Myth vs. Fact: Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote?

Greek Idiots

"In ancient Greece, the inventors of democracy set up a law that required every person to vote, regardless of who they voted for. If anyone was found not voting, the person would be publicly marked and labeled an idiot, someone who thought their own personal needs trumped those of the society around them, and over time, the word "idiot" has evolved into today's usage." -  Isaac DeVille, Michigan State columnist

It just isn't true that all Greeks or even all citizens of Athens were required to vote, and it's not true on many levels.

  • Only males (free and, originally, propertied; later, also born to two Athenian-born parents) could become citizens.
  • Only citizens could vote.
  • These potentially voting citizens were limited to those without a personal or inherited mark (atimia) against them.
  • In addition, what's true about one period of democracy is not necessarily true of another.

"1275a: 22-23: A citizen defined in simple terms is someone who can participate in judging [that is, serve as a juror in the court system] and in governing [that is, serve in public office, which here means not just magistracies but also serving in the assembly and on the council in systems of government that have these institutions]." Stoa Project Aristotle "" Politics

Male Athenian citizens actively participated, but voting was only a part of what was meant by democracy.

  • Speaking well and being physically present in the communal life were crucial.
  • The Athenian assembly, which held 6000 citizens, decided most of the issues.
  • Citizen-orators persuaded their fellow citizen-voters.
  • The voting itself could be conducted by a show of hands, as is seen Aristophanes' comedy Ecclesiazousai, where Praxagora describes the voting in the Assembly:
    It's difficult; yet it must be done, and the arm shown naked to the shoulder in order to vote.
  • Officials chose the winner based on a visual estimate of the majority of hands. They certainly weren't counting exactly enough to make sure there were 6000 hands on 6000 discrete bodies. Sometimes more secretive ballots were used -- small, colored balls -- placed in urns. 6000 was not the entire citizen body, although it was a hefty portion.
  • A body of 6000 citizens served as juries, meeting about half the days of the year, with each of the ten tribes providing its required share.
  • A lottery selected the 400 or 500 men for the third governmental group, called the boule.

Steven Kreis' The Athenian Origins of Direct Democracy explains the "idiot" reference in the student newspaper:

"At Athens, a citizen who held no official position or who was not a habitual orator in the Assembly was branded as idiotai."

This is a far cry from calling the non-voter an "idiot."

Idiotai is also used to distinguish the common people from the poor (penetes) and the more powerful (dynatoi). Idiotai is also used for "unskilled worker."

While we don't know what the population figures are for ancient Athens, and it changed over time, if there were say, 30,000 male citizens, more than a third of them were actively involved in politics at times. If we followed the Athenian example, who would feed, house, clothe, educate, and medicate the families of the politicians? Pay for time spent fulfilling the civic obligation was at first non-existent. Aristotle has several passages in his Politics explaining why. Here is one:

"1308b: 31-33: It is of the greatest importance in all systems of government to have laws and the rest of governmental administration so arranged that magistrates cannot profit financially from their offices."

There is a passage from a work ascribed to Aristotle in a section about Solon that probably led to the columnist's idea. It comes from Constitution section 8:

Further, [Solon] saw the state often engaged in internal disputes, while many of the citizens from sheer indifference accepted whatever might turn up, he made a law with express reference to such persons, enacting that any one who, in a time civil factions, did not take up arms with either party, should lose his rights as a citizen and cease to have any part in the state.

Although not the last word that could be said on the issue, modern Americans are not like classical Athenians. We neither live our lives in public nor do we all want to be politicians (although neither did Socrates, even though he sat on the Athenian Boule). Requiring us to be penalized for failing to

  1. go to the polling booths and
  2. make choices on the ballot

once every 4 years because that's what they did in the birthplace of democracy misses the point of the ancient Greek democratic process.

Further Reading on Greek Voting and Idiots

  • "The Tradition of the Athenian Democracy A. D. 1750-1990," Mogens Herman Hansen Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 39, No. 1. (Apr., 1992), pp. 14-30.
  • The Athenian Assembly in the Age of Demosthenes, Mogens Herman Hansen. Review author: Phillip Harding Phoenix, Vol. 44, No. 2. (Summer, 1990), pp. 199-200.
  • "The Ten Archontes of 579/8 at Athens," Thomas J. Figueira Hesperia, Vol. 53, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 1984), pp. 447-473.
  • "The Duration of a Meeting of the Athenian Ecclesia," Mogens Herman Hansen. Classical Philology, Vol. 74, No. 1. (Jan., 1979), pp. 43-49.
  • Christopher W. Blackwell, "The Assembly," in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities []) edition of March 26, 2003.

More of Democracy Then and Now

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Aristotle
Part 3: Thucydides
Part 4: Plato
Part 5: Aeschines
Part 6: Isocrates
Part 7: Herodotus
Part 8: Pseudo-Xenophon
Part 9: Q. Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote or Risk Being Labeled Idiots?

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Myth vs. Fact: Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 22, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, November 22). Myth vs. Fact: Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote? Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Myth vs. Fact: Were All Ancient Greeks Required to Vote?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 25, 2021).