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Social Norms in the Courts of Ancient Athens

Adriaan Lanni

Harvard Law School

Journal of Legal Analysis, Forthcoming
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-19

Ancient Athens was a remarkably peaceful and well-ordered society by both ancient and contemporary standards. Scholars typically attribute Athens' success to internalized norms and purely informal enforcement mechanisms. This article argues that the formal Athenian court system played a vital role in maintaining order by enforcing informal norms. This peculiar approach to norm enforcement compensated for apparent weaknesses in the state system of coercion. It mitigated the effects of under-enforcement in a private prosecution system by encouraging litigants to uncover and punish their opponents' past violations. Court enforcement of extra-statutory norms also permitted the Athenians to enforce a variety of social norms while maintaining the fictions of voluntary devotion to military and public service and of limited state interference in private conduct.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 40

Keywords: Athens, Social Norms

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Date posted: August 10, 2008 ; Last revised: February 18, 2009

Suggested Citation

Lanni, Adriaan, Social Norms in the Courts of Ancient Athens. Journal of Legal Analysis, Forthcoming; Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-19. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1213161

Contact Information

Adriaan Lanni (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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