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Justice in Dark-Age Life

Aristocratic men dominated the distribution of justice in Dark Age society. They exercised direct control over their family members and household servants. Others outside their immediate households would become their followers by acknowledging the aristocrats' status as leaders. An aristocrat's followers would grant him a certain amount of authority because, as the followers were roughly equal in wealth and status among themselves, they needed a figure invested with authority to settle disputes and organize defense against raids or other military threats. In anthropological terms, aristocrats operated as chiefs of bands1. An aristocratic chief had authority to settle arguments over property and duties, oversaw the distribution of rewards and punishments, and usually headed the religious rituals deemed essential to the security of the group. At the same time, a chief's actual power to coerce unwilling members of his band was limited. When decisions affecting the entire group had to be made, his leadership depended on being capable of forging a consensus by persuading members of the band about what to do. The poet Hesiod describes how an effective chief exercised leadership: “When his people in their assembly get on the wrong track, he gently sets matters right, persuading them with soft words.”2 In short, a chief could only lead his followers where they were willing to go.

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