Lots over Votes: Elections in Ancient Greece and Rome

Expressions of popular will were still constrained by an essentially oligarchic and aristocratic system.

By Dr. Jon Hesk
Reader in Classics
University of St. Andrews

As a Classicist, I am acutely aware of the dangers of idealizing Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic.  It is an oft-repeated point that the Athenians did not allow citizen women, slaves or resident non-Athenians (‘metics’) to vote on policy or in elections for their ‘generals’ (i.e politicians like Pericles).  Nor did it let them contribute to its ‘democratic’ public deliberative bodies.  In the case of Rome, recent research which shows how ‘democratic’ were its voting assemblies, at least in certain periods. But this has to be balanced with lots of evidence that expressions of popular will were still constrained by an essentially oligarchic and aristocratic system.

On the other hand, I find it hard not to get a bit idealistic about the extent to which the Athenians relied on ‘lots’ (sortition) rather than vote-based elections when it came to populating their Council (Boule).  This 500-strong body was responsible for the day-to-day running of the city’s affairs and met every day outside holidays and ‘days of ill omen’.   It was a paid job to be a member of the Council.  However, the world expert on this material, Peter Rhodes, argues that the considerable  time commitment resulted in a disproportionate number of richer citizens actually serving.  A new Council was appointed by lot every year and the eligibility of those whose names came up was audited by the outgoing Councillors.

A kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum (Athens) / Photo by Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons

The ‘sortition’ process for the Council was regulated so that the city’s different demes and tribes were always equally and fairly represented.  But it was not fully democratic even within Athens’ own restricted definition of  ‘rule by the people’ (demokratia). It seems that until the second half of the fourth century, the city’s poorest property class (the ‘thetes’) were not eligible, even though they had voting rights in the bigger popular assembly whose business was steered by the Council.  And membership was restricted in other ways too: you had to be 30 or over; you  could not serve if you had been convicted of certain crimes; by the fourth-century you couldn’t do more than two years on the Council in a lifetime.

The question of whether this ‘sortition’ system was a strength or weakness of the Athenian democracy will always be debated, not least because it is hard to decide the criteria for such a state’s ‘success’  in the first place.  (Do we measure a democracy’s success by its performance and longevity relative to non-democratic systems or do we just think about the happiness and flourishing of its citizens?).   Sortition certainly didn’t prevent Athens from making some terrible mistakes or from suffering two brief oligarchic coups.   But it is fairly clear that ‘lots’ did wonders for fostering political expertise and commitment beyond the confines of a narrow elite. It prevented an ancient version of  the modern ‘democratic deficit’ and ‘alienation from politics’ from taking hold.

In the Greek states voting was used in councils, assemblies, and lawcourts; appointments were made by election or by allotment (see sortition) or sometimes by a combination of the two. In Athens and elsewhere psēphisma (from psēphos, ‘voting-stone’) became the standard word for a decree of the council (boulē) or assembly (ekklēsia), and cheirotonia (‘raising hands’) was used for elections; but in Athens voting was normally by show of hands (not precisely counted) in the council and assembly both for decrees and for elections, but by ballot in the lawcourts. Ballots seem first to have been used on occasions when a count was necessary to ensure that a quorum was achieved, but by the end of the 5th cent. bc it had been realized that voting by ballot could be secret voting. In Sparta voting by acclamation survived to the Classical period for elections and for decrees of the assembly. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods some decrees of some states report numbers of votes cast for and against.

Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council. From Figures de l’histoire de la république romaine accompagnées d’un précis historique Plate 127, by Silvestre David Mirys / Wikimedia Commons

At Rome adult male citizens had the right to vote to elect the annual magistrates, to make laws, to declare war and peace, and, until the development of the public courts in the late republic, to try citizens on serious charges. But the remarkable feature of the Roman system was that matters were never decided by a simple majority. Votes were always cast in assigned groups, so that a majority of individual votes decided the vote of each group, and a majority of groups decided the vote of the assembly as a whole. The three groupings of the curiae (curia (1)), centuries (centuria), and tribes (tribus) made up the different types of comitia.

In the two important comitia the overall procedures for voting were similar. Cicero (Pro Flacco 15) noted that Romans considered matters and voted standing up, whereas the Greeks sat down. The vote was preceded by a contio, a public meeting, to present the issues or the candidates involved. The presiding magistrate dissolved this by the command to the citizens to disperse (discedere) into the areas roped off for each group. From their enclosures the groups of citizens proceeded, when called, across raised gangways (pontes), erected at the site of the assembly.

Originally each voter was asked orally for his vote by one of the officials (rogatores), who put a mark (punctum) against the appropriate name or decision on his official tablet. From 139 to 107 bc a series of four laws introduced the secret ballot. Now the voter was handed a small boxwood tablet covered in wax on which he recorded his vote with a stylus. In most cases a single letter was sufficient: in legislation, V for assent (uti rogas) and A for dissent (antiquo); in judicial cases L for acquittal (libero) and C for condemnation (condemno); in elections the voter was expected to write the names for himself (M. Porcius Cato (2) is supposed to have rejected many votes clearly written in the same hand, Plutarch Cato Minor 46). The completed tablet was then dropped into a tall wickerwork voting-urn (cista) under the control of guardians (custodes), who forwarded it to the tellers (diribitores).

The process of casting the vote is illustrated on a coin of P. Licinius Nerva of the late 2nd cent. bc. In the comitia centuriata people voted successively, class by class, and the results were announced as they went along. In the comitia tributa successive voting was used in legislative and judicial assemblies, but simultaneous voting probably in elections. This may explain why legislative assemblies regularly took place in a variety of places, some quite restricted, such as the forum Romanum, Capitol, and Circus Flaminius (see circus), while the large spaces of the Campus Martius were needed for elections. It was here that Caesar planned a huge building, the Julian Enclosures (Saepta Iulia), to house the electoral process. The project was continued by the triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus (3) and completed in 26 bc under Augustus by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also responsible for beginning a connected building to house the tellers (the Diribitorium).

The lot played a vital role in the electoral process. It was used to pick the tribe (designated as the principium) or the century (centuria praerogativa) which voted first and provided a lead for the other voters. The lot also determined the order of voting by the tribes or the order in which the votes were announced. This was important, because the first candidates to achieve a simple majority of the groups were declared elected up to the number of posts available, even though they might not have polled the largest number of votes, if all the votes of all the groups had been counted.

The significance for Roman politics of this elaborate and time-consuming voting process has often been played down by historians. However, the great lengths to which members of the élite went to win votes (see Commentariolum petitionis) is testimony to the fact that the voting assemblies represent a truly democratic element in republican Rome. (See democracy, non-Athenian.) In typical Roman fashion the voting procedures, in a modified form, remained under the Principate, even when the substantive decision-making had passed to the emperor and the senate.

Originally published by Dr. John Hesk, University of St. Andrews, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.