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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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An Athenian Court Trial













Page 5

The Athenian Jury Courts


    A convenient interval has elapsed since one of these preliminary hearings. To-day has been set for the actual trial before a member of the archons in the "Green" court. Ariston, a wealthy olive farmer, is suing Lamachus, an exporter of the Peir├Žus, for failing to account for the proceeds of a cargo of olives lately shipped to Naxos. To follow the trial in its entirety we should have been at the courthouse at first dawn. Then we would have seen the jurymen come grumbling in, some from the suburbs, attended by link boys. These jurors represent a large fraction of the whole Athenian people. There are about six thousand in all. Pretty nearly every citizen above thirty years of age can give in his name as desiring jury duty; but naturally it is the elderly and the indolent who must prefer the service. One thousand of the six act as mere substitutes; the rest serve as often as the working of a complicated system of drawing by lot assigns them to sit as jurors on a particular case. It is well there are five thousand always thus available, for Athenian juries are very large; 201, 401, 501, 1001 are numbers heard of, and sometimes even greater.[4] The more important the case, the larger the jury; but "Ariston v. Lamachus" is only a commonplace affair; 401 jurors are quite enough. Even with that "small court," the audience which the pleaders now have to address will seem huge to any latter-day lawyer who is accustomed to his "twelve men in a box"; and needless to say, quite different methods must be used in dealing with such a company.

    Each "dicast" (to use the proper name) has a boxwood tablet to show at the entrance as his voucher to the Scythian police-archers on duty; he has also a special staff of the color of the paint on the door of the court room.[5] The chamber itself is not especially elegant; a long line of hard benches rising in tiers for the dicasts, and facing these a kind of pulpit for the presiding magistrates, with a little platform for orators, a small alter for the preliminary sacrifice, and a few stools for attendants and witnesses complete the simple furnishings. There are open spaces for spectators, though no seats; but there will be no lack of an audience today, for the rumor has gone around, "Hypereides has written Ariston's argument." The chance to hear a speech prepared by that famous oration-monger is enough to bring every dicast out early, and to summon a swarm of loiterers up from the not distant Agora.


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