Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Written vs. Unwritten Laws.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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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.
According to Plutarch, when Solon revised the laws of Athens in the
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).
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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