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Was the Athenian Gnome Dikaiotate a Principle of Equity?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

James L. O'neil*
University of Sydney


Modern scholars have expressed divergent views on the role played in Athenian law courts by , ‘the most just opinion,’ which the dikasts swore to observe in the heliastic oath. The most common view is that this embodied a principle of equity under which the precise letter of the law could be overridden. Hirzel and Vinogradoff are the leading advocates of this view. A variant has been proposed by Jones and Plescia, whereby this was not the intention of the oath, but it was used by speech-writers and accepted by the jury-courts in this fashion.

A minority view is advanced by Meyer-Laurin, Wolff and Meinecke, that ‘the most just opinion’ was only a subsidiary means of decision, applied only when the law gave no guidance on a particular point. Biscardi proposes a middle way, in that ‘most just opinion did not override the letter of the law but was used as a principle of equity in the interpretation and formulation of the laws.’

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 2001

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1 Hirzel, R.Agraphos Nomos (Leipzig 1900) 51Google Scholar; Vinogradoff, Sir PaulHistorical Jurisprudence vol 2 (Oxford 1922) 68Google Scholar; cf. Bonner, R.J.Lawyers and Litigants (New York, London 1927) 73Google Scholar; Paoli, U.E., Studi sul Processo Attico (Padova 1933) 39Google Scholar; Gemet, L.Droit et Société (Paris 1955) 67Google Scholar.

2 Jones, J.W.Law and Legal Theory of the Greeks (Oxford 1956) 135Google Scholar; Plescia, J.The Oath and Perjury in Ancient Greece (Tallahassee 1970) 28Google Scholar.

3 Meyer-Laurin, H.Gesetzprinzip und Billigkeit (Weimar 1965) 29Google Scholar; Wolff, H.J.Gewohnheitsrecht und Gesetzrecht’ in Zur Griechischen Rechtsgeschichte ed. Bernecke, E. (Darmstadt 1968) 119Google Scholar; cf. Wolff, H.J.Die Grundlagen des griechischen Vertragsrechts.’ ZRG 74 (1957) 34Google Scholar; Meinecke, J.Gesetzesinterpretation und Gesetzesanwendung.’ RIDA 18 (1971) 359 fGoogle Scholar.

4 Biscardi, A.Le ‘Gnome Dikaiotate’ et l'interprétation des lois dans le Grèce ancienne.’ RIDA 17 (1970) 221 ff., at 232Google Scholar.

5 Vinogradoff (n.l) vii.

6 cf. Nicomachean Ethics V 1137b10, discussed below. Plato makes similar remarks at Politicus 294A10 and laws VII 788B4.

7 Cope, E.M., An Introduction to Aristotle's Rhetoric (London, 1867) 191 f.Google Scholar; Quintilian 7.6.8.

8 cf. Vinogradoff (n.l) 65.

9 A similar view is expressed by Lysias, fr. 87 = Stobaeus 4.5.17.

10 On this argument see I. Triantaphyllopoulos. La lacuna della Legge (Milano 1968) 55Google Scholar; Biscardi (n.4) 224; Mirhady, D.C., ‘Demosthenes as an Advocate’, in Worthington, Ian (ed.) Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator (London & New York 2000) 185Google Scholar.

11 Cohen, D., Law, Sexuality and Society (Cambridge 1991) 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bauman, R.A.The Interface of Greek and Roman lawRIDA 42 (1996) 56Google Scholar; cf. 41; cf. Todd, S.C., The Shape of Athenian Law, (Oxford 1993) 13, 254, 267, 310Google Scholar.

12 Cohen, D., Theft in Athenian Law, (München 1983) 35Google Scholar; cf. 91, Osborne, R., ‘Law in Action in Classical AthensJHS 105 (1985) 48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Finley, M.I., Use and Abuse of Greek History (London 1975) 143Google Scholar.

13 Todd (n.ll) 4, 31, 53 f.; Vinogradoff (n.l) 2.41 f.; Watson, A., Law Making in the Later Roman Republic (Oxford 1974) 188Google Scholar.

14 Dem. 20.118; 39.40. Pollux 8.122. For a full discussion, see Westermann, A., Commentationes de Iurisiurandi iudicio Atheniensium formula, Part I (1859)Google Scholar and Fraenkel, M., ‘Der attische HeliasteneidHermes, 13 (1878) 455 fGoogle Scholar.

15 Demosthenes 18.2 & 121; 24.149 (cf.152); 44.7 f; Aeschines 3.6; Isaeus 11.6; Hypereides 4.40; Plato Apology, 35C; see Carey, C., ‘Nomos in Attic rhetoric and oratoryJHS 106 (1996) 44Google Scholar.

16 See esp. Demosthenes 44.7 f.; Hypereides 4.40; Plato Apology 35C.

17 Carey (n. 15) 37.

18 Dem. 21.4; [Dem.] 48.58.

19 Finley (n.12) ch 8; Todd (n.11)33.

20 PGurob 2 = Hunt & Edgar 256.

21 [Dem.] 48.58.

22 This is a commonly held view in early systems of law—Allen, C.K., Law in the Making, 7th ed. (Oxford 1964) 383Google Scholar; cf. Jones (n.2) 17.

23 Finley, M.I., Ancient Sicily (London 1979) 39Google Scholar.

24 Cunningham, I.C. (ed.), Herondas, Mimiambs (Leipzig 1971) 92, 100Google Scholar.

25 Mirhady (n.10) 185.

26 Todd (n.ll) 54, 77; cf. id. Lysias against Nikomakhos.’ in Foxhall, L. & Lewis, A.D.E., Greek Law in its Political Setting (Oxford 1996)Google Scholar.

27 Bonner (n.1) 75; Hardcastle, M., ‘Some non-legal arguments in Athenian Inheritance Cases’, Prudentia 12 (1980) 11Google Scholar; cf. Ruschenbusch, E., ‘Dikasteria Ponton KyrionHistoria 6 (1957) 257274Google Scholar; Finley, M.I. (n.l2) 143, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge 1983) 30, 82CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See Ar. Athenaion Politeia 63 on the procedures of the dikasterion.

28 Maine, Sir Henry, Ancient Law, 10 ed. (London 1908) 56 ff.Google Scholar; Buckland, W. W., Elementary Principles of the Roman Private Law (Cambridge 1912) 5Google Scholar; Watson (n.13) chapter 3.

29 Vinogradoff (n.l) 65; Crook, J.A., Law and Life of Rome (London 1967) 293 n.69Google Scholar.

30 See LSJ sv III 3, referring to Isoc. 8.61 & 15.4; cf. Herodotus III 53, 4 for a contrast of with justice.

31 Fraenkel, M., ‘Der attische HeliasteneidHermes 13 (1878) 455Google Scholar.

32 Andokides I (On the Mysteries) 86 f. see D.M. MacDowell ad loc. (Oxford 1962) 125 f.

33 For example, Carey (n.15) 42 argues that Aristotle's idea is found in the orators, but expressed in more acceptable language.

34 Carey, C. & Reid, R.A., (eds), Demosthenes, , Selected Private Speeches (Cambridge 1985) 166 fGoogle Scholar. MacDowell, D.M., The Law in Classical Athens (London 1978) 60Google Scholar.

35 Hardcastle(ri.27) 12.

36 Carey and Reid (n.34) 167. When they paid their father's naval debts around 342/1 B.C., both brothers are named Mantitheos: IG II2 1622.435-443. Hence Boiotos cannot have been forbidden to use the same name as his younger half-brother Mantitheos.

37 Biscardi (n.4) 231 f; Meinecke (n.3) 347.

38 Todd (n.l 1) 260; cf. Bauman (n.l 1) 62.

39 Todd (n.l 1)260.

40 Paoli (n.l) 41 f.; Hansen, M.H., Apagoge, Endeixis and Ephegesis against Kakourgoi (Odense 1976) 44 fGoogle Scholar. argues that Aeschines 1.90 f. provides better evidence that a murderer could be a kakourgos.

41 See n.11.

42 Goodwin, W.W. (ed.), Demosthenes, On the Crown (Cambridge 1901) 309 ffGoogle Scholar.

43 Goodwin (n.42) 315 f.

44 Worthington, Ian, ‘Demosthenes’ (In)activity during the reign of Alexander the Great.’ in Worthington, Ian (ed.) Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator (London & New York 2000) 96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Todd (n.11)59 f., 90.

46 On atechnoi pisteis see Carey, C., ‘“Artless” Proofs in Aristotle and the OratorsBICS 39 (1994) 95106Google Scholar.

47 C. Carey (n.46) 101.

48 Vinogradoff (n.l) 66 ff.

49 Biscardi (n.4) 231; Vinogradoff, (n.l) 79.

50 Aristophanes, , Wasps, 583589Google Scholar; Aristotle, Problemata, 950b5. Vinogradoff (n.l) 79 says ‘there was a considerable freedom in the use and application of ancient rules.’

51 Wyse, W., The Speeches of Isaeus (Cambridge 1904) preface, 176 f., 368, 393, 656Google Scholar; cf. Dion. Hal. Isaeus 4.18 on his reputation in antiquity; Biscardi (n.4) 229.

52 Carey (n.l5) 43 argues that we can see from the arguments against leniency, that the orators were concerned such interpretations might be adopted by the jurors.

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