Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Edward M. Harris, edition of March 22, 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.
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“We who decide to engage in maritime trade and to entrust our property to other men are clearly aware of this fact: the borrower has an advantage over us in every respect. The borrower receives a clearly agreed upon sum of money, but all he leaves behind is just his promise to perform his legal duties in a small tablet bought for two obols and written on a tiny scrap of paper. We on the other hand do not promise to give the money, but immediately turn it over to the borrower. What do we place our trust in and what assurance do we receive when we part with our money? You and your laws which order that all agreements one makes willingly will be binding.” (Dem. 56.1-2)
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“Do not ignore the fact that by resolving one dispute you are passing a law for the entire port of Athens. Many of the men who have chosen to engage in overseas trade are watching you to see how you will decide this case. If you think that written contracts and agreements between partners should be binding and you will not take the side of those who break them, those involved in lending will more readily make their assets available. As a result, the port will thrive, and you will benefit. But if shipowners are allowed to enter into written contracts requiring them to sail to Athens but then sail their ships to other ports, claiming that their ship was wrecked and providing such excuses as the ones this Dionysodorus here is using, and allowed to pay only a share of the interest for the length of the journey they have sailed and not the interest under the terms of the contract, nothing will stand in the way of the cancellation of all contracts. For who will be willing to risk his own money when he sees that written contracts are not enforced, that arguments such as these carry more weight, and that the demands of wrongdoers prevail over justice? No one at all, judges; this is not in your collective interest nor in the interest of those who have chosen to work in commerce, the very men who are most useful both for all of you in common and individually for the person who deals with them.” (Dem. 56.48-50)
Dareius’ words reveal a keen awareness of the relationship between law and the economy. In his eyes, a healthy economy depends on the willingness of the courts to enforce contracts and assure lenders that their money will be repaid. This essay will take its cue from Dareius’ words and study how the laws of Athens supported the growth of market relations in Attica and overseas trade between the Piraeus and other Greek poleis. Part 1 begins by examining the nature of the Athenian economy, then sketches some of the laws and legal mechanisms the Athenians developed to regulate market transactions and promote commerce and trade. Part 2 studies the speech “Against Dionysodorus” found in the Demosthenic corpus and analyzes the dispute between Dareius and Dionysodorus to discover what it reveals about the nature of the legal relationship between lenders and merchants involved in overseas trade.
[Professor Harris’ description of this speech as “found in the Demosthenic corpus” is the responsible, scholarly way of noting that the authorship of the speech is uncertain. Tradition has passed the speech against Dionysodorus down to the present day as one of the many speeches written by Demosthenes, but scholars have come to doubt that Demosthenes himself actually wrote it. For lack of any better identification, we still refer to “Demosthenes 56,” but many scholars will sometimes put the author’s name in square-brackets—[Dem.] 56—to indicate that its author is not really Demosthenes. — CWB]
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