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Interlude: Due Process in Early Greek Thought

In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, written possibly near the end of the 6th century BC, there is contained one of the earliest pieces of evidence for a principle of due process in Greek thought. Early in the hymn, the infant Hermes steals 50 of Apollo’s cattle and will not admit what he’s done. Apollo brings him before Zeus on Mt. Olympos to arbitrate, and after Apollo’s prosecutorial speech, Hermes replies in his defense:

But Hermes told another story among the immortals
and explained to Kronios, leader of all the gods,
“Father Zeus, indeed I will tell you the truth,
for I am truthful and do not know how to lie.
He came to our house searching for his shambling cattle
today just as the sun was rising,
and he brought no witnesses and no overseer from the immortal gods.
And he ordered me with much force to reveal them
and many times he threatened to hurl me into broad Tartaros
because he has the fresh bloom of glory-loving youth.”
 (366–75, tr. Susan Shelmerdine)

In his recent commentary, Nicholas Richardson notes the following about this speech:

Hermes’ second defence speech is another masterpiece of special pleading and injured innocence…. To begin with he makes a gesture with his right hand towards Zeus as president of the assembly, like an accomplished orator (367). His opening gambit is the standard assertion of truthfulness, underscored by a reference to his own sincerity and lack of expertise in falsehood (a variant of the disclaimer to expertise in public speeches). 370–[77] are a narratio, emphasising Apollo’s disturbance of  Hermes’ peace at an early hour of the day, his lack of witnesses, and his violent and threatening behaviour towards one so young and helpless.1

Incidentally, readers may be interested to know that this hymn also contains the first examples in recorded Greek literature (I believe) of the argument from probability (to eikos), which was to become so important in classical rhetoric. Hermes alleges his innocence upon the implausibility of Apollo’s charges (Hermes is only a baby, after all, and therefore not strong enough to steal anyone’s cattle) both in the speech cited above, immediately after the lines quoted, and in his earlier speech of defense to Apollo in the cave of Hermes and his nymph-mother Maia in Mt. Kyllene (lines 260ff).

  1. Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 199

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.