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A Case Study of Transitional Justice. Athens in 411 and 403 B.C.

Elster, Jon
June 4, 2015

Source: (2004) In, Lukas H. Meyer, ed., Justice in Time: Responding to Historical Injustice. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft. Pp. 223-238.

According to Jon Elster, transitional justice is not a new idea or reality. Issues of retribution and restitution are almost as old as democracy itself. He points to two episodes in the history of Athens to illustrate. In 411 B.C. and again in 403 B.C., the Athenians experienced the overthrow of democracy by an oligarchy, followed by the defeat of the oligarchy and restoration of democracy. In both instances, the reaction to the oligarchs involved retributive measures. The restoration to democracy in 403 B.C. also involved restitution of property confiscated by the oligarchic regime. The Athenians experienced two episodes so close together for a variety of reasons. Elster argues that one reason for the two episodes is that they did not deal with the root causes of the oligarchic coup after the first episode. Additionally, he maintains, while they exacted harsh retribution in 411 B.C. against the deposed oligarchs, in 403 B.C. they opted for forward-looking social reconciliation rather than backward-looking retribution. Within this framework, Elster examines these two incidents in the history of ancient Athens as case studies in transitional justice. As part of this, he further looks at issues of transitional justice through review of speeches by Lysias, a resident alien in Athens during the period of these two upheavals.


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