Voting with psephoi (pebbles) in a scene from the Wine Cup with the Suicide of Ajax (detail), about 490 B.C., attributed to the Brygos Painter. Red-figured kylix made in Athens. Terracotta, 4 7/16 in. high x 12 3/8 in. diam. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.286
One of the earliest artistic depictions of voting, from 490 BCE
By Annelisa Stephan / 11.06.2012
This Greek wine cup from the 5th century B.C. offers one of the earliest depictions of voting in art. As the Trojan War rages, Greek chieftains are forced to choose between the competing claims of heroes Ajax and Odysseus to a momentous prize, the armor of the fallen warrior Achilles. So they do what comes naturally to the fathers of democracy. They vote.
The small dots on either side of the pedestal in the detail shown above represent stones heaped in two mounds for Odysseus and Ajax. The number of pebbles on Ajax’s side, at right, falls short of the more politically savvy Odysseus’s by one, causing Ajax to grasp his head in despair. This loss is the backstory for the tragic scene portrayed inside the cup, where we see Ajax fallen in agony on his sword.
The pain of losing by one vote: Following Ajax’s suicide, his lover Tekmessa drapes his fallen body.
Voting with pebbles? Even allowing for artistic license, it seems the Greeks really did it this way. Voters deposited a pebble into one of two urns to mark their choice; after voting, the urns were emptied onto counting boards for tabulation. The principle of secret voting was established by at least the 5th century B.C., and Athenians may have used a contraption to obscure the urn into which a voter was placing his hand. In ancient Greece a pebble was called a psephos, which gives us the dubious term psephology, the scientific study of elections.
Another modern word, ballot, preserves this ancient history of bean-counting: it comes from medieval French ballotte, a small ball.