Athens, part 5: the Ancient Agora

(This is part 5 in a series about my trip to Athens. See parts one, two, three, and four.)

One of my favorite museums in Athens is the Museum of the Ancient Agora within in the Stoa of Attalos. Within the agora today, the two anchors at the ends of the large open space are the Temple of Hephastios, set up on a hill, and the Stoa of Attalos, a modern 1950s reconstruction of an ancient building. In the language of ancient Greek architecture, a stoa is a covered walkway typically open to the public. Late examples, like the Stoa of Attalos, were usually two stories, with the first story at least partly open to the air. Here’s a view of the portico on the ground level:

Within the stoa, there is a small gem of a museum on the activities in the ancient agora. As the social hub of the Athenian democratic government, the agora would have housed the administration, legal tribunals, religious sites, and the major marketplace of ancient Athens. Artifacts in the museum show just how carefully the Athenian democracy had to manage the flow of its citizens, and the custom-built technology that helped manage the flow.

Artifact #1: the Kleroterion, which was used for sorting and allocating people. In the photo below, there is a fragment of stone with horizontal slots cut into it. When it was in use, the kleroterion pictured would have stood much higher; some evidence exists for versions of this device that were several feet tall. In the foreground of the photo is a collection of identity tokens.

Athenian democracy used randomness to guard against corruption of the jury system. When a jury needed to be assembled, citizens volunteering would hand their tokens to a presiding official. Based on the citizen’s tribe, the token would be placed into one of the columns. When the matrix was full, the randomness came into play.

Along the left side of the kleroterion ran a tube filled with a mixture of black and white balls. One ball was inserted for each row of slots on the kleroterion. When the official extracted a white ball, the people whose tokens appeared in a row were called to jury service. On the other hand, a black ball meant that the people identified by the tokens in a row would be dismissed. By matching the number of white balls to the desired jury pool size, officials could create a pool with the right number of jurors.

Using the kleroterion took advantage of the elegant simplicity of randomness of the ball mixture to draft jury pools. As I stood in front of the display case, I remember watching Flintstones reruns as a child in the days before my family had cable. While working out in my mind how the kleroterion worked, the thought struck me that although the cartoon had depicted many ingenious devices, none of them were as real as this machine from the ancient world.

Artifact #2: Ostrakons. Athenian democracy had a very special type vote that occurred once a year. In the ancient Greek version of Survivor, the citizens could “vote somebody off the island.” Every year, the assembly gathered. Each citizen was allowed to scratch the name of the person they perceived as the greatest threat to the city-state in to a pot shard, or, in the language of ancient Greece, an ostrakon. Provided that 6,000 votes were cast, the person who received the most votes was ostracised, and sent into exile for a decade.

In school, I learned that the secret ballot was invented in Australia in the 1850s to avoid retaliation against voters. I am not sure how secret the ostrakons were, but presumably, the reason for going with a “write-in” vote as opposed to a show of hands was to avoid as much manipulation of the process as possible. (I believe that later manipulation of the process of ostracism resulted in it being dropped in later centuries.)

For fun, feel free to leave a non-anonymous comment with your country and your vote for Public Enemy No. 1.

Across from the Stoa of Attalos on a hill overlooking the agora stands the Temple of Hephaistos, dedicated to the god of metal-working. This photo shows a view looking westward along the southern collonade, away from the agora.

Under the eastern portico, there is a frieze, but no signs explained what it showed.

2 Responses to “Athens, part 5: the Ancient Agora”

  1. Dear Matt,
    I am seting up a website in the Uk for teachers of history. As a school inspector I recently saw a great lesson featuring images that i have managed to track back to your site. Wd you have any objection to one image of the ostracons featuring on my educational website. It will appear as just one of 8 slides in a PowerPoint presentation. It will, of course, be fully acknowledged. I look forward to hearing from you. With best wishes, Neil

  2. SN says:

    Fab! V. interesting- will use artefacts in ‘Call My Bluff’ intoduction to Ancient Greeks with my class of Y6! Many thanks

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