Taylor: The principle of distinction at Athens

A 2007 paper by Claire Taylor (“From the Whole Citizen Body?”, Hesperia 76, 2007) explores the composition of elected and allotted bodies in Athens.

From the Whole Citizen Body? The Sociology of Election and Lot in the Athenian Democracy

Abstract: In this article the author examines the sociology of selection procedures in the Athenian democracy. The role of election and lot within the political system, the extent (or lack) of corruption in the selection of officials, and the impact of the selection procedure on political life are considered. A comparison of selection procedures demonstrates that the lot was a relatively democratic device that distributed offices widely throughout Attica, whereas elections favored demes near the city. The reasons for these different patterns of participation are examined.

Taylor’s findings, which rely on deme-membership statistics of holders of various Athenian state offices, confirm the theoretical expectations: elections favored city demes while sortition did not.

More interestingly, decree proposers were also not concentrated in the city area.

Taylor summarizes:

The selection of officials by lot, [as opposed to elections], minimized the geographical bias of elections and allowed more citizens from other parts of Attica to participate in the political process. Since sortition was widely used while elections were comparatively scarce, Athenian political life is perhaps better characterized by the lot than by the popular vote. The lot distributed political power throughout Attica more effectively and encouraged hoi bouloumenoi to take an active part in public affairs. It was a system in which nonurban citizens could, and did, participate widely. Aristotle’s observation that the lot was a democratic element in ancient Greek politics is well substantiated by the evidence presented here.

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