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Dossier : Aitia

Dossier : Aitia, causalité juridique, causalité philosophique

Some Remarks on Homicide and Criminal Responsibility in Ancient Greece

Laura Pepe


In the Homeric poems – although the notion that material and causal responsibility should be separated from moral responsibility begins to emerge – the principle of strict liability predominates. This is moreover true as far as homicide is concerned; when a man is killed, whether the killing is intentional or not, the victim’s relatives react with vengeance. With his law on homicide, towards the end of the seventh century BC, the Athenian legislator Drakon was the first to consider mens rea as a criterion to differentiate the penalties. The debate on criminal and, more generally, moral responsibility becomes urgent in the last years of the fifth century, when in the end the idea prevails that a merely material and causal agent can be considered neither responsible nor, consequently, guilty.

Dans les poèmes homériques – où commence à émerger le sentiment que la responsabilité matérielle et causale ne peut pas être séparée de la responsabilité morale – prédomine l’idée d’une responsabilité de type objectif. Cela est vrai aussi en ce qui concerne le meurtre : quand un homme est tué, indépendamment du fait que le meurtre soit volontaire ou non, la famille de la victime réagit en se vengeant. Avec sa loi sur le meurtre, vers la fin du VIIe siècle, le législateur athénien Dracon est le premier à envisager l’élément subjectif comme critère pour différencier la peine. Le débat sur la responsabilité pénale et, plus généralement, morale, prend de l’importance au cours des dernières années du Ve siècle, quand prévaut l’idée que l’agent matériel et purement causal ne peut pas être tenu responsable, ni, donc, coupable.

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In the second chapter of his well-known book Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams argues against the evolutionary and progressive concept of Greek ethical ideas and of their relationship with ours; in particular, he challenges the notion that the Greeks had primitive ideas of action, responsibility, and justice that gradually developed, not only throughout history till today, but also within their own culture.1 Williams’ criticism is directed first of all at Bruno Snell’s theory that at the beginning of their culture, well represented in the Homeric poems, the Greeks were “childish”, and that they did not have an overall notion of themselves, since they lacked both the perception of the body as a unit and the awareness of being the real doers of their decisions.2 It is beyond any doubt that we should agree with Williams’ argument that the world Homer describes is not “childish” at all. In fact, not only is the Homeric man aware of his body as a unit, but he ...


Università degli Studi di Milano

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2015