The Courtroom as Theater and the Theater as Courtroom in Ancient Athens

Israel Law Review, Vol. 35, Spring 2001

Posted: 18 May 2006

See all articles by Adi Parush

Adi Parush

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


However, following a seminar I gave dealing with several philosophical-legal aspects of Greek tragedy, and an article I wrote about the relationship between the concept of guilt in Oedipus Tyrannus and the principle of strict liability in modern criminal law, I have found myself in recent years becoming increasingly interested in the unique culture which emerged in Athens during the classical period, particularly in the 5th century BCE. In order to clarify the roots of this unusual love, it is important first of all to emphasize the great significance of confrontation, contest and competition in Athenian culture, the agonal element in the culture of ancient Athens. Naturally, the parties confronting each other in a courtroom today also make an all-out effort to find ways of enlisting the sympathy of the judges who are to determine their fate, and undoubtedly they also try to influence the judges in ways reminiscent of actors in a theater performance, but I think that the theatrical element in the debates taking place in the courtrooms of classical Athens was stronger than that which typifies the debates at our trials, owing to the specific modus operandi of the Athenian legal system. Regarding this point we may thus say that the speech writers served not only as some kind of playwright, responsible for the words spoken by the parties in the courtroom, but also as director orchestrating the performance. Therefore each actor in the tragedy played several roles, and since the actors were all men, they also acted the roles of the women in the plays.

Suggested Citation

Parush, Adi, The Courtroom as Theater and the Theater as Courtroom in Ancient Athens. Israel Law Review, Vol. 35, Spring 2001, Available at SSRN:

Adi Parush (Contact Author)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev ( email )

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