Ancient and modern

The ancient Greek approach to mediation

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

Divorcing couples are being given vouchers worth £500 to settle their problems by mediation rather than going to court. It was the ancient Greeks who produced the first examples of mediation in the West.

Since the ancients had no police force or Crown Prosecution Service, all prosecutions were brought privately. There were no barristers or judges or witnesses — just the two litigants, giving a single speech of fixed length (with witness evidence read out), after which the jurors voted, with no further discussion. But since jurors (201, 401 or 501 depending on the case) were paid by the state, it was an expensive business.

So every effort was made to settle matters out of court. Here serious public arbitration came into play, if it became necessary. The appointed official, an Athenian male over 60, was not necessarily an expert (one is described as ‘a poor man, with no interest in public affairs, but very respectable’). But the litigants were under oath, witnesses were present, and the case heard over however many days. That arbitrator’s decision was final only if both litigants agreed. If not, all the statements and other evidence were collected and sealed in a clay jar called an ekhinos (‘hedgehog’), for use at the impending full trial: no further evidence could be called.

But ideally prior private mediation could solve the problem. Take the sex slave Neaera. She had gained her freedom by raising money from old lovers, including a hefty wedge from one Phrynion, with whom she (gratefully) went to live. But ill-used by him, she ran away and set up house with Stephanos. When Phrynion found out, he accused Stephanos of stealing his property. They agreed on a mediator, both selected one witness each, and met ‘to hear the facts from both sides and from Neaera’. It was agreed she was free, should live with and be maintained by each man on alternate days (‘or any other mutually satisfactory agreement’), and all be friends.

This raises an important educational issue: some would use such material simply to condemn ‘misogynistic, slave-owning Greeks’. But is that really all there is to be said about it?

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