Ancient World, Antiquities, Art, J. Paul Getty Museum

Voting with the Ancient Greeks

Voting with psephoi in a scene from the Wine Cup with the Suicide of Ajax / Brygos Painter

Voting with psephoi (pebbles) in a scene from the Wine Cup with the Suicide of Ajax, about 490 B.C., attributed to the Brygos Painter. Red-figured kylix made in Athens. Terracotta, 4 7/16 in. high x 12 3/8 in. diam. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.286

This Greek wine cup from the 5th century B.C. offers one of the earliest depictions of voting in art. As the Trojan War rages, Greek chieftains are forced to choose between the competing claims of heroes Ajax and Odysseus to a momentous prize, the armor of the fallen warrior Achilles. So they do what comes naturally to the fathers of democracy. They vote.

The small dots on either side of the pedestal in the detail shown above represent stones heaped in two mounds for Odysseus and Ajax. The number of pebbles on Ajax’s side, at right, falls short of the more politically savvy Odysseus’s by one, causing Ajax to grasp his head in despair. This loss is the backstory for the tragic scene portrayed inside the cup, where we see Ajax fallen in agony on his sword.

Voting with pebbles? Even allowing for artistic license, it seems the Greeks really did it this way. Voters deposited a pebble into one of two urns to mark their choice; after voting, the urns were emptied onto counting boards for tabulation. The principle of secret voting was established by at least the 5th century B.C., and Athenians may have used a contraption to obscure the urn into which a voter was placing his hand. In ancient Greece a pebble was called a psephos, which gives us the dubious term psephology, the scientific study of elections.

Another modern word, ballot, preserves this ancient history of bean-counting: it comes from medieval French ballotte, a small ball.

Tekmessa drapes Ajax's dead body on a Wine Cup with the Suicide of Ajax (interior scene)

The pain of losing by one vote: Following Ajax's suicide, his lover Tekmessa drapes his fallen body.

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One Comment

  1. Bob fischer
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I like this it’s very informative

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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.

      08/03/15

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