Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Michael Gagarin, edition of March 27, 2003
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This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
We know of relatively few prosecutions for homicide in classical Athens and it is tempting to conclude that homicide was relatively rare, except during the brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants (
Despite these differences, however, in many respects a homicide case resembled other private suits like the assault case Ariston brought against Conon (Demosthenes 54). Each litigant pleaded his own case in two speeches, the first of which presented the main points in his accusation or defense and might be written for him by a logographer (professional speechwriter) and the second rebutting his opponents arguments. Witnesses could testify if they were male citizens; but if a litigant wanted to introduce the testimony of a slave, he had to ask his opponent to allow the slave to be interrogated under threat of torture in the presence of both parties and only if the opponent agreed (which he very rarely did) could the resulting testimony be presented officially in court. Litigants often tell the court what a slave would have said if interrogated, but no example survives of a slave’s testimony being officially introduced. When the litigants finished their two speeches, the jury voted for acquittal or conviction and the majority carried the day (a tie vote meant acquittal). The penalty for intentional homicide was death, though exile seems to have been a common outcome, and the accused was allowed to go into exile voluntarily at any time up until his second speech in court, which would then be delivered by a friend or relative in the hope of persuading the jury to vote for acquittal despite the accused’s departure. For unintentional homicide the penalty was exile, probably for a specific length of time (perhaps a year). At any point the victim’s family could agree to a lesser penalty, or they could even drop the charges, if they wished, though there was a strong moral obligation to avenge an intentional murder.
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