The lottery of Greek democracy


Visitors to Greece often miss the Epigraphical museum in central Athens. Indeed the last time I went in there, the guards stopped me in the doorway, saying “you do know this is not the National Archaeological museum don’t you?” They looked almost surprised when I told them that I was aware and still wanted to enter.


It’s not really surprising – what is epigraphy after all? It’s the study of texts inscribed on anything except papyrus – that means texts inscribed on stone, pottery, marble and bronze amongst other things. Do such texts matter? Emphatically, yes. Many ancient Greek cities inscribed all sorts of public documents on stone and bronze, while many individual ancient Greeks inscribed texts of every kind of pottery as well as on stone.

Lists of casualties, official treasury figures, honours to particular citizens, names of those voted out of Athens, commemoration of the dead, laws, decrees, oaths and honours to the gods amongst many other subjects can be found inscribed in the Epigraphical museum. All these texts are a fabulous window into both the official and very personal workings of ancient Greek society. To walk through the Epigraphical museum is to immerse yourself in one of the key ways in which the ancient city of Athens presented itself to itself and to the wider world.

My favourite item in the Epigraphical museum is in fact not an inscription per se, but actually a machine made originally of wood and stone: the kleroterion. A what? A kleroterion was used to ensure absolute randomness in the allocation of particularly important civic positions, in particular the allocation of men to juries that sat in the many Athenian court rooms.

The machine is simple to operate. Holes in the stone, cut in several vertical lines, held the ‘tokens’ of each potential dikast or juror (see the photos for the kleroterion in the Epigraphical museum and a reconstruction of one). A wooden tube was held in place next to the lines of tokens. A series of white and black balls were put into a funnel at the top of the wooden tube and allowed to percolate down its length. The horizontal lines of dikast tickets that ran opposite where one coloured set of balls had landed (we are not sure if the Athenians used the black or white balls as the ‘picking’ colour), were chosen to act as jurymen for that day.

This machine was, in essence, just like the lottery machines used in so many national lotteries in countries around the world today. It provided the Athenians with a definitive way of ensuring that the important organs of their system of democracy were not tainted by corruption. This machine, combined with the fact that most juries were 500 people strong, made bribing juries in advance a practical impossibility and helped reassure the citizens of Athens that when a decision was made, it was made on the strength of the arguments alone. The kleroterion is thus a remarkable testament to a remarkable civilization.


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos