Ancient Athenian Law Bleg, Special Cleruchy Edition

by John Holbo on August 19, 2007

Quiet around here over the weekend. Anyway, following up on my Euthyphro post, another legal thought.

Euthyphro describes the case (4c):

The victim was a dependent of mine, and when we were farming in Naxos he acted as our servant. In a drunken rage, he killed one of our household slaves, so my father bound him hand and foot, threw him into some ditch, then sent a man here [Athens] to inquire of a religious advisor what should be done.

The man dies of exposure. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder. One curious aspect of the case (I posted about this a year ago) is that it would appear the events in question must have occurred before BC 404, when Athens still had a cleruchy – strategic cluster of colonists – on Naxos, to ensure continued imperial hegemony. How else would Athenian citizens have been farming on Naxos? Socrates’ trial is in 399 BC, so the case is five years old (maybe older).

But another question, related to the cleruchy issue: exactly what was dad consulting a religious expert about? We tend to assume he is consulting about what to do with the guy under citizen’s arrest in the ditch. Which then raises the question: isn’t it obvious he is likely to die of exposure before someone gets back from Athens? (Quite a distance, sailing.) Dad seems a bit negligent, when it comes to taking care of the prisoner. Another possibility, then: he is more concerned about what to do about the guy in the ditch. A murder has been committed on his farm. How does he clean up the miasma? In dad’s eyes, the guy in the ditch himself is now more of a side issue. As the owner of the slave who was killed, dad is the proper agent to ‘prosecute’. There isn’t any (Athenian) legal court on Naxos. He isn’t going to go to a Naxian court. He isn’t going to haul the accused back to Athens to stand trial. Why not act as judge, jury and executioner, in the absence of any alternative candidates for these roles? That is, he isn’t actually waiting for any advice about what to do with the guy in the ditch. (If he’s still alive when the messenger gets back, they’ll kill him then. If he’s already dead, so much the simpler.) The only aspect of the case dad regards himself as not authoritative to decide is religious, not legal – concerning proper prayer and ritual. Should anything be done to cleanse the farm? (Belle suggested this possibility to me.)

Do we know anything about Athenian law – about how cases that arose inconveniently far from Athens were handled – that would help us understand what dad thought he was doing? (I found a reference suggesting cleruchy-related cases had to be heard during a certain month, in Athens. Which does not sound convenient. You can’t leave someone tied in a ditch for months, waiting for his court date.)

It also says something about Euthyphro’s relationship with his dad that dad doesn’t trust him to decide these questions. Euthyphro is a priest. Socrates mentions ‘the great Euthyphro’ in Cratylus, which is typically dated to before 422 BC, dramatically. That means Euthyphro must be pushing forty, at the time the alleged crime takes place. That dad would choose to send a messenger all the way back to Athens, rather than consulting a 40-year old priest – alleged expert on these very matters – living on his own farm, says something. (Oddly, I have never seen any commentator mention this really egregious snub to Euthyphro’s priestly dignity.)

[N.B. The cleruchy on Naxos was established by Pericles in 447 BC, and consisted of 500 colonists.]



rilkefan 08.19.07 at 7:06 am

Re Eurthyphro’s relationship with his father, is the scenario set-up intended to be read that closely? Euthyphro’s a priest because Socrates needs a not-too-sharp religious interlocutor to demolish.


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 11:07 am

Since Euthyphro actually complains about how no one listens to him in the Assembly, it seems not much a stretch to consider that Euthyphro’s resentment at lack of respect for his religious authority is a theme in the dialogue.

It also seems like an interesting question whether Plato’s audience would assume that the dad was seeking advice about possible legal courses of action, or was instead just taking the law into his own hands and seeking possible religious advice. And if he was taking the law in his own hands: would it have been understandable that this is something someone might do – given the distance to Athens, complexity of an actual trial, so forth?


John Emerson 08.19.07 at 11:21 am

Not completely on topic: this seems to be a case where religion / philosophy produce a sort of proto-order in the absence of a legalistic state order. Law in Athens was somewhat weakly developed, and Greek international law still more so. In Socrates and Plato religion was developed in a philosophical, rational direction, but it still performed religious functions and intended to replace traditionalist Homeric (Pythagorean, etc.) religion. And at the same time, religion performed what we’d call political or legal functions (as it does in Islam, and in China if you call Confucianism a religion).

Other cases where religious law provides a partial order in the absence of a state (or in a violent multi-state system) include early Iceland, Tibet during much of its history, medieval Europe, and lawless areas like the Balkans or the Atlas mountains in N. Africa.

For us philosophy, religion, law, and literature are four different things, but in early Athens Hoer was taken as a religious, legal, and philosophical authority and could be authoritative in dispute resolution — in China the “Book of Songs” had a similiar authority. (Havelock, “Preface to Plato”). Even to the extent that law became differentiated in Athens, civil law, criminal law, policy debate, and “constitutional law” could all be mushed together.

Analysis is intrinsically a good thing, but not if you lose awareness of the interrelationships. Government and churches can be analyzed as economic entities, finance and churches has political power, and so on. (Literature and religion seem to be dwindling in our world; it’s hard to remember that poets used to be important people.)


John Emerson 08.19.07 at 11:23 am

Perhaps Euthyphro and his father followed different tendencies in a stereotyped generational conflict, so that Euthyphro could not be an authority for his father (beyond the difficulties of a son exercising authority over a father).


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 11:56 am

Your ‘perhaps’ is not unrelated to the fact that, in the dialogue, Euthyphro compares himself to Zeus, and his father to Cronos, John.


jim 08.19.07 at 12:41 pm

The Spartans at some period executed some people by throwing them (alive) into a pit (_Keadas_ in Pausanias, _Kaiadas_ in Thucydides). Euthyphro’s father might be taken to have seen the ditch as the nearest equivalent on Naxos. There’s often a Sparta vs. Athens subtext in Plato.

Another vote for Belle’s suggestion about cleansing the farm.


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 2:15 pm

It strikes me as at least as likely that the dad was pissed at the cost to him of a dead slave, dreading the cost of legal complications, and doing a kind of half-way thing (just put him in the ditch for now) as a way of not thinking the problem through.

I said above that he was probably thinking ‘when the messenger gets back, we’ll kill him then.’ But it would be equally plausible, say, to enforce exile by throwing the guy on some boat and paying the captain to not let him go until they got to Thrace, or wherever. In murder trials, the defendent was traditionally given an option of self-exile at an early stage in the trial. So exile would be an orthodox solution, in its way. Maybe dad just hadn’t worked out cost-effective solution he liked yet, and the guy up and died on him. In religious terms, the point is to get the guy away from you.


Aaron Boyden 08.19.07 at 2:17 pm

I always thought Euthyphro’s claims to be ignored in the assembly should be taken with a grain of salt. Even religious leaders who are tremendously influential will always talk about how nobody listens to religious leaders and that’s why the world is such a mess.


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 2:46 pm

That’s certainly a possible view, aaron. In “Cratylus”, Socrates speaks of ‘the great Euthyphro’ which could be an ironic comment on his perpetual negligence in everyone’s eyes, or an ironic commentary on his actual prominence in certain circles. Go figure.


Another Damned Medievalist 08.19.07 at 3:29 pm

The relative crimes of murder (and of a slave, which could make a difference because it’s not only murder of a human, but a crime against property) and the maltreatment of a guest — or the guest’s blatant violation of hospitality might well come into it.


Matt 08.19.07 at 3:42 pm

Again I’d recommend looking at the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law- lots of good articles, but perhaps more important a very large bibliography of books and articles, many of which touch on these subjects. Why not consult the experts?


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 4:13 pm

Thanks Matt, my library lacks the book. I’m ordering it for them but I don’t have it yet.


R 08.19.07 at 4:26 pm

Interesting points about E’s father’s intentions. I suppose one answer is that throwing the guy in a ditch for a week or two wouldn’t in itself make death by exposure inevitable (depending on time of year, I guess, which I don’t think we know), as long as food and water were provided. Perhaps E’s father provided some, but in the event not enough, or the conditions were otherwise borderline? I can’t imagine there’s any way to know. But it certainly seems that keeping the guy alive could not have been a priority, and the whole scenario is just plain weird.

As to the business of the consultation with the religious advisors in Athens, and the failure to consult Euthyphro instead: the advisor in question is actually a state official, an exegetes. We don’t know a tremendous amount about the exegetai (I think this passage in Euthyphro is their first attestation), but they appear to have been consulted on matters that might have sacred law implications, and though there’s no reason to suggest their answers had the force of law, they must have been considered fairly authoritative. And by virtue of being city officials were presumably worth consulting even if your son considered himself an expert. (The exegetai come up in other atypical cases, such as the Demosthenes speech [47, I think?] in which the speaker discusses the possibility of prosecuting the murder of a former slave, where they advise on available legal procedure.) So, although I don’t think the consultation precludes seeing a snub to Euthyphro, I don’t think it entails it.

And the question of pollution/purification requirements when a slave is killed might well have been a difficult one. There are reasons to doubt the centrality of miasma to Athenian homicide law, and one of those reasons is that, as far as the evidence indicates, there was no fixed penalty in Athenian law for the murder of a slave (or an alien), in contrast to the fixed penalty of death for murder of a citizen. So pollution might not have been a simple binary question, and official advice on this pretty odd set of facts would probably have been a good idea.


John Holbo 08.19.07 at 4:29 pm

Oh wait, they DO have it. I must have entered the search wrong before. Oh happy day! Tomorrow, that is.


Diogenes McFinklestein 08.20.07 at 6:51 pm

The Spartans at some period executed some people by throwing them (alive) into a pit (_Keadas_ in Pausanias, Kaiadas in Thucydides). Euthyphro’s father might be taken to have seen the ditch as the nearest equivalent on Naxos. There’s often a Sparta vs. Athens subtext in Plato.

Jim, Athens too practiced execution by precipitation into “the pit.” But I’ve always thought that what Euthyphro’s father does is quite different: he threw the offending workman into a taphos, a trench, presumably not to kill him by the fall but to keep him in place. The death strikes me as akin to the practice of exposure of infants, where the parents are not subject to miasma since, technically, they didn’t kill the infant, wild beasts (or whatever) did.


Katherine 08.21.07 at 9:46 am

This rather reminds me of having to learn Roman Law in my first year at university. I always thought the point might be to demonstrate the whole of an alien legal system as a way of showing that there are many different ways of constructing legal structures. An old fashioned way of teaching comparative law perhaps. Which therefore made me wonder sometimes why we bothered going into some of nitty gritty details and why there was also a comparative law option in the third year too.

Which is a roundabout way of asking – why are you asking this question?

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