Law’s supremacy in ancient Greece

It may be probably hard for moderns to profoundly and comprehensively understand the actual innovation consequent to the adoption of Laws in the ancient Greek world after the numerous tyrannies the Greeks πολεις had to undergo, where there was no other way out but revolution to regain their freedom; although it must be added that not always tyrants were bad monarchs.


Approximately around the V century B.C. the power of the law became supreme, individuals were in the first place considered as citizens – free citizens but bound to the law, because it was to this very same enforced rules that they owe their personal freedom. As Aeschylus in his The Persians proudly depicts within the scene when the Queen of Persia Atossa wonders about the people her son Xerxes is fighting:

ATOSSA – And who is shepherd of their host and holds them in command?

CHORUS – To no man do they bow as slaves, nor own a master’s hand.

And again Herodotus perfectly stigmatises this supremacy of the law when narrating Demaratos describing to Xerxes the character of Leonidas and the Spartans before the famous battle of Thermopiles:

“the Lacedemonians are not inferior to any men when fighting one by one, and they are the best of all men when fighting in a body: for though free, yet they are not free in all things, for over them is set Law as a master, whom they fear much more even than thy people fear thee”.

Nowadays we are used to a stated set of constitutional principles and then to their descending laws, codes, decrees and regulations. We are not surprised by their continuous enrichment or by their ever changing content to comply with the evolution of economic transactions as well as with the demands deriving from a more complex and globalised society – or more simply we hardly complain of their flexibility to any new political and lobbyist need. Although they influence many actions and aspects of our lives, we feel the laws far, detached from us as we do not directly enforce them or control that they are respected. In Athens – and to a certain extent also in several other πολεις of that age – things were quite different: participation was everyone’s prerogative as the principles of a representative democracy were still to come. As Theseus proudly explains to the Theban Herald in Euripides’ The Suppliants

“Sir stranger, thou hast made a false beginning to thy speech, in seeking here a despot.
For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free.
The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.”

It is very important to point out though that this situation was principally due and limited to a very much reduced political population: only citizens, male and adult could actively participate to the government of the πολις, thus excluding women, the very many foreign residents and of course the slaves. Additionally those who lived in the countryside, formally entitled to participate to the assembly meetings, were often discouraged by the disturbance of leaving their farm and face a travel in order to reach town. Finally, many just passively participated to the decisions of the assembly as they were not bold enough or not rhetorically endowed to take the stand.

After tyranny the need for durable and solemn laws became a fundamental pillar upon which to build a new set of values for the new generations; the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern demands was meant to produce a set of invariable and non ephemeral rules, duties and rights to be enforced and respected by the entire population. This supremacy of the laws has many examples and these are not only relegated to Athens. For instance Herodotus narrates that Maiandrios who although chosen as the successor of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, resigned abdicating his powers to the people to be exercised under the safeguard of the laws:

μο, ς στε κα μες, σκπτρον κα δναμις πσα Πολυκρτεος πιττραπται, κα μοι παρχει νν μων ρχειν. γ δ τ τ πλας πιπλσσω, ατς κατ δναμιν ο ποισω· οτε γρ μοι Πολυκρτης ρεσκε δεσπζων νδρν μοων ωυτ οτε λλος στις τοιατα ποιει. Πολυκρτης μν νυν ξπλησε μοραν τν ωυτο, γ δ ς μσον τν ρχν τιθες σονομην μν προαγορεω.

[To me, as you know as well as I, has been entrusted the sceptre of Polycrates and all his power; and now it is open to me to be your ruler; but that for the doing of which I find fault with my neighbour, I will myself refrain from doing, so far as I may: for as I did not approve of Polycrates acting as master of men who were not inferior to himself, so neither do I approve of any other who does such things. Now Polycrates for his part fulfilled his own appointed destiny, and I now give the power into the hands of the people, and proclaim to you equality before the law.]

Within the range of century almost all over the Greek world legislators like Dracon and Solon in Athens or the mythical Lycurgus in Sparta, Zaleucus of Epizephyrian Locri and Charondas of Catana – started to produce laws. More likely they contributed to the process, which seems to be a more sedimentary and cooperative one: most of these laws embodied principles and precepts which were already part of any Greek moral patrimony. Some of them were enrichments of renowned Delphian traditions; others were to a certain extent formulated after the famous Seven Wise Men teachings rearranged and improved with a more practical approach meant to create judicious habits.

In fact Aristotle in his Ethics conceived the laws as generated by prudence or reason and a necessary premise for stability, since even though some actions might contrast with men’s natural inclinations – especially against other members of a community – they are endured and felt right and applicable because is the law that compels them:

δ νμος ναγκαστικν χει δναμιν, λγος ν π τινος φρονσεως κα νο. κα τν μν νθρπων χθαρουσι τος ναντιουμνους τας ρμας, κν ρθς ατ δρσιν· δ νμος οκ στιν παχθς τττων τ πιεικς. ν μν δ τ

Thus the law together with enforced habitude mitigates men’s impulses and compels them to a wiser and more social behaviour. Ultimately, what was actually new is that these laws were said to be neither dictated by nor ascribed to any God; they were a genuine product of human minds, had gained social acceptance and were meant just for the good of the community. Since their first appearance the law gained more and more credibility reaching eventually the status of spine of any form of govern, being this oligarchy or democracy.

As Theseus again proudly affirms in Euripides’ The Suppliants

“… when the laws are written down, rich and poor alike have equal justice,
and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him,
and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he have justice on his side…”

Most certainly this is the best social achievement anyone could expect when living within any community.

πλθος δ ρχον πρτα μν ονομα πντων κλλιστον χει, σονομην

[the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say “Equality”] Herodotus

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