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Mon, 23 Feb 2009 18:32:30 -0600
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Early Greek Lawgivers. By JOHN DAVIS LEWIS. Classical World. London: 
Bristol Classical Press, 2007. Pp. 100. Paper, $20.00. ISBN 

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.02.04

This book derives real benefits from being a part of the Bristol Classical 
Press Classical World series in at least two ways: it was written with a 
very specific audience in mind (“late high-school and early university 
level”) and the series’ impressive list of short monographs on narrow 
topics, of genuine interest even to such a young audience, helps create a 
complex, yet enjoyable picture of antiquity. As expected, the book strives 
to stay simple while communicating complex notions and describing legal 
institutions and social developments. The effort made to adapt the 
complexity of the material to the pedagogical constraints is certainly to 
be appreciated. The first 50 pages explain general theoretical notions, 
such as the sources of early Greek law, legal procedures and formalities, 
and other basic concepts regularly used in the legal field. These map out 
the general background for the exploration of the main topic: the role of 
the lawgiver in the ancient polis. The final 40 pages explore the 
individual biographies of lawgivers, sketching the milieu in which they 
developed and legislated.

The pedagogical approach to the topic is adequate. But the academic 
handling of the topic is deficient in ways that do not render service to 
antiquity or the book’s readers. I offer just three examples to support 
this critique.

Early Greek Lawgivers is divided into two parts: the first briefly 
discusses features specific to the Greek legal system, introducing students 
to such distinctions as law-makers vs. constitution-makers, substantive vs. 
procedural laws, ethos and nomos, and mediation and arbitration. This last 
pair is discussed admirably, with examples drawn from Homer and Hesiod. 
Later, though, the setup of Homeric litigation is described as ritualistic 
and “informal,” on the ground that Homeric justice lacks institutions, 
fixed procedures or written laws to uphold the solemnity of the proceedings 
and the “sense of honor” that accompanies it. In addition to the 
imprecise terminology, legal notions are jumbled: formality does not reside 
in “formal,” rigid procedures and institutions set up for administering 
justice, but in the spirit of the litigation process itself, i.e. in the 
very ritual the litigants follow. And as long as judicial proceedings are 
intrinsically associated with religious rituals, the “formalities” will 
be largely ritualistic. For the ancients, the administration of justice was 
formal as long as there was a sense of compulsion, of inescapable coercion 
that created an extra-ordinary scenario among the participants in a suit. 
What Lewis presumably meant was that the legal system was not yet as 
structured in terms of developed institutions as it became in the later 
ages, but the formulation is misleading.

More serious problems arise in the analysis of the other antinomies, due to 
an imprecise handling of technical terms. The first example is the 
opposition substantive — procedural law. The explanation of 
“substantive law” is inchoate and circular (employing the terms 
“substantive” and “substance”), while the clarifications that 
follow actually produce more confusion (custom is mentioned as a prequel to 
“substantive law,” when in reality custom is substantive and procedural 
law combined but undifferentiated as yet; so too, the conclusion is that 
there is a discernable Greek preference for procedural rather than 
substantive regulation, but no further explication is adduced). Readers are 
told that the criterion for distinguishing between the two types is whether 
the law regulates the content “of a decision.” This is a major 
confusion, given that “substantive law” regulates only the content of a 
social relation (i.e. it defines how the facts in the case are to be 
handled, whereas “procedural law” prescribes the formalities to be 
observed in order to ensure the validity of the legal decision), and that 
it only indirectly (but just as much as a procedural law) regulates the 
content of a legal decision reached in court (p. 38).
The most striking treatment, however, is the discussion of nomos and ethos. 
Not only are the meanings of the two Greek words not given, but their 
overall functions are constantly blurred. There are many other significant 
omissions. Lewis never explains the Greek terms used (except for histor, p. 
28), although a parsimonious glossary is offered at the end of the book. 
Nor does he distinguish between ethos (“custom”) and ethos 
(“character, defining psychological traits”) (pp. 33, 42, 46), though 
the terms appear throughout the book. At times ethos seems to be used in 
both senses within a single paragraph, which confuses rather than 
illuminating the reader (pp. 53–6). Two examples will suffice: one of the 
main theses of the book is that the lawgivers shaped the ‘ethos’ of the 
local community. We are not told whether by ‘ethos’ the author means 
custom or dominant psychological features of that community, but we can 
certainly raise the contrary argument: it is also the ethos (in both 
senses) that informs the community, the lawgiver and thereby the laws. The 
lawgiver is not just an exceptional individual, but a product of the 
community in which he legislates. One final example: as already noted, 
Lewis qualifies ethos (custom or psychological state?) as a 
“precondition” to “any acceptance of the laws” (p. 32), or even as 
somehow outside the realm of laws (p. 43). While the premise is apparently 
that ethos is “custom” here (which therefore makes the claim 
unsupported), the conclusion takes us into the realm of ethos as “state 
of mind.” Even when Lewis mentions the “unspoken, assumed laws,” 
surprisingly it is not with reference to custom (p. 44). The treatment of 
the topic is too loose and pedagogically unproductive.
The objections could continue; terminological errors (sophrosune defined as 
“good cheer,” p. 33; or hubris as harm done another person, p. 29) and 
unrefined arguments, along with spelling mistakes (pp. 44, 51, 59, 65–7), 
create the impression that one is reading a draft or a research essay 
rather than a textbook.
Helpful information is given in the Chronological Table of Events, 
Lawgivers and Sources (where the omission of the Lex XII Tabularum is 
remarkable), and especially in the short Suggestions for Further Reading. 
Also helpful are the Index and the Glossary of Technical Terms, even though 
s.v. ethos, the meaning “custom”is not given.

To sum up: the goal of this work as a textbook for late high-school and 
early university students is hampered by an erroneous development of 
arguments and a confusing layout of information. The first part of the book 
is rather a collection of personal considerations on the Greek legal 
system, while the second is a useful summary of the secondary literature on 
the lives of Greek lawgivers.

Rutgers University

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