Ah Those Greeks, Part II: Ambulance Chasers Long Before the Ambulance

Demosthenes Practicing the Art of Speech, painted 1870 by J Lecomte du Noüy. In litigation, Athenian statesman-legist Demosthenes (384-322 BCE), made a great deal of his money by writing speeches, rather than holding them himself. But in politics & statecraft, Demosthenes is remembered as one of the greatest public speakers of all time. Speech impaired as a child, he submitted himself to rigorous & ambitious self-improvement including, if legend is to be believed, working in an underground room specially constructed by himself, practicing speech with pebbles in his mouth, or while running, or, as pictured above, on the shore to outdo the roaring waves. (Public domain.)

While digging into ancient Greece & how it keeps showing up in modern pop culture (see “Ah Those Greeks, Part I”), I noticed some curious parallels to another earlier posting – & to some aspects of our own modern age.

In that earlier post “Secrets of a Utopian Colony” (about Iceland in the Viking age) I had highlighted a powerful caste of chieftains-lawyers who rose out of Iceland’s sophisticated legal system. In theory they were principally chieftains, & legal advisers only on the side. But little by little, these part-time experts became so useful & valuable that the fee they demanded of a client might amount to his entire land & property. The client, even when a judgment fell in his favour, would thus merely keep his life & avoid becoming a serf.

This rather absurd condition caused a growing inequality between the general population & those few chieftain families shrewd enough continually to accumulate land by legal skill. Piece by piece, the law’s considerable democratic safeguards were undermined. Over the centuries Iceland’s relatively egalitarian social model disintegrated, & opened to foreign dominance until well into the 20th Century.

Yet a few months ago I noticed that a class very similar to Iceland’s chieftains seems to have thrived already a millennium & a half earlier, in the world of ancient Greece, & perhaps less dominantly in ancient Rome.

I’m referring to a group of legal experts who, just as later in medieval Iceland, were not “professional” lawyers, fully dedicated to that craft. Instead they were members of the ruling élite, men of political influence or at least political ambition, again acting as lawyers on the side – even when that activity became, as often happened, their main source of income. No doubt they enjoyed nurturing their wealth, but what essentially drove them forward, their motive & apparent calling, was expanding their political position & power.

It seems in other words that such a political-legal system has done particularly well – & may do well to this day – in ambitious societies, where personal & collective drive has run abnormally high, & where much energy flows into an advanced & credible legal structure – which then becomes a jungle.

Ancient Athens, so often hailed as pioneer in other areas, certainly was such a society. Its laws were intricate, high-minded & to an important degree “fair”. Legendary public speakers like Antiphon (c480-411 BCE) or Demosthenes (384-322 BCE) are better remembered – if at all – as political players, but in their time they were as successful as private, paid legists, writing or holding speeches for a full range of civil & criminal cases: murder, inheritance, claims for payment, maritime issues, land rights, theft, forgery, assault, & more. Many of their more legal contributions are of invaluable historical, rhetorical or forensic interest, preserved in writing to this day.

We already know the fee for such skills in Iceland: all or much of the client’s land – thus steadily increasing the legal expert’s own holding of land, central fount of power in the medieval & feudal world.

In Greek antiquity, in addition to land which in no way was ever trivial, more urban sources of power had appeared for the successful legal practitioner: 1) Renown & visibility (=personal branding); 2) Valuable rhetorical training (=communication skills), attainable even from the most trivial lawsuit; 3) Money to buy sycophants or bribe key magistrates (=campaign funding); 4) A reputation, for the capable politician-lawyer, of being “dangerous”, ie costly & cumbersome to attack (invaluable in an age of many politically motivated trials); 5) Finally, the genuine expertise & insight derived from the blurring of politics & law: both dealt with legislation, & fundamental knowledge in one was, to great extent, fundamental insight into the other.

All in all, it wasn’t that the political-legal hack was dishonest. At least not necessarily. He may not always have twisted, but he certainly employed the law as platform for interests hardly germane, & often quite subversive to a legislation designed to make citizens fairly equal before it. The test is not as to pecuniary disinterest – nobody sensible requires that of a skilled expert. The true issue is whether any civil or criminal case could ever be taken with undivided attention to the client’s interests, even when a handsome fee was factored in. After all, even dealing with something as trivial as the theft of a chicken – not to mention any more attractive cause célèbre – the true hack would always weigh the effect of the case, should he deign to accept it, on his own political status. Thus submitting even his most generous client to an agenda subtly, essentially, different from what had been paid for. Placing the politician-lawyer above the law, appearing to defend equality before it.

Actual lawyers, in the modern sense of a full-time specialist, only came to real prominence in Rome, paragon of ancient & modern jurisprudence. These were known as juris consulti, a term still in use today. It remains useful to distinguish them from the more political legists described above, whether in Iceland, Greece or Rome itself. Still, boundaries may blur. After all Rome’s quintessential speaker-politician-lawyer Marcus Cicero (106-43 BCE) has famously much in common with Athens’s Demosthenes.

Masterful birds of prey such as these almost make you long for the modern, everyday corporate lawyer, in it for the cash & nothing else.

At least until he or she runs for political office.


Demosthenes. Selected Private Speeches. English translation. Eds C Carey & RA Reid. Cambridge Greek & Latin Classics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1985. ISBN 978-0521283731.

Categories: History Unplugged, Ideal Europe

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