Publication of Verdicts and the Athenian Epigraphic Habit

James P. Sickinger

Florida State University

This paper explores the use of writing in Athenian society to commemorate, on stone or bronze, the verdicts of cases decided before Athenian courts. According to A.L. Boegehold (Athenian Agora XXVIII, p. 29), "publication of the outcome of a trial was not a legal requirement." He notes a few instances in which "details of adjudication" are preserved in stone inscriptions, but he sees them simply as part of a magistrate's general accounting. D. Allen, on the other hand, asserts that "one of the most important features of the graphe was that a conviction under this procedure was followed by the erection of official memorials of punishment" (World of Prometheus, pp. 202-3). The graphe procedure was intended for cases that were deemed worthy of remembrance, and prosecutors were expected to choose the graphe to help craft social memory (p. 192).

Both views require modification. The graphe took its name not from publication of the final decisions of cases tried under it, but from the initial recording of complaints lodged with judicial magistrates (Calhoun, TAPA [1919]). Evidence that the results of graphai were routinely displayed publicly is weak. A passage of Isokrates (15.237-38) may suggest that the names of individuals convicted of some offenses were exhibited for viewing, but Isokrates may also be referring to the pre-trial display of indictments, not records of convictions. More important, Isocrates mentions wooden tablets as the medium of publication, not stone or bronze. Wooden tablets were normally associated with temporary display of documents and were hardly effective for long-term memorials.

Some evidence does point to the publication of verdicts on stone and bronze. As Boegehold saw, several Attic inscriptions record the results of trials. These decisions stem from suits tried by a variety of procedures, not only graphai, and they appear within the final publication of an official's end-of-year accounts: they do not point to systematic publication of trial results. Even so, permanent display of verdicts may have been more common for certain types of cases. Sentences condemning the supporters of Isagoras, the descendants of Peisistratos, Antiphon, Phyrnichos, and others were inscribed on bronze stelai. Several of these cases were tried by the procedure eisangelia (not graphe), in which the offense was treason or some other high crime of state; penalties were severe and included death or denial of burial or both. Moreover, the sentences in these cases were usually passed or imposed by the Assembly, not a court. If the Athenians did publish verdicts, they limited the practice to ones inflicting the most serious punishments for the most serious crimes and at the behest of the Assembly.

Limited publication of verdicts accords well with Athenian epigraphic practice and legal ideology. Athens has produced more inscriptions than any other Greek polis, but the Athenians never sought to monumentalize on stone or bronze all state business or every public decision; routine publication of the results of graphai would have been out of place within what is known of the Athenian epigraphic habit. Likewise, precedents established by court decisions did not have a binding force on later cases. Regular display of verdicts in monumental form would have endowed court decisions with a power they did not possess. For these reasons, the Athenians allowed the social memory of most court cases to be enshrined in memory, not in the authority of the inscribed written word.


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