Tuesday, 14 February 2012

UBU AGM: Athenian Democracy in Practice?

I'm sure most of you in Bristol attended, or heard about the AGM at Bristol Uni last week, but a quick recap for everyone else:

On Thursday of last week, (9/2/12), the University of Bristol Students' Union held their Annual General Meeting (AGM). This is a chance for students to propose motions about the things that affect and concern them; the chance to speak against motions that they think are a bad idea, and ultimately to vote on the things they'd like the Union to do in the next year. It is, notably, not when we elect officials; their campaigns are coming later.

A 19th century painting of the Athenian Assembly. 
Sadly, no-one at the AGM had so awesome a hat, but I may propose the Chair wear such a hat as a motion next year.

How could a bunch of students hope to imitate the practises of democratic Athens?


The student AGM, like Athens, practises direct democracy. This means that every citizen, or member of the Students' Union is entitled to attend, and vote or abstain as they please. Most modern democracies, including Britain and the USA practise indirect democracy: we elect people to speak on our behalf at our assembly (or Parliament). However, there is nowhere near enough room in the Union Building, or the university, for all of the student body to be accommodated, if they chose to attend. Even 50% of the student body would present serious difficulties:  there are almost 20,000 of us. Therefore, attendance is merely those people who are interested, and not busy with something else, and usually with a vested interest. Are these people representative of the student body? How would we find out?

Athens may have been faced with similar problems. We do not have any exact population data for Athens (I'm afraid there are no ancient statistics. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong or lying), but there were almost certainly more Athenian citizens than students, and probably not enough space for them. Many citizens also owned land, and farmed it for a living; Athens was an agrarian economy, and very dependent on grain coming into the city. If you lived more than a day's walk from the city, you would probably only attend at important elections, or if you were in the city anyway, either fleeing the Spartans or coming to celebrate a festival.  As many modern day farmers will tell you, it's hard work, and leaves little time for politics.

However, the Greeks in general and the Athenians in particular were very, very keen on politics. While ignoring the AGM might (at worst) get you branded as 'apathetic', an Athenian would call you itiotes: a person not interested in politics. It is from this word that we get out modern 'idiot'. There is also a fun myth that slaves would walk through the streets with a cloth barrier dipped in red paint, herding the citizens to the assembly. Anyone with red on his toga ('...you've got a bit of red on you') would be shamed for the rest of the day.


Obviously, you can't expect a bunch of students (or politicians) to attend a meeting without providing adequate refreshments. Athenians almost certainly brought food and drink to sustain them while they spent the day listening to grown men insulting each other, I mean, making serious speeches about things. And by 'drink' we should read 'wine': water was usually unsafe, and no-one thought of fruit juice unless you let it ferment

 Incredibly ornate Greek wine mug. You probably wouldn't take something this nice to the Assembly.

At the AGM we were enticed in with pizza and drinks, and a local company thought to advertise themselves on top of cupcakes. I have no memory of the name on them,  but they were good cupcakes.

It seems plausible that voters were 'bribed' with food and drink; they certainly were in Roman elections a few centuries later. Many of the attendees would have been poor, with their citizenship status the only real difference between themselves and migrant workers, or worse: slaves. It is hard to imagine that Athenian politicians would fail to capitalise on this opportunity.


All politics, it seems, rests on the powers of speech making. At the AGM, speakers were limited to two minutes. In Athens, it was a good deal longer than that, but still timed by water clock. It was considered the mark of a good statesman to speak exactly to time. Anyone who has read Thucydides or Herodotus knows just how many speeches there seemed to be, and how long they went on for. Often, you can imagine these speeches being spoken pretty much as they are by modern politicians. Demothenes' On the Crown and Pericles' Funeral Oration in Thucydides are good examples. Don't believe me? Go read them for yourself, and imagine David Cameron or Ed Milliband speaking.

'And furthermore, I refer my honoured colleague to the recent publication in The Times...'

The popularity or reputation of the speaker could often influence the vote, regardless of what was actually said. The same kind of behaviour appeared at the AGM: 'So and so is speaking against... I think I'll vote for.'


Voting at the AGM was done by remote control, and in a couple of minutes we had the results on the screen. In Athens, there were far too many people at full Assembly to vote by lot, so they did it by show of hands. Obviously, this meant that you could win a close vote by bribing the counting officials, who had to do it by eye. There were some things considered important enough to put to a secret ballot, however. The most famous was the Ostracism vote: all the citizens were asked to choose who they thought was best able to establish a tyranny (one man rule) over Athens. They would write his name down on a pot sherd (below) and then these would be counted. The person with the post votes was then exiled for ten years, to make sure that he couldn't establish this tyranny, but his property was not siezed by the state. When his term was up, he could return and reclaim his place in politics. 

Ostracon bearing the name 'Cimon' an Athenian statesman and possible Spartan sympathiser.

'Just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you'- attributed to Pericles, Athenian leader, and (according to Thucydides) the greatest statesman that ever lived.


  1. How did their voting system compare? Did they construct column-graphs of the results by building physical columns?

    1. While they didn't compile graphs of results, they were almost certainly published somewhere public, so that people could see the record.

      As I said in the post, they voted by show of hands, which was approximate, however, they could have picked the Spartan Method. The Spartans decided by which side could shout the loudest. I'm sure you can see the problems there: what if one of them was Brian Blessed?