The conceptualisation of “Crime” in Classical Greek Antiquity


From the ancient Greek “crime” (krima)

as an intellectual error

to the christian “crime” (crimen) as a moral sin


By Michael Bakaoukas M.Sc., Ph.D, Philosophy Lecturer

The Univesrity of Piraeus & School of Pedagogical and Technological Education (ASPAITE), GREECE

 Consulting Fellow in Greek Philosophy at Radical Academy, Oregon, USA



Abstract: What is the ethics of “crime’? Is there any universall accepted definition of crime? Is ‘crime’ just a social convention (moral scepticism) or an objective natural law reality (moral realism)? According to the ancient Greek “realist” morality, it is imperative that there should be a universal definition of “crime’ beyond the cultural, historical, and ethical background. However, as ERCES points out, in our society which is characterized by the loss of common morals and supra-individual values, crime can no longer be defined as an offence that hurt common consciousness. We should take into account the Western tradition of philosophical thinking about ethics, and define crime in (social-philosophical-historical) context. This paper examines the etymologigal, conceptual and ethical roots of Western “crime”. These roots consist in the great ethical traditions that determine the Western European culture, e.g., the "ethics in ancient Greece", the "medieval ethics", and "modern moral philosophy". The international term "crime" derives from the Latin word "crimen (criminis)" which comes from the Greek word "krima" ("egklema") meaning at first "judgement" (krisis) and “conviction”. That is, the Greek word for "crime" is the conceptual ancestor of the modern concept "crime". The examination of hundred of crime-terms in the ancient Greek and Byzantine Greek literature shows us that there was a shift of meaning of the word "crime" (krima). The ancient Greek (and Latin) word "crime"(krima) means first a social-political or intellectual decision-error which is to be judged by the polis, whereas the same Christian (Greek and Latin) word means "moral sin". The ancient Greek morality is secular in comparison with the non-secular, theological Christian morality. Is this the reason for the shift of meaning at issue?

The initial title of this paper was THE CONCEPT OF “CRIME” IN ANCIENT GREEK POPULAR MORALITY. FROM THE ANCIENT GREEK “CRIME” (KRIMA/CRIMEN) AS A SOCIAL MISCONDUCT OR AN INTELLECTUAL ERROR TO THE CHRISTIAN “CRIME” AS A MORAL SIN. It was presented at the 5th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology, Cracow 2005 (Panel 7.4. Crime and criminal justice: at the crossroads between social sciences, ethics and history 2, Chair: Dr Albert Gilly Thomas).










Not all errors are crimes or sins, but any crime or sin can be called “error” (hamartia) in Greek


In the few minutes allotted to me by the European Society of Criminology (ESC), at the 5th  Annual Conference of ESC (Cracow 2005), it did not sound irrelevant when I extended the discussion of panel 7.4 Crime and  Criminal Justice: at the crossroads between social sciences, ethics, and history to the etymologigal, conceptual and ethical roots of Western “crime” based on the ancient Greek experience. In other words, the question to be answered herewith is “what is the first meaning of crime as this is first articulated in classical Greece before the emergence of Christianity ?”. This paper is based not on criminological but on historico-philosophical scholarship and evidence. It intends to contribute to an interdisciplinary understanding of the concept of crime. Mutatis mutandis the questions at issue “what is the first meaning of crime?”, “when and how did crime come to be as a concept?” may be compared to the scientific cosmological questions of modern physics “what is the beginning of the world?”, “when and how did the material world come to be”. That is to say, what is the “big bang” which gave birth to the realization of the concept of crime? An understanding of the concept-formation of crime, when that really happened first in ancient Greece and Rome, may make us “rethink” what crime really is. This philosophical goal is, I think, interesting for all disciplines dealing with crime. What is more interesting is that, as will be shown, the concept of “crime” at first had different meaning than the modern one.



 A. The historical and conceptual framework


Crime as used in the Common Law is a sophisticated notion. It involves the idea of an offence not just against an individual, but against the community, against society, against the state, or against the peace. It also suggests that the apprehended offender will be punished. Here is one legal dictionary definition: a crime is “the violation of a right when considered in reference to the evil tendency of such violation as regard the community at large; an act or default which tends to the prejudice of the community and is  forbidden by law on pain of punishment inflicted at the instance of the state”(Burke, 1977: 512). As Hudson points out,  in the medieval Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman law, they did not have a real sense of an offence against the community or the king. They did not distinguish, as later lawyers would, between crime and tort. Certainly, they used the Latin word “crimen, criminis”, but not in the modern technical sense, as stated above; generally it had moral connotations, or simply it was used to mean “sin” against the will of God (Hudson, 1998: 20.). In classical Greece, where the Christian “sin” was unknown”, they seem to have a real sense of an offence against the community, since they had public cases (dike demosia), in which the charge had to be put in writing (graphe). These trials concerned an offence or dispute which was regarded as affecting the community as a whole, such as treason or desertion from the army or embezlement of public  funds or some offences against individuals, either because the individual victim might be incapable of taking legal action for himself, or just because such behaviour was regarded as so serious that it was offensive even to the whole community (maltreatment of an orphan, seduction of a free woman, or any immoral behaviour violating other people’s rights and wishes). Any free citizen who wished was entitled to prosecute such an offence, whereas in a private case (dike idia), which concerned a matter affecting only the individual involved, only the person who claimed that he suffered some wrong or deprivation could be the prosecutor (MacDowell, 1978: 57-58.).


But, given the fact that “criminality” is a category specific to the contemporary world, despite the similarities, the  ancient Greek and Roman concepts of crime-acts are not so clearcut and modern, as the modern reader and scholar wants them to be. There does not seem to have been any substantial academic discourse on “crime” in ancient Greece and Rome. This lack of a specifically criminological discourse makes the ancient Greek and Roman courts strange to us. So this forces us to rely primarily on induction from the individual subjects of the iudicia publica and privata (dike demosia kai idia). The iudicia publica were courts in which the public as a whole could seek redress for wrongs done to it (i.e., the whole community); by contrast, the private courts (iudicia privata) were places where the individual  sought redress for individual wrongs (Riggsby, 1999: xii). Modern scholars have available a lot of evidence to resort, that is, journalism, crime reportings, academic criminological studies, and even detective fiction. Ancient Greece and Rome have had no parallel discourse and evidence. We might then wonder whether, for the Greeks and the Romans, there was such a thing as “crime” in the modern sense of the term. Both Greek and Latin do not have a collective term for “crime” in the modern sense of the word, but a variety of words for “wrongdoing”, “injustice”, or “judgement and conviction” in general:  in classical Greek krima, hybris, egklema, adikia, kakia; in Republican Latin crimen, scelus, maleficium, facinus, iniuria, mores, mala tractatio (Riggsby, 1999: 163).



B. The concept-formation of “crime” in classical Greek antiquity


In Greek, every wrongdoing had its individual name, and the prosecution of it in the court was denoted individually by the periphrasis “dike (meaning both trial and justice) owing to the wrongdoing at issue (in genitive denoting the cause of trial)”, e.g., dike phonou (trial for murder), klopes (for theft), lipotaxiou (for desertion),  prodosias (for treason) (from this come the latin periphrases causa mortis, crimen avaritiae) etc. But did the ancient Greeks possess the modern concept of  “crime”? The question whether a thinker possesses a given concept is a difficult one, and while the use of the corresponding word is an indication in that direction, it is not a sure indication. From a logico-philosophical point of view, there are four stages in the evolution of a concept:


1.       A thinker possesses neither the concept nor the corresponding word

2.       A thinker possesses the concept, as it is revealed by his periphrases, such as dike phonou (trial for murder), but he does not have the corresponding “collective” word (“crime”) in order to classify the totality of offences as a specific category of acts. 

3.       A thinker possesses both the the concept and the word. For  example, Demosthenes and Aristotle, as will be shown in chapter D, used the word hybris. The philosopher has the ability to talk or think about it, in a certain way, but he has not fully reflected upon the implications of his thought.

4.        A thinker has both the concept and the word, and he is also aware of the implications of these [1].


Specifically, the concept-formation of crime in ancient Greece occurred in three stages as follows:

Stage 1: The “devine” hybris (crime)

[From the Mycenean era of the Gods, kings, and heros of the Iliad and Odyssey until the 7th c. BC.; when the kings and the aristocrats had the religious and political power; Religion took precedence of politics, and the justice of men  became  devine affair]


Crime then is a  hybris, that is the violation of a devine law which makes a man to transcend his nature’s limits. A God’s punishment is required (Doyle, 1984, passim) [2].


Stage 2: The human or judicial hybris (crime)

[From the 6th to the 2nd  c. BC; when the political power was taken from the kings and the aristocrats and the people(demos) of some Greek polis entered the city; Politics took precedence of religion, and the government and justice of men  became human affair]


Crime then is a hybris,  that is a violation of a human right like the right of Demosthenes to be safe (see below ch. D); it then acquires its double judicial sense: a. an error (hamartia) or offence against the community, and b. the community’s “judgement” and “conviction” (krima/crimen) against this error (see below chs D, E for lexical and textual data proving these meanings). The second sense gave birth to the modern term “crime”.


Stage3: The devine crime revisited, ie., the Christian Crime

[The era of the Roman Conquest and Christianity which changed the conditions of government; new kings, aristocrats and Gods ruled again; Religion took precedence of politics, and the government and justice of men  became once more  devine affair] [3]


Crime (krima/crimen) then  is primarily “a sin against the will of God” or “God’s judgement” (see below chapter E for evidence proving this exclusive religious meaning)



C. The only crimes in classical antiquity were political crimes


The ancient Greeks, although they had not an exact word for “crime”, were on the threshold of making such a word, as the word hybris indicates (see ch. D).. That is to say, they did not reach stage four.  “Crime” was not a major part of the Greek and Roman political landascape. We do not know of “law and order” officials who promised to crack down on criminals. Only one of the fifty books of Justinian’s Digest of juristic writings is devoted to iudicia publica wrongdoings. Criminal law is entirely absent from Gaius’ mid-second century textbook, the Institutes, and so from Justinian’s later one as well. Thus criminal law was either ignored completely or at most treated as a small corner of public law by classical Greek and Republican legal scholars and forencic orators. They were not talking about “crime” as a category at all. Rather than specific charges, declamation favors very general words like injustice (in Latin iniuria; in Greek adikia). The object is to cover misbehaviour in general without worrying to much  about the specific legal details. The deliberate confusion of public and private law  is of a piece with this strategy. Divisions within the broad category of “wrongdoing” are unimpotrant; “crime” as such is of no particular interest. There is a lack of conceptual distinctions; the “crimes” tried by the iudicia publica were not an entity unto themselves. This lack is not due to problems of transmission but is a feature of the Greek-Roman culture which demands comment on itsown right. “Crime”, in classical Greece and the Roman Republic, never became a distinctly articulated topic of discourse or an area of action. No trace of any such notions has been found here. The ancient Greek and Roman legal system is not designed to handle most of the activity  which we would today label crime. Theft in the broadest sense and crimes against the person short of homicide are normaly left to the private courts. There was not any police force. The police-like force of the Greek astynomoi and the Roman tresviri capitales did not have the power to repress crime. Hence we cannot constitute or even assume any particular theory of ancient Greek and Roman crime (Riggsby, 1999: 163-170).


For the Greeks and the Romans, public offences were part of a much larger ethical category of wrongdoing, and not sharply distinct from wrongs done, on the one hand to individuals and on the other to the gods. Thus while our sources  speak of individual events which, as will be shown in ch. D, we may reasonably label crimes from a modern perspective, such as hybris, those same sources show little interest in any exact distinction of “crime” as such (Riggsby, 1999: 151). Nevertheless, at Athens and Rome what we may reasonably label crimes from a modern perspective are political crimes against the community. Greek and Roman crimes were political not because they were committed by the politicians; the offences tried in the iudicia publica were political. There were no crimes that were not political crimes. The classical Greek Athenian and Roman courts existed not for the sake of justice in the abstract (which serves no one in particular) but for the good of the Athenian and Roman people as a whole. The private courts are the courts where individuals protect themselves, their property, and their rights. The public courts are those where the community protects itself, its property, and its rights. This idea, if not always in the front of the minds of the jurors, is one they can be led to accept. Hence a higher political good may on occasion be used to prove the guilt or innocence (Riggsby, 1999: 157-8)..


The substantial and essential political character of the classical ancient Greek and Roman society and justice, in opposition to religion,  is confirmed by the famous historian, sociologist and anthropologist Fustel (Paris 1830-1889) as follows:


During long ages [sc. 15th c. –6th c. BC.] religion had been the sole principle of government. Another principle had to be found capable of replacing it, and which, like it, might govern human institutions, and keep them as much as possible clear of fluctuations and conflicts. The principle upon which the governments of cities were founded thenceforth was public interest [sc from 6th c. BC.].

            We must observe this new dogma which then made its appearance in the minds of men and in history. Heretofore the superior rule whence social order was derived was not interest, but religion. The duty of performing the rites of worship had been the social bond. From this religious necessity were derived, for some the right to command, for others the obligation to obey. From this had come the rules of justice and of legal procedure, those of public deliberations and those of war. Cities did not ask if the institutions which they adopted were useful; these institutions were adopted because religion had wished it thus. Neither interest nor convenience had contributed to establish them. And if the sacerdotal class had tried to defend them, it was not in the name of the public interest; it was in the name of religious tradition. But in the period in which we now enter [sc in Greece during the age of Pericles and in Rome at the time of Cicero], tradition no longer holds empire, and religion no longer governs. The regulating principle from which all institutions now derive  their authority – the only one which is above individual wills, and which obliges them to submit – is public interest. What the Latin call res publica, the Greeks to koinon (the common good), replaces the old religion [sc of the kings and the noblemen]. This is what, from this time, establishes institutions and laws, and by this all the important acts of cities are judged. In the deliberations of senates, or of popular assemblies, when a law is discussed, or a form of government, or a question of private right, or a political institution, no one any longer asks what religion prescribes, but what the general interest demands […] The nature of government was also changed. Its essential function was no longer the regular perfomance of religious ceremonies.[…] What had before been of secondary importance was now of the first. Politics took precedence of religion, and the government of men  became human affair.


Numa Denis Fustel De Goulanges, The Ancient City, A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institution of Greece and Rome, The John Hopkins  University Press, London, 1980, 309-310, 311


In such a political environment, the political character of Greek and Roman “crimes” is unquestionable. This is proved by a look at the choice of categories in criminal courts (iudicia publica). Many of them are on their faces "political". The crime of diminishing the majesty of the Roman people (maiestas diminuta) and the Greek subversion of democracy are by their very definition political; it is a catchall category for miscellaneous injuries to the community. A similar claim holds for the Laitn vis (violence) or the Greek tyranny, if they are defined as violence contra rem publicam. The Roman peculatus (theft of state funds) speaks for itself as well as the Greek case of embezlement, theft or loss of public money (klope, euthyna, adikion). The Roman repetundae and the Greek apocheirotonia (deposing from office) involves danger to polis’ reputation as well as (possible) misuse of state power by officials. The Roman ambitus which is the illegal election of government officials and the Greek corruption and improper participation in public business as well as misleading the people in the assembly (dekazein, dora, pseudomartyrion) so distort the relationship between government and society as a whole (Riggsby, 1999 and MacDowell, 1978: passim).


It is also important to note that even the offenses that were not tried before a public court could be considered as a threat to community as a whole. The crucial cases are the ways the Greeks and the Romans treated murder and various pecuniary offenses. The original "homicide" courts covered (separately) poisoning, parricide, and racketeering. The last is dangerously close to sedition in that it creates a locus of loyalty and armed power distinct from the state and state apparatus. Parricide has a religious dimension and it is thus of state interest to see the pollution removed from polis. This interpretation is supported by the fact that simple and aggravated theft (furtum and rapina, klope) are private crimes, while forgery, counterfeiting and misleading the people (falsum adikia, kakotechnia, pseudomartyria, pseudeokleteia) is a public crime. Theft is easily recognized, but the possibility of falsum makes all one's property uncertain. Finally, adulterium (moicheia) produces the same instability born of uncertainty (here uncertainty of paternity) and so becomes the subject of a public court. Thus the offenses covered by the iudicia publica fall into two broad categories — offenses directly against the community as entity (e.g., maiestas, sicarii=homicide, ambitus=illegal electoral practices) and those which are directed at individuals but whose substance produces insecurity in the entire community (e.g.,falsum, venenum=poisoning). In either case, however, the iudicia publica do not merely cover crimes in which the Greek or Roman state happened to take an interest, as some would have it. These courts cover all and only the offenses which were understood to affect the state or society as a whole. Simple theft, murder, and assault have a more individualized effect and so are left to private courts (Riggsby, 1999: 157-159; MacDowell, 1978: op. cit.).     


D. Crime as “hybris” (violation of human rights)


Having described so far the conceptual and historical background needed to understand the Greek-Roman concept of “crime”, it is time to detect this concept primarily in the ancient Greek texts from the 5th to the 1st c. BC., when Christianity was unknown . Though the ancient Greek distinction between public and private cases was by no means as the modern distinction between criminal and civil cases, or between crime and tort, it seems that the ancient Greeks had a real sense of “the violation of a right  and the evil tendency of such violation as regard the community at large” (MacDowell, 1978: 54; Calhoun, 1927: 6 f.). They call it hybris (arrogant violence arising from passion) and this can mutatis mutandis be considered as the “big bang” of the concept-formation of crime as we know it today. For the Greeks, manifestations of such a deliberately criminal behaviour are found in the misconduct of a young man full of energy as well as of men who abuse their wealth and political power. Other characteristic manifestations are further eating and drinking, sexual activity, larking about, hitting and killing, taking other people’s property and privileges, jeering at people and disobeying authority both human and divine. A person shows hybris (arrogance) by deliberately indulging in conduct which is bad, immoral, or at best useless, because it is what he wants to do, having no regard for the wishes or rights of other people (MacDowell, 1978: 129). The great 4th c. BC Athenian orator Demosthenes, being himself the victim of hybris, comments on the law about this offence as follows:


So for hybris the legislator allowed graphai (written prosecutions) to anyone who wishes, and made the penalty entirely payable to the state. He considered that a man who attempts to act with hybris wrongs the state, not just the victim; and that vengeance is sufficient compensation for the victim, and he ought not to take money for himself for such offences. And he went so far as to allow a graphe even for a slave, if anyone treats one with hybris. For he thought that what matters was not the identity of the victim but the nature of the act; and since he found the act inexpedient,  he did not allow it to be permitted either against a slave or at all. Nothing, men of Athens, nothing is more intolerable than hybris, or more deserving of your anger […] If  anyone treats with hybris any person, either child or woman or man, free or slave, or does anything illegal against any of these, let anyone who wishes, of those Athenians who are entitled, submit a graphe (prosecution) to thesmothetai (legislators).

Demosthenes  Prosecution of Meidias 21, 45-46, 47, trs Mac Dowell with alterations



In his speech (Prosecution of Konon 54), Demosthenes describes a case of hybris, i.e.,  how he and his friend, Phanostartos, while walking in the Agora one evening, were brutaly attacked and beaten by Konon:


When we came up to them, one of them, whom I did not know, fell upon Phanostratos and held him down, while this man Konon and his son and Andromenes’ son fell upon me. First they pulled off my cloak, and then they tripped me up and pushed me into the mud, and they put me in such a state, by jumbing on me and treating me with hybris, that my lip was cut and my eyes closed. They left me in such a bad condition that I could not stand up or speak. And while I was lying there I heard them saying a lot of dreadful things. Most of them were scurrilous, and some I should not like to repeat in front of you. But the thing which shows Konon’s hybris, and indicates that he was the ring-leader, I will tell you: he crowed in imitation of cocks that have won fights, and the others suggested he should beat his sides with his elbows like wings

Demosthenes, Prosecution of Konon 54, 8-9, trs Mac Dowell



This is a case of deliberate hybris, that is a deliberate violation of Demosthenes’ rigth to be safe. For Demosthenes, all recognize the distinction between deliberate wrongdoing, which incurs anger and resentment, and unintentional wrongdoing, which deserves indulgence [4]; they recognize that a citizen might advocate  wrong policies either through ignorance and failure to undestand the situation or with unpatriotic design [5]. For Aristotle, as well, there is a difference between unintentional and intentional offences. The difference lay in the motive and state of mind of the offender. If, for example, a man hit someone because his lost his temper, or even by accident, that was just battery (aikeia), not hybris. But if he hit him because he considered himself and his own wishes more important than the rights and esteem of his victim, as Konon did against Demosthenes, that was hybris, a much more serious offence:


If one hits, one does  not in all cases commit hybris, but only if it is for a purpose, such as dishonouring the man or enjoying oneself […] Hybris is doing and saying things at which the victim incurs dishonour, not in order to get for oneself anything which one did not get before, but so as to have pleasure

Aristotle Rhetoric 1374a13-15, 1378b23-25; trs MacDowell with alterations.


Thus a graphe for hybris was one of the most serious kind of prosecution which could be brought if necessary by any Athenian against a man whose behaviour was an offence to  the whole community (MacDowell, 1978: 130-1); which reminds us of the modern common law definition of crime as “a violation of a right as regard the community at large” (Burke, 1977: op. cit). But what is the cause of crime (hybris) by the ancient Greek standards ?



The ancient Greek concept of “crime (hybris)” as an “error” (hamartia) against the community,

 not as a “sin” against the God


Demosthenes’ adversary, the 4th c. B.C. orator Aeschines, says that the real causes of crime are not to be found in any God’s will, but in the fallibility and weakness of human nature:


Do not imagine that wrongdoing originates with the gods rather than with the vileness of men; do not imagine that Furies, as on the tragic stage, harry and punish the impious with blazing torches. No it is the unbriddled pleasures of the flesh, the inability ever to be satisfied, which mans the dens of brigands and fills the pirates’ ships; these pleasures are each man’s Fury, these incite him to slaughter his fellow-citizens, enslave himself to tyrants, and to join in conspiracies against democracy

Aeschines, Prosecution of Timarchos, I 190 f. (trs Dover, 1974:145-6)



            It is interesting to note how two 5th c. B.C. intellectuals, the historian Thucydides and the orator Antiphon, distinguish “crime as an error” from “religious sin”:


Wrongful acquital is only an error (hamartema), but wrongful condemnation is an impiety (asebema). Errors which are involuntary (akousios) are forgivable, but those which are deliberate (ekousios) are not; for the involuntary error proceeds from chance (tyche), but the deliberate from intention (gnome).

                                                Antiphon, On the murder of Herodes,  91f. (trs Dover, 1974:145-6)


One brings criticism (aitia) against friends when they err (hamartanein), but an accusation (kategoria) against enemies when they have committed a wrong (adikein)

                                                                                    Thucydides, 69.6 (trs Dover, 1974:145-6)



What we should keep in mind is that “crime” is an “error” (hamartia) which is to be prosecuted only when voluntarily affects the community. Sin (asebeia) is just a subspecies of “error” committed against the community’s  gods, e.g., theft of a temple’s money (ierosylia) [MacDowell, 1978: ch. XII 192 f.]. Homicide, injury and damage were penalized with comparative leniency in Attic law when it was clear that there had been no intention to do harm, though the penalty of temporary exile for involuntary homicide was in many cases unjust by our standards [6]. When a man was accused of hybris, the violent treatment  of a fellow-citizen, it seems that he might succesfully plead drunkness or an excess of anger, for the nature and the attitude of the aggressor towards his victim was an essential ingredient and cause of hybris  (Dover, 1974: 146-7) [7]. Nevertheless, however clearly it was perceived that an individual’s nature affects and circumscribes his moral capacity, the community did not tolerate an “error” (hamartia) committed against itself. As Demosthenes put it:


Do you not see that his nature and his politics are governed neither by reason nor by any sense of decency, but by desperation (aponoia), or rather, that his politics as a whole are desperate? Desperation is the greatest of ills for its possessor, formidable and troublesome for anyone else, and for a city, intolerable. […] Who would not avoid it and put its possessor out of the way (i.e. kill, outlaw or exile him), so as never to fall in with it even by mistake?

Demosthenes, xv  Prosecution of Aristogeiton 32 f. (trs Dover,1974:149, with alterations)



            That is to say, the community, being above the individual, was prosecuting any crime against the common good. When it was desired to emphasize that a person not only does things which are unweclome to the community but does them by deliberare decision, he could be described as “wishing to be bad” [boulesthai, haireisthai einai poneros] (Dover, 1974: 150-1)[8].

We saw that it was possible to distinguish between “error” (hamartia, hamartema, verb hamartanein or exhamartanein) on the one hand and crime, wrong-doing (adikia, adikema, verb adikein), sin or impiety (ierosylia, asebeia, asebema, verb asebcin) on the other. This distinction could also be made in particular cases, e.g., in the comic dramatist Philippides fr. 26, we read:  “You can't say ... "I erred", to get my forgiveness... The man who does violence to one who is weaker does not "err", but hybrizei”. That is, not all errors are crimes or sins, but any crime or sin can be called “error” (hamartia) in Greek. This is verified by the 4th c BC orators Isokrates and Lysias as follows:

 The villainy of the Thirty Tyrants incited many to behave in this way, for the Thirty were so far from punishing those who committed crimes (adikein) that they actually enjoined some men to err (exhamartanein)

 Isokrates Against Kallimachos 17; trs Dover


Think that you would be come as angry as this case merits if you were to go over in your minds how much greater hybris is than other errors (hamartemata), for you will find that other kinds of wrongdoing  (adikiai) harm only some aspects of the victim's life, whereas hybris damages his fortune as a whole ...

Isokrates , xx, Prosecution of Lochites 9:1; trs Dover


You preferred to commit such an error (hamartema, exhamartanein, sc. adultery) against my wife and children ... 45: Had I not been wronged the greatest of all wrongs (adikemata)?


Lysias. i On the murder of Eratosthenes 26; trs Dover..


In Thucydides vi 80.2, “become kakos (villain)” and hamartanein (err) treated as synonyms. As shown in the aforementioned examples, the hamart- group of words  was not used simply in referring to alleged misdeeds of one’s own, but in direct attack on the misdeeds of a hated adversary. But inference from language to “underlying assumptions” is dangerous, and it is perhaps sufficient to note that just as in war and sport “hamartanein the target” is simply to “miss” it, so in moral action hamartia is “not attaining” what is desired by oneself or by others [9].

If then “crime” in Greek is a kind of hamartia (error), what is really “error”? There has been a great deal of reseach work on “hamartia”. To summarize some interesting research results, in his Poetics 13.5 (1453a 8-23) Aristotle says that tragedy presents a great man brought low by a “megale hamartia” (failure, error in mind); his examples are Oedipus and Thyestes (Dyer, 1965). The phrase is taken  to mean very different things by different people: either (i) a moral failing or character-flaw (German Schuld; Harsh, 1945) or (ii) an intellectual error in judgement or even a mistake about the identity of a person (Van Braam, 1912; Hey, 1927; Bremer, 1969 ) or (iii) some kind of combination of the two (Stinton, 1975; Fritz, 1962). It is sure that the classical Greek word does not signify the “sin” in the Christian moral sense of the word. Hey in his well documented paper, based on Aristotle’s texts, “Hamartia.  Zur Bedeutungsgeschichte des Wortes, Philologus 1927, 1-17,  137-163,  proves that, in classical Greece, the Greek word for “error” (hamartia) had the meaning of “intellectual error leading to a misconduct like Oedipus’ one”. According to Dover (1974, 152),  there was  a certain shift of meaning from hamart-(error) towards adik-(crime as wrongdoing) in the later fourth century BC. But the greater shift of meaning occurred during the Christian era, when the Greek word for “error and wrongdoing against the community” came up to mean “an error or wrongdoing or sin against the God’s will”. The Christians gave the Greek word hamartia (error) a moral meaning as modern Greeks know it and use it today. Given the fact that, as shown,  “crime” also was a kind of hamartia (error), “crime” too aquired the same Christian moral meaning of “an error or wrongdoing or sin against the God’s will”. The same goes to a certain extent  for the Latin word for wrongdoing “crimen, criminis” from which the modern term “crime”derives.

            According to the The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (edited by T.F. Hoad, Oxford Univerity Press, 1986, p. 104), the english word “crime” derives from the Latin word “crimen, criminis” meaning at first judgement, accusation, offence, reduced form of base of the verb cerno decide (cf. discern). The etymological root of this Latin word, as many Latin roots,  comes from (or is cognate with) a Greek root; this  is the Greek word-root “krima” or “krisis” (crisis) meaning as well judgement, sentence, conviction, a matter of an accusation, charge, reduced form of base of the verb “krino” decide. So the first judicial meaning of the terms “crime” and “krima” at issue was not “wrongdoing”, but a “judgement” of it [10]. What is more interesting is that these cognate words have a common conceptual history. In classical Greece and Rome, they mean “jugdement”, “conviction”, “wrongdoing or error against the community”, “erring in mind” (hamartia), but not “sin against the will of God”. Their first judicial sense, i.e.,  “jugdement” (krisis), gave birth to the word “krima”(crimen) from which derives the modern term “crime”. In modern English there are some word-roots derivatives from “crimen” which come from Greek or Latin and retain the first judicial meaning of the term; that is, discriminate (discern), critic, critique, crisis, criticism,  criticize, criterion; all these words do have a “judgemental” sense pointing to the first meaning of the word  “crime”, i.e., “jugdement” (krisis).



E. From the ancient Greek “crime” (krima) as a “judgemental” error

to the christian “crime” (crimen) as a moral sin


As regards the Greek word for crime (krima/crimen), the lexical data provided by the Thesaurus Linguae Grecae and the searching program  MUSAIOS 1.0e-32 (1992-2000 by Darl J. Dumont and Randall M. Smith) convince us that in classical Greece apart from  error (hamartia) crime (krima/crimen) as well has not the christian moral sense of “sin” against the God. In the totality of Greek texts there are 2301 occurences of the Greek word for crime (krima/crimen), approximately1/3 from the classical era and 2/3 from the christian era. The basic meanings of the classical Greek word are the following: “thought or judgement” (Marcus Aurelius Antonius Imperator Phil., Book 4, ch. 3, section 2, line 2; Aeschylus Trag., Supplices, line 397; Plotinus Phil., Enneades 6, ch. 4. Section 6, line 14; Epictetus Phil., Dissertationes ab Arriano digestae, Bk 2, ch. 15, section 8, line 2; Proclus Phil., In Platonis Parmenidem, p. 758, line 8; Joannes Stobaeus Anthologus, Anthologium, Bokk 1, ch. 49. Section 54, line 36), “the judgement of the senses and of the intellect” (Plutarchus Biogr.  Phil., Adversus Coloten, Stephanus, p. 1121, section E, line 5; Claudius Ptolemaeus Math., De judicandi facultate et animi principatu, vol. 3, 2, p. 16, line 8), “wise judgements of the intellect” (ta tes phroneseos krimata: Chrysippus Phil., Fragmenta Moralia, fr. 274, line  18; Sextus Empiricus Phil., Adversus Mathematicos, Book 9, section 174, line 3), “the cunning  judgements of the soul” (Epictetus Phil., Dissertationes ab Arriano digestae, Bk 4, ch. 11, section 8, line 1), “conviction and decision” (katakrima kai katadiken, krisis: Lexicon Etymologicum Magnum, p. 539, line 35), “trials and votes” (psephoi, dikai) (Hesychius Lexicogr., Lexicon, entry kappa, 4114, line 1), “democratic decisions” (ta tou demou krimata: Dionysios Halicarnassensis Hist.-Rhet., Antiquitares Romanae,  Bk 4, ch. 2, sect. 3, line 6).  It is impressive that none of  the classical Greek words for “crime” (krima) coming from non Christian authors means “sin” in the christian sense of the word [11].


On the contrary, the Greek words for “crime” (krima) coming from Christian authors do have almost exclusively a religious meaning as follows: “sin  against the God” (Origenes Theol., Fragmenta in Psalmos, 1-150, psalm 9, verse 17, line 1; Johannes Chrysostomus, Scr. Eccl., Ad Stelechium de Compuctione, lib. 2, vol.47, page 416, line 18),  “devine, not human judgement” (Philo Judaeus Phil., De Congressu eruditionis gratia, section 86, line 6;), “the God’s judgement and commandments” (Ps Justinus Martyr, Quaestiones et responsiones ad orthodoxos, page 448 section B, line 3; Gregorius Nyssenus, Contra Encomium, Bk 3, ch. 1, section 56, line 6), “the undisclosed judgements of Providence and God” (Novum Testamentum, Epistula Pauli ad Romanos, ch. 11, sect. 33, line 2; Nemesius Theol., De Natura hominis, secttion 42, line 248), “heavens’ judgement and justice” (Apocalypsis Ioannis, section 4, line 4)”, “the nation’s just rights according to the law of God” (Septuaginta, Deuteronomion, ch. 4, section 8, line 2), “God’s rights and judgements” (Clemens Alexandrinus Theol., Stromateis, Book1, ch. 27. Section 172, subsection 2, line 5; Gregorius Nazianzenus, Suprerum vale, orat. 42, vol. 36, page 460, line 35),  “God’s wrath and the consequent punishment” (Michael Psellus the Byzantine, Orationes Forenses et acta, oration 1, line 2271, “me eph’ hemas elthoi to krima”: a Byzantine and modern Greek expression meaning “beware of the God’s wrath on us”); “Christ’s judgement [krisis Christou] which is the  decision of just people” (Basilius Theol., Enarratio in Prophetam Isiam, ch. 1, section 41, line 9); and finally, “the Church’s judgement” (krimata ekklesias), where we must observe that the word for the ancient Greek people’s assembly (ekklesia) was later used to denote the christian churches, a fact that indicates the transformation of the political assemblies into religious gotherings (synagogues), that is the substitution of the religious christian mentality for the ancient Greek political mentality (Athanasius Theol, Historia Arianorum, ch. 52, section 3, line 5).


This statistical linguistic argument proves that the Christians, having a different view of justice and crime, transformed the meaning of the same Latin and Greek word for “crime” (krima or crimen) at issue. Our linguistic argument that the Christians had a different view of justice, in comparison to the Greek one, is supported by the historian Fustel as follows:

But there came a day when the religious sentiment recovered life and vigor, and when, under the Christian form, belief regained its empire over the soul. Were men not then destined to see the reappearance of the ancient confusion of governnment and the priesthood, of faith and the law? (382)

With  Christianity  not  only  was  the  religious  sentiment revived, but it assumed a higher and less material expression. Whilst previously men had made for themselves gods of the human soul, or of the great forces of nature, they now began to look upon God as really foreign by his essence, from human nature on the one hand, and from the world on the other. The divine Being was placed outside and above physical nature.  Whilst previously every man had made a god for himself, and there were as many of them as there were families and cities, God now appeared as a unique, immense, universal being, alone animating the worlds, alone able to supply the need of adoration that is in man. Religion, instead of being, as formerly among the nations of Greece and Italy, little more  than an assemblage of practices, a series of rites which men repeated without having any idea of them, a succession of formulas which often were no longer understood because the language had grown old, a tradition which had been transmitted from age to age, and which owed its sacred character to its antiquity alone, — was now a collection of doctrines, and a great object proposed to faith. It was no longer exterior; it took up its abode especially in the thoughts of man. It was no longer  matter; it became spirit. Christianity changed the nature and the form of adoration. Man no longer offered God food and drink. Prayer was no longer a form of incantation; it was an act of faith and a humble petition. The soul sustained another relation with the divinity; the fear of the gods was replaced by the love of God. (382-3)

As to the government of the state, we cannot say that Christianity essentially altered that, precisely because it did not occupy itself with the state. In the ancient ages, religion and the state made but one; every people adored its own god, and every god governed his own people; the same code regulated the relations among men, and their duties towards the gods of the city. Religion then governed the state, and designated its chiefs by the voice of the lot, or by that of the auspices. The state, in its turn, interfered with the domain of the conscience, and punished every infraction of the rites and the worship of the city. Instead of this, Christ teaches that his kingdom is not of this world. He separates religion from government. Religion, being no longer of the earth, now interferes the least possible in terrestrial affairs. Christ adds, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's". It is the first time that God and the state are so dearly distinguished. For Caesar at that period was still the pontifex maximus, the chief and the principal organ of the Roman religion; he was the guardian and the interpreter of beliefs. He held the worship and the dogmas in his hands. Even his person was sacred and divine, for it was a peculiarity of the policy of the emperors that, wishing to recover the attributes of ancient royalty, they were careful not to forget the divine character which antiquity had attached to the king-pontiffs and to the priest-founders. But now Christ breaks the alliance which paganism and the empire wished to renew. He proclaims that religion is no longer the state, and that to obey Caesar is no longer the same thing as to obey God (385).


Numa Denis Fustel De Goulanges, The Ancient City, A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institution of Greece and Rome, The John Hopkins  University Press, London, 1980, 382-383, 385



But why did the Greeks do not have a religious but a political mentality? And how and why did this transformation of justice, belief and mentality occur? Some interesting answers are provided by sociologists and political scientists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim,  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; by anthropologists like J. J. Bachofen, Lewis Henry Morgan, Numa Denis Fustel De Goulanges; by (social) historians like M. I. Finley, G. Glotz, G.E.M. de Ste Croix; and by structuralist classicists or traditional philologists such as M. M. Austin, P. Vidal-Naquet, J. P. Vernant, Jean Bollock.  That is to say, in order to answer these important questions which are beyond the scope of the present paper, we need the “interdisciplinary” methodological help of criminology, classics, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and political science.




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[1] Concepts as mental states have contents. They are a way of thinking of something, i.e., a particular object, or property, or relation, or some other entity. What individuates a given concept  is a condition which must be satisfied if a thinker is to possess that concept and to be capable of having beliefs that contain it as a constituent. For concept-formation in general see D. W. Hamlyn, 1961: 2-4 and Christopher Peacock, 1993: 74-76. 


[2] For the “devine” religious meaning and connotation of hybris see the famous study of Bruno Snell, Die Entdeckung des  Geistes. Studien Zur Entstehung des Europaischen Denkens bei den Griechen, Gottingen, 1975, 4th ed, ch. 11, pp. 55, 209, 211, 214-216, 337, in the Greek trsl by Daniel Iakov, MIET, Athens, 1997.


[3] The historical and political information which substantiates these conceptual stages is based on Numa Denis Fustel De Goulanges, The Ancient City, A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institution of Greece and Rome, The John Hopkins  University Press, London, 1980, Book 3 The City, Book 4 The Revolutions, Book 5 The Municipal Regime Disappears.


[4] Demosthenes: xx Against Leptines 140, xxi Prosecution of Meidias 43, xxii Prosecution of Androtion 73.


[5] Demosthenes: xviii, On the Crown 172


[6] For such cases see Demosthenes:  Prosecution of Meidias 43; Prosecution of Aristokrates 71-3


[7] Demosthenes  Prosecution of Meidias 41, 73f, 180.


[8] See the 4th c. BC. orator Andokides: i  0n the Mysteries 95.


[9] For hamartia see Dover, 1974, pp. 152-153, Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon Abridged, Oxford University Press, 1976, and J.B. Hofmann, Etymologisches Worterbuch des Griechischen, Verlag von R. Oldenbourg, Munchen, 1950.


[10] The fact that the Latin word “crimen” is cognate with the Greek word “krima” meaning both “judgement” is confirmed by all relavant dictionaries such as Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1976, and J. B. Hofmann, Etymologisches Worterbuch des Griechischen, Verlag von R. Oldenbourg, Munchen, 1950.

 [11] Some exceptions come from non Christian authors who writing in the christian era, along with the ancient Greek meaning, record their contemporary christian and religious meaning of the word for crime (krima/crimen), that is “devine punishment and logos” (see Hesychius Lexicogr., Lexicon, entry kappa, 4114, line 1 and Lexicon Etymologicum Magnum, p. 539, line 35).