Theft: Ancient Greek Law

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The Crime of Theft in Ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish Law
Kainoa Willing
Winter 2009
Modern day criminal law defines theft as “all crimes in which a person intentionally and fraudulently takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to the taker's use.” Crimes of theft could include larceny, robbery, shoplifting, embezzlement, burglary, mugging and trespassing. In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish law, although the crime of theft may not have been broken up into quite as much categories, theft was nevertheless a very complicated law. GREEK LAW:

In ancient Greece, Greek citizens honored gifted athletes, military warriors, political leaders and philosophical thinkers. It was no secret that they honored these individuals by building statues and monuments, admiring their achievements. However, with this abundance of praise came with it opportunists who did not hesitate to capitalize on the situation. Places where these statues and monuments were displayed attracted thieves hoping to cash in on stolen goods.

Sacred Offenses Concerning Theft
Criminal law, in ancient Greece, was not very extensive. Its main concerns dealt with homicide, rape, and theft. Theft, already a grave offense, was even more ill-advised when it concerned theft of sacred things. Theft of sacred money, theft of temple possessions, and theft of olive trees were all unwise crimes. There is one recorded case in Dem. 19.293, that tells of a “theft of sacred money” that occurred when a person was merely three days late in making his payment to a sacred fund. Punishments were especially severe, including possible death, when the crimes were done against the sacred olive trees.

Theft of Animals
A major component of the economic life in an ancient Greek community was the ability to raise livestock. Many different aspects of everyday life revolved around the capability of citizens to farm animals. Therefore one of the main elements of the existence of the criminal law was to prevent the theft of animals. Stealing another person’s livestock was a very serious crime. The importance of animal husbandry was proven by the fact that there were numerous legal provisions in the criminal law that dealt not only with the theft of animals but with violence geared towards animals as well. In addition, victims of these crimes against animals were allowed to recover damages.

Punishing Theft
Modern American Criminal Law mandates four different justifications for punishment. Those justifications include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. In ancient Greek law, rather than punishing, reforming or keeping the criminal locked up, the main rationale behind punishment was deterrence. Lawmakers saw punishment for criminals who committed theft as a promotion of the public interest. Because theft was primarily seen as a public offense, capital penalties were usually the punishment that was sought after. But on certain occasions, depending on the circumstances of the crime that was committed, private suits for theft could be brought to court. The normal penalty for a thief, if he was determined guilty, was to pay double the value of whatever the stolen property is. However, as noted in the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law, “the judges can also assess an additional punishment of confinement in the stocks for five days and nights ‘so that everyone can see him bound.’” This, again, returns to the importance of deterrence. In addition to the fine they would have to pay, “the humiliation of this public confinement would cause them to live in shame for the rest of their lives.”

Greek Mythology
There is a famous Greek myth that tells of two brothers and how they lived as thieves. Trophonius and Agamedes were brothers, sons of a very wealthy man. As they grew up, they learned how to build things and soon became very talented in building large...
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