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What Democracy Meant to the Athenians

Josiah Ober looks at the rights and responsibilities of the citizen in Athenian society through the words of Demosthenes, the city's greatest orator. 

One day in 346 BC Demosthenes, son of Demosthenes, citizen of the city-state (polis) of Athens, marched down to the public square (agora) of Athens and into the office of a legal magistrate. There he laid formal charges against a citizen and his enemy of old named Meidias. After consideration, the magistrate put Demosthenes' case against Meidias onto the judicial calendar. On the appointed day, 500 jurors were selected at random from the ranks of male citizens over thirty years old. Demosthenes and Meidias were each to be given a few hours to present a speech to this huge jury. After the two speeches, the jury would vote for prosecutor or defendant by secret ballot. The votes were then counted and the verdict announced. The stakes were very high indeed: the penalty could be a crippling fine, exile, even death.

So what had Meidias actually done and what does this trial have to do with the meaning of democracy? According to Demosthenes' speech to the jury (Meidias' defence speech is lost) Meidias had punched Demosthenes in the Theatre of Dionysos. The punch was not just an injury; it was a deliberate, deadly, and public insult – an act of hubris. Moreover, claimed Demosthenes, Meidias' assault was an insult not only to an individual, but to the entire citizen body: at the time of the incident Demosthenes had been acting as official chorus-producer at the annual festival of Dionysus held in the theatre. After the conclusion of the festival a special meeting of the Athenian Citizen Assembly was held in the theatre, to deal with any irregularities that had occurred during the festival. Demosthenes stood up in this meeting and accused Meidias of assault. The several thousand citizens gathered in the Assembly, impressed with his story, had voted to condemn Meidias’ unruly behaviour. But the vote of the Assembly was only a moral censure. If Demosthenes really wanted to punish his assailant, he had to bring the case before a jury court.

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