Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.35

John David Lewis, Early Greek Lawgivers.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2007.  Pp. 100.  ISBN 978-1-85399-697-9.  £11.99.  

Reviewed by Ian Worthington, Department of History, University of Missouri-Columbia (
Word count: 580 words

This short book is in the publisher's Classical World Series, which is designed for "students and teachers of Classical Civilisation at late school and early university level." Lewis discusses the work of the often-shadowy figures that were the early lawgivers set against the background of the societies in which they lived and worked and the development of the legal code. It is an excellent introduction to the topic, which can be comfortably set as additional background reading in undergraduate courses on Greek civilization and law and society. Specialists will find nothing new in it, but it is not meant for specialists, so there is little point in moaning about not enough of this or no coverage of that.

The text itself is only 73 pages (pp. 11-84), and is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter, "Approaching Greek Laws and Lawgivers" (pp.11-25), considers what constituted a law, the nature and limitations of the sources for Greek laws, specifically epigraphical and literary, and the problems that occur when real lawgivers take on legendary status in later Greek society. Chapter 2, "Early Greek Order, Justice and Law" (pp. 26-38), looks at the development of law and a legal code from Homeric times into the archaic period to set the scene for the lawgivers and their enactments that are the book's focus. Chapter 3, "The Lawgiver and his Laws" (pp. 39-47), discusses the sort of person who was a lawgiver, the background against which he passed his enactments, his society's reaction to them, and how the lawgiver is also a constitution maker, bringing a sense of stability that shapes his society's moral and social order as well as future political directions.

The actual lawgivers are dealt with in the following four chapters. Chapter 4, "Minos and Rhadamanthus of Crete" (pp. 48-52), discusses among other things the importance of the Cretan constitution for Greeks elsewhere (e.g. Lycurgus of Sparta and Zaleucas of Locris went to Crete, and Plato set his Laws there). As Lewis sagely says (p. 50), it really does not matter whether Minos and his brother Rhadamanthus were real people or mythical, for their importance lies in the later traditions that came to associate them with giving the Cretans their laws. The chapter also has sections on Thaletas and Epimenides, who date to the archaic period.

The longest chapters unsurprisingly deal with Lycurgus of Sparta (Chapter 5, pp. 53-63) and Solon of Athens (Chapter 6, pp. 64-75). The backgrounds and reputations of both men are discussed, along with details about their legislation: what it entailed, why they did what they did, and its influence. The chapter on Solon begins with an assessment of the work of Theseus and of Dracon.

The final chapter (7) is titled "Lesser Known Lawgivers" (pp. 76-84), and features Zaleucus of Locris, Charondas of Catana, Phaleas of Chalcedon, Philolaus of Corinth, Pittacus of Mytilene, and Hippodamus of Miletus.

The book has some good suggestions for further reading, divided into a general section on sources, histories, and modern discussions of Greek law (pp. 85-88) followed by a chapter-by-chapter list (pp. 88-92). Some useful questions for further study are given on pp. 93-94, followed by a glossary of technical terms (pp. 95-96) and a short index (pp. 97-100).

There is a lot in this short book, which is succinctly written, stimulating, and introduces to students earlier lawgivers as well as the better known figures of Draco, Solon, and Lycurgus, who all too often are the only ones studied in courses.

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