Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.23


Alan L. Boegehold et al., The Lawcourts at Athens: Sites, Buildings, Equipment, Procedure, and Testimonia. Athenian Agora Volume XXVIII. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1995. Pp. xxviii, 256, 10 figs., 23 pls. $100.00. ISBN 0-87661-228-1.


Reviewed by Matthew R. Christ, Indiana University.

This Athenian Agora volume provides an important resource to students both of the Agora excavations and of the Athenian lawcourts, including those outside of the Agora. Boegehold and his fellow contributors carefully and competently "describe and identify objects, buildings and sites that Athenians used in connection with their lawcourts, especially during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. but also during the early 3rd century" (vii). Although some contributions have appeared in published form elsewhere, this volume conveniently collects these, makes available new material, and seeks to synthesize all of this. This volume will be a useful reference tool, moreover, in that approximately half of it is devoted to 355 testimonia -- with Greek text, translation and commentary -- concerning the courts.

The volume is divided into three parts: I. History and Analysis (A. Boegehold); II. Equipment, Furnishings, and Buildings (M. Lang on Small Finds Associated with Trials, Pinakia, Balls, Klepsydra, and Ballots; D. Jordan on Curse Tablets; A. Boegehold on Kleroterion, Bronze Tokens, Echinos, and Court Sites; J. Camp on Rectangular Peribolos, and R. Townsend on The Square Peristyle and its Predecessors); and III. Testimonia (A. Boegehold and M. Crosby). This format is a reasonable one, but leads to a certain amount of repetition, as the same terms and topics crop up in each of the three sections. For example, one finds pinakion defined several times (xxvii, 10, 59), and court names discussed at several points (xxii-xxviii, 3-9, 91-98, 162-92). There is, however, some justification for this overlap: most readers are likely to use this volume as a reference work and may find it useful that each section contains information that may also appear elsewhere. Frequent cross-references make it easy to find where further discussion is found.

Boegehold characterizes the testimonia as the "heart of the book" (vii-vii), and for many readers this will probably be true. The testimonia constitute a comprehensive collection of references to the courts and legal paraphernalia, from not only major classical authors, but also inscriptions, scholiasts, and lexicographers; care has been taken, moreover, to cite sources from recent editions. As ancient texts become more widely available in computerized form and can be searched readily in this form, this kind of collection is perhaps less essential than it was when M. Crosby compiled much of it before her death in 1972 (ix). Nonetheless such a collection is convenient, and in all likelihood it will find numerous grateful users. It might be a service, in fact, to make these testimonia available on the web for research and study. The collection is logically organized by topic, and within sections ancient sources are alphabetized by author. Because section numbers are not always provided within long excerpts, readers seeking to cite precisely from the sources will still have to consult the complete texts. The commentary on the sources is generally helpful, though some lexical exegesis could be condensed (e. g., the discussion of the meaning of parabuston [178-79]). There is a concordance of the testimonia by author, but the testimonia themselves are not indexed.

A major challenge for students of the Athenian lawcourts is that it is difficult to match up attested names of courts with the exiguous physical remains of structures thought to be lawcourts. Boegehold addresses the problem of nomenclature at the start of the volume. He argues persuasively that the ancient sources commonly refer to the same court by different names, and therefore despite the many names attested there were perhaps at most five or six courts operating simultaneously in the classical period (9). In particular, he proposes tentatively that the Rectangular Peribolos became known in the mid-5th century as Metiocheion and Meizon, Building A was the Heliaia, and Building B the Parabyston (14). The archaeological remains of these structures are assessed with admirable clarity by R. Townsend and J. Camp.

R. Townsend discusses the remains beneath the Stoa of Attalos of the Square Peristyle (ca. 300 B.C.) and its predecessors, Buildings A-E. His contribution is an abbreviation of his full treatment in Volume XXVII (1995) in the Agora series. Townsend argues that Buildings A-D, constructed from the late fifth to late fourth centuries B.C., are on the basis of their size and plan clearly public buildings, and probably lawcourts based on "a patchwork of evidence" (104), including a concentration of 4th-century dikastic equipment within Building A (105). He observes that these four buildings "give the impression of a related complex" (107). (Boegehold [36-37, note 51] notes it is tempting to associate this complex with that described by [Arist.] Ath. Pol. 63-69). An interesting feature of the Hellenistic square peristyle is that it could apparently accommodate up to four courts hearing cases simultaneously (111-13).

J. Camp discusses the Rectangular Peribolos (which is labelled Square Peribolos in the table of contents). His contribution is an "abstract of the full publication of the building, which will appear in a separate volume of the Agora series entitled The South Side of the Agora: The Earlier Buildings" (99). Camp is justifiably cautious in assessing this structure, and concludes that "[i]f Building A may be identified as a lawcourt and preserves the basic characteristics of an early Athenian court building, then the identification of the Rectangular Peribolos as a court building becomes more probable" (103).

What can be inferred about the operation of the courts in the classical period from the remains, objects, and testimonia? Boegehold assesses the static and dynamic features of the operation of the courts by considering typical court days within the three periods 460-410 B.C., 410-340 B.C., and 340-322 B.C. He provides a plausible interpretation of the different procedures, for example, for allotment of jurors to courts used in these three periods and reasonably concludes that, while there were innovations to better ensure that jurors would be selected randomly and not corrupted, these represent technical refinements rather than shifts in basic principles underlying the courts (40). This picture of relative stability accords well with S. Todd's position (The Shape of Athenian Law: Oxford, 1993) that in general fourth-century legal practices do not represent a very radical deviation from those of the fifth century.

One may also wonder if anything can be inferred about the volume of litigation in Athens from the physical remains of the courts in different periods. Boegehold suggests that "[b]y mid-4th century, we might expect fewer courts. There were fewer citizens, and Athens no longer administered an empire. And we do in fact find just four ... If five or six courts sufficed in the 5th century, four were enough for the subsequently reduced volume of legal business" (9). There are in my view, however, several problems with this assessment. First, the meager physical remains of the courts and the uncertain nomenclature of them do not allow us to compare confidently the number of courts in the fifth century with those in the mid-fourth century. Second, because Athenians sometimes held court in buildings that were used for other purposes as well (e. g., the Odeion and Stoa Poikile), we cannot be certain how many structures were used for court business at any given time. Third, falling population levels would not necessarily reduce litigation levels. The liturgical class, whose size probably did not decline in the fourth century, was disproportionately active in litigation in Athens. Furthermore, in the fourth century as in the fifth, politicians used the courts as instruments in their rivalry with one another. A great deal of legal business was structured into the system, moreover, as courts necessarily participated, for example, in time-consuming euthynai and dokimasiai. Fourth, while it is true that the fall of the Athenian empire eliminated legal business involving subjects, dikai emporikai from the mid fourth century on were accessible to Athenians and non-Athenians, and this may have added considerably to the volume of litigation. Although other factors may have tended to discourage litigation (e. g., the requirement from ca. 400 B.C. on that private suits be submitted to non-binding public arbitration), on balance we should treat as real the possibility that the Athenian court system may have been as busy in the fourth century as in the fifth. In general, this volume achieves its goals very well. In my view, it would be enhanced further by the addition of an essay on the place of the courts in Athenian society, especially since this has been the subject of so much discussion in the last decade in the work of J. Ober, S. Todd, V. Hunter, D. Cohen and others. In any event, the materials gathered here and the perspectives presented will help those interested in these matters and other aspects of the courts to carry out their investigations.