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Dead medium: Information Technology of Ancient Athens, Part Two
From: julian@mostly.com (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.

The Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy

By Julian Dibbell

Part Two: The Technology of Allotment

The flow of bodies through the Athenian political system was essentially a circuit == officeholders, jurors, litigants, etc. were drawn up from the reservoir of citizenry, slotted into their temporary places, delivered of their votes and opinions, then returned to their private lives, where they would live by the rules and verdicts they had helped to shape, and whence they would again be inserted into the system at some future date and, like as not, in some other role.

In a sense, then, there was no beginning and no end to this process, but there are two good reasons for us to start our examination of Athenian political technology at the phase in which citizens were selected for office: one, because it's more or less logical to start there, and two, because I cannot wait to tell you about the gadget the Athenians invented to facilitate that phase.

Simply put, the "kleroterion," or allotment machine, is the crown jewel of the Agora Museum's collection. What survives for display is just a fragment of one of the original devices == a roughly two-by-three-foot slab of rock with a curious grid of deep, thin slots gouged into it == but once you grasp the design of the whole, even this poor remnant becomes suffused with a kind of Flintstonian majesty.

As originally constructed, kleroteria were tall rectangular stones about as tall and wide as a grown person, and about half a foot thick. Covering the face of the stone was a rectangular matrix of what looked like short horizontal lines and were in fact deep slots carved into the rock. The slots were arranged neatly in rows and columns, usually 50 rows down and typically 5 or in some cases 11 columns across.

Along the left side of the grid a tube (of metal? some sort of reed? my sources don't say) was attached to the stone, running from the top to near the bottom of the slab. At the top of the tube was a kind of funnel, and at the bottom was a small crank-driven device, about which more later.

Now, to understand how the kleroterion worked == and indeed how Athenian democracy in general worked == it helps to know that the citizenry was divided into ten tribes, which were in turn divided into a number of "demes." Citizens were born into their demes, and it was through his deme and tribe that the city tracked a citizen's place in the political system.

The tribes, for example, had the responsibility of supplying jury members, and this was a complicated job. It was complicated because the Athenians were rightly paranoid about corruption working its way into the jury system, and had therefore settled on the practice of assembling very large, randomly selected juries at the last possible minute. This, naturally, was a recipe for royally gumming up the works, but through the miracle of bronze-age technology == as embodied in the kleroterion == the Athenians were able to efficiently go about the business of, for instance, condemning Socrates to death.

It worked like this. When a citizen sought jury duty (which paid only slightly better than modern jury duty, so don't ask me why they sought it, but apparently they did), he went at dawn to the kleroteria maintained by his tribe and showed up with other potential jurors. He brought with him an identity ticket made of bronze or wood, and he gave it to the presiding tribal officer (known as the archon), who then slotted it into one of the kleroterion's columns according to the jury-section letter stamped on the ticket. The slots were filled starting at the top row and working down.

Once all the candidates' tickets were slotted in, the archon took a quantity of small bronze balls == some colored white, the rest black == and poured them into the funnels at the tops of the kleroteria. The total number of balls was equal to the number of rows filled with tickets, and the number of white balls was a function of the number of juries that needed to be filled that day.

So: the balls fell down into the tube, at the bottom of which they were stopped by the aforementioned crank- driven device. The crank was turned, and one ball dropped out. If the ball was black, the first row of tickets was removed from the kleroterion, and their owners were dismissed. If the ball was white, the first row of tickets remained in place, and their owners were jurors for the day. Another ball was released, another row of candidates dismissed or accepted, and so on. At last the final ball was dropped and the judicial day began.

Jury-selection was not the only task to which the kleroterion was put. Some kleroteria were located in the chambers of the legislative Council House, where they were used to select committees on which representation of all the tribes was required: as many columns of slots were filled as there were tribes, and as many white balls were dropped as there were committees to be selected.

I have left out some of the complexities of these procedures, so it may be hard to appreciate the full ingenuity of the device, but trust me: it was an elegant design. So elegant, indeed, that I am tempted to believe that the equally elegant correspondence between the workings of the kleroterion and the workings of Athenian democracy in general was more than just coincidental. Based upon the elemental intersection of an ordered grid (the matrix of slots) and a randomized flow (the tube of balls), the kleroterion could almost be read as an abstract diagram of the Athenian political circuitry itself.

But what would be the profit in reading it thus? We would then be left to ponder endlessly the chicken-and-egg question of whether the circuitry was built according to the diagram, or the diagram drawn according to the circuitry == and we don't exactly have all day. Our tour of the Agora Museum has just begun.

Julian Dibbell (julian@mostly.com)