Tuesday, July 20, 2010


It seems that petty crime was no rare thing in Ancient Athens. There was even a section of the market area called ‘Thieves’ Market’. It may have been what we would call a flea market, where second-hand clothing and other goods are sold but one that also forms a channel for getting money for stolen goods. I bought a bicycle in one such in Dublin some years back, no questions asked. Of course, no bikes in ancient times, so what forms of theft were there?

You could be mugged, of course. If you weren’t carrying money or things you’d just bought in the market, they’d take your clothes and leave you to go home naked. They might even make you spit out any small change you had tucked away in your cheek (yes, that was normal in a time before the invention of pockets). On the longer routes to other towns and villages in Attica, these would be highway robbers.

If you went to the baths or the gym, as the wealthier men did frequently, you paid someone to keep an eye on your clothes, if you had sense, or a ‘cloakstripper’ would be rummaging them for any money or valuables you might have left with them. And, doubtless, if you carried your money in a purse or satchel on a strap over your shoulder, that could be grabbed and made off with by any number of street urchins.

No use reporting it to the police – there weren’t any. The Scythian guards patrolled the central areas to keep order and might nab any blatant wrongdoer they spotted but, in the narrow lanes between market stalls, they couldn’t be everywhere. Law rested really on victims grabbing (arresting) the thief before he got away and taking him to the authorities. 

Not much hope of that if the mugger was threatening you in a deserted alley with a club or a knife and there were two of him. Mind you, if you came upon a burglar on your own property, you could take action even to killing him and be seen as justified – that’s if it’s at night: by day, you could only kill him if he resisted. Always, villains had to be caught in the act or such crimes were difficult to prove.

But, if wealthy houses had no ground floor windows and the street door was guarded by a porter with a dog, how did burglars gain access? Simple. They dug a hole through the wall. Either from a lane beside or from inside an adjoining house. 

In the main, houses were built of sun-baked mud bricks, so not too difficult to chisel away at them when folks are all out, say, at a big religious festival or maybe all asleep. Over the relatively low rooftops and down into a courtyard may have been another way in but not such as easy way out.

However, it wasn’t only the professional criminal that indulged in illegalities. The number of laws and inspectors relating to weights and measure, false coinage, and quality of foodstuffs gives a pretty good idea that such offences were rife. But there are always ways round these things, like two sets of weights, one for when the inspectors are around, the other when they’re not. 

You only have to look at the non-round shapes of coins that have been unearthed by archaeologists to realise how much clipping of the metal at the edges must have gone on even though value of a coin was determined by its weight. If a customer had doubts, there was a public slave stationed in the market place specifically to test coins and weights.

What punishments did culprits face? Well, stallholders faced a fine but, as today, probably not high enough to be a real deterrent. It’s possible there was an equivalent of the medieval stocks and also a wooden device round the ankles that hobbled a culprit in the hope that the public ridicule that went with these would be enough to put people off. 

In the case of more serious theft, it was the death penalty. In Athens, that meant being shackled to a board somewhere outside the city gates and being left to starve to death. Pretty grim.

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