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.

Tagged , , , , , Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

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

    I like this it’s very informative

One Trackback

Post a Comment

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Tumblr

    • photo from Tumblr

      "You’ve caught me looking very English today."

      You’ve traveled far! Are you into antiquities?

      "My wife is a classicist—she loves this collection. We’ve never been to the west coast before and actually just arrived yesterday. Only just arrived and I’m already famous!"

      James, September 29

      10/17/14

  • Flickr