Greek Law


Greek Law Essay, Research Paper

Greek law evolved as a necessary means by which to regulate society’s behavior. What had up until then been left up to the whims of each individual to handle on his or her own was now a product of fair and sensible legal procedure. It can be argued that there was a great need for such a show of order in that there existed little or no conformity when it came to retribution. As Greek law continued to be established, it also became a fundamental part of other areas of life, branching out into political and social implications. In essence, the implementation of Greek law was instrumental in determining that the legal process “only takes on its full meaning in a broadly political context” (Foxhall).


Prior to the Sumerians introduction of the concept of law, the Greeks followed no organizational legal system whatsoever. The ancient Greek population was much more abundant than the Sumerian population. They had large plots of land essentially keeping people separated from one another, there was no real need for the establishment of laws. As the population grew, so did the need for legal regulation. The Sumerians were frightfully aware of the fact that the primary manner by which people were handling their legal disputes was by method of killing. They determined that this was no longer an acceptable behavior for what was to be considered a civilized society of people. Inevitably, the Sumerian ended up with four legal principles:

1. Lex Talions

2. Mediation

3. Legal Inequality

4. Conjunction of Murder and Accidental Death

What was established as the first recognized law came from the fact that revenge played a big role in society’s unruliness. As it stood, a person who killed as a means by which to solve a legal dispute was immediately exiled. Secondly, the Sumerians saw the merit of asking advice from those wiser than the average man, and so it was implemented that an arbitrator would be sought out in times of disagreement. However, this person was not an agency of the state. This method of intervention proved to be quite beneficial for the Greeks. The Greeks were not bound by any law to follow the wise man’s advice but did so out of logic, common sense, and at times– respect. “For the Greeks, law was what separated men from animals (and from women) and was the basis of civilization” (Burt).


Egypt, like all the other ancient civilizations, created law “in the image of its own beliefs and needs” (Hibbitts). The Egyptians did not readily accept the Greek connotation of what they felt a legal system symbolized. They were more interested in remaining within their own society’s framework and utilizing whatever form of law they considered appropriate for them. The Egyptians had a concrete legal system with five major areas:

1. Authoritarian

2. Collective

3. Contract Law

4. Legal Equality

5. Criminal Law

They were not very innovative when it came to establishing anything close to the Greek way of law. There was a definite difference between what the Greeks deemed necessary within the confines of legal obligation and what the Egyptians viewed to be the same.


The Hebraics believed they had a moral obligation to at least recognize the concept of law. They were not as disciplined as the Greeks when it came to implementing a legal system. They were still in tuned to the necessity of civilized law. “It can be argued that moral obligation is a considerable force to be reckoned with in light of the pressure it places upon one’s conscience.” It is for this very reason that the Hebraics pursued the aspect of legalities in the first place. It is not easy to assess as to “whether there exists a role for law in moral matters” (McTeer). While one might interpret their desire to live as a morally righteous people as being self-sacrificing, the Hebraics were also very aware of

how integrating some little bit of legal responsibility being morally rightous. The Hebraics realized without a doubt, “reasoning” (Keenan) can be a significantly powerful motivator, working its silent magic to effect change and establish action. One can also argue that it is not difficult to understand the connection between the moral obligation they experienced and the manner in which they implemented the concepts of law. As Keenan described, truths are easily dismissed if they prove uncomfortable or inconvenient to follow.


The Greeks were responsible for influencing many great civilizations. The Hellenics were one civilization that gathered a tremendous amount of benefit from this influence. In fact, most Political Theorists consider these two civilaztion (the Greeks and Hellenics) to be nearly identical. They demonstrated strengths every bit as prominent as the Greeks. It can be argued that the development of Hellenism was a historical episode “given to modify the whole future of the human race”. “Inasmuch as Alexander created a civilization characteristically as strong as he, the Hellenics stood tall and proud, abiding by a common system of politics and law”. This arrangement was quite reminiscent of the early Greek legal system. It adopted a conformity that was perfectly fitting for the newly established civilization (Hallsall).

The Greek influence on the Hellenics was more than apparent, in many aspects of their society, including politics and law. Some of these areas were language, art, and literature. Alexander felt very strong in regards to commonality in relation to the law. Ultimately, a society with all the good of the Greeks, but still with their own individuality would be euphoric. He accomplished this goal with the creation of Hellenism. “Alexander had created a universal empire as well as a universal culture. His empire perished at his death, but its central idea survived-that of the municipal freedom of the Greek polis within the framework of an imperial system” (Halsall).


As the Classical period began, so too did the “greatest political and cultural heights” (Anonymous) for Athens. The democratic system was in full swing, which was inclusive of what one would characterize as a variously developed system of justice. All other aspects of society had progressed to the point of being particularly well established, such as architectural, philosophical and literary components. Under this democratic system of justice, Pericles was instrumental in forging ahead to ensure its strength. For as much as politics was a part of the framework of the Greek

legal process, it came under great fire during the classical period. At once, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes all competed for Greece’s political dominance during the 4th century. Not only did that upset the pre-established legal process that had long been set into place, but it also changed a lot of feelings and attitudes towards justice. The end of the Classical period brought with it Alexander’s death, as well as the continuation of Greek law– as it had been rescued from the ravages of war.


The Roman period brought with it a time of opposition when it came to the legal system and what it was supposed to represent. Indeed, the Romans were at a crossroads with regard to the constant oppression of over taxation. In their attempts to “escape from the burdens” (Anonymous) of unfair economic obligation, it was clear that they did not appreciate the laws. Another aspect of taxation laws that were not looked very highly upon was the fact that any person or persons who fell short of their personal tax debts became the responsibility of the tax collector. After time, those taxes that still remained in debt were calculated and distributed to all who still had their own late taxes to pay. “Henceforth the financial responsibility for fugitives was placed upon the community, on which, in the last

analysis, the responsibility for the satisfactory performance of all liturgies rested” (Anonymous).

Indeed, the Roman empire was one of law unfair preference and favoritism in which the Romans preferred a more argumentative approach. It was not long before such lack of thought was brought out into the open, establishing the fact that the royal economy was being supplemented by the very people who could least afford to contribute to it. Because people were terrified of the consequences that came with delinquent taxation, the Roman period was one that reflected a considerably negative legal essence. When it came to money and finances, people felt abused and discarded. They were forced to strengthen the imperial budget in spite of the fact that it placed a significant burden upon them. “The survival of many such declarations suggests that many learned the rules of Roman administration and sought, through the use of official documents, to manipulate the system as far as possible to their advantage” (Anonymous).


Plato always sought out justice. As much as the original Greek legal process aspired to achieve such status, it can be said that its integrity was

compromised through the centuries. Because of Plato’s law and Aristotle’s politics, groups of politically active people wanted a “fuller understanding of issues of justice and the relationships among the individual, law, and politics” (Anonymous).

The Christian period represented what was lost long ago to the original concept of law. Cicero and Augustine were instrumental in informing the people of the importance of judicial procedure. They began demonstrating how its existence was significant to everyone involved in the process. In particular, Cicero exhibited an “unashamed defense of private property and economic individualism as part of a theory of state” (Wood).

Law has evolved into some different branches. It affects many people, and has numerous interpretations. But as you look back over these civilizations, it is clear how important a role it has played. Regardless of the civilization or time period.


Nelson. Western Political Thought. Prentice Hall Publishing, 1996. London.

Anonymous (1996, no month). Classical period. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,

Anonymous (1996, January). Collected Papers of Naphtali Lewis Hanson.


Foxhall, L.; Lewis, A.D.E. (no date). Greek law in its political setting: Justifications not justice.

Halsall, Paul (1999, January). Ancient Greece to 146 B.C. Ancient History Sourcebook.

Hibbitts, Bernard J. (no date). Ancient Law Seminar. University of Pittsburgh School of Law,

Keenan, James F.; Kopfensteiner, Thomas R. (1998, March). Moral theology out of Western Europe. Theological Studies, vol. 59, pp. 107(29).

McTeer, Maureen A. (no date). A Role for Law in Matters of Morality,

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