Wednesday, September 4, 2013


According to the popular history of the Almanac Trial, Lincoln won an acquittal for his client by calling into question the testimony of his client’s principle accuser. The accuser said he saw the defendant kill the victim by the light of a moon high overhead. As the story goes, Lincoln then produced an almanac which proved that there was no moon at all that night. Although there is good reason to question the historical accuracy of the popular version, courtroom heroics of this type do happen on occasion.  

Possibly the earliest recorded incident of this type occurred during the Peloponnesian War. After fighting for several years, Athens and Sparta agreed upon a temporary truce. Instead of resting and regrouping for the renewal of hostilities with Sparta, the Athenians decided to invade Sicily and subjugate the city of Syracuse. They chose a brilliant but dissolute young man by the name of Alcibiades to lead the expedition. Shortly before the expedition was scheduled to set sail, a group of drunken young men desecrated almost all the statues of the god Hermes in the city. This was seen as a bad omen for the expedition unless the guilty parties were punished.

Accusers came forward to say that Alcibiades was the ringleader of the vandals, and public sentiment against him reached a fever pitch. Although Alcibiades was probably not above such a sacrilege, it is highly unlikely that he would do something to jinx the very expedition he commanded. Alcibiades wanted the charge disposed of before he sailed, while his political enemies agitated to put the trial off until after the expedition. Alcibiades lost his motion for a speedy trial, however, and set sail with the prospects of being prosecuted when he returned from the war.

In his absence, the case against him collapsed because of the poor quality of the testimony from Alcibiades’ accusers. The Greek biographer Plutarch described the situation in the following words: “And yet there was nothing sure or steadfast in the statements of the informers. One of them, indeed, was asked how he recognized the faces of the Hermae-defacers, and replied, ‘By the light of the moon.’ This vitiated the whole story, since there was no moon at all when the deed was done.”

The populace thirsted for vengeance, however, and a number of Alcibaides’s cronies wound up in jail. One of them, an orator named Andocides, was convicted of the sacrilege. The conviction rested less on shaky eyewitness testimony than on the fact that the only statue of Hermes which had not been defaced was the one standing in front of Andocides’s house. Modern lawyers would say that Andocides “flipped.” Upon his conviction he agreed to name his coconspirators in return for escaping the death penalty. Apparently he did not name Alcibiades, as no charge was ever brought against him for desecrating the statues of Hermes.

The enemies of Alcibiades, frustrated in their attempts to prosecute Alcibiades for a sacrilege he did not commit, discovered a sacrilege he had committed. They charged Alcibiades with the blasphemy, and we even have a copy of the indictment:
Thessalus, son of Cimon, of the deme Laciadae, impeaches Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, of the deme Scambonidae, for committing crime against the goddesses of Eleusis, Demeter and Cora, by mimicking the mysteries and showing them forth to his companions in his own house, wearing a robe such as the High Priest wears when he shows forth the sacred secrets to the initiates, and calling himself High Priest, . . . contrary to the laws and institutions of the Eumolpidae, Heralds, and Priests of Eleusis.

Having a charge they could prove against Alcibiades, his enemies were not content to continue the prosecution until he returned from the war. They had Alcibiades recalled from the fleet to stand trial for this second crime. Instead of returning to Athens, he defected to Sparta.  The Sicilian Expedition, deprived of its most dynamic leader, failed miserably. Those members of the expedition who managed to survive the military disaster were sold into slavery. When the war with Sparta resumed, a weakened Athens eventually suffered an even more disastrous defeat.
You can read the full story of the prosecution in Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades.

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