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Judges for Greek Plays were Randomly Selected

Aug. 21st, 2010 | 03:41 pm

When folks criticize the competitive nature of the poetry slam, I often mention Greek classical theatre as an example of a competition that inspired artistic excellence. I always assumed that these competitions were judged by some panel of experts, clerics, or former playwrights. Nope. These competitions were judged by randomly selected citizens, not unlike the slam.

The Athenians were much more interested in creating a panel of unbiased judges, than a panel of experts. If you were a citizen of any of the ten tribes of Athens, in good standing, and didn’t have any special relationship to the playwrights themselves, then you could be selected as a judge.

Even after the ten judges had ranked the playwrights, their ballots were placed in a urn. Five were drawn and used to make the final decision; the other five were destroyed. Another use of random selection to insure fairness, although this might also have been done to protect the judges themselves. If a judge was cornered by an outraged spectator, they could always say their vote wasn’t drawn and the results weren’t their fault.

From The Making of Theatre History by Paul Kuritz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988):

Later in the day the city council met with the choregoi [1] to begin the selection of judges. Ten lists of judges from among the ten Athenian tribes were deposited in ten urns, one for each tribe. Sealed and deposited under guard in the Acropolis, the urns were protected by a sentence of death to anyone who tampered with them. On the first day of the festival, the urns were placed in the Theatre of Dionysis, the site of the performances, before all whose names were in the urns. The archon [2] drew one name from each urn; each of these ten judges took a solemn oath to render an impartial verdict.

[1] The choregoi were wealthy citizens who paid a part of the cost for theater productions. It was considered a form of public service.

[2] The archon, or archon eponynus, was Athen’s chief civil magistrate, essentially he was the managing director of the City Dionysia festival, the competition where most of the greatest works of Greek drama were staged.

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