We usually picture jurors as 12 duly sworn, impaneled citizens, with one of them standing up at the end of a trial to deliver a verdict. Indeed the word “juror” is cognate with the Latin word iurare, meaning to swear, and it implies an oath to judge truly. But where in the Western world did the notion of such judging groups originate?
In Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, the god Hephaistos creates a new shield for Achilles. On that shield, he blazons a whole world along with scenes of war and peace—a tableau that might well have been common in the early eighth-century B.C.E. Hellenic world in which Homer lived. One scene takes place in a market, where two men are in fierce disagreement after a killing. They then submit their dispute to what scholars normally interpret as a jury trial: “The people were cheering for both, on the part of one side and the other. The heralds kept the people in order, and the elders sat on shaped stones in a consecrated circle. They held in their hands the batons of loud-voiced heralds with which they would rise and speak the right in turn. Two talents of gold lay in their midst to give to him among them who spoke the straightest right.”
If there are jurors here, however, they are present only in the most schematic way. No one is sworn. The crowd does not seem to do the judging, unless they determine who delivers the straightest verdict. Elders rise and speak, but it is not entirely clear what they say.
Nevertheless, the Homeric passage does suggest how the concept of judging arose: Communities likely established systems of impartial judges to keep vendettas from developing. When men went about armed and ready to defend their honor, even trivial quarrels could turn violent. If someone was killed, blood had to be paid for blood shed—and the cycle of vengeance went on. Only by reaching civil agreements, by allowing third parties to resolve disputes, could this be obviated.
Possibly by the time of Solon (early sixth century B.C.E.), and certainly by the fifth century, citizens were chosen by lot and sworn to render impartial verdicts in cases ranging from money disputes to capital crimes. The jurors sat in panels of 500, 1,000, 1,500 or, on one occasion, 6,000. Called dikastai, or “judges” in Greek, their collective opinion was final. In effect, they represented the will of the city itself, and there could be no tribunal superior to that.
Aristophanes’s comedy Wasps—whose central character is a rascally juror bent on doing harm—suggests how these panels were organized in the late fifth century B.C.E. According to the play (with help from scholars who lived in the centuries after Aristophanes), jurors were sworn en masse once a year at Ardettos Hill in Athens. On trial days, after listening to both the prosecution and the defense, the jurors voted by dropping a pebble into one of two urns, one for acquittal and one for conviction. A simple majority determined the verdict, with a tie going to the defendant.
By the late fifth century B.C.E. jurors were even paid for their labors. They received three obols a day, about the wage paid to an artisan for a day’s labor at a public building or temple.
The Athenians devised a new—and far more formal—system in the early fourth century B.C.E. To be eligible, potential jurors had to be male, at least 30 years old and free of public debt. The jury pool was 007divided into ten sections, each labeled by one of the first ten letters of the alphabet, from alpha to kappa. Each juror was given a small bronze identification tag, called a pinakion (see photos, above), inscribed with the juror’s letter, his father’s name and his place of residence.
As we know from various speeches of fourth-century orators, the dikastai took an oath that went more or less as follows: “I shall vote according to the laws and decrees, but when laws do not exist I shall use my best judgment. I shall vote concerning those things that are at issue, but I shall listen impartially to both accusation and defense.”
Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians (c. 330 B.C.E.) gives an account of how jurors were chosen, situated and paid—and much of this has now been confirmed by archaeology. Excavations of the Athenian Agora by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens have uncovered court buildings and paraphernalia used in the administration of justice. One thing we learn from Aristotle and archaeology: The Athenians took extraordinary (and complicated) steps to prevent corruption in the courts.
In the Agora were several court buildings, which were kept separate from the temptations of the marketplace by a fence with ten entrances, one for each of the ten tribes of Athens. (These tribal affiliations are not to be confused with the ten-letter system; members of the same tribe would randomly be assigned different letters.) Outside each entrance stood two kleroteria (see drawing above), or allotment machines, used for choosing jurors. Each kleroterion contained five columns of slots, and each column was marked with one of the first ten letters of the Greek alphabet—alpha to epsilon on one machine, and zeta to kappa on the other. The jurors would gather at their tribal entrance and dropped their pinakia into one of ten chests labeled with their letter—alpha pinakia were placed in a chest labeled alpha, betas in the beta chest, and so on up to kappa. A magistrate then randomly picked one pinakion from each chest. The men to whom these pinakia belonged were no longer in the jury pool. Rather, they carried out the next step, removing the rest of the pinakia from their chest and plugging them into the slots of the kleroterion column marked with their letter.
A magistrate then shook up black and white balls in a terracotta vessel and poured them into the opening of a funnel-shaped pipe at the top of the kleroterion. One ball at a time was released alongside the various rows. If the ball was black, the jurors whose pinakia were plugged into that row were released; if the ball was white, the jurors in that row were to serve in a trial that day.
The allotted jurors retrieved their pinakia and entered the trial precinct. As they passed through the entrance, they were given a randomly drawn token naming the court they were to serve in that day. The jurors handed their pinakia to a magistrate, who deposited them in a chest specially designated for their court (as noted on the token). The jurors then proceeded to their court, where they received another token assigning them seats.
All these elaborate precautions were to safeguard fairness. Since judging panels had hundreds of jurors, any concentration of like-minded jurors who wanted to make noise could seriously compromise the judicial process.
A trial began with a speech by the citizen who initiated the action, followed by the defense. Litigants were expected to speak on their own behalf—though they could reserve some time for others to testify for them. Prosecution and defense had equal time, monitored by a klepsydra, or water-clock, and trials could last no longer than a day. The jurors voted immediately after hearing the speeches, apparently without deliberating among themselves. They were given two small bronze disks, each with a short axle projecting from its center. These disks were identical except for the axles—on one ballot the axle was solid (for acquittal), whereas on the other it was hollow (for conviction). The jurors simply dropped the ballot that counted into an amphora and discarded the other one. Finally, the jurors were given back their pinakia as they were called forth to receive their pay.
This is all very familiar. Ordinary folk, without special training or learned instruction, making decisions about fellow citizens’ lives and fortunes. In ancient Greece as in modern America, juries are a powerful cohering and monitoring force, insuring that justice be rendered impartially—that is, that justice be blind.
We usually picture jurors as 12 duly sworn, impaneled citizens, with one of them standing up at the end of a trial to deliver a verdict. Indeed the word “juror” is cognate with the Latin word iurare, meaning to swear, and it implies an oath to judge truly. But where in the Western world did the notion of such judging groups originate? In Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, the god Hephaistos creates a new shield for Achilles. On that shield, he blazons a whole world along with scenes of war and peace—a tableau that might well have been common in […]