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Control of the Laws in the Ancient Democracy at Athens

The power of the court to overturn a law or decree—called judicial review—is a critical feature of modern democracies. Contemporary American judges, for example, determine what is consistent with the Constitution, though this practice is often criticized for giving unelected officials the power to strike down laws enacted by the people's representatives. This principle was actually developed more than two thousand years ago in the ancient democracy at Athens. In Control of the Laws in the Ancient Democracy at Athens, Edwin Carawan reassesses the accumulated evidence to construct a new model of how Athenians made law in the time of Plato and Aristotle, while examining how the courts controlled that process.

Athenian juries, Carawan explains, were manned by many hundreds of ordinary citizens rather than a judicial elite. Nonetheless, in the 1890s, American apologists found vindication for judicial review in the ancient precedent. They believed that Athenian judges decided the fate of laws and decrees legalistically, focusing on fundamental text, because the speeches that survive from antiquity often involve close scrutiny of statutes attributed to lawgivers such as Solon, much as a modern appellate judge might resort to the wording of the Framers. Carawan argues that inscriptions, speeches, and fragments of lost histories make clear that text-based constitutionalism was not so compelling as the ethos of the community.

Carawan explores how the judicial review process changed over time. From the restoration of democracy down to its last decades, the Athenians made significant reforms in their method of legislation, first to expedite a cumbersome process, then to revive the more rigorous safeguards. Jury selection adapted accordingly: the procedure was recast to better represent the polis, and packing the court was thwarted by a complicated lottery. But even as the system evolved, the debate remained much the same: laws and decrees were measured by a standard crafted in the image of the people.

Offering a comprehensive account of the ancient origins of an important political institution through philological methods, rhetorical analysis of ancient arguments, and comparisons between models of judicial review in ancient Greece and the modern United States, Control of the Laws in the Ancient Democracy at Athens is an innovative study of ancient Greek law and democracy.

About the Author

Edwin Carawan (Springfield, MO) is professor emeritus of classics at Missouri State University. He is the author of Rhetoric and the Law of Draco and The Athenian Amnesty and Reconstructing the Law.

Johns Hopkins University Press
Cultural Histories of the Ancient World
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