The lottery of Greek democracy

The BBC History Magazine, “Britain’s bestselling history magazine”, has a recent short article called “The lottery of Greek democracy” by Michael C. Scott.

Interestingly, despite its title, the article manages to mention the use of chance solely for nominating juries, avoiding any mention of sortition.

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.

[ Description of the workings of a Kleroterion. ]

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.


7 Responses

  1. I think this is a misunderstanding — the juries that are being referred to are fundamentally political juries.


  2. I am not sure what you mean – misunderstanding by whom?


  3. Possibly both — as the Athenian peoples courts (dikasteria) increasingly became an important part of the legislative process, especially after the fourth-century innovation of the nomothetai. The selection of jurors is a good example of Athenian-style sortition in action.

    The separation between the judiciary and the legislature is a modern innovation — it’s an anachronism to view the institutions of Athenian democracy from a Montesquieu perspective. Indeed Hansen has recently argued that the whole concept of the separation of powers is deeply unhelpful (M.H. Hansen, The Mixed Constitution versus the Separation of Powers, History of Political Thought, forthcoming)



  4. Even if you are right (which I don’t think you are, see below), Scott’s audience would surely interpret “juries” in its modern role.

    Regarding the political role of the courts: The nomothetai were a body clearly differentiated from the courts. I don’t think that the roles of the bodies of government were any less differentiated in Athens than they are in modern states.

    I seem to remember that the idea of separation of powers (i.e. differentiation between the different roles of the legislature, the magistrates and the courts) appears in Aristotle’s Politics in one way or another. That doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a good idea, of course.

    Separation of powers has been blown up into a major part of modern “liberal-democracy” ideology, mainly, I think, since it supposedly functions as a check on the concentration of power in government. As usual, of course, weakening government increases the power of non-governmental powerful players.


  5. The nomothetai were a direct descendant of the dikasteria. The former tried cases that had a clear public interest element; the latter tried laws using skilled advocates and an allotted jury. The notion that legislation was an adversarial process was incorporated into the (UK) ‘High Court of Parliament’, where laws are indeed subject to adversarial trial (the only problem being that the jury has already been “nobbled” in advance, so it’s more like a Stalinist show trial).

    Although the modern doctrine of the separation of powers was intended to function as a check on the concentration of power in government, it doesn’t work, hence Hansen’s call for a return to the classical notion of the mixed constitution. I’ll do a post on this after the article is published (next month).



  6. […] The reference to History magazine is apparently with regard to an item which Google Alerts caught back in July. […]


  7. […] As usual, the presentation is made in such a way as to imply that sortition was used solely in the courts, eliding its more crucial, and less familiar, roles in government. […]


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