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date: 28 September 2023



  • Robert J. Hopper
  •  and Paul C. Millett


  • Greek Law
  • Greek Material Culture

Symbolon, originally a physical object, intended as a material indication of identification or agreement. What may have begun as a private practice as a reminder of xenia or ritualized friendship (see friendship, ritualized; matching ‘tallies’ between individuals: Pl.Symp. 191d) came to have wider ramifications. A gold cup served as a symbolon between the Persian king and a 5th-cent. Athenian (Lys. 19. 25); in this case, the symbolon was transferable, giving its possessor command over goods and money all over Asia Minor (or so it was claimed). At an inter-state level, symbola are mentioned in a mid-4th-cent. treaty between Athens and Strato, king of Sidon (IG 22. 141 (Tod 139), line 19). Whereas the cognate term symbolaion came to mean an agreement or contract (e.g. over a loan), symbola typically referred to inter-state agreements, dealing with legal relations between individuals of different states, or between a state and an individual. To those travelling abroad, symbola offered protection from sylē (summary seizure of property) and other forms of harassment (as exemplified by the terms of the treaty between Oeanthea and Chaleion from c.450 bce: Tod 34). States agreed that, in any dispute, their respective citizens would have access to the legal process via judicial reciprocity. Dikai apo symbolōn were lawsuits conducted according to the terms of these treaties (ML 31). Surviving evidence suggests that the actual cases may have involved issues of crime as often as contract. In the 4th cent. ([Dem.] 7. 12 f.) the normal practice was apparently for symbola to provide for cases to be settled in the courts of the state of the defendant. Whether this convention was ignored by the 5th-cent. Athenians in dealings with their subjects depends on a disputed passage in Thucydides (2) (1. 77. 1). In 4th-cent. Athens, emporikai dikai (explicitly ‘commercial suits’) apparently took over some of the functions of symbola.


  • G. Herman, Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City (1987).
  • J. Vélissaropoulos, Panteios 1980, 93 ff.
  • J. W. Jones, The Law and Legal Theory of the Greeks (1956).
  • A. R. W. Harrison, The Law of Athens 2 (1971).
  • D. M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (1978).
  • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, Classical Quarterly 1961, 94 ff.
  • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, Classical Quarterly 1962, 268 ff.
  • A. W. Gomme, A. Andrewes, and K. J. Dover, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, 5 vols. (1945–81).
  • S. Hornblower, Commentary on Thucydides 1: Books 1–3, both on 1. 77. 1.
  • P. Gauthier, Symbola: Les étrangers et la justice dans les cités grecques (1972).
  • P. Gauthier, Revue historique de droit français et étranger 1982, 553 ff.
  • B. Bravo, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Classe di Lettere e Filosofia 1980, 675 ff.
  • E. E. Cohen, Ancient Athenian Maritime Courts (1973).