Ancient Greek democracy reached its pinnacle in the city-state of Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and the popular courts were one of its most powerful institutions. The citizen juries of the Dikasteria, or people's court, provided the sole and final judgment on cases ranging from minor personal disputes to questions of law that would affect the entire population.

Size Matters

By modern standards, ancient Athenian juries were massive. Since they also had considerably more power than a modern jury would, the size served to eliminate the possibility that a litigant could bribe jury members. The smallest recorded jury numbered 201, but the typical jury contained 501 members. For cases considered more important or more controversial, 1001, 1501 or even as many as 2001 jurors would be seated. Jury panels always included an odd number of citizens. Cases were decided by simple majority rule, so the odd number eliminated the possibility of a tie.

Eligible Citizenry

As in all Athenian governmental functions, foreign residents and women were excluded from juries. While all male citizens over the age of 18 could participate in the legislative assembly, only those over 30 were eligible to serve as jurors. Each day court was in session, a panel would be selected by lot from the eligible men who presented themselves. Most days, far more citizens would appear hoping to serve on the jury than would be needed. Unlike modern court systems, potential jurors weren't questioned beforehand regarding their knowledge of the session's litigants or potential biases concerning the case at hand. Rather, the system relied on the size of the panel combined with the binding power of an oath. Before hearing cases, all jurors were required to swear by the gods Zeus, Apollo and Demeter that they would listen impartially and vote based on the law and principles of justice.

Amateur Hour

The biggest criticisms of the people's court related to the intentional lack of any true legal professionals. Litigants often boasted of their inexperience in public speaking, favoring appeals to common sense over sophisticated legal arguments. No specialized rules of procedure or evidence ever developed, and ancient Greek courts were often chaotic, with jurors were free to shout at and heckle litigants as they presented their cases.

Final Verdict

When both sides finished presenting their arguments, jurors decided which side should win. Votes were cast individually without any formal discussion among the panel members. Jurors had two disks, each marked for a different litigant. They cast their vote for the winner by placing the corresponding disk in a marked urn. A second urn was used to collect discarded disks. After all votes had been cast, jurors were selected by lot to count the disks in the urn full of votes. Simple majority won, with final tallies sometimes being very close. If the jury convicted someone of a crime, the trial entered a second punishment phase. Each side argued their proposed punishment, and the jury voted. The jury's decision in both trial phases was final -- there were no higher courts or provision for appeal in ancient Greek law.