Ancient and modern

Should a Good Citizen snitch on neighbours?

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

If neighbours break whatever new Covid rules might soon emerge, it has been suggested that the Good Citizen might snitch on them to the authorities. Though not perhaps our cup of tea, it was certainly the ancient Greeks’. The Athenian lawgiver Solon (594 bc) was responsible.

In the absence of a police force or a state prosecutor, Solon put the responsibility for bringing criminals to justice into the hands of citizens. They brought their complaints before legal authorities who established procedures for bringing them to court.


This was all very well when litigants had been personally harmed, but it raised a problem when the state’s, rather than the individual’s, interests were concerned (e.g. accusations of treason). Who brought the case then? Solon resolved it by arguing that the best governed state was one in which those who were not wronged were as diligent in prosecuting criminals as those who had personally suffered. So ‘anyone who wanted to’ could bring a case, and with it, the prospect of a juicy fixed reward for winning.

But then individuals — nicknamed sukophantai (our ‘sycophants’) — began using this law in ways Solon had not intended i.e. by making revenge, always a favourite Greek blood-sport, justiciable. This meant that anyone who wanted to pursue revenge but did not want to do it himself could pay a sycophant to bring, or threaten to bring, a case against his enemy to court. The only condition was that the sycophant had to be able to make the case appear personal to himself.

Comedians got plenty of laughs out of mocking sycophants who claimed, as Good Citizens, to do this ‘in order to help my beloved city to the utmost of my ability’; Athenians also tried to discourage such a vexatious ‘have-a-go’ culture by fining those who dropped a case or gained only a quarter of the jurors’ votes. But the cat was out of the bag.

And that is the problem with snitching: is it helping your beloved country or, rather, settling scores with irritating neighbours? Not quite the British way, what? One would welcome Lady Swire’s views on the matter.

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