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.