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A Lotta Lotteries


LAST Tuesday, I was lured into a glittering shop in the Plaka by a modern ancient Greek sign in the window promising me 200 million drachmas. Inside, I bought a lottery ticket for 150 drachmas and left knowing that in a couple of days I would be incredibly wealthy. This is nothing new; it turns out that the lottery has been played in Athens for over 2.5 millennia.

Emerging from major democratic reforms in Athens , firstly by Solon, Archon and Mediator, in the first decade of the 6th century BC, and later by Kleisthenes at the close of that century, a new system came into play. This was the ancient Athenian lottery referred to since then as the "Tzoker"... Well, not really.

Prizes for winning the lottery were not cash-in-hand, but instead came in the form of a seat, for one year, on the Athenian Boule (Vouli), the governing council. This was made up of 400 male citizens over 30 years of age from the ten tribes of Athens and its environs. Later, Kleisthenes added another 100 members, for murky reasons, probably closely linked to rich people being perilously sore about not winning.

In itself, the post of Bouleuai (or parliamentarian) might have been a nice little earner, especially in times of prosperity or successful foreign expeditions such as the transfer of the treasury of the Delian League in the middle of the 5th century BC from Delos to Athens . Those on the Boule chosen by lot were also paid a token amount since this job was a full time responsibility - ie as many modern ancient Greeks do, sitting around the agora sipping wine and discussing political intrigue and hot favourites in the future Olympic Games.

Among the 500 men (50 from each of the ten tribes), there was an add-on lotto, much like the Proto. One man would be drawn by lot each day to be the president of the proceedings in Athens . His job involved being Epistate at the meetings of the Boule and the chairman of any meetings of the assembly, the Ekklesia. He would be given the keys to the Prytaneion.

The interesting thing is that if one won the lottery and served on the Boule, one was in charge of receiving foreign ambassadors, and undertaking the day-to-day affairs of the state such as leasing of temple lands and controlling the public till. I leave this to your imagination.

At that time in Greece , there were 30,000 eligible men for the post of Bouleftis. So, the chance of getting in was 1:60. Not bad odds.

Today your lottery-winning chances are much slimmer. Of course that doesn't stop me from trying to make it. The part of the money that doesn't go to the lucky winner is spent by the government on various "institutions and charities". But remember, this is a poor man's tax, a way for the modern ancient Bouleftes to raise more government funds.

The system of lottery for Boule positions lasted well into the Roman period, going on into the 1st century AD. I don't know why this fashion fizzled out. Maybe they ran out of pure-blooded Athenians.

Of course, there's always a connection between money and politics, in any civilisation. Today, winning that kind of money means you could become like many ancient modern Greeks who turn their wealth into a political career. And, in this way, extend their influence and expand their wealth.

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