Elections: How The Romans Did It There was a day when counting ballots by hand meant sorting through shards of broken pot, taking care not to break them into even smaller bits. Learn the finer points of voting — Roman style. Elaine Fantham, Weekend Edition's classics commentator, tells guest host Lynn Neary about those days and the finer points of voting, Roman style.

Elections: How The Romans Did It

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ELAINE FANTHAM: Yes, Lynn. And you hit the - I was going to say - nail on the head. Perhaps it should be the broken pot on the head.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit about how people voted during the Roman Empire. For instance, were the ballots secret?

FANTHAM: Until 140 before Christ, the Romans voted, I would call it, by acclamation. What happened was you had a voting unit, and you, as it were, shouted to members in a kind of sheep pen. And then you asked them to vote. If they were voting and electing, for instance, the chief magistrates of the year, they would show - put up a show of hands, and somebody would count the hands. And, of course, somebody would see whether your hand went up before my friend, the good guy; or your friend, the bad guy; or his friend, the worst guy.

NEARY: Once the secret ballot came in, how did they go about it? Because one of the things I always like about American elections, for example, is the sort of communal feel of it that, you know, neighbors get together and see each other and go to a school or go to a church to vote. I mean, where would they go to cast their secret ballots once they had secret ballots?

FANTHAM: We do know that the Roman secret ballot was cast by walking up a kind of gangway. The idea was that if you're walking up this bridge, nobody could overlook you and see what you'd written. You walked up this gangway and you dropped your piece of broken pot with the name or initials of the guy you were voting for into an urn, and then they were counted.

NEARY: How did you scratch those initials onto that pot? Or how did you write those initials onto that pot?

FANTHAM: Well, I think it must have been desperately difficult, honestly. And certainly, political parties seem to have hit on the bright notion that it would be a good idea to have some ready-written ballots. So that if you, as a political party, wanted everybody to elect so and so, you had a number of pieces of broken pot on which scribes and secretaries and people had scratched the name of so and so, and they would give the copy to you, which you could then drop in your urn.

NEARY: How were you eligible to vote? What were the requirements for somebody to be able to even vote?

FANTHAM: Oh, yes. That's a tricky thing. As you know, you and I had - have been disqualified from voting until about 1920, is that right?

NEARY: Right around there?

FANTHAM: Yes. Roman women were disqualified. Non-citizens, of course, were disqualified. Citizens, in theory, their votes were all of equal value, but they were put through a property qualification principle. And their census, their property qualification, meant that the rich folk had more voting units to themselves than all the poorer folk.

NEARY: How...

FANTHAM: Democracy. Ways of frustrating democracy. Of course, absolutely fascinating to find all the ingenious ways that you can frustrate democratic voting.

NEARY: Elaine Fantham, our classics commentator and professor emerita at Princeton University, joined us from Toronto. So good talking with you, Elaine.

FANTHAM: Bye-bye.

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