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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 7

Opening the Trial. The Plaintiff's Speech


    The oath is admirable, but the dicasts are not in a wholly juridical state of mind. Just before the short sacrifice needful to commence proceedings, takes place, old Zenosthenes on the second row nudges his neighbor: "I don't like the looks of that Lamachus. I shall vote against him." "And I—my wife knows his wife, and—" The archon rises. The crier bids, "Silence!" The proceedings begin: but all through the hearing there is whispering and nudging along the jurors' benches. The litigants are quite aware of the situation and are trying their best to win some advantage therefrom.

    Ariston is the first to speak. He has taken great pains with the folds of his himation and the trim of his beard this morning. He must be thoroughly genteel, but avoid all appearances of being a dandy. In theory every man has to plead his own case in Athens, but not every man is an equally good orator. If a litigant is very inept, he can simply say a few words, then step aside with "My friend so-and-so will continue my argument"; and a readier talker will take his place.[7] Ariston, however, is a fairly clever speaker. Having what he conceives a good case, he has obtained the indirect services of Hypereides, one of the first of the younger orators of Athens. Hyperedies has written a speech which he thinks is suitable to the occasion, Ariston has memorized it, and delivers it with considerable gusto. He has solid evidence, as is proved from time to time when he stops to call, "Let the clerk read the testimony of this or that." There often is a certain hum of approbation from the dicasts when he makes his points. He continues bravely, therefore, ever and anon casting an eye upon the clepsydra near at hand, a huge water-clock which, something like an hour glass, marks off the time allotted him. Some of his arguments seem to have nothing to do with the alleged embezzlement. He vilifies his opponent: calls Lamachus's mother coarse names, intimates that as a boy he had no decent schooling, charges him with cowardice in the recent Mantinea campaign in which he served, hints that he has quarreled with his relatives. On the other hand, Ariston grandiloquently praises himself as well born, well educated, an honorable soldier and citizen, a man any Athenian would be glad to consider a friend. It is very plain all these personalia delight the jury.[8] When Ariston's "water has run out" and he concludes his speech, there is a loud murmur of applause running along the benches of the dicasts.


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