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Sycophancy and Attitudes to Litigation 

Matthew R. Christ, edition of March 26, 2003

page 5 of 8

· Sycophancy in Private Suits ·

While Athenians were unanimous in condemning sycophancy and provided mechanisms, albeit moderate ones, for pursuing “sycophants,” in practice the line between the legitimate use of litigation and abuse of it could be quite thin. Because Athenians viewed private suits and public ones in rather different ways, we should consider each type separately for evidence of Athenian attitudes toward proper and improper uses of litigation.

While private suits (dikai) could involve questions of assault or even homicide, they frequently arose from disputes between individuals or groups of individuals over property or other financial interests. While these suits required jurors to evaluate claims and counterclaims concerning concrete matters, they also invited reflection on social relationships and how breaches in them should be handled. Simply put, when was an individual justified in turning a private conflict into a very public lawsuit?

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Scholia (Schol. Aristoph. Wasps).
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An amusing anecdote from the scholia to Aristophanes’ Wasps (191) suggests that not every quarrel belongs in court: “Once at Athens a man hired a donkey after some bargaining with its driver, just to carry a load to Megara. When they had agreed on these terms, they placed the freight upon him and set out. At midday when the summer heat beat down upon them and they could find no shelter, the owner of the freight lifted it off the donkey and used the donkey to shade himself. At this the driver launched into battle, declaring that he had hired out his donkey to carry freight, not to provide shade; to which the other replied that he had hired it to use as he wished. They took this quarrel about nothing into court.”

If a quarrel over “the shadow of an ass” (a proverbial phrase) did not belong in court, the precise point where it was justifiable to bring a conflict before a public court was open to debate. A plaintiff, therefore, had to explain, among other things, why he deemed his suit worthy of a public hearing.

It was incumbent on a plaintiff not only to establish that his case was far from trivial, but also to demonstrate that he was not quarrelsome or contentious in pursuing a private dispute to court. While plaintiffs may often have been motivated by rancor or manly outrage at the insulting behavior of their opponents, typically they represent themselves as patient, long-suffering individuals, who had no choice but to bring a lawsuit due to the stubborn resistance of their opponents to reason and fairness. In particular, plaintiffs seek to demonstrate that they actively sought to resolve the dispute before it came to court, for example, through arbitration, private or public. This suggests that Athenian juries were concerned about breaches of social peace, and were interested in determining which litigant was responsible for violating cooperative ideals. Paradoxically, as litigants contested vigorously against one another before a popular court, they invoked ideals of cooperation and sought to show how they did everything they could to keep their disputes from escalating into full-fledged legal battles. If, in fact, they were sometimes involved in “feuding” behavior with their opponents, they did their best to present themselves as reluctant disputants and litigants.

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