The first court

If you read Athenian court cases, you may wonder whether justice is being done. The speeches are full of character assassination, appeals to emotions rather than facts, raising matters that are nothing to do with the matter in hand. However if you consider what went before then the Athenian court system is a massive advance. Even now in parts of the world blood feuds arise between families that can go on for generations and even recently in Greece for example in Sphakia in Crete.

Agamemnon’s Oresteia trilogy is a dramatic account of the change using the extreme case of Orestes murdering his mother because she murdered his father and so it would have gone on if Apollo and Athene had not intervened. In a way it’s worth reading the trilogy before reading any court cases. You will see the working of justice by trial by your peers as something elevated and god-given.

This is the passage in Eumenides where Athene establishes the first permanent court.

κλύοιτ᾽ ἂν ἤδη θεσμόν, Ἀττικὸς λεώς,
πρώτας δίκας κρίνοντες αἵματος χυτοῦ.
ἔσται δὲ καὶ τὸ λοιπὸν Αἰγέως στρατῷ
αἰεὶ δικαστῶν τοῦτο βουλευτήριον.
πάγον δ᾽ Ἄρειον τόνδ᾽, Ἀμαζόνων ἕδραν
σκηνάς θ᾽, ὅτ᾽ ἦλθον Θησέως κατὰ φθόνον
στρατηλατοῦσαι, καὶ πόλιν νεόπτολιν
τήνδ᾽ ὑψίπυργον ἀντεπύργωσαν τότε,
Ἄρει δ᾽ ἔθυον, ἔνθεν ἔστ᾽ ἐπώνυμος
πέτρα, πάγος τ᾽ Ἄρειος: ἐν δὲ τῷ σέβας
ἀστῶν φόβος τε ξυγγενὴς τὸ μὴ ἀδικεῖν
σχήσει τό τ᾽ ἦμαρ καὶ κατ᾽ εὐφρόνην ὁμῶς,
αὐτῶν πολιτῶν μὴ ‘πιχραινόντων νόμους
κακαῖς ἐπιρροαῖσι: βορβόρῳ δ᾽ ὕδωρ
λαμπρὸν μιαίνων οὔποθ᾽ εὑρήσεις ποτόν.

Aesch. Eum. 681

Hear my decree, people of Athens, who are judging the first case for the shedding of blood. In the future for evermore there will be this council chamber of judges for the people of Aegeus, this hill of Ares, the seat and camp of the Amazons when they came waging war out of resentment to Theseus and built up this new city with its high towers. They sacrificed to Ares from which this rock took its name the hill of Ares or Areopagus. Here the fear and inborn respect of the citizens will prevent them from doing wrong both during the day and at night as long as the citizens themselves do not debase the laws with evil influences. If you pollute clear water with mud you will no longer find it drinkable.

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