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Showing Hands in Ancient Athens

In response to:

Election by Connection from the November 22, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of Philip Freeman’s translation of the electioneering pamphlet traditionally ascribed to Cicero’s brother Quintus [NYR, November 22, 2012], Mary Beard turns briefly aside to make a swipe at her fellow classicists, remarking that “the Roman nobility seem generally to have disapproved of the introduction of the secret ballot—an electoral reform unheard of in classical Athens, the supposed ‘cradle’ of Western democracy.” The reference to Athens is a surprising mistake. It’s true that Athenians in the Classical period did their voting in the Assembly by raising their arms, but in two other of their duties as voting citizens they made their choices known by ballots that were very secret indeed.

Once each year, if the Assembly determined, by majority vote, that an ostrakismos should be held, a special meeting of all citizens was summoned to which each man brought a broken piece of pottery—an ostrakon—into which he had scratched (or had someone scratch for him) the name of that politician he suspected of aiming at absolute, unconstitutional power. They dropped these ostraka into large vases, from which in the end they were removed and counted. If a quorum of six thousand of these negative votes was collected, the man whose name appeared on more of them than any other’s was required to leave Athens for ten years. (So Plutarch; but another source says six thousand ostraka had to be cast against one man.)

The other occasion was when they served, as they often did, on the large juries in their law courts. For that purpose each juror was issued two bronze tokens, one for acquittal and one for conviction; after hearing both sides in a case, he cast his vote by putting one of the two in a large pot whose contents would be counted as votes and the other in a second pot meant to hold the unused, not-to-be-counted tokens. (The tokens themselves were designed so that they could be recognized as official if a juryman held them out for inspection; yet if he held each of them by its ends, no one could see which of his two tokens was which.)

Athens was indeed the cradle of Western democracy. And in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, its citizens knew very well how to cast secret ballots, in both judicial and political contexts.

Peter M. Smith
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Mary Beard replies:

Mr. Smith is correct to point out that the Athenians used a form of secret ballot in their judicial courtrooms. Voting in ostracism could also in principle be secret: though in principle, I suspect, more than in practice. The probable level of illiteracy in classical Athens would suggest that many citizens would need outside help just to write the name of their enemy on a piece of pottery: this idea is supported by the well-known discovery of a cache of almost two hundred ostraka, each with the name of Themistokles inscribed, by what is clearly a limited number of hands (the remains of a “Get-your-Themistokles-ostrakon-here” stall?); and by Plutarch’s anecdote about Aristides, approached by an illiterate voter who asked him to write the name Aristides on an ostrakon (Aristides was so morally upright—or unthinking—that he complied).

But the basic point remains that the central political processes of the Athenian state—and the central decisions on legislation, war and peace, elections to the office of general, finance—were reached by an open show of hands. The fundamental principle that fair political decision-making depended on secret voting was established in the West by the Roman Republic (despite opposition from the vociferous conservatives); it is not something, in that sense, that we owe to the fifth-century Athenians.

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