Citizens of modern democracies have used a variety of methods and technologies to cast their votes on election day, but how did people participate in elections in ancient times? Historians have pieced together some intriguing details from Athens, the first and only direct democracy, and the Roman Republic, a quasi-democracy where the wealthiest classes wielded more influence than the workers.
In both Athens and Rome, participation in the democratic process (The Greek word dēmokratia means “people power”) was limited to the dēmos, which were free, male citizens. Women and enslaved people did not have a vote.
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Representatives Chosen by Randomizing Machine
There were very few elections in Athens, because the ancient Athenians didn’t think that elections were the most democratic way of choosing officials, says Eric Robinson, a history professor at Indiana University and editor of Ancient Greek Democracies: Readings and Sources. “For a democracy to give full power to the people to run things, and not just the wealthy, you had to choose people at random.”
To decide who would serve in the Council of 500, the chief governing body of Athens, Athenians used a system known as the sortition. There were 10 tribes in Athens and each tribe was responsible for providing 50 citizens to serve for one year in the Council of 500.
Each eligible citizen was given a personalized token and those tokens were inserted into a special machine called a kleroterion that used a long-lost technology (involving tubes and balls) to randomly select each tribe’s contribution to the council.
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In the Assembly: One Man One Vote
In Athens, all laws and court cases were decided by the Assembly (ekklēsia), a massive democratic body in which every male citizen had a say. Of the 30,000 to 60,000 citizens of Athens, roughly 6,000 regularly attended and participated in meetings of the Assembly.
The Assembly met on a natural hilltop amphitheater called Pnyx, which is derived from a Greek word meaning “tightly packed together,” and could hold between 6,000 and 13,000 people.
“The Greeks didn’t have elections in the sense that we think of them, where you either vote by mail or go to a school or church to drop off the ballot,” says Del Dickson, a political science professor at the University of San Diego and author of The People's Government: An Introduction to Democracy. “You had to be physically present. That’s where we get the word republic (res publica is Latin for ‘a public place’). You go and gather with other citizens and you decide the issues before the Assembly that day.”
The daily agenda for the Assembly was set by the Council of 500, but then all legislation and government policies were put to a vote. Voting was done by raising hands and the winner was determined by nine “presidents” (proedroi). Athenians were very careful to avoid any possibility of cheating the system.
“For example, the nine vote counters were chosen at random in the morning right before the Assembly met, so it would be really hard to bribe them,” says Robinson.
There were a few positions in Athens that were elected by the Assembly, the most prominent being the military generals. Every year, 10 generals were elected by a simple thumbs up or thumbs down vote by the full Assembly.
Stones Used as Secret Ballots
In addition to passing laws, the Assembly handed down verdicts in all criminal and civil trials in Athens. Instead of a jury of 12, Athenian juries contained anywhere from 200 to 5,000 people, says Dickson. Also, one member of the jury was randomly chosen to serve as the judge—not to have the final say, but to make sure that the rules and procedures were followed.
While other types of voting were done in public, Athenian juries cast their vote using a special kind of secret ballot involving stones.
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As Robinson explains, each juror was given two small stones, one solid and another with a hole in the middle. When it was time to vote, the juror would approach two urns. He would drop the stone with his actual verdict in the first urn and toss the unused stone in the second urn. No one watching could tell which was which.
The ancient Greek word for a small stone or pebble is psephos and survives in English as “psephology,” the statistical study of elections and voting patterns.
Special Elections for Ostracism and Exile
In Athens, if a public figure was disgraced or simply became too popular for the good of democracy, he could be exiled for 10 years through a special “ostracism” election, a word that’s derived from ostraka, the ancient Greek word for a shard of pottery.
In an ostracism election, each member of the Assembly would be handed a small piece of pottery and told to scratch down the name of someone who deserved to be exiled. “If at least 6,000 people wrote down the same name, the person with the most votes got kicked out of Athens for 10 years,” says Dickson.
One famous example is Themistokles, an Athenian military hero from the Battle of Salamis against the Persians, who was ostracized in 472 B.C. and died in exile. There’s evidence that the political enemies of Themistokles pre-etched his name on hundreds or thousands of pottery shards and distributed them to illiterate members of the Assembly.
In Sparta, an Ancient ‘Applause-o-Meter”
Athens was the largest and most powerful of the ancient Greek city-states, but each municipality practiced its own form of voting and elections, says Robinson, who wrote a book called Democracy Beyond Athens.
One example is Sparta, which wasn’t a democracy, but included some democratic elements. One of Sparta’s highest ruling bodies was the Council of Elders (gerousia), which consisted of two Spartan kings and 28 elected officials, all over 60 years old, who would hold office for life.
“To fill empty seats, Spartans held a peculiar style of shouting election,” also known as voting by acclamation, says Robinson. “Each candidate would take turns walking into a large assembly room, and people would shout and cheer their approval. In another room, hidden from view, judges would compare the volume of the shouts to choose the winners.”
Roman Elections Gave ‘Prerogative’ to the Rich
The Roman Republic carried over some of the principles of Athenian democracy, but divided up the electorate by class and created a system that advantaged the wealthy, says Dickson.
Instead of voting in one giant Assembly like Athens, the Romans had three assemblies. The first was called the Centuriate Assembly, and this body elected the highest offices in Rome, including the Consuls, Praetors and Censors, and was the assembly responsible for declaring war.
Voting in the Centuriate Assembly started with the wealthiest class and vote-counting stopped as soon as a majority of the 193-member body was reached. So if all of the rich people wanted a bill to pass, or a particular Consul to be elected, they could vote as a block and sideline the lower classes. In Latin, the privilege of voting first was called praerogativa (translated as “to ask for an opinion before another”) and is the root of the English word prerogative.
In the other two Roman assemblies, the Tribal Assembly and the Plebeian Council, voting order was determined by casting lots. “Tribes” in both Athens and Rome weren’t based on blood or ethnicity, but on the geographic region where you lived. In that way, the Tribal Assembly functioned in a similar way as the United States Senate, where each state has equal representation.
Secret Ballots and Campaigning in the Roman Republic
Some aspects of elections in the Roman Republic are still around today. Voting in the assemblies started off like the Athenian model, with each member of the assembly raising their hand and voting publicly. But over time, it became clear that wealthy “sponsors” were pressuring Roman assembly members to vote a certain way, so voting had to be done in secret.
In 139 B.C., Rome introduced a new type of secret ballot. “It was a wooden tablet with a sheet of wax on the outside,” says Robinson. “You’d write your vote on the wax sheet and then drop the whole tablet into a ballot box. The aristocracy had a snit fit about this, because they lost some of their control.”
If you think that campaign advertising is a recent annoyance, archeologists have uncovered hundreds of examples of ancient campaign ads and political graffiti scribbled on the walls of Pompeii. As for official campaigning, Dickson says that Roman office-seekers were limited to a one- or two-week campaign season, and most of it was done in-person in the public square.