Top 5 Objectionable Arguments from Ancient Athens

Who doesn’t love some good courtroom theatrics? Modern attorneys enjoy sharing stories, and it turns out the ancients did, too. Athens was no stranger to outrageous legal tactics, so here’s a quick list of 5 amusing moments in legal history:

A Unique Approach to Jury Nullification (Hypereides)

In the face of damning evidence, lawyers get creative. Jury nullification was a popular tactic in Ancient Athens, and some say it even happens today. Hypereides is one attorney, though, who took it to a whole new level. Phryne, his client, also happened to be his favourite courtesan:

“[W]hen sentence was just ready to be passed upon her, he produced her in court, opened her clothes and revealed her naked breasts, which were so very white, that for her beauty’s sake the judges acquitted her.”

That’s certainly one way to persuade the court… or get yourself held in contempt.

Hitting Below the Belt (Isaeus)

You’ve presented the evidence. The arguments are over. You’ve asked for justice. What’s left, other than to take a seat? Well, some might say it’s time for the clerk to read out a deposition about the time your opponent cheated on his wife:

“I don’t know what more I need say: I think you are fully aware of what’s been said. But take the remaining deposition, that Diocles was caught in adultery, and read it to the jurors.”

Modern audiences are left to imagine the reaction.

Guaranteed Victory (Demosthenes)

What’s the one way to ensure a victory in every case? Represent both sides! I can imagine the conversation now, “yes, I can prepare your case, but just sign here acknowledging that I will also be drafting the charges against you.” Plutarch tells us that when Apollodorus prosecuted Phormio, both parties showed up to court with arguments prepared by the same lawyer:

“[Demosthenes] thus simply selling to the disputants, as it were from one and the same cutlery-shop, the knives with which to wound each other.”

It must feel strange to know that you were responsible for winning and losing the same case.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt? (Dinarchus)

When the evidence was damning, ancient defendants went for jury nullification. When the evidence was non-existent, prosecutors apparently went for endless invective. Dinarchus prosecuted multiple people for accepting bribes, one of whom was Aristogeiton. Dinarchus doesn’t focus on the evidence, but perhaps that isn’t necessary when there’s no appellate court.

Dinarchus quickly introduces his opponent,

“Aristogeiton, the most disreputable of all men in the city, indeed in the whole of mankind…”

Describes what’s at stake,

“It will be nothing new or terrible for this man if he is convicted, for he has previously committed many other crimes that deserve death and has spent more time in prison than out of it…”

Touches on the defendant’s family relations,

“[Aristogeiton] did not weep for his own father when he was reduced to starvation…”

And he doesn’t let up until every aspect of Aristogeiton’s life has been dragged through the mud. Demosthenes tells us that Aristogeiton was ultimately acquitted, but there’s more to the story. Demosthenes himself was also charged by Dinarchus, only in that case Dinarchus met with success.

A Reward for a Punishment (Plato)

So it’s come to this. Despite using every trick in the book, the jury has found you guilty. It’s time for sentencing, and the prosecution is seeking the death penalty. What do you do? Apologise and ask to be banished to some distant land? No, it’s time to tell the court that you deserve public recognition and free meals for the rest of your life:

“If, therefore, I must award a sentence according to my just deserts, I award this, maintenance in the Prytaneum.”

That’s how you think outside the box. We all know how this case ended, though; turns out creative thinking will only get you so far.

What courtroom antics would you share with the ancients?


The author is an attorney licensed in Minnesota and Illinois. For specific citations, please see the following:

Isaeus (The Oratory of Classical Greece) (Kindle Locations 3240-3241). University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.
Complete Works of Plutarch (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 56498-56500). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.
Delphi Complete Works of Plato (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 5) (Kindle Locations 897-910; 25099-25100). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.
Dinarchus, Hyperides, and Lycurgus: (Oratory of Classical Greece) (The Oratory of Classical Greece) (Kindle Locations 679-708). Kindle Edition.

This article was originally posted in 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.