INFO TECH OF ANCIENT DEMOCRACY
Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy
If any of you are on your way to or through Greece in the near future, may I suggest you make a beeline for the Agora Museum, on the site of the excavated ancient Agora, the original Athenian marketplace and civic center, where it all went down, birth-of-Western-Civilization-wise, in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.? The museum is, I assure you, a Dead Media treasure trove.
Yes, let the package tours deliver their waves upon waves of sweat-drenched, awe-struck retirees unto the easy wonders of the sacred Acropolis; we Necronauts are made of more discriminating stuff. Many were the baffled Northern European backpackers I saw walk past the Agora Museum's rows and rows of graffiti-encrusted potsherds (broken bits of ceramic on which the Athenians scratched random notes to themselves and others), struggling to grasp why good foundation-dollars had been squandered on collecting and presenting so arrant a pile of junk.
But who among us could stand before that same pile and not shiver with the awareness that we had stumbled upon the ancient precursor of the Post-it Note (TM)? I for one got goose bumps.
For me, however, the greatest thrill -- and here I speak sincerely -- was the museum's ample collection of inventions devoted to the efficient daily management of one of the ancient world's most complicated social entities: Athenian democracy.
I suppose this has been written about elsewhere, but it hadn't really occurred to me before how novel -- and in many ways still historically unique -- a form of social organization Athens came up with. This was participatory democracy on a large scale and a broad base: every citizen (i.e., every free adult male) was a member of the Assembly that debated and voted on all matters of policy; every citizen could be expected at some point in his life to be called up for a year of service on the Council of 500 that drew up the measures the Assembly voted on; juries were made up of 200 citizens at a time; and prosecutors were pretty much anybody who felt exercised enough to bring suit on behalf of the People.
Qualities of leadership were of course admired and rewarded, but in general, random selection seemed to play as much of a role in filling civic positions as election did. The implication being, I guess, that the Athenians felt their system had enough checks, balances, and redundancy built into it to overcome the failings or excessive strivings of any single participant.
For perhaps the first time in history, in other words, the political was in principle no longer the personal. The notion of the abstract citizen was born, and a momentous birth it was, full of weighty implications for the philosophy of politics in general and for the history of the modern, post-Enlightenment state in particular.
But if you didn't learn all that back in school, I can't help you now. Our interest here is rather in the practical problems this new conception of politics posed for the Athenians -- and in the technological solutions they came up with.
In engineering terms, the overarching problem the Athenians were faced with was not a unique one. It was a problem as old, in fact, as the construction of the ancient Mesopotamian irrigation system (one of the world's first great engineering projects) and as modern as the design of integrated circuitry: it was a problem of flow.
Unlike the more autocratic forms of government that had been the hallmark of civilization hitherto, Athenian democracy depended for its legitimacy on a constant, high- volume circulation of individuals in and out of public offices. It was this channeled flow that made the system both impersonal and representative. Without the static structure of the offices to shape the flow, after all, the people's will would have been no more coherent than a mob's. Without the bodies of the entire citizenry coursing through it, on the other hand, the political structure would have been no more than a bureaucracy.
The Athenians had to keep those bodies flowing smoothly, then, and that was largely a matter of keeping track of who belonged where and when. They also had to maintain a smooth and dependable flow of the information generated by those bodies -- the votes, the decrees, the endless speechifying. They had, in short, to do a lot of stuff that modern information technology would have helped them tremendously to do, and nonetheless they managed pretty well, with the materials at hand, to build the tools they needed to make their system work.
Those tools -- the info tech of ancient Athenian democracy -- are the subject of the following Notes. I present them now without further ado.
(Well, maybe just a *little* more ado, as this seems the proper place for a DISCLAIMER. To wit: I am neither a classicist nor an archaeologist, nor do I play one on television. Any speculations or flights of theorizing contained herein are worth approximately the scrap value of the electrons that convey them, and should not be cited in support of any statements more authoritative than dinner-party chatter. Assertions of fact, however, have to the best of my ability been checked against the documentary sources listed above, and may be taken as gospel.)
The flow of bodies through the Athenian political system was essentially a circuit -- officeholders, jurors, litigants, etc. were drawn up from the reservoir of citizenry, slotted into their temporary places, delivered of their votes and opinions, then returned to their private lives, where they would live by the rules and verdicts they had helped to shape, and whence they would again be inserted into the system at some future date and, like as not, in some other role.
In a sense, then, there was no beginning and no end to this process, but there are two good reasons for us to start our examination of Athenian political technology at the phase in which citizens were selected for office: one, because it's more or less logical to start there, and two, because I cannot wait to tell you about the gadget the Athenians invented to facilitate that phase.
Simply put, the "kleroterion," or allotment machine, is the crown jewel of the Agora Museum's collection. What survives for display is just a fragment of one of the original devices -- a roughly two-by-three-foot slab of rock with a curious grid of deep, thin slots gouged into it -- but once you grasp the design of the whole, even this poor remnant becomes suffused with a kind of Flintstonian majesty.
As originally constructed, kleroteria were tall rectangular stones about as tall and wide as a grown person, and about half a foot thick. Covering the face of the stone was a rectangular matrix of what looked like short horizontal lines and were in fact deep slots carved into the rock. The slots were arranged neatly in rows and columns, usually 50 rows down and typically 5 or in some cases 11 columns across.
Along the left side of the grid a tube (of metal? some sort of reed? my sources don't say) was attached to the stone, running from the top to near the bottom of the slab. At the top of the tube was a kind of funnel, and at the bottom was a small crank-driven device, about which more later.
Now, to understand how the kleroterion worked -- and indeed how Athenian democracy in general worked -- it helps to know that the citizenry was divided into ten tribes, which were in turn divided into a number of "demes." Citizens were born into their demes, and it was through his deme and tribe that the city tracked a citizen's place in the political system.
The tribes, for example, had the responsibility of supplying jury members, and this was a complicated job. It was complicated because the Athenians were rightly paranoid about corruption working its way into the jury system, and had therefore settled on the practice of assembling very large, randomly selected juries at the last possible minute. This, naturally, was a recipe for royally gumming up the works, but through the miracle of bronze-age technology -- as embodied in the kleroterion -- the Athenians were able to efficiently go about the business of, for instance, condemning Socrates to death.
It worked like this. When a citizen sought jury duty (which paid only slightly better than modern jury duty, so don't ask me why they sought it, but apparently they did), he went at dawn to the kleroteria maintained by his tribe and showed up with other potential jurors. He brought with him an identity ticket made of bronze or wood, and he gave it to the presiding tribal officer (known as the archon), who then slotted it into one of the kleroterion's columns according to the jury-section letter stamped on the ticket. The slots were filled starting at the top row and working down.
Once all the candidates' tickets were slotted in, the archon took a quantity of small bronze balls -- some colored white, the rest black -- and poured them into the funnels at the tops of the kleroteria. The total number of balls was equal to the number of rows filled with tickets, and the number of white balls was a function of the number of juries that needed to be filled that day.
So: the balls fell down into the tube, at the bottom of which they were stopped by the aforementioned crank- driven device. The crank was turned, and one ball dropped out. If the ball was black, the first row of tickets was removed from the kleroterion, and their owners were dismissed. If the ball was white, the first row of tickets remained in place, and their owners were jurors for the day. Another ball was released, another row of candidates dismissed or accepted, and so on. At last the final ball was dropped and the judicial day began.
Jury-selection was not the only task to which the kleroterion was put. Some kleroteria were located in the chambers of the legislative Council House, where they were used to select committees on which representation of all the tribes was required: as many columns of slots were filled as there were tribes, and as many white balls were dropped as there were committees to be selected.
I have left out some of the complexities of these procedures, so it may be hard to appreciate the full ingenuity of the device, but trust me: it was an elegant design. So elegant, indeed, that I am tempted to believe that the equally elegant correspondence between the workings of the kleroterion and the workings of Athenian democracy in general was more than just coincidental. Based upon the elemental intersection of an ordered grid (the matrix of slots) and a randomized flow (the tube of balls), the kleroterion could almost be read as an abstract diagram of the Athenian political circuitry itself.
But what would be the profit in reading it thus? We would then be left to ponder endlessly the chicken-and-egg question of whether the circuitry was built according to the diagram, or the diagram drawn according to the circuitry -- and we don't exactly have all day. Our tour of the Agora Museum has just begun.
After the kleroterion allotment system, the second phase of an Athenian citizen's passage through the political system was an easy one. It consisted of the citizen's showing up for the office for which he had been selected.
And yet for Athenian society in general, this phase was fraught with the risk of inefficiency and corruption. The citizen might not show up when needed, after all. Or he might show up at the wrong place. Or worst of all, someone not actually selected for the office might show up in his stead.
Whatever the problem, though, the Greeks had a doodad for it, and for this one -- the problem of getting the right citizen in the right office at the right time -- they had at least three.
A. Allotment tokens
Among the most fascinating objects in the Agora Museum, the little bits of ceramic identified as "allotment tokens" are also among the most obscurely explained by the museum literature.
Their design is clear enough. About the size of a Scrabble piece magnified by 2, these fire-hardened clay plaques differed from a Scrabble piece in shape only by virtue of the fact that one edge had an irregular, one-of- a-kind jigsaw cut to it. This edge fit neatly into the jigsawed edge of one, and only one, other token, from which it had been cleaved before being fired.
There was writing on the tokens as well. Painted onto the original clay plaque before it was cut and fired were the name of a tribe, the name of a deme, and in the case of the existing specimens, the letters "POL", thought to be an abbreviation for a political office. The office and deme names were written on one side of the plaque, at opposite ends from each other, and the tribe name was written across the middle of the other side, so that when the plaque was cut in two, one half bore the deme name, the other bore the office name, and each bore a piece of the bisected tribe name, which would only become legible again when the two pieces were rejoined.
What was the point of this high-concept design? The museum literature offers only the tentative suggestion that the tokens were "a possible means of allotment." But it's hard to imagine how they could be sensibly used for that purpose, especially when the magisterial kleroterion already did the job handily.
The seasoned Necronaut can only conclude that, like the cyrograph used in medieval monasteries to ensure the validity of copied manuscripts (Working Note 00.7) and the tally sticks used by the old English Exchequer to ensure the stick-bearer's right to valuables deposited with the king (Working Note 24.3), the "allotment" tokens were a kind of premodern authentication device.
I imagine it worked about like this:
After a citizen was allotted a particular office -- probably a low-profile one with a high turnover -- he was issued the "office" half of one of the token pairs. The other half, presumably, named the citizen's deme and was given over to an officer of his tribe whose duty it was to hold onto these things for safe keeping.
When the citizen then went to perform the duties of his newly allotted office, he took his token with him. If anyone challenged his right to be there doing what he was doing (not unlikely; Athens, as near as I can make out, was lousy with political sticklers and cranks), he could simply produce the token. If this didn't satisfy the challenger, they could both walk over to the citizen's tribal headquarters and match his token with its well- guarded mate, thus settling the matter.
Revisit the Working Notes on the cyrograph and the tally sticks and you will, I think, be struck by the remarkable similarities of design between those later devices and the Athenian allotment tokens. Were those later inventions then copies of this earlier one? I doubt it. Simple and ingenious as it is, the idea was bound to recur of its own accord.
Indeed, as George Dyson points out in his discussion of the tally sticks, the idea has lately popped up again, in disembodied form, in certain digital authentication systems based on the splitting of very large numbers into their two prime factors.
But the allotment token is an instructive artifact nonetheless -- if only because it shows us that the so- called smart card, so often taken as an icon of information-age ingenuity, is in fact not only an archaic invention but an ancient one.
B. Juror tickets
We have seen how the bronze or wooden juror tickets were used in conjunction with the allotment machine, but that was only part of their use in the jury system. The museum literature describes the rest of it, starting with what happened after all the balls had dropped through the kleroterion's tube and the remaining tickets -- those of the selected jurors -- were pulled out of their slots:
"The tickets of the allotted jurors were given to the archon in charge, who, having identified each man, allowed him to draw from a box a bronze ball inscribed with a letter indicating the court to which he was assigned. The archon then placed his ticket in the box destined to go to that court so that the juror could receive his pay and reclaim his ticket only in the court to which he had been allotted." ("The Athenian Citizen," Picture Book No. 4, p. 21)
The tickets served essentially the same validating purpose as the allotment tokens, in other words, although in a comparatively low-tech fashion. No wooden ones survive, as far as I know, but they no doubt resembled the bronze ones: long, thin strips, about 1 inch by 5, engraved with the ticketholder's name. The surviving tickets sometimes show signs of reuse, with previous holders' names flattened out and new ones inscribed.
I imagine that the greater investment of cleverness and manufacturing effort in the allotment tokens reflected a greater importance attached to the offices they secured. Or it might just have reflected a greater likelihood of fraud in the exercise of those offices.
C. Tagging ropes
We come now to the lowest of the low technology used in identifying citizens assigned to a particular duty: the ropes, dipped in red paint, that were swung at citizens hanging out down in the Agora when everybody was supposed to be up in the Assembly. The "police" who did the swinging were public slaves, held in common by the citizenry, and when they thwapped you with their ropes, you were truly busted: with a big red stripe across your toga, it was no use lingering in the Agora or trying to slink home. You would be fined on sight.
Of course, no material traces of this technology survive for display. All the elements of the apparatus -- the ropes, the paint, the slaves -- were quite perishable.
Yes, it is both oversimplifying and somewhat perverse to characterize slavery as a technological phenomenon, but I don't think it's an entirely misguided way of thinking about it. Certainly ancient cultures, still half-immersed in animistic worldviews, would have drawn a softer line than we do between harnessing the inner force of, say, wind or fire or metals and harnessing the inner force of fellow humans.
For that matter, it probably wouldn't be too hard, and might even be illuminating, to make the case that in some historical instances slavery has served as a kind of medium. Another Working Note, perhaps. For now, let's just say it's a fine thing this medium is as dead as it is.
Once the citizen was in his allotted place in the system, he got to work. There was a variety of jobs to do in the Athenian political sector, but they all essentially came down to one task: generating information.
You argued. You heard arguments. You drew up legislation. You presented legislation. You reached your verdict. You cast your vote. You were the source, along with all your fellow citizens, of a flood of words and rulings and decisions.
This flood needed managing, and mostly it was the institutions of the state that managed it, chiefly through their structure and conventions. But inevitably they had a little help from the gadgetry; for where there are voluminous information flows, as we postmoderns know only too well, there are technologies built to channel them. Here are a few that helped channel the flow of deliberation and decision in ancient Athens.
A. The Klepsydra
The water clock, called klepsydra by the Greeks (and in English usually spelled "clepsydra"), timed oral presentations in both the courts and the Council House. In trials, the plaintiff and defendant were granted equal time to make their cases, and the klepsydra was well- designed to assure all in attendance that the time was truly equal.
It was a pretty simple machine: a large clay vessel with a small bronze tube at its base and a small hole just below the rim. A plug was inserted in the tube, and the pot was filled with water, the overflow hole at the top providing a precise -- and plainly visible -- governor of the amount.
When it was time for one of the litigants to start speaking, a slave pulled the plug and let the water start flowing into another vessel. The speaker spoke for as long as the water flowed, and if he was smart he kept an eye on the angle of the flow in order to gauge how much time he had left.
The klepsydra on display in the Agora Museum has a capacity of two "choes," or about six quarts. This, according to the literature, translates into approximately six minutes' speaking time and was the amount permitted for the rebuttal speech in cases involving less than 500 drachmas.
The rigor of the klepsydra's pacemaking put pressure on litigants to make their speeches tight and lucid, which in turn led to the rise of a profession that could rightly be considered the ancestor of the lawyer's: speech-writing for hire. Many of the speechwriters' compositions survive, and in one, by the accomplished Isokrates, the klepsydra is artfully referenced:
"Now about the other men he has plotted against," Isokrates has his client say of the opposing litigant, "and the suits he has brought and the charges he has made, and the men with whom he has conspired and those against whom he has sworn falsely, not twice the amount of water would be sufficient to describe these." ("The Athenian Citizen," page 23)
My Columbia Encyclopedia says the water clock first appeared around 2000 B.C., in Egypt, whence it was much later imported to Greece. But I wonder if the invention wasn't largely a novelty until Athens put it to use in its court rooms and committee chambers. In the ancient world, I suspect, the rhythms of agriculture, commerce, warfare, and even science were still too slack to have much use for the klepsydra's precise replication of particular units of time. But in a society where the abstract notion of equality before the law was a cornerstone -- and where litigation was almost as common as pederasty -- the demand for a meticulous technological embodiment of that equality must have been bottomless.
B. Bronze juror ballots
The Athenians didn't invent voting, of course, but they surely did more of it than any other civilized society before them had. Most of it was done by hand, but as in modern democracies, certain kinds of votes required a degree of anonymity that normal hand or voice votes didn't provide. Hence the invention of, among other devices, the bronze juror ballot.
The juror ballot was a flat bronze disk about the diameter of the palm of a juror's hand, with a short bronze rod intersecting the disk at its center, like the hub of a wheel. Each juror carried two of these ballots with him from deliberations: one with the hub hollowed out from end to end, tubelike, and the other with a solid hub. The hollow ballot represented a vote for condemnation, the solid one was for acquittal, and the juro dropped the one that reflected his decision into a closed receptacle on his way out of the court room. The other he dropped into a box reserved for discards.
They are curious objects, the ballots -- almost whimsical-looking, to those of us accustomed to the plain- paper or complex mechanical ballots of latter days. But in fact there seems to be little about the Athenian juror ballot that wasn't shaped by years of utilitarian redesign.
The generous size and shape of the disk, for example, would have made the ballots easy to hold in the hand. The slight dimensions of the hub, more importantly, would have allowed the jurors to comfortably conceal their decision by holding the rod lightly between a thumb and finger, thus covering the tell-tale ends as they went to vote. And because the hub and disk were of a piece, and cast in durable bronze, the ballots would have been well suited for the rigors of the Athenian justice system's high- volume information flow.
Perhaps it's also worth noting the binary nature of the information conveyed by this particular medium. Certainly, between the massively parallel 1-bit computations of jury balloting and the 50-bit capacity of the kleroterion, the Athenians were doing what was, by the standards of antiquity, an extraordinary amount of systematic binary data processing.
Not quite as much, maybe, or in nearly so sophisticated a form as the Chinese, who had long before invented the remarkable 6-bit binary fortune-telling medium known as the I Ching -- which is known, as well, to have inspired Gottfried Leibniz many centuries later to work out the theoretical foundations of binary mathematics.
But it's not impossible that the binary workings of Athens's technopolitical infrastructure had a similar long-term effect on the history of computing. Perhaps, for instance, they had some detectable influence on Aristotle's rudimentary formulation of what would later be formalized as Boolean logic, and hardwired into the Von Neumann machines we use today.
Or not. I leave it to credentialed historians to connect whatever dots can be connected here.
The Ancient Greek word for a potsherd (which is a piece of broken ceramic) was "ostrakon," and from it is derived the modern English word "ostracism." This is not an obvious derivation, obviously, but it has its logic. What's more, it has the unique charm, for the likes of us, of preserving in the amber of everyday vocabulary a medium that lived and died more than two thousand years ago. Read on for the details.
In the Agora Museum's ample collection of engraved ostraka there is a large subset consisting of potsherds with the names of leading Athenian politicians carved into them. These were ballots, used in a special kind of vote called ostracism, the purpose of which was to curb the power of men whose strength and influence had grown so great that their dominance verged on tyranny and could not be checked by normal means.
The museum's literature describes the practice thus:
"Each year the Assembly decided whether a vote of ostracism should be held. If a majority of the quorum of 6000 citizens voted affirmatively, the day was set and at that time a large open area of the Agora was fenced off. In the enclosure were ten entrances, one for each of the ten tribes. By these the citizens entered each with a potsherd on which he had scratched the name of the man who seemed to him most dangerous to the state.
"Officials at the entrance collected the sherds and kept the citizens inside the enclosure until all had voted. The sherds were then tabulated; if more than 6000 votes were cast, the man whose name appeared on the greatest number was sent into exile for ten years. Such was ostracism, introduced as a safeguard against tyranny, later used as a weapon by rival statesmen, and finally abandoned in the late 5th century [B.C.] when it deteriorated into a political game.
"The potsherds, or ostraka, after being counted, were treated like so much waste paper. They were shovelled up and carried out to fill potholes in the roads leading out from the Agora." ("The Athenian Citizen," pp. 25-26)
The virtues of the ostrakon as a medium for this sort of decision process are easy to see. Raised hands wouldn't do, since many citizens would probably not have wanted the targets of their ostracism vote to know that they had cast it. The anonymous technologies of jury voting, on the other hand, weren't open-ended enough to handle what was quintessentially a write-in vote. Additionally, many citizens seemed to enjoy the opportunity to scratch in a punctuating sentiment ("Out with him!" or "Traitor" or even occasionally a few lines of satirizing doggerel) beneath the name of their public enemy No. 1.
Finally, let's not forget that it couldn't have been a simple matter otherwise to collect in one place 6000 potsherds suitable for patching the highways of Attica. I can well imagine the Athenian DOT letting the potholes build up in the months preceding an ostracism vote, smug in the knowledge that the citizens would soon be coming together to spare them the expense of gathering the necessary roadfill.
I can imagine, too, an Athenian child playing by the roadside some late afternoon, just after the transit workers have finally come and done their job. Intrigued by the patch of fresh gravel on the road, the child digs for "buried treasure" -- and finds it! A cache of broken pottery bits, all curiously inscribed. He takes one home and adds it to his small collection of strange found objects (a hawk's feather, a piece of amber, a bronze kleroterion ball), and as he grows into his citizenship he comes at last to understand the meaning of the ostrakon. But by then the ostracism vote has been abolished, and as this object is the closest he will have come to taking part in that tradition, he saves it, dusts it off now and then over the years, and near the end of his life takes it out to show to his grandchildren, pointing out the now legendary name carved into its surface, trying to bring to life for them a time they will nonetheless persist in thinking of as almost mythical.
No, there's nothing in the literature to support this scenario, but I've found nothing there that would rule it out either. For who's to say there weren't dead-media enthusiasts even in the ancient world?
In the final phase of the Athenian political circuit, the decisions reached by the citizenry were recorded and published. In this area of endeavor, the Athenians probably didn't break much new ground, for though the bottom-up nature of Athenian democracy was a political novelty, the top-down phenomenon of the government decree certainly was not. Autocracies of various sorts, I can only assume, had long before worked out most of the techniques the Athenians used to publicize official policies.
But I wouldn't rule out a uniquely Athenian twist here and there. The Athenian government seems to have published a *lot* of official proclamations and records, and this seems to have had as much to do with the citizens' distinctly democratic urge to keep an eye on the doings of the state as with the state's need to communicate its will to the citizens.
But if, in consequence of this distinction, there were any peculiarly Athenian innovations in the technology of decree, I'm not qualified to identify them. For that matter, I can't even say with confidence that all of the following media are entirely deceased. But they do give off a nice archaic aroma.
A. The Written Decree: Steles, Monumental Bulletin Boards, Axones
As far as I know, the stele (or, in Latin, stela) survives these days only in the form of the cemetery headstone. It is therefore close enough to death, in more ways than one, that it can very handily pass for dead.
In ancient times, however, and particularly it seems in democratic Athens, the stele was a medium much in demand, especially for official proclamations. As a big slab of rock, of course, the stele was well suited to this purpose. For being big, it was hard to ignore, especially when propped up in the middle of a well-trafficked space like the Agora. And being a slab of rock, it was not likely to blow away or otherwise succumb to the abuse of circumstance.
For these reasons, too, you might think that only proclamations of great and long-lasting import were published via stele. And indeed, a lot of the surviving steles record just that sort of text: treaties with other Greek states, fundamental laws, memorials to fallen soldiers. But just as many, it seems, are covered with administrative trivia: long lists of property confiscated by the state in legal actions, minute records of the works of public agencies, yearbook-style catalogs of the extracurricular activities of young military cohorts, published at the end of their service.
(Choice excerpt from one of the latter: "They made the voyage to Salamis for the games in honor of Aias.... They dedicated a cup worth 100 drachmas to the Mother of the Gods.... They kept harmony and friendship among themselves throughout the year." The local critics' response to such fascinating material does not survive, but we can easily imagine it: "A gripping read! I couldn't put it down! Then again... I couldn't pick it up!")
The stele, in short, was no big deal. It was simply what the government used for publishing, at least when it wanted its publication to last more than a couple weeks. For more ephemeral communications it had other means, a centrally located bulletin board being the most important of them. There, along the base of a set of statues honoring the 10 mythical founders of the Athenian tribes (called the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes), the government affixed wooden whiteboards displaying mobilization orders, drafts of new laws, and notices of lawsuits.
A more intriguing medium of proclamation -- the axones -- is mentioned in passing by the Agora Museum's literature, but its details are left maddeningly unexplained. On page 2 of the pamphlet "Life, Death, and Litigation in the Athenian Agora," a sketchy drawing is presented: A wooden frame stands upright, three square- sectioned dowels or beams installed within it, horizontally, with Greek script running along the four faces of each. The inscribed cross-beams appear to be attached to the frame by free-turning spindles, with the apparent implication that users could rotate the beams to access a desired section of text.
The caption: "Reconstruction of wooden *axones* on which the laws of Solon were recorded in the Stoa Basileios." That's it. Why the Solonic laws were displayed in this form is not discussed. Nor does the text even tell us how big the axones frame was. Taller than a person? Desktop size? If anybody out there knows more, please enlighten us.
Finally, let's consider the medium that suffuses all of the aforementioned: writing, which though hardly extinct these days, is not exactly the spring chicken it was in ancient Athens. The Greeks had after all been writing for only about 250 years by the time Athenian democracy was fully implemented, near the end of the 6th century B.C. And we who spend our leisure hours sorting live media from dead would do well to keep in mind that the distinction between young media and old can be just as interesting.
As for how writing among the Greeks may have differed from what it has become today, I won't go into such formal aspects as the absence of spaces between words, the general paucity of punctuation, and the snaking left-to- right-to-left direction of many ancient Greek inscriptions. Much has been written elsewhere on these topics.
But there is a subtler, more subjective type of difference to be discerned in the inscribed artifacts collected at the Agora, I think. I base my sense of it, somewhat tenuously, on a single recurring theme in the earliest of those inscriptions: the use of the first person to identify inanimate objects, as in, for example, "Of Tharrios I am the cup," written on the side of a cup. Or on the handle of a pitcher: "I am rightfully (the possession) of Andriskos." ("Graffiti in the Athenian Agora," figures 5 and 52)
That this was not just a jocular convention is indicated by the fact that it can also be found in an official decree of a sort -- a stele placed at the Agora's political boundary that bears the inscription "I am a boundary marker of the Agora."
What then to make of this curious practice? Though I'm aware it may in fact mean very little, I suspect it actually implies a semiconscious notion among the Greeks that writing bore the voice not just of the writer but of the object written on. I suspect, further, that this notion was as much a belief as a conceit -- as much magical as metaphorical.
And yet I don't mean to imply that the Greeks were therefore more primitive thinkers than we are. On the contrary, the nearest parallel to this phenomenon that I can think of is our own semiconscious, semimagical belief that computers speak in a voice of their own.
Computers, too, are merely a kind of inscribed object, after all. Yet look at all the computer programs that have been written as if it were they, and not their programmers, who were speaking to us through the interface. Look at all the automatic teller machines that refer to themselves in the first person, look at all the anthropo- and zoomorphized software agents coming out of comp sci labs, look at our insistent attribution of personae to "artificially intelligent" programs (Deep Blue, Eliza) that are in fact a very far cry short of HAL.
I'm not saying any of this is silly. I have in fact long sympathized with the view that thinking of computers as thinking beings (a habit the philosopher Daniel Dennett refers to approvingly as the intentional stance) is a sensible cultural response to the technology's complexity, and that it will only grow more sensible as the complexity increases.
But suddenly I find myself wondering. Are we, instead, simply in an early, passing stage of enchantment with our powerful new information technology, as the Greeks perhaps were with theirs? And will we look back someday on the symptoms of this enchantment and find them just as odd, and charming, as the talking cups and pitchers of the Athenians?
B. The Object as Decree: Tile Standard
Not all decrees can be made entirely through language. In the case of officially decreed weights and measures, for instance, some specific object must sometimes be constructed and pointed to as defining the metrological unit in question.
The Athenians, for example, evidently kept complete official sets of weights, made of bronze, in the government buildings of the Agora. They were made and overseen by the Controllers of Measures (or Metronomoi), who also kept on hand ceramic and bronze vessels that defined the official dry and liquid measures.
In this the Metronomoi were not that different from, say, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Weights and Measures, which, if I read their Web page right, keeps precision-shaped standard-setting objects on hand to calibrate measuring tools that go out for use in science and industry.
But when it comes to government requirements for specific products like wine bottles, say, or bedding, modern methods of standard-setting are much more abstract, usually involving precise, technically involved textual descriptions. NIST and other standards bodies do not, as far as I know, guard in their vaults an Official Wine Bottle or an Official Fire-Retardant Mattress, suitable for comparison with their commercial epigones.
In the case of at least one product, however, the Athenians appear to have done approximately that. Outside a civic building in the Agora, carved into the stone of a wall, were two official tiles, each defining the standard dimensions of a different type of roofing tile. This site, the museum literature observes, "must often have been the meeting place of irate buyers and makers of roof tiles so that an offending product could be compared with the standard."
Now, this is clearly as mundane a phenomenon as any I have discussed in these Notes. But let me point out nonetheless that when a tile ceases to be a tile, and becomes instead the definition of a tile, something strange and deeply human has happened. It is a moment not unlike that in which some culturally valued object -- a head of cattle, or a pretty shell, or a lump of metal -- ceases to be itself and becomes instead the definition of all things valued: becomes money.
Indeed, this weird alchemy, this transmutation of the specific object into the abstract notion, seems to be the defining feature of information technologies in general. Of media, if you will. For what, in the long run, has been the work of the Dead Media Project if not to catalog the endless variety of tangible physical phenomena -- bones, knots, sound waves, fire, air, electricity, flowers -- that humans have transformed into the abstract stuff of symbol and image?
And if the birth of Athenian democracy can also be thought of as a movement from the specific to the abstract -- from the rule of a particular person or persons to the rule, in principle, of any and all citizens -- then doesn't that imply a peculiarly resonant relationship between democracy and media? I think it does.
Abstractions, after all, are hard to believe in if you don't have some way of physically embodying them. Mathematics didn't really take off, for instance, until the Mesopotamians figured out how to squish numbers into the surfaces of clay tablets. And while it may be stretching things to say that democracy would never have taken off if the Athenians hadn't figured out a way to build its logic into the kleroterion, the allotment token, the juror ballot, the axones, and all the other physical mechanisms of its political culture, surely these tools were indispensable to democracy's robust development in the long run.
They didn't do it alone, of course. But along with the traditions, the conventions, and the citizens of Athens, they gave democracy its shape. They made it real.
Sources: Exhibits and literature of the Agora Museum in Athens, Greece, including the pamphlets "The Athenian Citizen" (revised 1987); "Life, Death and Litigation in the Athenian Agora" (1994); "Graffiti in the Athenian Agora" (revised 1988); and "Socrates in the Agora" (1978), published and sold as Picture Books No. 4, 23, 14, and 17 by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, c/o Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.
Julian Dibbell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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