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The Ancient Greeks’ Contribution to the Development of Modern Laws


ancient Greek pericles funeral oration
There is a perceptible Roman bias in the teaching of law, but the ancient Greeks were actually also quite influential. Credit: by Philipp Foltz (1852)/ Public Domain

The ancient Greeks, or Hellenes, have contributed significantly to the foundation and development of various academic disciplines. It has been said that the Greeks were masters in the art of legal subtlety, but they lacked a legal science, as per Australian Richard Alexander Bauman, a classicist and professor of  law at the University of New South Wales.

What exactly then was the contribution of the Greeks to the development of modern legal systems and laws? What did the Greeks, who led the production of knowledge in other disciplines do for this particular discipline? Indeed, their contributions were significant.

Ancient Greek and Roman Law

Greek philosophy not only laid the foundation of Western philosophy, but it also influenced Islamic philosophy through works of scholars based in Cordoba, the capital of Muslim Spain and the Baghdad capital of Abbasid Caliphate.

Greek philosophers borrowed from and influenced Indian philosophy thanks to the ancient Greeks who lived in India, commonly referred to as Indo-Greeks. It is through them that the philosophy of East Asia was likewise influenced through the spread of Buddhism.

The most widely-known Greek judicial system is that of 4th century classical Athens. Ancient Greeks influenced Roman Law, which, in turn, became the source of the civil law system and law of continental Europe, it also influenced the development of judicial system of United States of America.

Professor Carleton Stanley writes in The Canadian Bar Review that the “Roman Twelve Tables of 450 B.C., according to the Roman records were modeled on the Athenian Code of Solon of 594 B.C. There is enough ‘internal evidence’ to confirm the Roman record.”

Ancient Greek Solon Laws
Ancient Greek statesman Solon, writing laws for Athens. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons CC0

Stanley also writes that: “Three centuries after this date it became necessary, since Rome had now become the leading Mediterranean power, to revise the Roman laws. For this later period we have adequate evidence, and it all shows that once again the Romans leaned heavily on the Greeks. Indeed the preface to the last Roman code of all, the Justinian, of the sixth century A.D., is a quotation from Demosthenes, on the meaning of law, and is recorded in the original Greek.”

British legal scholar Sir Paul Gavrilovitch Vinogradoff says that the Amphictyonic League, which was the most ancient of all Greek leagues, “might be regarded rightly as an embryonic League of Nations.”

Greek influence on modern laws and the political institutions that they have created have been acknowledged by several scholars. Nonetheless, there is still a perceptible Roman bias in the study of the origins of the discipline of law.

The Byzantines

Emperor Justinian I Byzantine Empire
Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I in coronation dress. Credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons CC0

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, based in Constantinople, the heart of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, directed a Greek lawyer Tribonian, who has been referred to by historians as “the greatest legal mind of the day” to comprehensively codify Roman Law. Known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, this compilation of all the imperial laws known as the Code of Justinian, was published in 529 CE.

As per John H. Tucker, Jr. in his research paper in the Louisiana Law Review, “Tradition and Technique of Codification in the Modern World: The Louisiana Experience,“ Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis was the result of a process of selection from the products of the Classical period in Roman Law. This itself had been greatly influenced by Greek philosophy.

Mosaic depicting Empress Theodora of Byzantine Empire
Mosaic depitcing Empress Theodora. Credit: Basilica of San Vitale / CC BY-SA 4.0 / via Wikimedia Commons

Not only Emperor Justinian I’s Greek lawyer Tribonian but also his Greek wife and Empress Theodora contributed significantly to the discipline of law, as per historian Douglas A. Burton. The scholar had said that:

“Empress Theodora helped influence sweeping legal reforms known as the Corpus Juris Civilis—which included a wave of specific rights for women. Historians credit this body of Roman law as providing some foundational groundwork to the Western legal tradition. Under Empress Theodora, rape was made punishable by death. This law extended to anyone present during the rape, regardless of position or rank, and the rapist’s property was even transferred to the rape victim.”

Empress Theodora also passed laws that expanded the rights of women in divorce cases and abolished a law that had allowed women to be killed for committing adultery.

Ancient Greek Contributions 

The Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates. Credit: lentina_x. CC BY-NC 2.0/flickr
The Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates. Credit: lentina_x. CC BY-NC 2.0/flickr

As per Professor Athanasios N. Yiannopoulos in Introduction of Greek Law, by Konstantinos D. Kerameus and Phaedon J. Kozyris, “Greeks have contributed significantly to the discipline of law…not only legal philosophy, but also comparative law,” can trace its origins back to “the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Theoprastus, legal philosophers concerned with the ideal of justice, the sources and function of law. Demosthenes not only cited cases in his speeches, but also strived to distinguish adverse precedent. Aristophanies’ comedies show how Athenians were fond of litigation, regarding it as a pleasant pastime.”

International Court of Justice, the Hague
International Court of Justice, the Hague. credit: United Nations. CC BY 2.0/flickr

Yiannopulos goes on to write that “vision of equity, not the distinct separate body of…rules designed to ameliorate the harshness of the rigid law (as it was with the Romans and later the English), but as a built-in humanization of the whole legal system, where each rule is impregnated with equity and to be read as such, was of Greek origin.”

We may feel reasonably certain that Roman law, in the early stages of its development, was materially influenced by its contact with the Hellenic (Greek) culture of Southern Italy and Sicily known as Magna Graecia. Professor Henry Goudy, Regius Professor of Civil Law in Oxford, accepts the account in which a commission visited the cities of Southern Italy and Sicily to discuss a number of matters which are, in his opinion, of Hellenic origin.

Democratic Government

Several institutions of government that are present in some modern democracies were also present in ancient Greece, George Miller Calhoun writes in the California Law Review. “With the Athenians the law was not the conservative factor, the element of stability, which resisted change; it was, instead, one of the important instruments of change and of reform, and the laws were usually in the forefront of political progress,” he wrote.

“As a result, we have in Attic law a straightforward, consistent, logical embodiment of the political principles of democracy that finds no parallel in history,” according to Calhoun, “and if we are to look to history for instruction in approaching our own judicial problems, we should turn first and foremost to ancient Athens.”

Study Greek Laws

Greeks have contributed significantly to the various disciplines of knowledge, and gainsaying their contribution in the field of law would be preposterous, but as mentioned previously, there has been a broad and perceptible Roman bias in the teaching of law all the way from Europe to Asia.

It is important that jurists, lawyers, and advocates in both the East and West study the contributions of Greeks to the discipline of law in detail and also sufficiently inform others. This will allow for a greater understanding of the practice of law in general.

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