The Law in Ancient Greece

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The traditions of Athens and Sparta say that the laws were given to them by Solon and Lycurgus, legendary figures who served as leaders of their city-states long ago. The two traditions agree that the laws are made by the Assembly and approved by the Senate. These laws, then, are made by people, not gods. The most famous of these city-states is Athens.

Only citizens--those people who were born in Athens or children of people born in Athens--could be part of the government.

If you were accused of a crime, you could have another citizen help you plead your case. This was not a lawyer, just a person who could help. Also, if you accused someone of stealing, you could get in return only what that person stole from you--no more.

Athens also provided for the ostracism of someone the people didn't like. By a vote of the Assembly, any person could be banished from Athens. You didn't get a hearing or a trial; you had to leave. This ostracism lasted only for 10 years. After that, you could come back and live in Athens. And the Assembly played no favorites. The great Aristides, hero of the Persian War, was ostracized for a time--in the middle of the war. (He was called back after only two years, though.) Athens had a court system made up of judges and juries. Judges decided minor cases, but some of the major cases were decided in front of a jury. As a juror, you were chosen by lot and served for a year. Jury cases were argued with just the accuser and the accused making statements. No judge was present, and the jury's decision was binding: No appeal was possible.

Business contracts were enforced by laws. Religious societies and some businesses were protected under the laws such that their by-laws were treated as lawful and binding. Athens had laws covering personal property and providing for damages if that personal property was ruined or stolen. The Greeks even had a law protecting trademarks.

The Greeks distinguished between premeditated murder and accidental killing. Murderers were sentenced to capital punishment or permanent exile. The punishment for accidental killing was not so harsh.

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