Cooper opens PUBlic Professor series by exploring Athenian legal system

Imagine defending yourself of a major crime where your fate is determined through a simple majority vote – by 1,500 or more local citizens. Such was the way of Athenian society, the world’s first democracy, and a major focus of Dr. Craig Cooper’s research portfolio.

Dr. Craig Cooper's opening talk in the PUBlic Professor Lecture Series attracted a full house to City Hall.

“Athenians espoused this idea of rule of law, that every citizen was equal before the law regardless of their social status,” says Cooper, the dean of the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Arts & Science. “There is a debate among scholars about whether Athenians, though they ideologically and rhetorically espoused the rule of law, actually upheld the notion or put it into practice.”

Cooper presented Catching the Crook in Classic Athens as the opening presentation for the now annual and extremely popular PUBlic Professor lecture series, Thursday night at Lethbridge City Hall. The initiative was introduced last year as a thought-provoking series of pub-style talks that bring a range of experts and researchers from across the arts and sciences to the community for a spirited conversation. A packed house of 80-plus citizens attended Cooper's talk.

“We are a publicly funded institution, so I think we have a responsibility to communicate with the public around us what we do,” says Cooper of the PUBlic Professor series. “I think what we do is very important across the disciplines, whether it’s from the sciences to the humanities, and I think it’s important to share this with the general public.”

Cooper, an expert in ancient Greece, ancient Greek biography and historiography, turned to study Athenian law when he was asked to fill in one semester to teach a course on Athenian Law and Society at the University of Winnipeg. It quickly became his favourite course to teach and a passionate area of research.

“I had always thought about law as an aspect I would go into if I didn’t pursue an academic career,” says Cooper. “So, in some ways it’s a roundabout manner of getting to study law, at least at the academic level.”

At the beginning of each year, 6,000 citizens were randomly selected by lot to serve as dikasts (jurors and judges) in Athenian courts. Jury panels would range in size from 200 to more than 1,500  citizens depending on the severity of the crime in question. Magistrates, also selected annually by lot, would preside over the judicial process – the whole system was rooted in the belief that all citizens were equal before the law and so should be judged by their fellow citizens.

Scholars have questioned whether the courts administered justice impartially or served essentially as an arena for the elite of society to play out their private feuds.

“I accept that there were social dynamics that played out in the judicial process and in the courts, but the players, both the litigants and judges, respected the law, even though legalities could at times be stretched to the limits,” says Cooper.

In his presentation, he explored the question of how an individual citizen could seek legal redress in a society where there was no organized and formal enforcement agency, such as a police force, or professional lawyers or judges.

“The legal system is fully in the hands of Athenian citizens, so if you are wronged in any way, how do you go about getting legal redress when there is no professional police force or professional lawyers to help you?”

Cooper says the topic, although set in ancient times, still holds relevance.“Looking at any society and its aspects are relevant because it helps us reflect on our own. Here was the first democracy and this is how it ran,” he says. “They would not in any way consider what we do today as democratic. In Athenian democracy every citizen had an equal opportunity to rule and be ruled.

His intent with the talk was to engage local citizens much as the Athenians did so many years ago. After all, their conflicts really weren’t all that different than those we see in the courts today.

“What concerns humans 2,000 years ago and what may lead to litigation, in some ways, are the same concerns we have now, so there is that continuity of the human experience,” says Cooper. “For me, it’s also an intrinsically interesting topic.”

The next talk in the PUBlic Professor series is Thursday, October 22, 2015 and features Dr. Olga Kovalchuk from the Department of Biological Sciences. She will discuss Epigenetics of Health and Disease.

The entire lineup of PUBlic Professor series presentations can be found at: