Writing, Law, and Empire in Greece

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:50 AM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Michael Gagarin, University of Texas at Austin
I will discuss law in connection with two different empires in ancient Greece -- the Athenian empire of the fifth century BCE and empire resulting from the conquests of Alexander the Great near the end of the fourth century BCE. Neither was a typical empire, but in both law was one means of control.  In the former, Athens exacted tribute from member states and strictly suppressed any attempts to revolt. Law was another means of control, and alliances with individual cities in the empire regularly specify that all serious crimes were to be tried in Athens; presumably juries in these cases would be attentive to Athenian interests. Athens also benefited economically from holding these trials in Athens.  In the Hellenistic period, Alexander’s empire endured for several centuries (until the Roman conquest), though it was divided into three parts right after his death. One part consisted largely of territory that had long been Greek, and here the cities retained their own laws and generally governed themselves as they pleased, except in matters of foreign policy (including military matters).  It was a different story in places that were not Greek before Alexander’s conquest but were afterwards settled by Greeks, many of them former soldiers. Egypt is the best known of these and I will use it to show a significantly different use of law -- law as a tool of a centralized administration, especially for the purpose of tax collection. However, this “King’s law” also coexisted with a kind of local common law, which regulated people’s private affairs.