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“A fiction of law shall never be contradicted so as to defeat the end for which it was invented, but for every other purpose it may be contradicted” – Lord Mansfield


I totally did it…

Somewhere along the evolutionary way, us hominids came up with the novel idea that “might doesn’t always make right”.  Presumably, up until this ideological revolution, most disagreements ended with a punch in the face.  Once we had convinced ourselves that the universe was naturally meant to be fair and just, we settled into more regulated social relations and commenced inventing “legal fictions” to bridge the gaps between our fantasy and reality.  This made it a little safer to be something other than an alpha male, but has often led to bizarre conclusions in the world of jurisprudence.  Corporations are obviously not people, but are treated as such under the law.  The courts don’t recognize necromancy as a thing, but to this day you still need a license to practice it in San Francisco.  While western civilization owes a lot to Ancient Greece in terms of their contributions to law and democracy, even the first penal and civil law code in Athens (attributed to 7th Century B.C. law giver Draco, written to replace what until then had been a system of oral law and blood feuds) promulgated some strange ideas about law, which notably manifested in the murder trial of Theagenes of Thasos.  Or rather, the murder trial of his statue.

Life is tough enough as a piece of public sculpture, what with the existence of pigeons and teen pranksters, but according to the laws still on the books in 5th Century B.C. Greece, the mere fact of being an inanimate object did not preclude being brought up on murder charges.  According to ancient Greek legal theory (and owing to a certain predilection for animism), both lifeless objects and animals were held to be responsible for their acts.  Seemingly recognizing that such a notion was a little odd, the Athenian legal system had a special court called the Prytaneion (after the location where it was held) responsible for trying unknown people, animals, and inanimate objects for homicide.  Plato himself upheld this strange notion as it functioned to make the offender in question “harmless”.  Now the flesh and blood Theagenes (also refererred to as Theogenes prior to the 1st Century A.D.) never killed anybody.  In fact, he was considered the premiere Olympian of the 5th Century, rumored to have been descended from Heracles, and generally excelled at every sport he put his mind to mastering.  Of course, success breeds envy.

Theagenes had three victories in the Pythian games for boxing, and 9 at Nemea and 10 at the Isthmus for the pancratium and boxing together. And at Phthia in Thessaly he neglected boxing and the pancratium, and endeavoured to become illustrious among the Greeks in racing, and beat all comers in the long course. I cannot but think he was desirous of emulating Achilles, and to win in the race in the country of the swiftest of heroes. All the crowns he won were as many as 1400. And when he died, one of his enemies went up to his statue every night, and scourged the brass as if it were Theagenes alive he was maltreating. But at last the statue fell on him and killed him and so stopped his outrage, but after his death his sons indicted the statue for murder: and the Thasians threw the statue into the sea, obeying the code of Draco, who in legislating for the Athenians banished even inanimate things if they killed anyone by falling upon him (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Bk. VI:11).

No doubt this was a rather ignominious end for a statue that had really done nothing but fall over after being repeatedly beaten by an otherwise impotent former rival who obviously had rather poor evasive maneuvers at his command.  Unfortunately, Greek Law was clear, and the statue got tossed into the sea.  Yet, Theagenes would have the last laugh.  Thasos experienced an uncharacteristically bad harvest that year.  And like any good ancient Greek, they sent representatives to the Oracle at Delphi to try and figure out which god they had annoyed.

They sent envoys to Delphi, and the gods bade them restore from exile those that had been banished. Some were accordingly recalled from exile, but the dearth was not removed. They went therefore a second time to Delphi, saying that, though they had done what the oracle ordered, yet the wrath of the gods remained. Then the Pythian Priestess answered, “Your great Theagenes you have forgotten.” And when they were quite in despair how to recover the statue of Theagenes, some fishermen (they say) putting out to sea for the purpose of catching fish caught the statue in their net and brought it to land. And the Thasians restoring it to its original site sacrificed to it as to a god (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Bk. VI:11).

That’s some solid legal chops for a piece of artwork, essentially winning by default on appeal, thereby proving the words of journalist Russell Baker who maintained that, “The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him”.

Pausanias, active approximately 150-175. Description of Greece. London: Bell, 1886.
Plato. The Laws of Plato: the Text Ed. With Introduction, Notes, Etc.. Manchester: The University press, 1921.
Hyde, Walter Woodburn. “The Prosecution of Lifeless Things and Animals in Greek Law: Part II.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 38, no. 3, 1917, pp. 285–303.