“But In Case Anything Should Happen”: Wills and Covenants in the Age of Alexander the Great

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: A section of the Gortyn law code inscription, from the 5th century BCE. (CC BY-SA 3.0), the Parthenon (CC BY 2.0), and Bust of a young Alexander the Great from the Hellenistic era

“But In Case Anything Should Happen”: Wills and Covenants in the Age of Alexander the Great

Would kings, dictators and statesmen have used Wills in the ancient Greek world to assure successions, pass down estates and document their last wishes?

‘All will be well but in case anything should happen, I make these dispositions’; thus began typical Greek Wills in the age of Alexander the Great, and so opened the Wills of both Aristotle and Theophrastus, legends of the Lyceum in Athens and contemporaries of the campaigning Macedonian king. These were not the hastily penned bequests of men dying unexpectedly, but highlighted a judicious respect for mortality in a legal system that recognized trusts, inheritances and estate planning.

A product of the Peripatetic School, Aristotle’s diatheke (Greek: διαθηκη), more literally a ‘covenant’ denoting a formal and legally binding declaration of benefits given by one party to another, did not have room for rhetoric; the testament was precise, practical, and provided for multiple scenarios. We have many other examples that demonstrate the intricacy, ceremony and sophistication that Wills had attained by the fourth century BCE, along with the challenges and frauds that accompanied them.

Leaving it Behind, Appropriately Assigned

Hipponax, an Athenian doctor, noted the arrangements of his patient, Lycophron, as his death approached: ‘He made his Will and called in his friends to witness it, and one must hope there can be no doubt about the validity, the signets attached etc, for otherwise the heirs may find themselves in a pretty lawsuit.’ Lycophron’s Will pledged his young wife and the guardianship of his daughter to a trusted bachelor friend, and it included instructions for his tomb with financial legacies to other named associates; lastly, three reliable friends were appointed as the executors. The full title of the testator – the person making the Will – was Lycophron the Marathonian, for Athenian legal documents recorded the demos – the residential district of the interested parties (each deme had its own sanctuary and founding deity) – alongside the onoma, a personal name, and the father’s name, the patronymikon. In the case of a metoikos, a foreign resident, the place of birth was required.

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