Paul Demont on Allotment and Democracy in Ancient Greece

A very good article, originally in French, now translated:

“Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot” (Plato, Republic VIII, 557a). “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot, and as oligarchic when they are filled by election” (Aristotle, Politics IV. 9, 1294b8). “The characteristics of democracy are as follows: the election of officers by all out of all; and that all should rule over each, and each in his turn over all; that the appointment to all offices, or to all but those which require experience and skill, should be made by lot” (Aristotle, Politics VI. 2, 1317b17-21). This feature of ancient democracy, much commented upon by ancients and moderns alike, must be contextualized. Allotment was a common procedure for making choices in all ancient societies, democratic or not, and in Greek society of the archaic and classic periods, it often had a religious importance. Mogens H. Hansen denies this fact, in order to refute Fustel de Coulanges, who gave a fundamental place to the religious foundation of the ancient city: he observes about democratic allotment that “there is not a single reliable source that clearly proved that selection of officeholders by lot originally had a religious importance”. Here I should like to take up this question again. Allotment, considered to be an act of choosing by a divinity, plays an important role in aristocratic and predemocratic societies. In spite of what Plato and Aristotle held, it is not, in my view, allotment that defines democracy, not even ancient democracy; it is rather the establishment of democracy that gradually gives a democratic meaning to the practice of allotment in political affairs.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the paper. I wonder if the connection between democracy and sortition requires, as Demont suggests, that all offices be allocated by lot among the entire population. Demont seems to think that when certain offices were restricted to certain social classes, then to that extent the system was undemocratic (p. 6). I’m wondering if that’s true. My understanding is that in the post-Cleisthenes era, a number of offices had to go to richer citizens either because 1) the citizen had to spend a lot of his own money (e.g., the sponsor of a new ship or chorus), or 2) the citizen had charge of public resources, and if he screwed up, the shortfall could be taken out of his own pocket.

    I guess this possibility dovetails with the argument made by John McCormick in recent years–that formal political equality is compatible with immense discrepancies in actual political power, and that institutions that do not formally treat people equally (e.g., separate decision-making bodies for the rich and for the poor) might work better at realizing meaningful political equality. Not sure I buy the idea, but there is a logic to it.

    Finally, I am a bit concerned that Demont might be running together two ideas. First, that the gods smiled upon the use of sortition under the right circumstances. Second, that the gods used sortition in order to indicate their preferred option. I gather that Fustel de Coulange affirmed, and Hansen denies, that the democratic Athenians believed the second of these ideas. But Hansen could be right, and it might still be the case that the Athenians believed the first throughout the democratic era. That would be no more surprising than an American believing that God has some special affection for American democracy. (If He does, then He better get His butt in gear, because we could use all the help we can get right now.)


  2. Agree with you, Peter on the link between religious observances and lotteries. Demont makes *too* much from the incantations etc. which accompanied lot-casting. Just because christians say Grace before meals, doesn’t make a meal a religious observance; similarly with the ancient Greeks.

    Two other points though:

    I *very* much liked the example of peace-bringing at Nakone, Sicily, where the top 30 fanatics from each side were paired randomly and told to be ‘brothers’. Now could that be a benefit in Northern Ireland? Israel/Palastine?

    Kleroterions: Lots of interesting detail in Demont’s paper about our favourite artifact, but I’ve only ever seen one (fragment at the Agora Museum Athens). Where else can we see kleroterions? Are there any pictures available (including those with inscriptions on the back)?


  3. Fustel was a mountebank.


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