114. The Frequency of Litigation in Athens.—The visit to the Peireus and the study of the shipping have not been too long to prevent a brief visit to one of the most characteristic scenes of Athenian life—a law court. Athens is notorious for the fondness which her citizens display for litigation. In fact it is a somewhat rare and exceptionally peaceable, harmless, and insignificant citizen who is not plaintiff or defendant in some kind of action every few years or so. Says Aristophanes, “The cicada [grasshopper] sings for only a month, but the people of Athens are buzzing with lawsuits and trials their whole life long.” In the jury courts the contentious, tonguey man can spread himself and defame his enemies to his heart’s content; and it must be admitted that in a city like Athens, where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business almost every citizen is likely to have a number both of warm friends and of bitter enemies. Athenians do not have merely “cold acquaintances,” or “business rivals,” as will men of the twentieth century. They make no pretenses to “Christian charity.” They freely call an obnoxious individual their “personal foe” (ECHTHROS), and if they can defeat, humiliate, and ruin him, they bless the gods. The usual outlet for such ill-feeling is a fierce and perhaps mutually destructive lawsuit.
Then too, despite Athenian notions of what constitutes a gentleman, many citizens are people of utterly penurious, niggardly habits. Frequently enough the fellow who can discuss all Socrates’s theories with you is quarreling with his neighbor over the loan of salt or a lamp wick or some meal for sacrifice.[*] If one of the customary “club-dinners"[+] is held at his house, he will be caught secreting some of the vinegar, lamp oil, or lentils. If he has borrowed something, say some barley, take care; when he returns it, he will measure it out in a vessel with the bottom dented inward. A little ill feeling, a petty grievance carefully cultivated,—the end in due time will be a lawsuit, costly far out of proportion to the originating cause.
[*]Persons of this kidney are delineated to us as typical characters by Theophrastus.
[+]The nearest modern equivalent is a “basket lunch.”
115. Prosecutions in Athens.—Athens does not draw a sharp line between public and private litigation. There is no “state” or “district attorney” to prosecute for the offenses against public order. Any full citizen can prosecute anybody else upon such a criminal charge as murder, no less than for a civil matter like breach of contract. All this leads to the growth of a mischievous clan—the sycophants. These harpies are professional accusers who will prosecute almost any rich individual upon whom they think they can fasten some technical offense. Their gains are from two quarters. If they convict the defendant, about half of the fine or property taken will go to the informer. But very likely there will be no trial. The victim (either consciously guilty, or innocent but anxious to avoid the risk) will pay a huge blackmail at the first threat of prosecution, and the case is hushed up.