Glossary of Athenian law terms
Excerpts from S.C. Todd, “Glossary” in P.A. Cartledge et al, Nomos: Essays Athenian law, politics and society (Cambridge, 1990) selected by Michael de Brauw (University of Texas at Austin). Todd’s complete glossary (with some changes) also appears in The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford, 1993).
agoranomos, agoranomoi Lit. ‘agora-regulator(s)’: public officials attested in a large number of Greek poleis.; their duties consisted of supervising the commercial aspects of the agora.
aidesis Because homicide in Athenian law was a matter for private prosecution, the relatives of the dead man, as prosecutors, were under certain circumstances permitted or expected to grant pardon (aidesis: to his killer. Once this had been done, the killer was immune from further prosecution. (The derivation of the term is unclear: it is certainly connected with the verb aideomai ‘to feel shame, awe or respect’; LSJ notes that the verb can be used to mean ‘to respect another’s misfortune’ and thus ‘to be reconciled to him’; but unlike English ‘reconciliation’, aidesis is only used to denote the action of the wronged party.)
anakrisis A preliminary hearing before the public official within whose court a case will later be heard (for the role of the presiding official within a lawcourt, see sv. arkhon). Lit., ‘examination’, but it should not be equated with the inquisitorial instruction of civil-law systems: an Athenian public official had very restricted discretion; and unlike an arbitrator (see sv. diaitetes), his function was not to settle the case.
antidosis Lit. ‘a giving in exchange’. A man who was nominated to perform a liturgy could avoid this duty if he could name another citizen who was richer and better qualified to perform the task. If the man challenged agreed that he was richer, he had to take over the liturgy; if he claimed to be poorer, then the challenger could insist on an exchange of all their property to test the claim — in which case the challenger would himself perform the liturgy as the new owner of the (putatively) greater estate. This process of exchange was called antidosis. The advantage of the system from the viewpoint of the democracy was that it encouraged the rich to be suspicious of each other, instead of being hostile towards the state; but although we know of several challenges, there is no attested case in which the exchange was completed.
apagoge, pl. apagogai Lit. ‘dragging away’, i.e., to the appropriate magistrate Summary arrest was permitted against certain categories of criminal, such as thieves and highwaymen, if they were caught ep’autophori — red handed. If the accused admitted his guilt before the magistrate he was promptly executed; only if he claimed to be innocent was he put on trial. See also sv. ephegesis.
apographe Lit. ‘a (written) list’: a catalogue of some or all of the property of a man in debt to the state. The state took no initiative in the confiscation of property: this was left either to private individuals or else, it appears, to local deme’ officials. The term apographe is used to describe the list itself, the process of denunciation, and any judicial hearing arising out of the case. See also sv. phasis‘.
apophasis Lit. ‘a showing forth, declaration’. A procedure newly instituted around the middle of the fourth century: either on the invitation of the ekklesia or on its own initiative, the Areiopagos could investigate any matter involving public security and present a report (apophasis) to the ekklesia, recommending particular action, for instance the prosecution of a named individual.
apragmon, p1. apragmones (adj.); apragmosune (abstract noun) Lit. ‘one who does not conduct business’: a person who refrains from taking part in public affairs. It can be either a positive or a negative characteristic, depending on the attitude of the speaker (‘philosophical contemplation’ or ‘political irresponsibility’). For the opposite characteristic, see sv. polupragmon.
Areiopagos The ancient and originally aristocratic council of Athens; its membership comprised those who had completed a term as one of the nine archons. Its powers had been severely restricted by the democratic reforms of Ephialtes in the 460s B.C., which left it as little more than the main court for cases of homicide; in the fourth century however other powers were added, most notably apophasis.
arkhon, pl. arkhontes (participle acting as a noun), Eng. archon or arkhon Lit. ‘one who is in authority’. Used in three senses: loosely, to refer to any Athenian public official; more strictly (usually a collective plural) to describe the ‘nine arkhons’; specifically, as the title of the senior of the nine arkhonships. These were still the titular chief magistrates of Athens, but their real authority had been severely restricted ever since they began to be appointed by lot, apparently in the 480s. They retained however an honorific position, particularly in the administration of justice: or instance, former arkhons became members of the Areiopagos’ for life; and during their year of office they processed the litigation presented to the most important of the dikasteria, and presided over trials held there, although in this capacity they were by now little more than non-voting (and non-speaking) chairmen. The three senior arkhons each had a specific title and competence: the arkhon (the eponymous official of Athens who gave his name to the civil year) heard cases involving family and inheritance matters of citizens; the arkhon basileus (lit. ‘king arkhon’) presided over religious matters, including sacrilege and homicide; the polemarkhos (lit. ‘war arkhon’, but by now all his military functions had been handed over to the strategoi) dealt with family and inheritance cases involving metics and apparently cases involving certain other privileged foreigners also. The other six arkhons were called thesmothetai (sing. thesmothetes: originally perhaps ‘establisher of judgements’ rather than ‘maker of laws’); they heard those public cases, and perhaps also some private ones, which did not fall within the competence of the three senior arkhons or of other named officials.
astunomos, pl. astunomoi Lit. ‘one who regulates (affairs within) the astu (the built-up area of Athens)’. A board of public officials charged with the general supervisory duties which we associate with the police. Unlike the police, however, they did not undertake the investigation of crime. Nor were they much concerned with the arrest or punishment of accused or convicted criminals: this role was played by the Eleven’.
atimia (abstract noun) Lit. ‘loss of time (2), honour’. In early archaic Athens, atimia seems to have meant outlawry, the total deprivation of all rights, such that a citizen could kill an atimos (pl. atimoi: person suffering from atimia) without committing an offence or apparently incurring blood-guilt. Well before the classical period, however, atimia had already been restricted in its scope to mean the loss of some or all of a man’s active rights as a citizen. Such atimia could be partial or total; it could be imposed permanently by a court, or it could be the (theoretically) temporary result of an unpaid debt to the state, a condition which would automatic-ally terminate if the debt were ever paid off. A man subject to total atimia could not appear in certain public places, could not take part in public life, and could not appear in court. If he broke any of these bans, he was liable to apagoge and death. But he did retain his private rights as a citizen: to kill him would be murder; he was not formally exiled; and he continued to own his property — though his lack of the capacity to sue may have made it difficult procedurally to defend these rights, and many may have found life under such restrictions so intolerable that voluntary exile seemed preferable. A man subject to partial atimia lost either a particular right or rights, or else the power to exercise his rights in a particular situation: for instance, the ability to bring certain types of prosecution.
basileus See sv. arkhon.
boule Lit. ‘council’. The democratic council of 500 men, appointed annually by lot from among citizens aged at least thirty, and with severe restrictions on repeated membership. Its chief function was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the ekklesia, and to undertake certain routine administrative duties, in particular that of co-ordinating the activities of numerous boards of minor officials; but it had also certain independent judicial powers, mainly but not only in cases of limited importance: in some cases of eisangelia, the boule could decide whether to refer the trial to the ekklesia’ or to a dikasterion.
(ho) boulomenos Lit. ‘anyone who wishes’. Whereas prosecution in a dike~ could only be brought by the aggrieved party, in a graphe or other public case it could be brought by any qualified person (which normally meant any Athenian citizen who was not himself atimos).
diadikasia Lit. ‘judgement (contested) between’: a dispute between two people who each claim the same thing, in particular a contested inheritance.
diaitetes, p1. diaitetai An arbitrator. Throughout the history of Athenian law, it had always been open for litigants to arrange arbitration (diaita) on a private basis: in theory, the decision of a private arbitrator was binding, presumably because the litigants had voluntarily contracted to accept it. There was also, however, a system of public arbitration, introduced c. 400 B.C.: every hoplite (or possibly every citizen), in the year that he ceased to be eligible for military service at the age of 59, had to serve as public arbitrator; and every dike (private dispute) was allocated by lot to one of them for an attempt at preliminary resolution. In such cases arbitration was compulsory (litigants were obliged to attend) but it was not binding (a dissatisfied litigant could refuse to accept the verdict: see sv. ephesis). According to Aristotle, the job of the arbitrator (private or public) is unlike that of the dikastes in several respects: he should try to reconcile the parties before imposing a solution; he has the discretion to bring in a decision mid-way between the demands of the litigants; and in his judgement he should look to epieikeia (‘equity’, but see further sv. epieikeia) rather than to dike’ (‘justice’).
diamarturia A formal presentation of a witness (martus) whose evidence serves to compel the public official before whom it is presented either to act in a certain way, or (more commonly) to desist from so acting. As a result of the introduction of paragraphe around 400 B.C., the scope of diamarturia was soon rapidly restricted: after 380 B.C., its only attested use is in inheritance’ cases, where a legitimate son could have a claim by a more remote relative quashed on the grounds that the case was not actionable; to re-open the case, the rival claimant would have successfully to prosecute the witness by dike pseudomarturion.
dike, pl. dikai A concept of wide scope: ‘justice’, ‘good order’, ‘judgement”. But it can also refer to the process by which a just settlement is determined, thus ‘a lawsuit’, ‘a trial’, and even ‘the case which one pleads’ or ‘the penalty which one has to pay’. In the send of ‘lawsuit’, dike can be used either generically, to refer to any type of indictment, or else (more commonly) in a semi-technical sense, to denote the older ‘private suit’ (which only the aggrieved party or his immediate or his immediate personal representatives could bring) as opposed to the newer ‘public suit’ (graphe), which could be brought by any citizen in good standing; it should however be noted that the category of public procedure was broader than that of graphe, and included a number of extraordinary procedures which were not themselves graphai, see for instance svv. apagoge, apophasis, eisangelia, euthunai, phasis.
Note: It seems that these indictments in Athenian law were only allowed if use of the dike or graphe procedure against a particular offence was authorised by statute; whether the defendant’s alleged behavior fell within the terms of this offence could of course be a matter for debate. An indictment was normally described as a dike (or graphe, as appropriate), qualified by the name of the offence, usually in the genitive case: thus graphe hubreos, a public indictment for hubris.
diomosia A special oath taken in cases of homicide: in all other cases the litigants alone swore the antimosia (lit. ‘oath [of two people] against each other’); in homicide cases all the witnesses had to join in the oath of their principals, which was for this reason known as the diomosia (lit. ‘oath between [more than two people]’).
dokimasia, p1. dokimasiai An investigation held either by the boule or in a court, to test whether a man was formally qualified either to hold the public office to which he had been appointed or else to exercise a privilege to which he was laying claim. Dokimasiai were of various types, and were for the most part held in advance: no public official, whether elected or appointed by lot, could hold office without having passed his dokimasia; and newly enrolled citizens, whether by birth or by naturalisation (uncommon), were among those similarly tested. In these cases a man who was rejected suffered disqualification but no further penalty; a public speaker however (see sv. rhetor) could be challenged to undergo a retroactive dokimasia before a court, and this had more of the nature of a regular trial, in that if convicted he would apparently be punished.
eisangelia, p1. eisangeliai Lit. ‘public announcement, laying of information’: a form of public indictment broadly corresponding to impeachment in the USA. It was available for use against any public official during or after his term of office (he would normally be suspended from office for the duration of the trial) or against any political leader who had made a public proposal. It seems that the case could be brought either directly to the ekklesia or else to the boule, and that the final hearing would take place either before the ekklesia or (more commonly, and in every known case after 360 B.C.) before a dikasterion.
ekdosis Lit. ‘giving forth’: the ceremony at which the kurios of a betrothed bride gave her into the hand of her new husband. Marriage in Athenian law took one of two forms, either by engue and ekdosis or else (if a man died leaving his daughter with no kurios to give her away, and no heir to his property) by the epidikasia of the epikleros.
ekklesia The public assembly of Athens, held usually on the Pynx, at which all adult male citiens were formally entitled to attend, vote, and speak.
(the) Eleven; Gk. hoi hendeka A board of public officials responsible for the state prison of Athens. The majority of apagogai were brought before them, and they were in charge of all executions.
emporike dike., p1. emporikai dikai A case involving emporoi, traders who import goods (especially the extra grain which was needed to feed the population of Attica). Because of the urgency of the trade, such cases had rapid and privileged access to the courts; but it is not clear whether the term emmenos, commonly used to describe them, should be interpreted to mean that the case must be completed within a month (the traditional view), or (as has recently been argued) that there was an opportunity every month to initiate such cases; it is uncertain also whether such litigation could take place only during the summer months or only during the winter months. It is possible that other special rules may have applied in these cases.
endeixis, pl. endeixeis A procedure closely related to apagoge. The precise significance of the term is disputed: traditionally it was thought to be a denunciation made before a public official who would then himself arrest the culprit; but it may instead have been used by the plaintiff in some cases as a voluntary preliminary to apagoge.
engue, pl. enguai; enguetes A surety: the engue is the thing which is pledged as security, and the enguetes the person who pledges or commits himself as a pledge. Such sureties were used in a range of legal contexts: to guarantee the payment of a fine or the appearance of a defendant (particularly a foreigner) in court; and as a deposit payable to those who contracted from the state the right to collect taxes or to operate mining concessions. But the most notable use of engue was as the necessary prelude to ekdosis in the regular Athenian form of marriage, corresponding to (but much stronger than) the modern engagement.
ephesis Refusal to accept the decision of an official or a court of first instance, combined with a demand for the dispute to be resolved by a higher authority. For instance, Solon in the 590s is said to have introduced ‘ephesis to the dikasterion’ as a curb on the summary jurisdiction of public officials; and from their introduction in c. 400 B.C., the decisions of public arbitrators were similarly subject to ephesis. Ephesis is traditionally translated ‘appeal’, but this can have misleading connotations. An appeal in English law is brought on the initiative of a dissatisfied litigant (in criminal cases, a convicted defendant) after the court of first instance has decided against him/her; it is his/her duty to persuade the appellate court to reverse the decision, and s/he becomes in a sense the plaintiff in the process. In Athens, there were at least some situations in which ephesis could take place before the lower authority had reached a decision; it was the duty of the original plaintiff, not of the dissatisfied litigant, to persuade the court to act (that it, the court was retrying the case from scratch and not reviewing a decision already made); and it is possible that in the case of Solonian ephesis, this referral was automatic and did not depend on an initiative taken by one of the two litigants.
epieikeia Aristotle says that it is the function of the dikastes (juror/judge) to judge according to dike’ (‘justice’), but that the diaitetes (arbitrator) should make his decision according to epieikeia. It is conventional therefore to translate epieikeia as ‘equity’, since this is a standard and convenient way to describe ‘fairness’ or ‘natural justice’ as opposed to the strict application of legal rules. There are however certain problems here. Equity in English law can mean simply ‘fairness’, but it is also the name given to the system of law developed originally by the Court of Chancery (the Lord Chancellor’s court), to provide relief in cases where to apply the rules of the common law would have seemed manifestly unfair. ‘Equity’ in this sense is itself a body of rules; it is found only in countries which base their legal system on the common law; and it is clearly not what Aristotle is talking about. It should indeed be noted that Aristotle’s statement of theory receives little acknowledgment in Athenian practice: when a litigant in an extant speech pleads for the application of natural justice in his favour, he characteristically describes this as dike and not as epieikeia.
epikleros (fem. adj. acting as noun), epiklerate (abstract noun) An epikleros was the daughter of a man who died leaving no male heir; she was not his heiress, but possession of his estate went together with her hand in marriage. This system of inheritance is described as the epiklerate: for further details, see sv. inheritance’; and for comparison, see sv. engue and sv. ekdosis. (The etymology of epikleros is unclear: it may possibly mean ‘one to whom the property pertains’, but more likely is ‘one who pertains to the property’.)
euthune, normally p1. euthunai Lit. ‘the action of setting straight’. Every public official at Athens had to undergo at the end of his term an examination of his conduct in office. If he had handled public money, he had to present his accounts (logoi, pl.); in all cases he had to seek approval of the way he had used his powers (euthunai properly so called, but the term euthunai came also to be applied to the whole process of audit, logoi included). The examination was conducted by boards of logistai (pl.) and euthunoi (pl.), as appropriate; but any private citizen could bring a charge at any stage during the proceedings.
exegetes, pl. exegetai Lit. ‘interpreter’. A group of officials who expound the proper procedure in situations which raise unusual questions of religious law. Their activity is attested in several cases, all of homicide; and in each case they are responding to an inquiry by an individual by an individual rather than as expert witnesses before a court. In one case they offer also to advise a litigant, implying that this was something more than their regular function of interpreting the law.
graphe, pl. graphai Lit. ‘a writing’; hence, ‘a written indictment’, cf. Eng. ‘writ’. This was the name given to the new ‘public’ form of ordinary prosecution introduced apparently by Solon in the 590s. Its characteristic was that the indictment could be brought by any qualified citizen (ho boulomenos), whereas the older dike procedure could be brought only by the injured party. Graphai and other public procedures appear to have given rise to higher penalties, and thus to have rewarded a successful plaintiff much more heavily than did dikai; but they were also considerably more risky: a plaintiff in a public suit who failed to obtain 20 per cent of the votes of the jury could expect to suffer a heavy fine and possibly also other penalties (e.g. at least partial atimia).
klepsudra Lt. ‘water-sealer’. A water-clock, used to regulate the length of the proceedings in legal cases. It consisted of a bowl of water with a small hole near the base, such that the hole could be stopped or opened as desired: normally two such bowls were used, the one being allowed to empty its contents into the other, and then vice versa, to measure the passage of time. In any category of case, a set number of bowls-full was allocated to each speaker, but the flow of water was stopped for the reading of laws and the testimony of witness.
kurios Lit. ‘master’, ‘lord’, or in certain contexts ‘sovereign’. An Athenian woman had to be represented in legal transactions by a male relative, who was described as her kurios: in the case of an unmarried girl or widow who had returned to the house of her family, this would normally be her father or (failing him) her brother or paternal uncle, but it could even be her adult son. A married woman was represented by her husband, but it appears that her agnatic kurios did retain certain rights: for instance, the reversion of her dowry. Confusingly, the term kurios was also used to denote the owner of property or the master of a household, and there are contexts in which the two uses might conflict: a married son, for instance, would be kurios of his wife; but his father may still be kurios of his household.
logographos, pl. logographoi Lit. ‘speech-writer’: specifically, a professional writer of speeches for litigants to deliver in court. It has recently been argued that the logographos did not normally write the speech so much as help the litigant to prepare it, but this view is contested.
nomos, pl. nomoi Lit. a ‘norm’, in the sense both of ‘custom’ and of ‘law’. Nomos is often contrasted, especially in fifth-century Greek thought, with phusis (lit. ‘nature’); the latter represents underlying reality, and the former denotes the patterns by which men try to shape this. In this sense nomos is normally translated ‘convention.’
nomothesia; nomothetes, p1. nomothetai Nomothesia is the process of enacting laws (of general and/or permanent validity). After 403 B.C., this was taken out of the hands of the ekklesia and given to the nomothetai, in order to provide a check on the passage of reckless legislation. The precise arrangements for the process seem to have been revised several times during the fourth century; but it is notable that the nomothetai were a body selected by lot from among the panel of eligible dikastai. Their function was to hear in detail (but not apparently to discuss) the arguments for and against any proposed legislative change, and to make a final and authoritative decision. They could however only act when requested to do so on the initiative of the ekklesia.
nothos, pl. nothoi Lit. ‘a bastard’. In the classical period, Athenian citizenship was confined to those born of citizen parents on both sides. The child of an unmarried union between citizen and non-citizen was clearly illegitimate, and had rights neither of inheritance nor of citizenship. The status of the child of unmarried citizen parents is less clear: such a person was clearly a nothos without rights of inheritance, but it is disputed whether s/he was or was not a citizen. It is possible, though less certain, that the word nothos was used to describe the child of a mixed marriage even in those contexts (e.g. before 450 BC.) where such a marriage was legally permissible, even though such a child might have full rights to inheritance as well as to citizenship.
oikos A household: the word can be used to describe people or family property or a building, or all three together. The term is rarely used in the formulation of Athenian statutes, but the concept seems to play an important rôle not only in family but in citizenship law: see svv. kurios, nothos.
paragraphe A counter-indictment, in which the defendant charges the plaintiff with bringing an illegal prosecution. The procedure was invented (or possibly re-organised) around 400, to help those threatened with charges which broke the Amnesty: the latter had been imposed under Spartan supervision to protect former supporters of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic junta of 404/3 which had been overthrown by the democratic restoration of 403/2. Paragraphe, however rapidly extended its scope: for the defendant, it seems to have had the advantage that it was itself a prosecution; whereas the older procedure of diamarturia simply served to block a particular claim by the plaintiff, paragraphe enabled the defendant to turn the tables, becoming himself the prosecutor and (if successful) imposing a penalty on his opponent.
(graphe) paranomon A public indictment against the proposer of a new psephisma (decree), charging that his proposal is unconstitutional (lit. ‘against the law’): One of the most extensively documented of all Athenian legal procedures, and one of the most overtly political: the prosecutor might claim for instance that the bill had been proposed without the necessary formalities; but many of the extant graphai paranomon are directed against honorary decrees, and in these the prosecutor regularly bases his case on the claim that the honour is itself undeserved. The procedure could be employed against proposals both before and after they had been voted on by the ekklesia. Until 403 B.C., it was apparently used without discrimination against both nornoi (laws) and psephismata; but in that year a formal distinction was for the first time drawn between the two types of statute (see sv. nomos~). The old procedure of graphi paranomon was retained for use against psephismata; but a new parallel procedure, the graphi nomon me epitedeion theinai, was felt to be required for use against unconstitutional (lit. ‘inexpedient’) nomoi.
phasis Lit. ‘a showing forth, declaration’: denunciation of a man who is illegally withholding property which belongs to the state. Unlike the related (and much better attested) procedure of apographe, phasis was apparently directed against the person rather than the property.
polupragmon, pl. polupragmones (adj.); polupragmosune (abstract noun) Lit. ‘one who conducts much business’, i.e. ‘too much’. Usually pejorative in the eyes of the speaker. The fifth-century Athenian empire was according to its opponents the product of cooperative Athenian polupragmosune; on an individual level, the term has overtones of ‘officious’ and busybody’.
probole, pl. probolai Lit. ‘a throwing forward’. A preliminary accusation, which an intending plaintiff could bring before the ekklesia (Assembly) rather than directly to a dikasterion (court). This vote of the ekklesia had no formal effect: it did not bind a successful plaintiff to continue his action in court, nor apparently did it prevent him from doing so if unsuccessful; it imposed no penalty either on plaintiff or on defendant. It did however strengthen the hand of the successful plaintiff: after the manner of a straw poll, it showed which way the wind was blowing. We hear of probole being used in disputes which arise at festivals, and also against sycophants and against political leaders (presumably) who have allegedly deceived the people with false promises.
(dike) pseudomarturion Lit. ‘(prosecution concerning) false witness’: a private indictment against a martus. This is by its nature a secondary action, brought against a man who has been a witness in previous legal proceedings, and charging him with having given a false or illegal testimony.
sukophantes,pl. sukophantai (noun); sukophantein (verb) A term of disputed etymology and disputed meaning, used pejoratively to describe an officious litigant. Conventionally transliterated as ‘sycophant’ or ‘sykophant’, but the English adjective ‘sycophantic’ derives from a later, post-classical development in the meaning of the word.
sunegoros, pl. sunegoroi Most commonly, a person who appears in court to speak on behalf of a litigant. Lit ‘speaker together with’, thus at least in theory preserving the rule that litigants could not be represented by advocates: the sunegoros was officially the supporting speaker. The word is also used to describe a speaker appointed to represent the state, normally as prosecutor; but the overwhelming majority even of public prosecutions were brought by private individuals.