Socrates’ Athenian jury

Orestes and the Furies

Orestes and the Furies

Slowly, in this thread on Socrates and his surprising relevance to us today, we are leading up to his jury trial, the most famous in all of history. So a word is in order about Athenian juries.

I am skeptical of jury-systems, as I have hinted before and as I may eventually spell out more coherently. But that is neither here nor there today. Today I want to look at what juries meant to the Athenians, and how they worked.

Above, you see a strapping but unfortunate lad named Orestes being beset by the Furies. He is one of the main characters in the Oresteia, a famous trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, the oldest of the three great Greek playwrights (the others being Sophocles and Euripides). It is a heart-rending story about a truly haunted family that, generation after generation, goes from bad to worse until it ends …. in the world’s first jury trial!


Very quickly: Several generations of disastering downstream, a king (Agamemnon) continues the pattern by sacrificing his own daughter (!) so that he can take an army to Troy to get his brother’s wife (Helen) back. More than a decade later, he comes back–victorious, as it were. But his wife is humping another man and hates her husband for killing her daughter and takes revenge: she stabs him in the bath tub.

Now the disastering moves on to the next generation: The remaining children of Agamemnon and his wife, Orestes and Electra, must avenge …. well, whom exactly? Their sister, whom their father had murdered? Or their father, whom their mother had murdered? They settle for the latter, and Orestes kills his mother. The Furies are beside themselves and go to work on Orestes.

What could possibly happen next? It would seem that everybody has to keep slaughtering everybody forever, were it not for…

The Athenian Jury

Aeschylus now did something very cheeky. The Trojan War took place, if indeed it did, around 1250 BCE. It was already ancient mythology for the Athenians of the fifth century BCE. But Aeschylus modernized the story. He added a patriotic Athenian twist: They do not keep slaughtering one another. Instead, they settle things in an Athenian jury trial!

The jury, as it happened, was split. Half thought Orestes was in the wrong, the other half thought he had had no choice. So Athena herself had to join in to break the tie. She voted to acquit, thus setting the precedent for all subsequent Athenian trials that a tied vote meant acquittal.

And so the days of blood feuding were over. The scary Furies turned into something else: the benevolent and beautiful Eumenides (“kind ones”), whom the Athenians would revere among their gods. Civilization had begun. Athens had begun! She stood for freedom and justice.


A few other things are worth mentioning:

  1. The juries were huge, numbering about 500. Sitting on juries and in the assembly was all that Athenian citizens did (slaves and women did what we would call work).
  2. Anybody could bring an indictment.
  3. There were two rounds of voting: First, to decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent of the charges; second, if guilty, to decide between the punishments proposed by the prosecution and defense.

But the most important point is the one you’re supposed to infer from Aeschylus: the Athenians loved their jury courts, their assembly, their free speech, their democracy. The worst thing that could happen would be for something to call these institutions into doubt. And that’s what happened when an Athenian jury put Socrates to death.
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