What Were Laws Like in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, laws played a significant role in shaping the society and governing the lives of its citizens. The laws of ancient Greece were based on a combination of religious beliefs, societal customs, and the wisdom of influential lawmakers.

Laws and Religion

Religion held immense importance in ancient Greek society, and consequently, the laws were deeply intertwined with religious beliefs. The Greeks believed that their gods had a direct influence on their daily lives, including legal matters. Therefore, many laws were designed to enforce religious rituals and ensure the proper worship of deities.

The Role of Oracles

One unique aspect of ancient Greek law was the reliance on oracles for divine guidance. Oracles were individuals who claimed to have communication with the gods and could provide insights into future events or help resolve legal disputes.

Influential city-states such as Athens often consulted oracles before making important legal decisions. For example, the Oracle at Delphi was highly revered and known for its prophecies. Many city-states would seek advice from the Oracle before passing new laws or engaging in significant military campaigns.

Legal Codes

Ancient Greece did not have a unified legal system but instead relied on different city-states to enact their own laws. Each city-state had its own set of legal codes that governed various aspects of life such as property rights, contracts, crimes, and family matters.

Solonic Code

One famous example is the Solonic Code named after Solon, an Athenian statesman who introduced significant reforms in 594 BCE. Solon’s code aimed to address social inequality and restore balance within Athenian society.

  • Habeas Corpus: Solon introduced this concept which protected individuals from arbitrary arrest and ensured they had the right to a fair trial.
  • Property Rights: The code also established laws regarding property rights, inheritance, and debt. It aimed to prevent excessive concentration of wealth and protect the rights of debtors.
  • Civil and Criminal Laws: Solon’s code categorized crimes into different degrees based on severity and prescribed corresponding punishments. It also introduced laws to regulate trade, commerce, and marriage.

Jury System

Ancient Greece is often credited with the invention of the jury system, which played a crucial role in their legal proceedings. The jury system ensured that decisions were not solely in the hands of a single judge or ruler but instead involved a group of citizens.

In Athens, for example, juries were composed of hundreds or even thousands of citizens who would listen to arguments presented by both the prosecution and defense before reaching a verdict. This system was seen as a way to promote fairness and prevent corruption.


The ancient Greeks had a range of punishments for various crimes. These punishments aimed to restore justice, deter others from committing similar offenses, and maintain order in society.

  • Fines: Fines were a common form of punishment for minor offenses or civil matters. The amount would vary depending on the severity of the offense and the financial status of the individual involved.
  • Banishment: Serious crimes such as murder or treason could result in exile or banishment from the city-state.

    This punishment was considered severe as it stripped individuals of their citizenship rights and social standing.

  • Death Penalty: In extreme cases, capital punishment was used. However, the death penalty was not as prevalent in ancient Greece compared to later civilizations. Common methods of execution included hanging, drowning, and drinking poison.


Ancient Greek laws were a complex combination of religious beliefs, societal customs, and the wisdom of influential lawmakers. These laws aimed to maintain order, promote justice, and uphold the values cherished by Greek society. The unique integration of religion and legal systems shaped the ancient Greeks’ perspective on law and influenced legal practices for centuries to come.