The Pathos of Politics (113-2) Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece

The city-state of Athens provides the best evidence of ancient Greek punishment practices (8th–5th centuries bce), and reflects other societies in classical times.

Athenian law decreed different punishments for capital crimes, depending on an evil act’s nature. A criminal may be thrown off a cliff, stoned to death, or bound to a stake so that he suffered a slow death and public abuse while dying – the latter being an early form of crucifixion.

Besides corporeal abuse, ancient Greeks employed patrimonial punishments, including fines and confiscation of property.

Athenian statesman Demosthenes (384–322 bce) observed that a free citizen was usually punished in his property, the slave in his body; but this distinction was not categorical. A range of retributions might be applied regardless of station.

Athens and other ancient societies also employed moral punishments, including public shaming, denunciation, and/or exposition of an offender.

Like the Hebrews, the ancient Greeks had little use for extended imprisonment: better to be rid of evil than confine it. Condemned men were held until their execution was carried out.


The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance. ~ Socrates

Socrates is illustrative of the Athenian sense of justice. He was charged in 339 bce with impiety: in Socrates’ case, of corrupting youthful minds by insistently questioning the wisdom of the authorities, and by espousing belief in gods other than those sanctioned by the city.

Socrates was tried in one day before a jury of 500 citizens. His defense was the speech attributed to him in Plato’s dialogue Apology.

Found guilty by a slim margin of 30 jurors, Socrates had the right to propose his penalty, as did the prosecution. He rejected prison and exile, offering to pay a fine.

The jury rejected Socrates’ suggestion and condemned him to death. Because of a delay imposed by the Athenian religious calendar, Socrates was confined in prison, from which his friends urged him to escape – something he could have accomplished.

Instead, the stoic Socrates drank hemlock. Drinking poison as a form of self-execution (compulsory suicide) was another ascribed Athenian penalty.

Death may be the greatest of all human blessings. ~ Socrates


Now the proper office of all punishment is twofold: he who is rightly punished ought either to become better and profit by it, or he ought to be made an example to his fellows, that they may see what he suffers, and fear to suffer the like, and become better. ~ Plato

Plato’s argument for exemplary deterrence became commonplace in ancient and medieval minds. But his argument for correction – that wrong acts arise from ignorance, and thereby the punishment should be instructive and thereby corrective – remained largely unheeded until the Middle Ages; and then was viewed from a divergent cultural context.