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Transforming Disputes into Cases: Demosthenes 55, Against Kallikles 

Steven Johnstone, edition of March 22, 2003

page 6 of 7

· Speeches & Truth ·

When the son of Teisias rose to respond to Kallikles’ accusations, more than the legally defined facts were at issue. Kallikles’ had blamed the son of Teisias for flood damage to his farm: a wall built by Teisias years before had blocked an arroyo and during a particularly heavy rain the obstructed waters had flooded Kallikles’ farm. The son of Teisias denied at least one of these facts: he claimed there was no natural watercourse across his land. But much of his speech resisted Kallikles’ attempt to make their dispute into a legal case; jurors should not vote for Kallikles not merely because the legal facts didn’t support him, but also because in this case litigation was inappropriate.

The son of Teisias devoted much of his speech to resisting Kallikles’ attempt to transform the dispute into a legal case. This strategy entailed at least four tactical moves in the story he told.

1. The son of Teisias attempted to shift the subject from a single act of his (or, in this case, his father’s) to a series of actions by Kallikles. This involved not merely denying the “facts” of the crime; even more it meant showing that the more meaningful way of understanding the dispute was as a series of interrelated, ongoing events, some of them legal, some not. The conflict was not about a single incident, but a whole series.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 55).

2. In a parallel shift, the son of Teisias put Kallikles in the spotlight as the responsible actor. It was not so much that the son of Teisias blamed Kallikles for the dispute as a whole, but that he impugned his motives for turning the dispute into a legal case. He claimed that the prosecution was motivated by greed (section 1)—a desire to get a greater compensation than damage suffered, or to get his land—or by a desire to drive him out of the neighborhood (section 35). But the son of Teisias denounced Kallikles’ motives for prosecuting in a much more specific way: he accused him of sykophancy. (He used variants of this word 12 times.) While this word had a range of meanings, defendants often used it to call into question the decision to transform the dispute into a legal case.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 55).

3. Just as the dispute should not have been transformed into a legal case, so legality was not the proper ethical field in which to judge Teisias’ walling of his property. Instead, the son of Teisias suggested that such an action was in keeping with the reasonable steps any farmer would take—indeed, the fact that Kallikles had also walled off his property (sections 20, 22, 27) showed that it was reasonable. This is why others had not complained about the son of Teisias’ wall (section 22). Therefore, just as the son of Teisias had not complained when Kallikles walled his land, so the reverse should be the case (sections 29-30).

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 55).

4. Finally, the son of Teisias argued that jurors were not the party best situated to make a judgement on this matter. This was an argument he had to handle with some tact—after all, he didn’t want to offend the jurors. His claim was not that jurors were incapable of making a fair judgment, but that impartial neighbors knew the facts much better (sections 9 and 35). This was a variation on a common argument that litigants used, that they had been driven to the law only because their opponent had refused to settle the case within the family or local community.

The son of Teisias thus offered a series of arguments which may seem irrelevant to the legal case—but that’s precisely because they were arguments about the question of what context ought to determine relevance. In response to Kallikles’ legal story, he offered not merely a refutation but a competing story which challenged the way a merely legal story gave meaning to these events. The dispute, he implied, should not be understood simply as a legal case—this was Kallikles’ assertion—but as an ongoing conflict between neighbors in which Kallikles behaved unfairly and invoked the law for illegitimate purposes.

I am not arguing that the son of Teisias gives a more complete or truer picture of the dispute. Whether his version is better that Kallikles’ is not our job to figure out—that’s what the jurors did. The point I’ve tried to make here is that while Athenian jurors had to decide what the dispute was really about and who was telling the truth, no such burden lies on us. Instead, we should be trying to understand the strategies and resources available to different disputants as they pursued their disputes, without worrying about which were the right ones.

From this perspective, the story of the son of Teisias can be seen, whether true or not, as a highly conventional one. Indeed, studying the range of speeches by Athenian litigants makes it clear that the resistance to litigation was, in a sense, “legalized”; that is, there were conventional and expected arguments used in the courts to make the claim that the dispute should not have been made into a case in the first place. Far from being irrelevant to the legal contest, the question of the appropriateness of the legal setting was always a potential legal issue.

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