From the Reference Desk: Researching Ancient Greek Law

By Jonathan Pratter

A classic (no pun intended) bibliography of ancient Greek law is found in the Introduction Bibliographique à l’Histoire du Droit et à l’Ethnologie Juridique, a multi-volume bibliography of legal history published between 1963 and 1988 under the editorship of J. Gilissen by the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Because of its fine-grained organization by subject, this bibliography doubles as a research guide. For example, the section on private law is divided into sub-sections on general works, slavery, family law, property law, obligations, commercial law, and private international law. The reader can learn a lot about the structure of ancient Greek law just by consulting this bibliography. Alas, the section on ancient Greek law in the Introduction Bibliographique was last updated in 1967.

What more current bibliographies of ancient Greek law do we find today? There are some; two of them are online. NOMOI, hosted by Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, describes itself as “a bibliographical web site for the study of ancient Greek law.” The home page points out that the website covers Archaic and Classical Greek law, as well as Hellenistic law. The bibliography is comprehensive, multilingual, and up-to-date. It has a dual structure. The first part is purely alphabetical by the last name of the author, but the second part is structured by general subject heading, though it lacks the granularity of the Introduction Bibliographique. The other online bibliography is Greek Law in the Oxford Bibliographies Online. It is more selective than NOMOI. It is structured by general subject category. In print, there is A New Working Bibliography of Ancient Greek Law (2011).

The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law (2005) is a scholarly yet accessible collection of essays. It covers such issues as the unity of Greek law, early Greek law, the law of procedure in Athens, substantive law in Athens, the law outside Athens, and other approaches to Greek law, including Greek tragedy and law. This book is an excellent introduction to the field.

The Law of Ancient Athens (2013) is a collection of translated primary sources arranged by subject. Sources include extracts from inscriptions, extracts from speeches by orators, and extracts from plays, among others. Trials from Classical Athens (1997) is a selection of translated speeches by the orators in 17 cases arranged by subject. The Law in Classical Athens (1978) is an introduction written for the newcomer to ancient Greek law. A more advanced overview is The Shape of Athenian Law (1993).

Side view of a relief of a head surrounded by leaf decor and SOLON along the bottom of the image
USCapitol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An annual journal devoted to ancient Greek law is DIKE: Rivista di Storia del Diritto Greco ed Ellenistico from the University of Milan. The journal publishes articles in Italian, English, French, and German. Symposion is a biannual collection of essays that publishes the work of the Gesellschaft für griechische und hellenistische Rechtsgeschichte of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Symposion publishes articles in German, English, and French.

An overarching issue is the question of the unity of ancient Greek law. Unlike Rome, ancient Greece was not politically unified. It was a collection of independent city-states. Continental European scholars of ancient Greek law have pointed to common basic concepts, as well as noting that the ancient Greeks themselves recognized a common cultural background for their laws in their language, religion, and customs. Several Anglo-American scholars differ from this view. They point out the fundamental differences between, for example, marriage and marital property law in classical Athens (5th century BCE) and Gortyn, another city-state (on Crete) for which there is evidence in an inscription known as the Gortyn Code, also from the 5th century BCE. In Athens, a woman received a dowry, but could not inherit property. She had no right to control property and depended on a guardian to defend her legal and financial interests. In Gortyn, there is no evidence of a dowry or a guardian. Women inherited property directly, in their own right, just as men did. Women controlled their property themselves and passed it on to their children or relatives just like men. Whichever way you come out on this debate, ancient Greek law is a fascinating field of legal history. I hope that the sources mentioned here will provide a good way into the subject.

Author: Eliza