Euthyphro and Extraterritorial Jurisdiction?

by John Holbo on June 21, 2006

My last Plato bleg was a success, so I’m going to try another. Everyone has read Euthyphro, so you remember that the dad allegedly killed the guy who allegedly killed the other guy. And so Euthyphro is prosecuting him for murder. And so here we are, on the steps of the King Archon’s court. Fair enough. But it happened on Naxos. So why is it being tried in Athens? Obviously Euthyphro and his dad are Athenian citizens who happen to own land on Naxos. I can see various possibilities. If it happened at the height of Athenian imperial power – say, at the time that Naxos attempted to withdraw from the Delian league and got stomped for it by the Athenians – I would presume the Athenians had at some point asserted extraterritorial legal jurisidiction at least in cases involving its citizens. But the trial of Socrates happens in 399 BC, a few years after the restoration of democracy. Athens is hardly the empire it was. So why does its court have extraterritorial authority in cases concerning people who die of exposure in ditches on Naxos? (If you commenters know the answer, I will be impressed.)



Gene O'Grady 06.21.06 at 10:36 am

This is not a new question, and has led some people to conclude that either Euthyphro’s case is fictitious or Plato is using a deliberate anachronism (as in the Mexenus) for dramatic effect.

Burnet (commentary on Euthyphro, Crito, Apology) argues that the law courts were disrupted after 403 and the case, which actually dated back to before the removal of the Athenian cleruchs from Naxos, had taken a long time to come to trial due to that disruption and family opposition.

In any case, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t a murder trial as we would conceive it, but a proceding designed to remove the religious impurity that Euthyphro’s father may have imposed on his family.


Jimmy Doyle 06.21.06 at 10:37 am

Conjecture: the case was being heard at Athens because Euthyphro was prosecuting his father for a religious crime (this is part of what gives the Euthyphro its poignancy, as Socrates is on his way to face his own accusation of impiety). Murder was held to “pollute” the murderer’s city, in such a way that the gods would be displeased if it was not purified again — another pre-echo of the Apology, since the prime motive for a prosecution for impiety, in Socrates’ case too, would be fear of angering the gods. Thus the Athenians hear the case because they’re the interested party.


ettinauer 06.21.06 at 12:27 pm

You seem to be assuming that courts, generally speaking, can’t have jurisdiction over extraterritorial events. That, however, is not true in modern notions of jurisdiction, and I can’t off the top of my head think of any reason it should be true in classical Athens.

Maybe there is such a reason, if, as Gene O’Grady indicates above, this isn’t a new question. But I would be very surprised if the Athenian legal system generally prohibited the state from regulating the conduct of its citizens abroad. I have a few things at home that might shed some light, I’ll try to remember to take a look this evening.

(Note that I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect that we’re talking about exclusive jurisdiction here–i.e., preempting Naxiote jurisdiction; that probably would be surprising, at least after the loss of the cleruchies.)


minerva 06.21.06 at 12:37 pm

I have no idea but your use of ‘allegedly’ when talking about the murder in the Euthyphro is very funny.


blah 06.21.06 at 2:52 pm

What type of jurisdiction are you puzzled about, John? Subject matter jurisdiction or personal jurisdiction?


blah 06.21.06 at 2:57 pm

I am not sure why Athens would have seen jurisdiction in this case as a problem, and I don’t see why you think it was a problem. If the Athenian courts have authority to resolve disputes between Athenians citizens, and there is a cause of action for murder, why would the location of the murder prevent the courts from hearing the case?


Anderson 06.21.06 at 4:07 pm

“your use of ‘allegedly’ when talking about the murder in the Euthyphro is very funny”

Well, that Euthyphro surely is a litigious type; can’t be too careful!


John Holbo 06.21.06 at 6:29 pm

Hmmmm, well I said ‘allegedly’ because the charge is murder but what we really have sounds a lot more like wrongful death. In fact, it’s more like a citizen’s arrest gone wrong. You leave a suspect in another crime tied up in the ditch whiile you are trying to get some official help and he up and dies. So is Euthyphro’s dad guilty of murder? Like I said: allegedly.

ettinauer writes: “You seem to be assuming that courts, generally speaking, can’t have jurisdiction over extraterritorial events.” Hmmm, I would have thought my using the legal term for this would have precludes suspicion that I am unaware of it. But the point is well taken that Athens would probably feel no compunction about regulating its citizens’ behavior abroad. As I think I made clear, I’m not surprised that Athenian law would try to grow a long arm. But exactly how long was the arm it got. No doubt Euthryphro and his dad live in Athens, at least much of the time. So they are currently within reach. But I just wonder how the court would react to cases like this being brought. Would there be a a tendency to dismiss because it happened outside Athens. Against this, there would be the obvious consideration of miasma – which is really a public health concern. You don’t want murderers coming to town, from other towns, because they may be dragging the gods’ disfavor after them …

My only real philosophical interest in the question was this. Euthyphro talks about the case as though it is quite clear, but pretty obviously it’s complicated. I wondered whether the court’s jurisdiction itself was likely to become a complicating issue. Is his dad going to be sitting there frantically hitting the ‘change of venue’ button (that’s a Simpson’s joke, yes, not an addled reference to some epigraphic evidence about some arcane ornament of the King Archon’s court.)


John Holbo 06.21.06 at 6:36 pm

Hmmm, I notice now I wrote ‘allegedly killed’ rather than ‘allegedly murdered’. That IS funny. A little bit.

But maybe the guy didn’t die of exposure. He was a drunk guy who had just been in a fight. Maybe he died of a combination of alcohol poisoning and whatyercallems – internal injuries, sustained in the earlier brouhaha.


ettinauer 06.21.06 at 10:57 pm

Hmmm, I would have thought my using the legal term for this would have precludes suspicion that I am unaware of it.

Sorry: did not at all mean to imply ignorance, or give offense, so my apologies for poor expression. What I should have said was, “you seem to assume that extraterritorial jurisdiction is extraordinary as a general matter.” That’s not true of most modern notions of jurisdiction. The U.S., for example, asserts extraterritorial jurisdiction for a number of crimes committed by Americans abroad, and even over some extraterritorial torts involving non-citizen parties; other nations assert it even more broadly. And I don’t know of any reason to suspect it’s true in classical Athens. (If I’m reading you wrongly, apologies in advance, but that assumption seems to motivate your question.)

I’m not sure how useful it is to think about a tendency to “dismiss” cases like this, if by dismiss you mean anything like what it means today in the U.S.: Athenian trials were not presided over by professional judges who decide a case on questions of pure law. There were some limited gatekeeping functions performed by holders of certain offices, most of which are only partly understood. But, essentially–to put it in modern terms–if the plaintiff could state a claim, that should usually be good enough to get in front of a jury panel. There were also a couple of mechanisms available to challenge a complaint/indictment on procedural grounds before going to trial; again, we don’t know the full scope of how they were used, but I don’t see any examples based on extraterritoriality (the extant examples seem to be mostly about things like citizenship of a party and their eligibility to bring the claim, or about things roughly equivalent to modern statues of limitations or principles of estoppel). So I suppose it’s possible that Euthyphro’s dad could have tried to derail the suit on extraterritoriality grounds, but I don’t know of anything to suggest he would, much less that he’d prevail.

Once it’s in front of the jury, each side pitches its case, and the jury votes a verdict on whatever grounds it sees fit–there’s little, if any, opportunity to resolve the case on a question of law decided by a professional judge. Conceivably, the jury might take unfavorable notice of the location of the crime, but, again, I know of no evidence to suggest that’s likely, and there’s certainly evidence from the imperial period–only a few years past at this point–to suggest that they wouldn’t. Even if Athens was no longer in a political/military position to extend its long arm to exert exclusive jurisdiction over any extraterritorial affairs, there’s no reason to think it would decline to adjudicate an extraterritorial controversey between two citizens that’s brought to its doorstep.

The miasma concerns, I think, would just be gravy (or possibly irelevant for a murder of a foreigner on foreign soil, but that’s another story). My guess is that Athens would just as soon take jurisdiction if this were a dispute about money. (And indeed, later in the fourth century, specific provisions were made for handling some kinds of extraterritorial commerical disputes.)

Athenian jurisdiction might be considered complicated insofar as imperial Athens asserted exclusive jurisdiction over extraterritorial incidents. I’m not trying to be contrary here, but I just don’t think the notion that Athenenian courts would nonexclusively adjudicate any dispute among Athenians, wherever it took place, is all that problematic (from either an ancient or a modern perspective on jurisdiction). Given that others have asked this question before, I could be completely wrong (although my guess, without having read him, is that Burnet’s concern is likely more chronological–that an Athenian would retain Naxiote landholdings after Aegospotomai in 404–than legal). Just tryin’ to help!

All that said, I think there is a genuine legal complication here, namely that the kind of suit Euthyphro is bringing is, as far as otherwise attested, only available to a relative of the victim (or to the owner, if the victim is a slave–which this guy wasn’t). It’s quite possible that the Archon Basileus Euthyphro was on his way to see would have refused to let the suit proceed on this ground. Not sure what to make of that.


LowLife 06.22.06 at 10:07 am

I’m well qualified to answer this question. That is to say, I have to qualify every point I make because I really don’t know much about ancient legal issues. But, in Colleen McCullough’s book The First Man in Rome there was an assumption that in Rome, if one foreigner murdered another, there was no legal recourse for the afflicted. It seemed a matter of indifference to the City what one noncitizen did to another. I don’t know if McCulluogh’s depiction reflected ancient experience but if so it might be that the Athenian court was the only court with jurisdiction in conflicts between two Athenian citizens.


Barry 06.22.06 at 4:37 pm

John Holbo: “ettinauer writes: “You seem to be assuming that courts, generally speaking, can’t have jurisdiction over extraterritorial events.” Hmmm, I would have thought my using the legal term for this would have precludes suspicion that I am unaware of it. ”

No. There’s the term (latin, IMHO, and from well after the events discussed), and then there’s how the courts conduct themselves. You can know the term, the judges could know the term, but it doesn’t mean that they practice it.


Belle Waring 06.22.06 at 11:26 pm

Sorry, Barry, why does what I wrote suggest I am unaware of this obvious possiblity?


Gene O'Grady 06.22.06 at 11:55 pm

I don’t want to play one-time classicist, but two points may be worth making on this discussion:

(1) “Murder” may not be quite the right way to consider the Athenian law; after all, under this law you could try a spear that was involved in an accidental death.

(2) Given the nature of the Athenian “empire,” and the general nature of colony-mother city and hegemonic state-“ally” relations in classical Greece, “extraterritoriality” may also be a somewhat misleading term.

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