The Popular Courts
The popular courts, with juries of no fewer than 201 jurors and as many as 2,500, heard a variety of cases. The courts also had an important constitutional role in wielding ultimate authority by their interpretation of the laws, decrees, and decisions passed by the Ekklesia, Boule, and archons. It was not unlike the Supreme Court of the United States, which also examines individual cases of law and decisions passed by its Congress and approved by its President. Referring to the poorest citizens, Plutarch explains the significance of their participation in the courts from the time of Solon on as follows:
All the rest were called Thetes; they were not allowed to hold any office but took part in the administration only as members of the Assembly and as jurors. This last privilege seemed at first of no account, but afterwards proved to be of the very highest importance, since most disputes finally came into the hands of these jurors. For even in cases which Solon assigned to the magistrates for decision, he allowed also an appeal to a popular court when anyone desired it. Besides, it is said that his laws were obscurely and ambiguously worded on purpose, to enhance the power of the popular courts. For since parties to a controversy could not get satisfaction from the laws, the result was that they always wanted jurors to decide it, and every dispute was laid before them, so that they were in a manner masters of the laws. (Life of Solon 18.2)
The lawcourts of Athens were scattered all over the city, but few have actually been excavated. Some certainly lay near the Agora and the association is ridiculed by the 4th century B.C. comic poet Euboulos:
You will find everything sold together in the same place at Athens-figs, summoners, bunches of grapes, pears, apples, witnesses, roses, loquats, haggis, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, milk, myrtle, allotment machines, hyacinth, lambs, waterclocks, laws, indictments. (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistai 14.640 b-c)
The court buildings themselves seem to have been large colonnaded structures where the hundreds of jurors could be accommodated on wooden benches. One such building has been found at the northeast corner of the Agora square. Other public buildings are also known to have been used for court sessions.
The courts were busy places as the Athenians, not unlike present-day citizens of the United States, were an extraordinarily litigious people:
They handle more public and private lawsuits and judicial investigations than the whole of the rest of mankind ("Xenophon," Constitution of the Athenians 3.2).
Court cases followed strict procedural rules. Before reaching a jury, the case was heard by a magistrate or arbitrators in a preliminary hearing. In some cases, the evidence presented, such as testimony of witnesses, was then sealed for presentation during the trial itself. The single lid of an unglazed cooking pot, although modest in appearance, seems to have been used in this sort of official capacity