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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Kleroterion – Ensuring a Just Democracy

Kleroterion

Kleroterion – Because “Power Corrupts.”

This Kleroterion was a device used by the ancient Athenians during their period of democracy, over 2,500 years ago, to randomly select citizens for state councils, offices and court juries. Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC and the process of Sortition was their principal way of achieving fairness and equity. Sortition is the process for the selection of a few state officials, on a random basis, from a larger pool of candidates.

The fundamental principle behind the sortition process originates from the firm belief that “power corrupts.” For that reason, when the time came to choose people to be assigned to empowering positions, the ancient Athenians resorted to picking randomly by a lot. The state positions were highly accountable and only for a limited period, to minimise abuse and corruption.

Sortition was used to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and their juries. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration:

“It is administration by the many instead of the few;
that is why it is called a democracy.”

The Athenians used a selection procedure with purpose-built allotment machines like this Kleroteria to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into an office. Those selected through lot underwent an examination to prevent incompetent officials. The Kleroterion was a stone incised with rows of slots and with an attached tube. The citizens’ token was placed in the slots, and the tube was filled with different-coloured dice. The dice were released one by one and each of the die corresponding to a specific row of tokens. The colour of each die determined whether the owners of the tokens in the corresponding row were selected for seats on the citizen’s council or juries.

Greek Democracy

During the Classical era of Ancient Greece, many city-states had forms of government similar to a democracy, in which the free, native adult male citizens of the city took a direct role in the management of the affairs of state. These activities were often handled by a form of direct democracy, based on a popular assembly.

Judicial and administrative duties were often handled by large juries, drawn from the citizen body in a process known as sortition. The most significant and well-understood example is Athenian democracy. However, at least fifty-two classical Greek city-states also had democratic regimes during part of their history.

During the 3rd century BC, the political centre of gravity in Greece shifted from individual city-states to leagues of city-states. These were confederations that jointly handled the foreign and military affairs for the member cities. Their internal structure was democratic as each city within the league had weight roughly proportional to its size and power.

These leagues differed from the earlier Peloponnesian League or the Delian League, in that a single city did not dominate them as the previous associations used to be dominated by Athens and Sparta.

Kleroterion

  • Name:            Kleroterion
  • Date:               5th Century BCE
  • Material:         Marble
  • City:                Athens
  • Country:         Greece
  • Museum:        Museum of the Ancient Agora

A Tour of the Museum of the Ancient Agora

Reflections

  • Is the random selection of qualified citizens a process we should be using more often?
  • How can we achieve administration by the many instead of the few?
  • Does Democracy come with obligations on citizens?
  • Does Democracy only work when we all take part?
  • Should there be a limit to how long legislators serve, to minimise the risks of abuse and arrogance?

A Tour of Greek Museums and Historic Sites

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“Time is the wisest counsellor of all.”
– Pericles

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Photo Credit: JOM

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