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William Davis, A Day in Old Athens

 

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An Athenian Court Trial

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Page 4

The Preliminaries to a Trial

 

    There are official arbitrators to settle petty cases, but it is too often that one or both parties declare "the dicasts must settle it," and the lawsuit has to take its way. Athenian legal methods are simple. Theoretically there are no professional lawyers, and every man must look out for himself. The first business is to file your complaint with one of the magistrates (usually one of nine archons), and then with two witnesses give formal summons to your opponent, the defendant, to appear on a set day in court. If he has defaulted, the case is usually ended then in your favor. This hearing before the magistrate is in any event an important part of the trial. Here each side proffers the laws it cites to sustain its claims, and brings its witnesses, who can be more or less cross-examined. All the pertinent testimony is now written down, and the tablets sealed up by the magistrate. At the final trial this evidence will be merely read to the jury, the witness in each instance standing up before the court and admitting when duly asked, "This is my testimony on the case."

    Free men testify under oath, but a slave's oath is counted worthless. The slaves may be the only important witnesses to a given act, but under only one condition can they testify. With the consent of their master they may testify under torture. It is a critical moment at this hearing when a litigant who is confident of his case proudly announces, "I challenge my enemy to put my slaves under torture"; or the other, attacking first, cries out, "I demand that my enemy submit his slaves to torture." Theoretically the challenged party might refuse, practically a refusal is highly dangerous. "If his slaves didn't know something bad, why were they kept silent?" the jury will ask. So the rack is brought forth. The wretched menials are stretched upon it. One must hope that often the whole process involves more show of cruelty than actual brutality. What now the slaves gasp out between their twists and howls is duly taken down as "important evidence," and goes into the record.[3]

 

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