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Dead medium: Information Technology of Ancient Athens, Part Three
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 Three: The Technology of Identification

After the kleroterion allotment system, the second phase of an Athenian citizen's passage through the political system was an easy one. It consisted of the citizen's showing up for the office for which he had been selected.

And yet for Athenian society in general, this phase was fraught with the risk of inefficiency and corruption. The citizen might not show up when needed, after all. Or he might show up at the wrong place. Or worst of all, someone not actually selected for the office might show up in his stead.

Whatever the problem, though, the Greeks had a doodad for it, and for this one == the problem of getting the right citizen in the right office at the right time == they had at least three.

A. Allotment tokens

Among the most fascinating objects in the Agora Museum, the little bits of ceramic identified as "allotment tokens" are also among the most obscurely explained by the museum literature.

Their design is clear enough. About the size of a Scrabble piece magnified by 2, these fire-hardened clay plaques differed from a Scrabble piece in shape only by virtue of the fact that one edge had an irregular, one-of- a-kind jigsaw cut to it. This edge fit neatly into the jigsawed edge of one, and only one, other token, from which it had been cleaved before being fired.

There was writing on the tokens as well. Painted onto the original clay plaque before it was cut and fired were the name of a tribe, the name of a deme, and in the case of the existing specimens, the letters "POL", thought to be an abbreviation for a political office. The office and deme names were written on one side of the plaque, at opposite ends from each other, and the tribe name was written across the middle of the other side, so that when the plaque was cut in two, one half bore the deme name, the other bore the office name, and each bore a piece of the bisected tribe name, which would only become legible again when the two pieces were rejoined.

What was the point of this high-concept design? The museum literature offers only the tentative suggestion that the tokens were "a possible means of allotment." But it's hard to imagine how they could be sensibly used for that purpose, especially when the magisterial kleroterion already did the job handily.

The seasoned Necronaut can only conclude that, like the cyrograph used in medieval monasteries to ensure the validity of copied manuscripts (Working Note 00.7) and the tally sticks used by the old English Exchequer to ensure the stick-bearer's right to valuables deposited with the king (Working Note 24.3), the "allotment" tokens were a kind of premodern authentication device.

I imagine it worked about like this:

After a citizen was allotted a particular office == probably a low-profile one with a high turnover == he was issued the "office" half of one of the token pairs. The other half, presumably, named the citizen's deme and was given over to an officer of his tribe whose duty it was to hold onto these things for safe keeping.

When the citizen then went to perform the duties of his newly allotted office, he took his token with him. If anyone challenged his right to be there doing what he was doing (not unlikely; Athens, as near as I can make out, was lousy with political sticklers and cranks), he could simply produce the token. If this didn't satisfy the challenger, they could both walk over to the citizen's tribal headquarters and match his token with its well- guarded mate, thus settling the matter.

Revisit the Working Notes on the cyrograph and the tally sticks and you will, I think, be struck by the remarkable similarities of design between those later devices and the Athenian allotment tokens. Were those later inventions then copies of this earlier one? I doubt it. Simple and ingenious as it is, the idea was bound to recur of its own accord.

Indeed, as George Dyson points out in his discussion of the tally sticks, the idea has lately popped up again, in disembodied form, in certain digital authentication systems based on the splitting of very large numbers into their two prime factors.

But the allotment token is an instructive artifact nonetheless == if only because it shows us that the so- called smart card, so often taken as an icon of information-age ingenuity, is in fact not only an archaic invention but an ancient one.

B. Juror tickets

We have seen how the bronze or wooden juror tickets were used in conjunction with the allotment machine, but that was only part of their use in the jury system. The museum literature describes the rest of it, starting with what happened after all the balls had dropped through the kleroterion's tube and the remaining tickets == those of the selected jurors == were pulled out of their slots:

"The tickets of the allotted jurors were given to the archon in charge, who, having identified each man, allowed him to draw from a box a bronze ball inscribed with a letter indicating the court to which he was assigned. The archon then placed his ticket in the box destined to go to that court so that the juror could receive his pay and reclaim his ticket only in the court to which he had been allotted." ("The Athenian Citizen," Picture Book No. 4, p. 21)

The tickets served essentially the same validating purpose as the allotment tokens, in other words, although in a comparatively low-tech fashion. No wooden ones survive, as far as I know, but they no doubt resembled the bronze ones: long, thin strips, about 1 inch by 5, engraved with the ticketholder's name. The surviving tickets sometimes show signs of reuse, with previous holders' names flattened out and new ones inscribed.

I imagine that the greater investment of cleverness and manufacturing effort in the allotment tokens reflected a greater importance attached to the offices they secured. Or it might just have reflected a greater likelihood of fraud in the exercise of those offices.

C. Tagging ropes

We come now to the lowest of the low technology used in identifying citizens assigned to a particular duty: the ropes, dipped in red paint, that were swung at citizens hanging out down in the Agora when everybody was supposed to be up in the Assembly. The "police" who did the swinging were public slaves, held in common by the citizenry, and when they thwapped you with their ropes, you were truly busted: with a big red stripe across your toga, it was no use lingering in the Agora or trying to slink home. You would be fined on sight.

Of course, no material traces of this technology survive for display. All the elements of the apparatus == the ropes, the paint, the slaves == were quite perishable.

Footnote:

Yes, it is both oversimplifying and somewhat perverse to characterize slavery as a technological phenomenon, but I don't think it's an entirely misguided way of thinking about it. Certainly ancient cultures, still half-immersed in animistic worldviews, would have drawn a softer line than we do between harnessing the inner force of, say, wind or fire or metals and harnessing the inner force of fellow humans.

For that matter, it probably wouldn't be too hard, and might even be illuminating, to make the case that in some historical instances slavery has served as a kind of medium. Another Working Note, perhaps. For now, let's just say it's a fine thing this medium is as dead as it is.

Julian Dibbell (julian@mostly.com)