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Athenian Rowdies

What do Judge Judy and ancient Athens have in common? Drunkards and lawyers.

The Athens of 350 BC was in many ways like our own society: bursting at the seams with idiots, drunkards and rabble ready to sue over anything. Like nearly every nation in the modern world, Athens had courts to try criminals and sue individuals for damages, both usually filled to capacity. In her magnificent work, The Murder of Herodes, Kathleen Freeman digs up old court transcripts and translates them for our enjoyment. Before we delve into our favorite testimonial, we will indulge ourselves with a little etymology. It turns out the word testimonial is derived from the same Greek root as testicle. Why? Only men were allowed to sue and testify in court, and so to prove their manhood and by extension their honor, they swore their testimony by grabbing their, well, manhood. More convenient than casting about for a Bible! It is interesting that this gesture is now interpreted as agressive or dismissive, when it was once the sacred symbol of one of our most ancient and important legal rights. But we digress.

Wedgies All Around

Our favorite court case from Ms. Freeman's book, reading very much like an episode of Jerry Springer accidently dropped into the courtroom of Judge Wapner,[1] details the shenanigans between one drunk and lout named Conon and a young, earnest soldier named Ariston. It seems the latter had been ordered to perform garrison duty by Athens in a small town outside of Attica. He happily headed off to his duty, but soon found himself in a tent neighboring Conon's sons. These brutes conducted themselves in a most unseemly manner, and, after a mild altercation, beat him to a pulp in the marketplace some months later. At the damages suit that subsequently ensued, Ariston detailed their behaviors:[2]

They used to begin drinking immediately after lunch, and continue all day long, he claimed, even when on garrison duty. They played obnoxious tricks on the servants and their masters, and were generally a thorn in the side of the garrison community.
They used to pretend that the servants annoyed them with the smoke of their cooking, or that they were impertinent -- any kind of excuse; and for this they used to thrash them and empty the chamber-pots over them and urinate at them. There was no sort of disgusting outrage they left undone.

No One Likes a Tattletale

The gentle readers who were members of fraternities in their ill-spent youth will perhaps finally understand where their 'Greek' organizations acquired the proud tradition of excretory hi-jinks. Anyway, trying to break up the disturbance, Ariston and his goody-two-shoes buddies reported these offenses to the commanding officer of the garrison, who in turn had a few choice words with the rowdies. Conon's sons didn't take kindly to Ariston ratting on them, and decided to thump him. Ariston noted in court:

Yet far from leaving off or being ashamed [at being rebuked by the commanding officer], on that very same evening as soon as it was dark they burst in upon us, beginning with abuse and ending by aiming blows at me. They made such a din and uproar around our tent that the Colonel, the lieutenants and some of the men came along; and they prevented any more serious consequences to us at the hands of the defendants in their drunken state.

After time had cooled tempers, Ariston said to himself 'no real harm done'. He had not "the slightest intention of bringing a suit against them, or even mentioning what had happened. [His] sole idea was to take care in the future, and to beware of having any dealings with men of this kind."

However, not long afterwards Ariston was walking at the marketplace in downtown Athens, when

...who should come past us opposite the Monument but the defendant's [Conon's] son Ctesias, in a state of intoxication! Seeing us, he gave a yell, and then muttered something to himself indistinctly, as a drunken man does... it seems that a drinking-party was being held [at Honeywood, a suburb of Athens, from which Ctesias had recently come] at the house of Pampilus the dyer and cleaner.

Thumping Their Chess

How many an intrepid high school chess club president has walked the corridors of the local mall in fear of just this sort of incident! Ctesias fetched his father Conon, a friend Theogenes, and a motley band of others, to do Ariston mischief:

We happened to have turned back, and were again walking in about the same place, near the Monument, when we encountered them. As we came close, one of them, I don't know which, fell upon my friend Phanostratus and held him, while Conon and his son and Theogenes attacked me. First they tore off my clothes, then they tripped me up, threw me into the mud, jumped on me and kicked me with such violence that my lip was cut through and my eyes were closed up. In this state they left me, unable to get up or utter a word. As I lay on the ground, I heard them use dreadful language, some of it so shocking that I could not bring myself to repeat it before you... After this, the bystanders carried me off, naked as I was... and showed me to the doctors. Later, the doctor said that the swellings on my face and the cuts and bruises gave no great cause for alarm... [but] I was unable to take any food; and as the doctor said, if a sudden discharge of blood had not relieved me at the most painful and critical moment, I should have died of suppuration.

Ariston, feeling like the whole world has it in for him concludes that

If bystanders, instead of preventing men who are trying to commit injuries through drunkenness or bad temper or any other cause, themselves egg on the offenders, there is no hope or salvation for the man who encounters ruffians, but they can carry on with their violence until they grow tired. This is what happened to me.

Certainly true. Posterity loses, however, because Conon's defense is unrecorded. Also unrecorded is the verdict of the case: while we suspect Conon lost, it would be a tidy little indictment of Athenian society if he did not. Conon had been in a well-known group of thugs growing up, one of whom the state had already executed. He was also known to have stolen offerings made to the dead and the gods. We bet he got a good flogging.

Greece's Greatest Accomplishment

The Greeks loved to analyze things -- they invented geometry for goodness' sake. It should therefore come as no surprise that court records contain a whole speech dedicated to defining offensiveness. We feel it is one of the proudest moments of Greek civilization. We leave you with this masterful oration, quoted from the fantastic book, Greek People:

Offensiveness can be defined with no difficulty; it is amusing yourself in an obtrusive, objectionable way. The offensive man is the kind who exposes himself when he passes respectable married women on the street. At the theater he goes on clapping after everyone else has stopped and hisses the actors who are public favorites; should there be general silence for a moment, he cocks his head and lets out a belch to make the audience turn round in their seats... he lounges around outside the barber shop explaining in full detail his intention to get drunk... [and] at a formal dinner he goes to spit across the table and hits the waiter.[3]

Tee hee hee. We're off to the barber.

Further Reading

Greece was cool. Check out Alexander the Great's wacky habits, and some of the bizarre intrigue that surrounded his father. Public beatings are more common throughout history records than you might think... Read our four part series on Voltaire's run-ins with bullies.


  1. 'Judge Judy' would probably ring a louder bell with the young tykes out there. Howevver, we old-schoolers will always remember Judge Wapner far more fondly than those current-day wannabes Judy and Koch.
  2. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from Freeman's translations of Ariston's speech to the jury at the civil trial, pp.115-116.
  3. Kebric, p.186


  1. Author. Book. Publisher, Date.
  2. A. T. (referenced online at http://) S, D.
  3. A. "T". P, n. D.

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