Voting In Ancient Athens

In our world, many of us belong to bodies such as choral societies or sports clubs, where we vote to elect officers and make decisions, but the voting which we first think of is voting to elect people to represent us in Parliament and local councils.

 In ancient Athens the citizens — free, native, adult and male, as everywhere in the world until recently — had many opportunities for voting, but they voted more often to make decisions than to elect representatives. This is partly because government, of the whole of Athens and of its smaller units, was done directly by mass meetings, not indirectly through bodies of representatives; and partly because, where representatives were used, for civilian positions they were nearly always picked not by election but by a lottery, on the assumption that what was needed was simply a good citizen rather than an expert. (But the Athenians realised that military commanders needed to be men whom they could trust, and they did elect them.)

For the city of Athens it was an assembly open to all the citizens which made decisions on a wide range of subjects: peace, war and alliances, honours for foreigners and for citizens, taxes, religion, public buildings and so on. It had forty regular meetings a year and could have extra meetings when needed. Attendance was typically 6,000 or so: about 10% of the citizens in the fifth century, 20% in the fourth, after losses from the Peloponnesian War and the great plague. A meeting could last some hours, and could involve ten, twenty or more separate votes. Usually citizens voted by lifting up their hands. Counting thousands of hands accurately would have been impossible, and the Athenians did not try. Every decision will have been between two possibilities: do we pass the proposal or reject it? do we prefer option A or option B? do we elect this man or move on to the next candidate? The presiding officials will simply have judged which side was preferred by the majority, and if that was not clear they perhaps took a second vote and hoped that enough ‘floating voters’ would float to produce a clear majority then. Smaller bodies, such as the local assemblies of particular demes (villages), voted in the same way.

Occasionally the assembly voted by ballot, on decisions about a particular person which needed at least 6,000 votes to make them valid. In the fourth century, when a foreigner was made an Athenian citizen, that decision was first made by raising hands, but it had to be confirmed by a ballot at the next meeting. It seems that the Greeks first used ballots in cases like this, when the ballots made it possible to count and check that there were at least 6,000 votes, and they realised only later that voting by ballot could be secret voting, in which other people could not see how you voted.

Athens’ lawcourts were notoriously busy. Even in the fourth century, when most cases of private disputes between particular people went to a court only if the loser appealed against a magistrate’s original decision, the courts met on about 200 days in the year. They had large juries: at least 201 men, and a larger number for the more important cases. The jurors in the courts voted by ballot, so that they could vote secretly and their votes could be counted. By the fourth century the Athenians had specially-made voting tokens: a disc with an axle running through it. For each vote a juror was given two tokens, one with a solid axle and one with a hollow axle, and if he held the ends of the axles between finger and thumb he could feel which was which but other people could not see which was which. The hollow token was used to vote for the prosecutor and the solid token was used to vote for the defendant. After listening to the speeches, without any chance for discussion, the jurors went forward to vote, and dropped the token which was to count into a bronze jar, and the token which was not to count into a wooden box. In some cases (such as the trial of Socrates) there was not a fixed penalty but the prosecutor and defendant each had to propose what they thought would be a suitable penalty. In these cases the jurors then voted again, to choose between the two proposals.

Once a year, in an ordinary decision of the assembly, the Athenians decided whether or not to hold an ostracism, a procedure which led to one man’s being sent into a kind of honourable exile for ten years without being proved guilty of any wrongdoing. It was normally used to choose between rival political leaders, so that the winner stayed in Athens and the loser was got out of his way. When an ostracism was held, there was a special voting session in the agora, the main square of the city. There was no list of candidates, but each voter wrote (or had somebody else write for him) on an ostrakon, a fragment of pottery, the name of the man he most wanted to remove; and as long as there were at least 6,000 votes the man with the most votes had to go. A few men voted against private enemies, but men who attracted large numbers of votes were public figures. Several thousand of these ostraka survive. Most voters wrote simply a man’s name, sometimes adding his father’s name or the name of his deme (the usual way to distinguish between men with the same personal name), but a few added a comment, such as ‘Callixenus the traitor’. No ostracism was actually held after about 415, when it was expected that the real choice would be between the rival politicians Nicias and Alcibiades, but they colluded so that the man with the most votes was Hyperbolus, who had proposed the ostracism. Prosecuting a man in the lawcourts was thought to be more reliable.

P. J. Rhodes FBA is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, Durham University.