Is There Democracy Without Voting? Elections by Lot in Ancient Athens

The ancient Athenians believed that randomness was an expression of true democracy. In Athens, election by lot guaranteed equality of opportunity and chance.

Oct 24, 2023By Miljan Vasic, MA Philosophy, BA Philosphy

elections in ancient athens democracy


Why do we tend to favor democracy over other forms of political governance? Is it because democracy treats all citizens fairly and equally, which makes democratic decisions inherently good? Or is it because certain political decisions possess inherent superiority, and democracy is simply the most reliable method of making them? In other words, do good democratic decisions derive their goodness from their democratic nature, or are they democratically made because they are good? The philosopher David Estlund calls this question Euthyphro’s dilemma of democracy. And, like many other philosophical questions, we can trace this one back to Ancient Greece. There is no better place to look for an answer than the cradle of democracy itself: ancient Athens.


The Birth of Democracy

constantidis acropolis athens
The Acropolis, D. Constantidis, c. 1880-1890 CE, via Royal Collection Trust


According to Aristotle, the Athenian polis was one of the largest in the Hellenic world. While there were common features shared by all poleis, there were also numerous differences in terms of size, location, economic activities, rules, laws, and more. Despite these differences, however, many city-states had their own (more or less) permanent political structures that were specific to certain groups of poleis. Thus, we can observe the coexistence of democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies in Ancient Greece. These city-states were bordered by a non-Hellenic world, which included the great empires of Egypt and Persia.


The Greek poleis were constantly changing due to population growth, economic activities, colonization, wars, famines, and epidemics. Additionally, internal political frictions, conflicts, and clashes between different factions also contributed to these changes. Each faction had its own vision of the ideal organization of the community, which they sought to impose on others. Since the inception of Athenian democracy and the various reforms introduced by Solon and Cleisthenes, lawmakers made significant efforts to restrain these factions. All efforts to further democratize Athenian institutions aimed to reduce factionalism among the different tribes.


In the end, Athens had settled on ten geographically devised tribes. Each tribe consisted of members from three opposing political factions, and no faction could attain a majority within a single tribe. Over time, the Athenian state aimed to cultivate a sense of belonging to a particular tribe among its citizens. It was expected that members of the same tribe would cooperate, both in times of peace and during times of war. Therefore, Athenian democracy emerged as a collective endeavor to eradicate the potential concentration of political power in the hands of a single individual or a small group.

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Democratic Institutions of Athens

Pericles addressing the assembly. Philip von Foltz, c. 19th century CE, via Harper College


The highest political body of the Athenian democracy was the assembly (ekklesia), comprising all adult citizens. Unlike most modern democracies, in the Athenian assembly, every citizen had the direct ability to decide on all matters concerning the daily life of the polis. Each participant enjoyed the freedom of speech and the right to propose legislation. In practice, this meant that anyone could come forward with proposals, criticize the actions of officials, or challenge existing laws. More significant decisions usually required a quorum of approximately 6,000 citizens. However, the executive power rested with the boule, a council consisting of 500 citizens, with 50 representatives from each tribe. The new council was chosen every year, and each citizen could serve in a boule only twice in their lifetime. This is where we face another big departure from contemporary practices. Instead of voting-based elections, the Athenians employed a method called “sortition”, or election by lot. They utilized the same process to select juries for public courts.


The Acropolis of Athens, Leo Von Klenze, 1846, via Neue Pinakothek


Recall the dilemma presented at the beginning of this article. Here, we can see that Athenian democracy cherished both ways of defending what we may call democratic legitimacy. Its institutions were designed with the goal of ensuring equality among all citizens (although the criteria for citizenship were highly exclusive and discriminatory). But they also believed that democracy tends to produce high-quality decisions. And even Aristotle, who was not always fond of democracy, claimed that crowds of people produce better decisions when compared to a single politician, due to their diversity of perspectives. And so, the Athenians placed great importance on procedural fairness, with sortition being seen as the embodiment of their concept of fair and just selection, and a way of ensuring diversity. The entire process was facilitated through the use of a device called the kleroterion.


Kleroterion: How Did the Machine Work?

aristotle roman marble bust
The Bust of Aristotle, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus from 330 BCE, via Britannica


Aristotle provides us with a detailed description of the kleroterion. In the past century, scholars were uncertain whether Aristotle was referring to an actual object or a room, which led to numerous inaccurate translations. However, the discovery of several fragments of such devices dispelled any doubts. It is now evident that the Athenians did employ a sophisticated machine for the selection of government officials. Thanks to Aristotle’s description and archaeological evidence, the device has been successfully reconstructed, allowing us to precisely understand its appearance and functionality.


The machine consisted of one or more stone slabs containing numerous slots divided into columns. Each column represented one of the ten Athenian tribes and was labeled with a corresponding letter of the alphabet. Each eligible citizen who wanted to be a councilman (or a juror, or some other state official, depending on the type of election), possessed a token called a pinakion, which was used for their identification.


pinakion bronze athens
A bronze pinakion. 4th century BCE, via Louvre Collections


Although Aristotle stated that pinakia were made of boxwood, the surviving pieces we have today are made of bronze. Each pinakion was engraved with the name and tribe of the corresponding citizen, serving as a type of ancient ID card.


The process of selection by the kleroterion was run by ten overseers, one from each tribe. Their role was to collect the pinakia belonging to their tribesmen and arrange them in the appropriate column. Once all the tiles were lined up, the actual selection process could commence.


A crucial component of the kleroterion was a narrow tube with a funnel-shaped extension at the top. The overseers would insert a specific number of white and black bronze dice through the funnel, allowing them to arrange themselves randomly inside the tube. The number of dice used depended on the ratio between the total number of citizens and the number being elected. For instance, if they were to choose 100 representatives from a pool of 300 citizens, they would need 30 dice — ten white and twenty black.


kleroterion marble fragment athens
The kleroterion fragment. 5th century BCE, via Museum of the Ancient Agora


Using a mechanism consisting of two wedges, the operator of the machine released the dice one by one through the lower end of the tube. Each dice determined the fate of one row in the kleroterion. If a black dice was drawn, the entire row was eliminated; if it was white, the entire row was selected. Since each row contained exactly one representative from each tribe, this procedure ensured that, regardless of the outcome, all tribes would always have equal representation.


Fate Against Corruption

achilles and ajax amphora
Achilles and Ajax playing with dice, c. 530 BCE, via The British Museum


We must emphasize some of the consequences of election by lot. Firstly, the Athenians regarded randomness as an embodiment of true democracy. Sortition not only ensured equality of opportunity but also provided equality of chance. It nullified any material, rhetorical, or other advantages one might possess in the political arena. Secondly, the lottery eliminated the possibilities of pre-election manipulation. It was impossible to bribe voters when no voting was involved. Athenians were not alone in this practice; the Spartans were also known to employ it. In Sparta, voting served only to narrow down the number of potential candidates, while the winners were ultimately decided by lot. Thus, although the popular vote played a role in the process, attempting to buy votes was futile since no one could guarantee election victory through voting alone.


The third important point is that the use of the kleroterion was a public event. The Athenians typically placed a high value on openness and transparency in all spheres of public life. The very idea of a secret lottery would have been repugnant to them. Lastly, despite the Ancient Greeks’ reputation as mathematicians and their fondness for various games of chance, they never developed a theory of probability. They attributed any event whose causes could not be reliably predicted to the will of the gods.


thumann the fates
The Three Fates, by Paul Thumann, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Ancient Greeks believed in fate and held prophecies in high regard. According to their worldview, being chosen by the kleroterion simply fulfilled something predetermined long ago. Hence, sortition was not seen as a way of generating a random outcome; rather, it signified a decision that someone else had already made on their behalf. The act of playing dice was believed to have originated from fortune-telling through bone-throwing. Similarly, the Athenians placed their faith in the kleroterion because it provided another means of deciphering one’s fate. If one was destined to be a public official, their appointment was universally accepted. Therefore, the Athenians employed democracy as a safeguard against human imperfections. To err is human, but a decision made by the gods could not possibly be wrong.


Should We Try to Use the Kleroterion Today?

kleroterion reconstructed ure museum
A reconstruction of the kleroterion, via Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, University of Reading


Some contemporary theorists propose the concept of voting lotteries which would grant suffrage to a randomly selected group of citizens. If this random group is a representative sample of the entire population, their decision would only slightly deviate from the one made by the entire electorate. This could save a significant amount of time and money and make mass participation less necessary. Other proposals involve implementing a modern kleroterion that would randomly choose public officials from a pool of citizens. Similar to the ancient kleroterion that ensured an equal representation of all Athenian tribes, we could achieve a much better representation of specific demographic groups in public institutions in comparison to modern elections by vote.


Should we expect changes in our political decision-making processes in the future? Is the new kleroterion on its way? The answer is likely not. We must remember that the ancient tradition of democracy differs fundamentally from the modern one. The ancient ideals of direct democracy and election by lot, even if attainable, may appear as foreign to contemporary citizens as representative democracy would to an ancient Athenian. Even if we assume that randomly selecting officials would have positive effects in today’s context, it would need to be implemented in a much more technologically advanced manner. However, in a world where electronic voting remains insecure, the notion of choosing public officials through an electronic device seems like a nightmarish proposal. Even if such a system was completely reliable, many would still have doubts. Nonetheless, we should admire the ingenuity of the ancient Athenians and we are free to imagine how our world might look today if we attempted to live according to the democratic ideals of their time.

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By Miljan VasicMA Philosophy, BA PhilosphyMiljan is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy whose primary areas of research include political philosophy, social epistemology, and the history of social choice. He is especially interested in various quirks of democracy, both ancient and modern. He holds BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from the University of Belgrade.