Athenian Democracy in the British Museum

I recently visited the British Museum and found that among the hundreds of displays devoted to the ancient Greek world and specifically to ancient Athens, there is one display box titled “Democracy”.

The box contains, among other items, a storage jar dated 490-480 depicting Theseus (“credited with the invention of democracy”), a drinking cup dated 490-480 depicting Athena watching over the Greeks at Troy as they vote to decide whether Ajax or Odysseus should receive the arms of the dead Achilles, and several jurymen pinakia, such as the one below, which belonged to one Archilochos of Phaleron and is dated 370-362.

The box carries the following description:

Classical Athens was the world’s first democracy. The tyrants who had ruled the city for some 50 years were expelled at the end of the 6th century BC and, from 460 onwards, all male Athenian citizens governed law and politics by debating and voting in a popular assembly. State offices and legal juries were filled by drawing lots. Not everyone, however, was included in this democracy, and women, resident foreigners and slaves were excluded. Nevertheless, Athenian democracy was a starting point for the development of modern democracies.

It is interesting that despite the mention of the practice of sortition in Athens, the text endorses the conventional modern view of equating democracy with elections and equating democratic progress with  the widening of electoral rights.

6 Responses

  1. Hope you enjoyed the spectacular display of loot in the British Museum, especially the Elgin marbles!
    At least the description mentioned ‘drawing lots’, although without explaining how. The pinakia was the citizen’s id tag and slotted into the kleroterion, so the BM has only one element of the process.
    For a full set of lottery selection equipment you need to visit Athens: In the Agora is the Stoa (re-constructed thanks to American funding) where there are exhibits relating to democracy, including a large fragment of a kleroterion.

    I know other examples of our sacred symbol, the kleroterion, have been found. But does anyone know of any others on display?


  2. They have a whole story about how the marbles they stole are now better preserved than those they didn’t so it is all for the good.


  3. BTW, the caption for the pinakia does mention, somewhat cryptically, the use of “an allotment machine”. It says:

    Jurymen’s tickets

    Every year 6,000 Athenian served as jurymen in law courts. They were allocated to court cases by putting a bronze ticket with their name and district into an allotment machine. Athenian trials had hundreds of jurors but no judges, and the verdict was reached by majority vote.


  4. It sounds like the exhibit emphasized the connection between democracy and the assembly, rather than democracy and sortition. And that’s not a crazy position. A number of people (J.W. Headlam, for example) have argued that the primary purpose of Athenian sortition was to preserve the supremacy of the assembly–by preventing the development of a bureaucratic/professional cadre with an institutionalized power base. This position definitely plays down the idea that there’s anything particularly democratic about sortition.


  5. Even if we accept the standard equation for antiquity,

    Athens + democracy = assembly,

    the facility of jumping from that equation to the standard modern equation,

    democracy = elections,

    given that in antiquity elections were considered oligarchical (and were the main tool of representation in Sparta, for example), and, having mentioned sortition, ignoring its disappearance, is remarkable.

    BTW, your point that Headlam’s argument is an attempt to account for sortition without disrupting the standard equation for antiquity is very interesting. It is a good way of explaining why he chose this idea, despite the its rather obvious problems.


  6. Both Aristotle and Herodotus make sortition (not the assembly) the identifying characteristic of democracy.


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