Add a Comment to this Note (list members only)
Dead medium: Information Technology of Ancient Athens, Part One
From: (Julian Dibbell)

Source(s): Exhibits and literature of the Agora Museum in Athens, Greece, including the pamphlets "The Athenian Citizen" (revised 1987); "Life, Death and Litigation in the Athenian Agora" (1994); "Graffiti in the Athenian Agora" (revised 1988); and "Socrates in the Agora" (1978), published and sold as Picture Books No. 4, 23, 14, and 17 by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, c/o Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.

(((bruces remarks: Julian Dibbell's following five-part essay on Athenian political technology reveals a long-dead media world of kleroteria, allotment tokens, bronze and wooden juror tickets, tagging ropes, water clocks, bronze juror ballots, ostraka, steles, monumental bulletin boards, axones, and tile standards. Mr. Dibbell's most recent book is the forthcoming *MY TINY LIFE: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World* (Henry Holt, New York, 1998).)))

The Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy

By Julian Dibbell

Part One: Introduction

If any of you are on your way to or through Greece in the near future, may I suggest you make a beeline for the Agora Museum, on the site of the excavated ancient Agora, the original Athenian marketplace and civic center, where it all went down, birth-of-Western-Civilization-wise, in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.? The museum is, I assure you, a Dead Media treasure trove.

Yes, let the package tours deliver their waves upon waves of sweat-drenched, awe-struck retirees unto the easy wonders of the sacred Acropolis; we Necronauts are made of more discriminating stuff. Many were the baffled Northern European backpackers I saw walk past the Agora Museum's rows and rows of graffiti-encrusted potsherds (broken bits of ceramic on which the Athenians scratched random notes to themselves and others), struggling to grasp why good foundation-dollars had been squandered on collecting and presenting so arrant a pile of junk.

But who among us could stand before that same pile and not shiver with the awareness that we had stumbled upon the ancient precursor of the Post-it Note (TM)? I for one got goose bumps.

For me, however, the greatest thrill == and here I speak sincerely == was the museum's ample collection of inventions devoted to the efficient daily management of one of the ancient world's most complicated social entities: Athenian democracy.

I suppose this has been written about elsewhere, but it hadn't really occurred to me before how novel == and in many ways still historically unique == a form of social organization Athens came up with. This was participatory democracy on a large scale and a broad base: every citizen (i.e., every free adult male) was a member of the Assembly that debated and voted on all matters of policy; every citizen could be expected at some point in his life to be called up for a year of service on the Council of 500 that drew up the measures the Assembly voted on; juries were made up of 200 citizens at a time; and prosecutors were pretty much anybody who felt exercised enough to bring suit on behalf of the People.

Qualities of leadership were of course admired and rewarded, but in general, random selection seemed to play as much of a role in filling civic positions as election did. The implication being, I guess, that the Athenians felt their system had enough checks, balances, and redundancy built into it to overcome the failings or excessive strivings of any single participant.

For perhaps the first time in history, in other words, the political was in principle no longer the personal. The notion of the abstract citizen was born, and a momentous birth it was, full of weighty implications for the philosophy of politics in general and for the history of the modern, post-Enlightenment state in particular.

But if you didn't learn all that back in school, I can't help you now. Our interest here is rather in the practical problems this new conception of politics posed for the Athenians == and in the technological solutions they came up with.

In engineering terms, the overarching problem the Athenians were faced with was not a unique one. It was a problem as old, in fact, as the construction of the ancient Mesopotamian irrigation system (one of the world's first great engineering projects) and as modern as the design of integrated circuitry: it was a problem of flow.

Unlike the more autocratic forms of government that had been the hallmark of civilization hitherto, Athenian democracy depended for its legitimacy on a constant, high- volume circulation of individuals in and out of public offices. It was this channeled flow that made the system both impersonal and representative. Without the static structure of the offices to shape the flow, after all, the people's will would have been no more coherent than a mob's. Without the bodies of the entire citizenry coursing through it, on the other hand, the political structure would have been no more than a bureaucracy.

The Athenians had to keep those bodies flowing smoothly, then, and that was largely a matter of keeping track of who belonged where and when. They also had to maintain a smooth and dependable flow of the information generated by those bodies == the votes, the decrees, the endless speechifying. They had, in short, to do a lot of stuff that modern information technology would have helped them tremendously to do, and nonetheless they managed pretty well, with the materials at hand, to build the tools they needed to make their system work.

Those tools == the info tech of ancient Athenian democracy == are the subject of the following Notes. I present them now without further ado.

(Well, maybe just a *little* more ado, as this seems the proper place for a DISCLAIMER. To wit: I am neither a classicist nor an archaeologist, nor do I play one on television. Any speculations or flights of theorizing contained herein are worth approximately the scrap value of the electrons that convey them, and should not be cited in support of any statements more authoritative than dinner-party chatter. Assertions of fact, however, have to the best of my ability been checked against the documentary sources listed above, and may be taken as gospel.)

Julian Dibbell (