Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

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Summary.

Terms.

→ Written vs. Unwritten Laws.

A History of Legislation in Athens in the late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE.

The Process of Making Laws: the Nomothetae.

Legislation Initiated by the Assembly.

Other Ways of Initiating Legislation.

Scrutiny of Laws.

Criticism of Athenian Legislation.

Praise for Athenian Legislation.

Secondary Works Cited.

Index of Citations

General Index

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Nomothesia (Legislation) 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003

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· Written vs. Unwritten Laws ·

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Andocides (Andoc. 1).
 
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Athens.

A law included as a quotation in a speech by the orator Andocides says, “In no circumstances shall magistrates enforce a law which has not been inscribed. No decree, whether of the Council or Assembly, shall override a law. No law shall be directed against an individual without applying to all citizens alike, unless an Assembly of six thousand so resolve by secret ballot” (Andoc. 1.87). This establishes three important principles of Athenian legislation: (in order from last to first) that except under very special circumstances, the laws of Athens were to apply to all citizens equally; that the laws ( νόμοι ) had more authority than the decrees ( πσήφισματα ) of the Assembly or Council; and finally that only the written laws were valid.

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Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).
Demosthenes (Dem. 20).
 
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Athens.

According to Plutarch, when Solon revised the laws of Athens in the 6th century BCE, he wrote the new laws on wooden tablets ( εἰς ξυλίνους ἄξονας ) (Plut. Sol. 25.1). By inscribing laws, either on wood or in stone, and setting them in a public place, knowledge of the laws was made available to all citizens rather than to a small elite. As Demosthenes says, “all the citizens have the same laws before them, simple to read and to understand” ( πᾶσιν ταὔτ᾽ ἀναγνῶναι καὶ μαθεῖν ἁπλᾶ καὶ σαφῆ τὰ δίκαια ) (Dem. 20.93).

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Demosthenes (Dem. 19).

Knowledge of the laws was important, since juries in the Peoples’ Court were made up from the citizens in general. Demosthenes reminds the jurors sitting in judgement on one occasion, “You have sworn to give a verdict according to the laws, and to the decrees of the People and of the Council of Five Hundred” (Dem. 19.179; note that he mentions the laws before the decrees).

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Demosthenes (Dem. 20).
 
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Athens.

But elsewhere, Demosthenes reminds Athenian jurors that the laws cannot cover every eventuality: “Again, men of Athens, you must also consider well and carefully the fact that you have come into court today, sworn to give your verdict according to the laws… and where there are no statutes to guide you, you are sworn to decide according to the best of your judgement” (Dem. 20.118). So in the absence of clear laws, jurors were free to vote according to unwritten laws, or their own understanding of justice (or their own prejudices).

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