor’s story (e.g., Antiphon 5, “On the Murder of Herodes”) or offer an opposing story of their own; they could ask for the jury’s pity; and they could contest the appropriateness of the prosecutor’s legal narrative—to resist, that is, the prosecutor’s decision to transform the dispute into a legal case. It is precisely here that I will remind you of the need to refrain from judging what the proper form of a dispute should be. To evaluate an Athenian defendant’s speech only in terms of the law, however, is to already endorse—to judge appropriate and right—the prosecutor’s decision to transform the dispute into a legal case. You should forebear from such a judgment.
In light of these considerations, then, I would give a rather different lecture about speeches and truth; it might go something like this….
page 5 of 7