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Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Lawgivers of Ancient Greece

Early Greek Lawgivers
John David Lewis
Bloomsbury, 2007 

What is the contribution of the lawgivers in Ancient Greece to the idea that all men are equal under the law, and that the king must rule according to a written constitution? John David Lewis’s Early Greek Lawgivers has the answer to such questions.

A book of just 100-pages, Early Greek Lawgivers is divided into seven chapters—the first three chapters have a short description of the history of early Greek law. The next four chapters focus on the lawgivers like Minos and Rhadamanthus of Crete, Lycurgus of Sparta, Solon of Athens, and a few lesser known lawgivers.

The era in which these lawgivers lived was the era of the polis—the Greek city-state. Hundreds of city-states had appeared across the Mediterranean and each one of them was legally independent and self-governing, as there was no overarching Greek empire to impose a common constitution.

The Greek system of justice was an attribute of individual city-states. “When we speak of ‘Greek law’ or a “Greek lawgiver’, we must ask which set of laws or which lawgiver we are considering for which particular polis, for there were no universal Greek institutions to enact and enforce Greek laws across a singular Greek world.”

The special status of the lawgivers within the polis enabled them to resolve disputes without violence, and preach ideas for moral behavior. In the chapter, “Early Greek Order, Justice and Law,” Lewis says that “a ‘just’ decision was one that both sides can agree on, and that forestalls a violent clash.”

And a bit later on: “It is important to note that the ‘City of Peace’ is not a town in which no disputes occur; it is the way that disputes are handled that distinguishes it from the City of War.” Therefore the inference can be drawn that the critical task before any lawgiver in a Greek polis was to maintain peace by resolving disputes.

Lewis acknowledges that it is difficult to conduct an objective study of the ancient Greek lawgivers because their life is shrouded in mythology. He writes: “Many lawgivers were real historical persons—and they did bring laws and constitutions to their cities—but they have also become figures shaped by centuries of legends.”


Homer’s verses have lavished praise on the ancient Cretan King Minos's system of justice. Homer “connected Minos to the earliest Greek gods and heroes,”  and asserted that Minos consulted his father Zeus for the laws and brought them to the Cretans. Another lawgiver to use unwritten laws is Lycurgus who is credited with establishing the Spartan state.

The first Athenian figure to whom specific laws have been attributed is Draco (who lived around 621 BC). “In writing the laws Draco brought some stability to judgements, by limiting the discretion available to officials, and by placating those who wanted strong customary laws enforced.”

In the history of Greek lawgivers Solon of Athens (640-560 BC) is the most revered figure. Lewis points out that Aristotle has said in Politics that Solon, with his written laws, brought ‘politeia’ to Athens. Some scholars have translated ‘politeia’ as constitution, but Lewis says that if we translate this as ‘constitution’ then “we run the risk of conflating Aristotle’s sense of politeia (the organization of the polis, including its distribution of offices) into a modern ‘constitution’.”

“Solon did bring reforms to Athens, and what resulted was a polis with a certain organization, but Solon never called a constitutional convention to establish new institutions, nor did he consider the various forms of polis analytically (as did Aristotle). He rather used poetry to inculcate certain habits of mind, connected to social ritual as well as to reforms of offices, by which he could bring his sense of justice to Athens.”

In the final chapter, “Lesser Known Lawgivers,” Lewis talks about the particular issues in Greek law that certain lesser known lawgivers tried to address. For instance, Philolaus attempted to tackle family law; Phaleas addressed the issue of communism of property; and Hippodamus presented ideas on civic planning.

Early Greek Lawgivers will not give you a complete exegesis of the work of the ancient Greek lawgivers—but with its brief accounts of the major lawgivers, the book facilitates an understanding of the social background in which they worked, and the terminology and concepts in law that they developed. Also, Lewis’s analysis of Aristotle’s comments on Greek lawgivers in works like Politics and Constitution of the Athenians is quite interesting.

Overall, Early Greek Lawgivers is an ideal primer on the development of the concept of rule of law in ancient Greek city-states.

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