The verdict that many Athenian writers passed on their system of justice was very harsh. Indeed, a modern student after reading their comments might easily conclude that the Athenian courts were completely under the sway of persuasive speakers and paid scant attention to the precepts of law. One of the sharpest critics was Isocrates (7.33-34), who complained that the courts in his day were far below the standard of ancient times. In the past, Isocrates claims, judges adhered to the laws and did not allow themselves to be influenced by considerations of equity. Xenophon shared Isocrates’ low opinion of contemporary Athenian courts. In his work Socrates’ Defence (4), Xenophon portrays Hermogenes warning Socrates that the men who sit in the courts are often thrown into rage and condemn innocent men to death while at other times they are moved to pity and acquit manifest criminals. In courts such as these, some claimed that it was rhetoric that counted, not the law. For instance, Gorgias in the Platonic dialogue named after him (Gorgias 454b-e) claims that rhetoric provides a speaker with the key to success in the Athenian courts and Assembly. Knowledge of the just and the unjust provided by the laws is not a prerequisite for winning a favourable verdict. The speaker in one of Demosthenes’ orations (23.206) tells us that Athenian courts are so frivolous that they have acquitted men on the basis of a few witty remarks. Others equally guilty have been let off after their fellow tribesmen made a plea on their behalf. What is even more remarkable about this observation is that it comes from a speech composed for delivery in court!
Modern writers have been no less severe in their judgement of the Athenian legal system. B.B. Rogers, an English lawyer who