Is Democracy Western? The Case of Sortition

Recently I was asked to review Liliane Lopez-Rabatel and Yves Sintomer’s edited volume Sortition and Democracy: History, Tools, Theories (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2020) for Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought. I’ve sumitted the review, which should come out later this year in issue 38.3, but the journal’s word limit for reviews, and the richness of Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s collection, left me with some additional material in my notes that I thought I would write up here.

The debate about Western Civilization continues to rage, with several different points of contention. Is the idea of a distinctive Western tradition even coherent? If so, which cultures should we include in it? Can it be seen as having roots in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, or is this simply a later construct? What social and cultural practices can really be said to have been distinctively Western?

Among the more hotly-debated questions is whether democracy has Western roots. Traditional narratives see modern liberal democracy as a continuation, or at least a revival, of Greco-Roman political ideas; the word dēmokratia, the power of the people, is, after all, a Greek coinage. Revisionist scholars, by contrast, emphasize the discontinuities between ancient Greek and modern democracies, and draw attention to evidence for democratic ideas and structures in non-Western contexts — contexts which they think haven’t been given the scholarly attention they deserve.

Let’s look briefly at some of the ways this debate is playing out with respect to three things that have often been associated with democracy: democratic ideology, majority decision-making, and the use of random allotment or sortition in politics.

Ideology, Majority Decision-Making, The Lot

Democratic ways of thinking — which have included ideals from political equality to reasoned discusssion — have been detected in a range of cultures, including ancient Mesopotamia and India. It’s undeniable, though, that contemporary democratic constitutions across the world (including those of India and Iraq) owe more to Western state-forms than to local traditions. And it’s long been asked how much modern Western democratic ideology itself owes to the Greeks and Romans.

The answer, as often in intellectual history, is ‘It’s complicated.’ Certainly, for most of Western intellectual history, Athenian democracy was seen as the antitype of good government, not a prototype for it. At the same time, when Westerners did start reviving ideas of freedom and equality, it was often the classical past that they turned to. Even if Greek democratic ideas were long disparaged, they remained part of the Western conversation about politics, ready to be taken up in a more positive way when the conditions were more propitious (which is what eventually happened in the late 18th and 19th centuries, especially in France, the US, and Britain).

To take just one example: as Egon Flaig has shown, when early modern and modern Westerners did argue for majority decision-making, they tended to do so in Greek terms. That’s not to say, of course, that majority decision-making was completely absent from non-Western cultures, and in fact Flaig and others have found evidence for it from ancient Indian city-states through to medieval Japanese monsateries, with Buddhist monasticism as the key means by which this particular tradition was carried forward through time. But it’s the Western tradition (with outposts in Iceland and in Jewish communities) that seems to have been the main vector by which majority-decision making survived and, eventually, propagated itself to the rest of the world.

So while skeptics have rightly pointed out that neither democratic ideas not majority decision-making are unique to the West, it’s in the West that these things were most enthusiastically taken up in modernity; and in both cases Westerners had some encouragement from the ancient Greeks. Now consider that claim that Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer make in their introduction:

While the practice of divinatory sortition was used in a wide variety of civilizations, the political use of random selection was largely (though not exclusively) developed in the West, where it became particularly widespread and increasingly rationalized. (p. 6)

If this is right, the history of sortition would look quite similar to the histories of democratic ideology and majority decision-making. But to what extent do the historical studies that make up the bulk of their volume support this contention?

Sortition in the (Near) East

The earliest piece of evidence for political sortition discussed in the volume, and one of the most fascinating, is the cube of Yahalu. Slightly less than twice the size of a standard modern die, the cube has a cuneiform inscription on four of its sides, in which it announces itself as

…the lot

of Yahalu,

the great chamberlain

of Shal-


King of Assyria,

the governor of Kipshuni… (p. 34)

According to Lucio Milano, who describes the cube in his contribution to Sortition and Democracy, the sortition of the eponym (a high official) in Assyria, a procedure called limmu, is reasonably well-documented. And we have an ancient list of eponyms that tells us that Yahalu served in this role on no fewer than three occasions during the reign of Shalmeneser III (859–824 BC). So, case closed: Yahalu was one of many Assyrian high officials who was selected by random allotment, and we even have the lot that was used to select him.

Actually, as Milano puts it, ‘the issue of sortition when applied to eponym selection is…more complex than it might initially seem.’ This was, he writes, ‘a type of sortition whose results had to correspond, at least from a certain period onward, to specific, predetermined criteria.’ ‘In fact,’ he continues

under some of the rulers, the sequence of eponyms wasn’t left to chance, and was instead (pre)set, at least for the first few years — and then in later years the selection of a governor from one province as opposed to another as eponym was evidently subject to criteria shaped by political opportunity or convenience. (pp. 33–34)

As for Yahalu’s cube, it’s not clear whether it was actually used to select Yahalu for office, or was ‘created with a celebratory inscription after the fact’ (as Milano himself is inclined to believe).

That’s not to say that there isn’t other evidence for allotment in the ancient Near East. It’s there in divination, in the Hittite practice of eliciting oracular responses from a ‘fortuitous configuration of a series of symbols placed within a set divinatory space’ (Milano again). It’s there in the Assyrians’ use of lots to divide up inheritances. And it’s also present on the mythological plane, for example at the beginning of the 18th-century BC Akkadian epic the Atrahasis, where Anu, Ellil, and Enki draw lots to divide the earth and the heavens between them.

Both of these last two examples are referred to with forms of the Babylonian term isqu (𒄑 𒄣). But there are other terms for ‘lot,’ among them the Assyrian word pūru (𒁍 𒌑 𒊒) which appears on the famous Black Obelisk of Shalmeneser III (where another eponym may or may not be announcing his selection by lot). It also appears in the Hebrew Bible, most notably in this passage:

For Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of all the Jews, had plotted to destroy the Jews, and had cast pur — that is, the lot — with intent to crush and exterminate them. But when [Esther] came before the king, he commanded: ‘With the promulgation of this decree, let the evil plot which he decided against the Jews recoil on his own head!’ So they impaled him and his sons on the stake. For that reason these days were named Purim, after pur. (Esther 9:20–24)

Pur is not a Hebrew term (though it’s written פּוּר), as is clear from the phrase ‘that is, the lot’ (where it’s glossed with the word gôral, גּוֹרָל). Nonetheless, as the passage explains, the Assyrian term went into the name of a Jewish festival — one which is celebrated to this day.

This section was (hopefully obviously) not intended as an exhaustive discussion of the evidence for allotment in the ancient Near East. Nonetheless, the impression I came away with after reading Milano’s learned contribution was this. Evidence for allotment for purposes of distributing inheritances and for divination is not scarce. There are some scattered indications that it was also used in other ways (including whatever precisely Haman was doing with it). The evidence for allotment in political contexts, specifically as a way of selecting officials, is tantalizing but, at this stage, also somewhat uncertain and ambiguous.

Sortition in the (Far) East

The one contribution in Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s volume that examines sortition in a far-eastern context is Pierre-Étienne Will’s ‘Appointing Officials by Drawing Lots in Late Imperial China (1594–1911).’

Will’s study focusses on the system for alloting officials to posts introduced by the Ming-era mandarin Sun Peiyang (1532–1614), which, he says, ‘would be preserved until the empire’s final days.’ But he also claims that ‘historical sources mention several [other, earlier] instances of administrative posts being attributed through random selection.’ He goes on:

As early as the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), we hear that local officials in Zhejiang province were appointed by drawing lots…Likewise, it is reported that, in 1371, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the founder of the Ming dynasty (r. 1368–1398) subjected the winners of the first palace examination of the new Ming dynasty to a similar process of drawing lots…On two occasions, in 1556 and 1628 respectively, the Ming emperor is said to have resorted to drawing lots to select the members of his grand secretariat…Random selection appears to have adopted at one point during the Ming dynasty to attribute internships to the students of the Imperial University in the various metropolitan administrations…The same method of ‘drawing lots’ in public (nianjiu) appears to have been used to select and promote clerks in various ministries. (pp. 307–308)

It would appear, then, that we have quite good evidence for sortition in political and administrative context in China, from the Yuan period on. The lot was used to select officials (both at the local and imperial levels), sometimes in tandem with the examination system.

In these cases, allotment will have been from a pre-selected group, the already-elite set of successful examination candidates. In addition, recourse to allotment seems to have been somewhat sporadic, with the Ming emperors resorting to it to select secretariat members only twice.

Nevertheless, as the rest of Will’s contribution documents, random apportionment of mandarins to high office was a routine feature of both the Ming and the Qing administrations. Will’s treatment of the Chinese evidence constitues only one chapter of Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s volume, which contains no fewer than thirteen historical studies of sortition in the West (with four focussing on Rome, three each on Greece and Switzerland, two on Italy, and one on France). But does the Chinese evidence not undermine the editors’ claim that political sortition has been ‘particularly widespread’ in the West?

Sortition in the West

That depends on whether the attention paid to Western and non-Western instances of sortition in the volume — and in scholarship more broadly — is an accurate reflection of how commonly political allotment was used across the globe. We’ll return to that issue in the concluding section.

For now, though, it might be worth considering what a central and radical role sortition sometimes played in Western cultures. Some six hundred out of Athens’ roughly seven hundred domestic officials were randomly selected, and Aristotle tells us that allotting officials was generally thought by the Greeks to be democratic, while electing them was seen as more oligarchic.

Allotment was also widespread in early modern Switzerland. As Antoine Chollet and Aurèle Dupuis detail in their contribution to the volume, this was the case not only in the city-states, but also in villages and cantons. In Glarus (one of the only cantons which still holds direct-democratic mass assemblies today), all 5400 or so citizens were liable to be alloted certain public offices — whether they were eager to perform them or not! This was more radical even than the Athenians, who randomly distributed positions only among men who had volunteered for them.

Contrast this with Will’s examples of political sortition in China, most of which involve already elite men being randomly appointed to high offices within a larger imperial framework. Whether this contrast is fair — how typical Glarus was of sorition in the West, and Sun Peiyang’s system of sortition in the (Far) East — is a question we will have to defer for now.

So, for now, let’s consider a different question. However much political, and even democratic, sortition there was in the West precisely, to what extent was that indebted to a Western cultural tradition?

We can start with Italian city-states, where by the 13th century, according to Lorenzo Tanzini’s essay in Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s volume, use of the lot to select public officials was the rule rather than the exception. Tanzini briefly discusses the evidence for public allotment in Florence, Venice, Volterra, Modena, Cremona, and Perugia.

Where did these city-states get the idea? Probably not, Tanzini says, directly from the Church, even if it had found some use for voting, elections, and sortition over its first thousand or so years. As for the idea that the Italians were ‘consciously imitating the practices of ancient Roman municipalities (municipia),’ that, in Tanzini’s judgment, ‘is no longer a viable argument.’ For him, there is no ‘direct line of descent’ linking sortition in the Italian city-states with ancient Greece or Rome.

And yet…And yet discussion of sortition in 13th-century Italy was often intimately bound up with discussion of Greek texts. Albertus Magnus’ mid-century commentary on Aristotle’s Politics (which discusses the Greeks’ use of sortition) is full of cross-references to the Italian city-states of his time. Tanzini concludes that, though ancient texts were ‘not at the root’ of the Italian city-states’ sortitive habit, they did help ‘consolidate’ and ‘legimitize’ them by providing ‘traditional precedents.’

What about the Swiss fondness for allotment? Was that inspired by the Greeks? To Chollet and Dupuis, ‘it seems improbable.’ In fact, it’s not even clear that the Swiss took their cue from the Italian city-states: at least, Chollet and Dupuis know of no references to medieval Italian sortition in the sources from Glarus. They note a final possible influence in the form of the Bible, but conclude in the end that the most likely source of public sortition in early modern Switzerland was ‘the practices of distributing rare goods in Alpine communities.’

Might there be a little more room for cultural influence even in Switzerland? The idea that use of the lot was ‘consolidated and legitimized’ by ancient texts may have something to say for it here too. After all, the Church’s occasional use of sortition for selection of clergy (a word which comes ultimately from Greek klērοs/κλῆρος, the lot) was often justified by references to allotment in scripture — as, for example in the selection of Mathias to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1.26). And, as Chollet and Dupuis admit, ‘the learned people of the time did know something of Athenian and Roman customs’ including allotment, as shown by the English Puritan Thomas Gataker’s treatise on the topic.

This isn’t to argue that the influence of these ancient texts was a straightforward one. Scriptural references to sortition didn’t stop Pope Honorius III from banning the use of the lot in religious contexts in 1225. And the Florentine humanist Lorenzo Bruni, in his critique of allotment in political contexts, didn’t hold back in drawing on what he saw as the misadventures of ancient polities. If ancient texts did play a role, then, it was simply to keep the idea of public allotment around, and in a form that allowed anyone who did want to argue in favour of it to do so with a certain added gravitas.

That’s consistent with those who did argue for, or even introduce, sortition in their polities doing so largely for their own reasons — because they thought it would be more democratic, to serve their own political purposes, or even because they thought it helped God’s will to show itself in political affairs. It’s also consistent with other factors playing a predominant role in the re-discovery of public allotment in medieval and early modern Europe. Did these new practices have more to do with economic factors such as growth or levels of inequality than with cultural traditions? Possibly.

But cultural traditions may still have had an impact in the modest and roundabout manner I’ve outlined. And it might be worth considering now, in the light of what we’ve seen so far, a few different ways that we might sketch out a global history of allotment.

Three Narratives

The first narrative we could write would stress non-cultural factors in the re-discovery of sortition. Economic growth and democracy are associated (even though, in the modern world at least, democracy tends to be associated with levels of GDP that were only reached after the industrial revolution). So was the use of sortition in the early modern period to a large extent driven by relatively high levels of growth, both in Western Europe and in Qing China?

Maybe, though the geography is a bit off: it was Holland and England that grew the fastest in the run-up to the industrial revolution. But it is possible that overall rates of growth in Western Europe combined with the particularities of Swiss history (small polities and so on) to bring back the lot. The timing is a bit off, too, since early modern growth can’t explain the revival of sortition in medieval Italy (let alone Ming and Yuan China). Still, these societies were among the richest in their regions before the time of the Black Death.

If that’s a possible narrative, but maybe not the easiest one to defend, we could also tell a story that gives more weight to intellectual traditions. Here we face a fork in the road. Should we look at the civilizations of the ancient Near East as the earliest foundations of the West, or as the foundations of a separate, Near-/Middle-Eastern cultural stream (in which case the Greeks might have to take over as the inaugurators of the Western tradition)?

Let’s take the first path first. If we do, we can tell a story like this. Public sortition had its origins in the ancient Near East, in particular in the neo-Assyrian Empire that emerged after the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations around 1200 BC. It may have played a largely ceremonial role, and wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination employed democratically, but through the Hebrew Bible it maintained a presence in the Western tradition where, together with ancient Greek texts, it later helped nudge political sortition back into existence in medieval and Renassiance Italy and in early modern Switzerland.

This is a viable path, and a tellable narrative, though we should note that there’s no suggestion in it that allotment in the ancient Near East were the source of the Greeks’ political allotment. Is there evidence for this? Maybe there is, and I haven’t yet read enough about the earliest origins of Greek sortition! But let’s now turn back and explore that other path, the one that took the Greeks to be the true inaugurators of the Western tradition.

Paul Demont, both in his contribution to Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s volume and in his other work, has stressed the religious origins of the ancient Greek use of the lot. But if we can argue that political sortition in Greek city-states emerged partly from a desire to have the gods’ will revealed, can we not also argue that the sortition of priests (for example) emerged partly from a distinctly Greek concern with equality?

We then have to ask where that distinctive egalitarianism came from. The vagaries of culture no doubt played a role. Geographical factors may have had a hand too. As, almost certainly, did random catastrophe: if Piketty and Scheidel are right that egalitarianism follows a collapse (and the fall of pre-existing elites), it may be that Greece’s especially hard fall after the crashing end of the Bronze Age Near East laid the ground for this ultimately democratic practice as well as for other more egalitarian institutions. In this final story, then, it was a distinctively (and disruptively) Greek approach to politics that made possible the resurgence of political sorition in later European history — even if the transmission of ancient democratic ideas into modern practices was anything but straightforward.


Let’s now go back, finally, to the broader issue of whether democracy comes from the Western tradition. As we saw at the beginning of this piece, although neither democratic ideology nor majority-decision making were handed down to us from the Greeks in any direct manner, both stayed around in the Western tradition in a way that may have given European nations the right of first refusal.

Sortition isn’t always used democratically, as Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer stress, but it often has been, and the strongly democratic cultures that grew up in ancient Greece and early modern Switzerland gave it a central role. And it would seem that it, too, may well have been something that Westerners were slightly more likely to take up, quite possibly in part because of its presence in their cultural traditions.

Here there’s an interesting, if tangential, point. Christian and Jewish conservatives often claim that their religions (often jointly, in the form of a ‘Judaeo-Christian’ tradition) helped lay the groundwork for Western liberal democracy. There are some other hypotheses about how this might have worked — for example, through unusually strict norms about monogamy, which may be associated with economic and political egalitarianism.

But monogamy is foundational to the Judaeo-Christian tradition — see the seventh and tenth commandments. In the case of sortition, on the other hand, the Judaeo-Christian tradition may have played a role, not by explicitly sanctioning sortition as part of a belief-system, but simply by acting as a vehicle that conveyed a practice that originated in the ancient world into modern Europe (with some help from its ancient scriptures).

Of course, accounts that seek to explain why political sortition was more common in the West all depend on the assumption that it actually was. That, in turn, depends on how representative our sampling has been of historical cultures around the world. My own impression at this stage, despite the significant advances being made by volumes like Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer’s, is that there are still far fewer scholars studying allotment in Eastern cultures than Western ones. Do you know of other evidence for political sortition in non-Western cultures? If so, please do share it in the comments below.

In the meantime, it would seem that political allotment belongs with democratic ideology and majority decision-making as components of democracy that have been more common in Western than non-Western history; and that were probably given a helpful nudge by a Western cultural tradition with roots in the overlapping Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian cultural spheres.

Senior Lecturer in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington. Ancient democracy, classical liberalism, Old Comedy.