Tag: Ancient law

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

Plot:  Presumed a work of one of Aristotle’s students rather than the busy man himself, The Athenian Constitution charts the history of the government of Athens from its foundation through tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies, flicking back and forth between these styles of government, including the leaderships of Cylon, Draco, Solon, Pisistratus and Cleisthenes. It ends with a description of the present day (c.322 BC) democracy’s laws and government, at a time prior to the Macedonians stamping their presence on Greece.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by P. J. Rhodes (ISBN 9780140444315), with half of its 196 pages devoted to explanatory notes, diagrams and maps, glossaries and indexes.

My thoughts:    Occasional points of interest did surface while reading this short work. The first individual of note, Solon, was brought in as mediator between the rich few and the poor masses, and enacted moderate laws which proved unpopular to both sides despite their fairness, such as cancelling debts which led to enslavement if not paid, freeing existing slaves, and allowing everyone access to appeal to the courts if they believed themselves wronged. He ended up banishing himself from Athens for ten years after realising his unpopularity, having failed to redistribute all property as the people expected, nor restoring the notables to the highest position, and refusing to side with either side and thereby ignoring the opportunity to set himself up as tyrant.

“I gave to the people as much esteem as is sufficient for them,

Not detracting from the honour or reaching out to take it, …..

I stood holding my mighty shield against both,

And did not allow either to win an unjust victory”                   Solon, page 51

He also had the rather unusual idea of outlawing anyone who tried to stay neutral in future strife between parties.

The next ruler Pisistratus emerged from the resulting dissatisfaction, and had three attempts as tyrant – the second stint began with a triumphal procession through the city, with a flower seller from Thrace masquerading as Athena beside him in his chariot, lending her ‘holy’ support to his bid. Surprisingly he was a moderate ruler, and enjoyed good relationships with rich and poor alike. We tend to think of the word tyrant as a cruel ruler, but this was not always the case in Ancient Greece.

The last standout section is the reign of terror of The Thirty, an oligarchy arising from the loss of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and their joint tyranny over Athens, executing 1,500 of their rich or powerful peers to guarantee their grasp on power, and inviting into Athens a garrison of 700 Spartan soldiers.  Eventually democracy is restored, and the author spends the last third of the book describing current conditions, including the separation of powers between the ruling Council, the administrators (treasury, leases and mines, and the armed forces) and the Jury-courts.

Diversions and digressions: Some more definitions for you

Telos : the goal at which a thing is aiming for, as its reason for existence e.g. the city-state is a work of nature which exists to provide mankind with a good life

Atthidographer : a writer on the history of Athens (I defy you to use that in a sentence with your loved ones over the dinner table tonight!)

Personal rating:  Same as Aristotle’s Politics, 4

The sanity in between:  Finally finished book 5 of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series the Wheel of Time, The Fires of Heaven. I think it’s becoming a love/hate relationship between me and this series, but I will be borrowing the rest from the local library as I have run out of personal copies.

Next : Should have been 124. Old Cantankerous by Menander and then 125. Characters by Theophrastus, but they have already been read and posted. I have “lost my bottle” with Aristotle, so any Greek classics lovers out there still enamoured with Ari and his ideas on Metaphysics or Logic had better go it alone, and I’ll meet you at the docks to board the Argo in Apollonius’ Argonautica to search for the Golden Fleece. For the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s back to the OT and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.


122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle searches for the ideal constitution for a city-state by examining those existing around his part of the world, including those proposed in theory as models, such as those found in Plato’s Republic and Laws.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Politics, translated by T. A. Sinclair, and revised by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140444211)

My thoughts:  Like his biological treatises, The Politics is a series of essays or lectures written in a conversational style. It starts with building up from basic units (individuals, families, households, village, to the city-state) the assertion that the city-state is the goal which will make men happy. Unfortunately, Aristotle cannot dispense with the need for slavery so it will make only some men happy. In Book 1, dealing with household management, he claims that some men are “slaves by nature”, their bodies suitable to do menial work by their inherent strength and their virtues underdeveloped or missing, and should be regarded as tools or property of the household manager, as it is “nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves” (page 69). Not so enlightened after all, despite actually raising the question of equality and justice, and then dismissing them with the above obfuscation. And his position on women and wives is not much better.

Likewise, the attitude towards the Earth and all other living things is similarly of its time but repugnant now (at least to me)

“If then nature makes nothing without some end in view … it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man  … even the art of war … must be used both against wild beasts and against such men as are by nature intended to be ruled over but refuse …”  page 79

He now moves on to his quest for the ideal constitution for a city-state, starting with Plato’s idealised Republic. Yet here he undermines his slavery argument by pointing out that free men should take turns ruling for a year and then be ruled by their peers after that. So by his own argument, they are all capable of being ruled (ie slaves).

And now we have the observation that agricultural classes (ie the ruled) have a lack of strong affection for their wives and children, unlike the upper classes!!

Moving on to a less personal (?) subject is the idea of communal ownership of property (including wives and children as Plato proposed in The Republic) which Aristotle is not wholly in favour of, with his observation that “it is more necessary to equalise appetites than possessions” (a neat summation why true communism is so difficult to achieve) and the difficulty of the need to fix the amount of allowable private possessions at a level not too high or too low.

These anomalies aside, Books 3 and 4 cover the art of government and choice of constitutions more appropriate to a study of politics, discussing the three basic models : monarchy, aristocracy and polity, in different flavours, and their respective ‘deviations’ (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy). Although Aristotle is obviously not a fan of democracy as it existed in Ancient Greece, he does admit that the masses (by which he only means free men, not the whole population) may be correct in their collective voice regardless of their individual baseness. He also points out that the best constitution will take into account the middle classes, who are usually the most numerous. This leads on to constitutional change, and the highbrow theories meet reality as his examples of factions (which are a leading cause of change to a different form – oligarchy to democracy or vice versa) involve jilted brides, rejected suitors and disappointed heirs forming groups amongst their supporters to revolt and eventually change the ways of government.

I must confess to starting to skim sections at this point, but this was due to my disinterest rather than any flaw with the text, and readers interested in political philosophy will no doubt be more fascinated than I was. I eventually succumbed to defeat by Book 5 and gave myself an early birthday present by shutting down and going off for a lavish Chinese takeaway. True monarchy in action!

Favourite lines/passages:

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. …. Man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony.”                       Book I, part ii, (page 61)

Personal rating: 4/10

The sanity in between: Destination Unknown. Agatha Christie lets Poirot and Miss Marple have a holiday and tries her hand at a spy thriller, creating a Hitchcockian story with a Bond-style villain. Quite enjoyable and very escapist.

Next : Staying with the theme and reading Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  A discussion of the virtues and vices in the character of man.

My copy is still from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. I would prefer a more approachable and perhaps more true translation, but needs must.

My thoughts:

First things first, the term Nicomachean is not mentioned by Aristotle in the work itself, but seems to have been a dedication to either his father or son (both were named Nicomachus).

The lecture starts with the question “What is happiness?”    Aristotle admits that most men equate happiness with pleasure, some others with honour, wealth or a life of contemplation. But happiness is bigger and more final than any of these ; it is the ultimate good for which the others are simply a means to achieve. (Admittedly happiness also requires a degree of luck or prosperity along the way!)

Not content with this definition, Aristotle pushes further to suggest that happiness must be entwined with the function of man, and results in the view that happiness requires the “virtuous activity of the soul”.  I started to disagree here, as he points out that animals and small children cannot feel happiness as they are incapable of this virtuosity. Perhaps he would distinguish joy from happiness, but you cannot tell me a small boy playing with his dog are not both capable of feeling and demonstrating obvious happiness.

He classifies virtues as either intellectual (such as philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) or moral (liberality, temperance, courage, etc.) Moral virtues are a result of the nature of the individual reinforced by habit, with the ideal being an intermediate point between extreme vices  of excess and defect

To someone at the extreme end of one of these states, an intermediate person may seem to be at the opposite extreme, (i.e. a miser would see a liberal person as much a spendthrift as a carefree squanderer). Sometimes one extreme is more acceptable than the other, or closer to the intermediate (e.g. a rash and confident person will be more admired than a coward, and deemed not so far removed from the courageous ideal)

Thankfully Aristotle recognises that the intermediate state (virtue) is an ideal for which we must strive but cannot always reach.

“Any one can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble”    page 354.

But virtues (and vices) are voluntary choices : it is in the individual’s power to act (or not act) in their belief of what is good to achieve the end they desire. (Acts may also be involuntary for which no blame ensues e.g. things done under compulsion or through ignorance – although drunkeness, carelessness or ignorance of the law is not considered involuntary). This is a more realistic approach to the foundation of criminal law than Plato’s (Socrates’?) statement that no person knowingly does wrong, and approaches the basis of our modern criminal law – I wonder if legal philosophy in modern law courses includes the Nicomachean Ethics?

Aristotle then goes on to discuss moral virtues and vices individually. Much of this was straightforward and reminded me of an old snakes and ladders game I had as a child where shameful characteristics such as pride, profligacy and envy sent you down a snake, while the corresponding virtues led you up ladders.

I skimmed over the chapters on justice and intellectual virtues, and settled down to read about friendship. Aristotle classifies friendships in three types (excluding friendships of association such as fellow-travellers) : (i) friendships of utility, where one person gains an advantage from the relationship, and these only last as long as the usefulness continues, (ii) friendships of pleasure, where a person is amused by the company of another and (iii) ‘true’ friendship which is based on mutual love and goodwill between the friends, and is long lasting, takes time to develop and is proofed against slander of each party from outside. This discussion wanders around to comment on political constitutions and family relationships as well, but was easy to follow.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Those who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving  … to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort”                              page 368

“For his friend is another self”                                                                                                 page 419

Diversions/digressions:  After Aristotle left Athens, his School was taken over by one of his students Theophrastus, who also wrote on many topics. Although better known for his contributions to botany, one of his surviving works Characters is a series of brief character sketches of different moral types, and may be a sort of descendant of this work. I’ll get to it once Aristotle is done.

Personal rating: Difficult to stick at – some parts were obvious and easy to follow, while others become convoluted and required more concentration than I admittedly gave them. Settle for a 4.

The sanity in between:  Desperation by Stephen King. Had been taking up space on my shelves. Similar ground covered as his classic The Stand  (which was much better and deserves a re-read itself) but this still kept me intrigued to the end.

Next : More Aristotle. Perhaps The Art of Rhetoric.


109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

Plot:   An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into a bar …. no, sorry, …. walk from Cnossus to Zeus’ shrine on Crete, listening to the nameless Athenian formulate legislation for a new city to be called Magnesia.

Having recognized that his ideas for the ideal society as described in The Republic are unlikely to see the light of day, Plato here addresses a second-best blueprint for his utopia by laying down laws for every aspect of human life, from birth to death and everything in between.

My edition is the Penguin Classic translated by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140442227)

My thoughts:  The last of Plato I will probably ever read, and not too bad an experience, albeit lengthy, and my mind did start to wander by the time I reached the criminal law section. He does not hide behind Socrates any more, but still puts his words into the mouth of this ‘nameless Athenian’. The constant agreement of the other two with Plato’s suggestions becomes tiresome, so I simply learnt to skip their comments (which are mostly just a phrase or two praising or asking for more clarity, on Plato’s ideas).

These ideas, expressed as laws and guidelines to build and maintain his idea of Utopia are a mixed bag when taken from a 21st century viewpoint. On the plus side are his views on the equality of women, where a society which does not train women in the same way as men is “only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement”   (page 294)

while on the negative are his strong views on censorship in the arts, where music and literature are heavily regulated to prevent subversive progress or innovation for the sake of novelty.

“No one shall sing a note, or perform any dance movement, other than those in the canon of public songs, sacred music, and the general body of chorus performances…”   (page 286)

The projected utopia Magnesia is to be formed from 5,040 households, no more or less, at the time of establishment, as that magic number can be divided by all numbers 1-12 (except 11) making it ideal for administrative purposes. Oh, and buying or selling your house or land is a criminal act – you must stick to what you are given – which in theory would make real estate agents at best redundant and at worst criminals 🙂

Wealth and money is generally frowned upon, except for small amounts to pay tradesmen and wages for slaves. This last point I had not heard before, but it could have only been small amounts – maybe to let them buy some food or clothes?

And when selecting settlers from other parts of Crete to embark on this new enterprise, if anyone should not agree to their participation, they would be “gently compelled” 😦

The section on impiety towards the end did revive my interest, as it discussed three kinds of heresy : (i) disbelief in the gods (atheism), (ii) belief in gods who ignore man entirely, and (iii) belief in gods who could be persuaded by prayer or sacrifices to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour, all of which could weaken the morals underlying the community laws Plato was setting down. The argument for refuting all these heresies is based on the primary existence of a soul (actually two souls, one good and one evil) which brings about motion and order in the universe, and from which all else has arisen, and disregarding the supposed atheistic belief that everything in nature has arisen by randomness and chance.

I must confess that after this section, the last 100 pages did not look particularly interesting, and I was content to let the three gentlemen walk on discussing commercial and family laws and other miscellaneous legislation without me.

Favourite lines/passages:

  • Drinking parties are an educational opportunity whereby resisting temptation of further pleasure once mildly inebriated helps build self-control. Indeed, drunkenness is frowned on, and wine is the gift of Dionysus “to help cure the crabbiness of age…. to make us young again…. ready to sing his songs .. with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment”  (page 105)
  • “All the gold upon the earth, and all the gold beneath it, does not compensate for lack of virtue”  (page 190)
  • “An expectant mother should think it important to keep calm and cheerful and sweet-tempered throughout her pregnancy”   (page 277)

Personal rating:  Only a 3. Sorry Plato me old china, and you put so much work into it too.

Also in that year (ish):  Around 349 BC Athens is at war with Macedonia, under the rule of Philip II. The next decade sees Macedonia eventually become the dominant Greek state, while Rome is now the dominant city on the Italian peninsula.

Next :  Adieu Plato (and Socrates), and welcome to the next generation with Aristotle’s musings On the Soul (De Anima)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  A description of the rules of government of Sparta, providing a major source of otherwise scarce information about the daily life of that civilisation. Legend has it that Lycurgus made the Spartans promise to uphold these laws until he returned from visiting the Delphic Oracle. He never did return.

Lacedaemonia (or Laconia) is the region for which Sparta was the capital, as Athens was the capital of the Attica region, although I don’t remember seeing the names before now. I imagine if you lived a spartan lifestyle then your speech and manner might be described as laconic.

I can now return the Minor works edition of Xenophon (published 1888 by George Bell & Sons of London) to the library. How many more years will it sit quietly on the shelves at the back of the 800s?

My thoughts: My final read by Xenophon (there is another treatise on the Constitution of Athens, but that is now believed not to have been written by Xenophon, and is attributed to the “Old Oligarch”)

The points that stand out when reading this are the differences from what we think as normal for Ancient Greece. Remember the following are taken from legislation enacted by Lycurgus to establish the military themed society for which Sparta was noted.

  • To ensure healthy robust children, it was required that older men with younger wives should introduce them to virile younger men to father their children, and men unable or unwilling to have children with their wives might father children on other men’s wives (with their consent)
  • Spartan boys were raised with less clothes and food than would make them comfortable, to prepare them for hardship during campaigns. However, the boys were encouraged to steal as much cheese as they could, to foster their skills in procuring supplies in wartime. But of course, if caught they would be punished.
  • Unlike the rest of Greece, sexual relations between men and boys was considered to be on a par with incest.
  • All citizens were to eat their meals in public to ensure they did not succumb to gluttony or drunkenness,
  • Parents were allowed to chastise not only their own children, but others as well,
  • Free men were prohibited from any form of business, and the possession of gold or silver was a punishable offence,
  • Citizens were not allowed to live in other countries “lest they be initiated in licentiousness”

Lycurgus (if indeed he was a real person) lived around 900 BC, and, alas, by the time Xenophon was writing, he himself admits the Spartans did not continue to obey all these laws so thoroughly.

Personal rating:   Short but interesting. A 5.

Next :  Farewell and thanks for the company Xenophon.  Next is Timaeus by Plato, discussing “cosmology and anthropology”

22. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament books 1-5

The Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
covering from the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, to the death of Moses.

My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.
I have not read the Bible in detail before, but having grown up in a Christian environment and done my fair share of Sunday School classes, the basic stories were familiar : the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abel and Cain, Noah and his Ark, the Tower of Babel, Lot escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah, and the story of Moses from being found as a babe in the bullrushes beside the Nile, through the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the 40 years in the wilderness.
Reading the complete books was quite laborious with so much repetition (Deuteronomy was almost entirely repetition of earlier sections), family histories, and detail of sacrifices (reminiscent of the offerings to the Gods in Homer’s Iliad). There was quite a long section inserted in the story of Moses to proscribe laws, not a little unlike the Laws of Hammurabi to protect society and provide guidelines for conduct. But I did learn some details to the above stories, at least by my interpretation of the text
• Man was meant to be a vegetarian, but had come to eating meat by the time of Noah
• There were two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve and Adam ate of the latter, and God banished them from the Garden in case they also ate of the Tree of Life and became immortal
• The mark put on Cain was to warn others not to kill him so he would long suffer for his sin
• There were giants in the days of Methuselah
• Noah collected seven pairs of each type of clean (edible) animal and one pair of each type of unclean animal. It rained for 40 days but the flood stayed on the earth for 150 days.
• Esau the hairy man and hunter, and his untrustworthy brother Jacob. Esau reminded me of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. His description here seems too much for coincidence.
• There was a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed presented to Noah by God after the first were smashed
• The dietary restrictions other than pigs, such as rabbits, swans and seafood
• The Israelites’ forty years wandering in the wilderness was to ensure none of that generation, who had disobeyed and angered God, survived to see the promised land of milk and honey
There were also some things that disturbed me. The severity of God’s punishments, and his favouritism of the Israelites (despite their repeated transgressions) over the Canaanites, the Amorites and other tribes, was difficult to connect with the loving God of the New Testament. Lot offering up his daughters to the mob that visited his house to sodomise his guests. The plagues inflicted on the Egyptians as a result of Pharoah’s refusal to release the Israelites, yet it was God himself who repeatedly hardened Pharoah’s heart so He had reason to continue demonstrating His powers, even to killing the first born of every Egyptian family. The war against the Midianites, where Moses insisted after the battle that his soldiers kill all the women and male children, and enslave the girl children. The God of the Old Testament is indeed a jealous God and one ready to demand love through fear.

The Book of Deuteronomy ends with the Song of Moses, which has some vivid imagery in stark contrast to the tedious repetition of the preceding chapters.

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” Deut. 32 : 2

“For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter, their wine is the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps.” Deut 32 : 32-33.

Favourite lines/passages : The lines that immediately resonated with me were those that have been quoted so often since, notably “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) and “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22 : 18) but my favourite was very reassuring on a personal level in the section about lepers “And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald yet he is clean” (Leviticus 13 : 40) Phew!

Personal rating : As the source of literary themes and background, Genesis and Exodus were worthwhile reading. The other three books were a disagreeable and diminishing experience to read. 3/10

Next : I need a break before tacking more Old Testament, so I will move onto the Odes of Pindar.

2. Code of Laws promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, c.1700 BC

Version : I had an old (1903) copy in my library, and there are copies available in print via online booksellers for around $4-$5, but the text can also be found online at http://www.constitution.org/ime/hammurabi.htm

Content : A list of laws, penalties, fines, wages and fees in ancient Babylonia. What is a fairly dry list of laws actually provides a lot of insight into life in ancient times. Reading the laws provides evidence of the presence of
• agriculture, irrigation canals, tillage, tenancy of land, corn and sesame, orchards, sheep grown for wool (and prey to lions), and allowance for storm, flood and drought
• belief in magic and witchcraft
• slavery
• doctors and veterinarians (with set fees, and penalties if their patients died)
• merchants keeping written records and using money
• marriage, separation, divorce, adoption and inheritance
• adultery, incest, rape, kidnapping and manslaughter
• theft, assault, defamation, brawling
with much resulting “put to death” or “bound and thrown into the water”, with the occasional burning alive, impalement and maiming. Even governors and magistrates were not immune to such harsh treatment. Also, the famous Old Testament “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” is literally recommended as fair retribution.

My thoughts : Certainly not a volume for repeat reading for pleasure, but interesting nonetheless, and shows how original sources can inform historians about many social practices of the time. It also provided some legal protection for women and the poor in an age when their rights surely would not have been recognized otherwise, including a minimum wage and the presumption of innocence.

Favourite lines/passages
#109 If a wine merchant has collected a riotous assembly in her house and has not seized those rioters and driven them to the palace, that wine merchant shall be put to death.

Personal rating 3/10

Next : The Egyptian Book of the Dead.