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Legal Theory and the Media of Law

Thomas Vesting

As many disciplines in the humanities have experienced a focus on culture’s impact in recent decades, questions surrounding the significance of media such as writing, print and computer networks have become increasingly relevant. This book seeks to demonstrate that a media and cultural theory perspective can also be highly productive for legal theory.
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Chapter 5: Traces of oral legal culture in Homer (and Hesiod)

Thomas Vesting


The lack of attention given in legal-ethnological research to the dependence of practical culture on media prompts us to augment our reconstruction of oral legal culture with recourse to particular cases and societies for which there is more archaeological and written material available than in the realm of legal-ethnological field research – and for which we can draw on a wider range of literature that deals with these sources while also reflecting on the issue of media. This pertains to nearly all legal cultures of the ancient Near East, among which however the case of “early” Greek law seems to be the most productive for contemporary research. One may even speak of it here as a special case, insofar as traces of early Greek law may be found as far back as the epic poetry of Hesiod and Homer. Homer’s works in particular appeared precisely at the beginning of that medial rupture leading from the “dark ages” of oral (archaic) Greece to a trans-regional network of literate city-states (poleis), a linguistic and cultural space in which the ability to read and write for the first time was not limited to a small class of clerks and scribes,1 but rather – starting around 750 BC and continuing over the next two or three hundred years – expanded from its beginnings as craft literacy to include more broadly the upper classes of cities. Parts of the Iliad and Odyssey may have been transcribed as early as the seventh century BC,...

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