For anyone who has ever been inconvenienced by attending jury duty in Australia, rest assured that your experience was probably not as onerous as being empanelled for jury duty in ancient Athens. One of the smaller bronze objects in our latest exhibition, Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, gives an insight into one year of jury duty in the ancient Greek world. It is a pinakion, or personal identification tag for a juror, which has been broken into two pieces and in total measures only 10 centimetres in length. The surface is stamped with an owl resting on an olive branch and a gorgon head, representing Athens and the court to which the juror was attached. You can see the name of the pinakion's owner roughly punched in the Greek alphabet: Thucydides of the deme of Upper Lamptrae, one of the 10 regional tribes of Athens.
Ancient Athens was famous for its law courts. The playwright Aristophanes savaged them in his comedy The Wasps, a play focusing on the age-old gulf in political beliefs between a son and his father, the son a young man aspiring to a new political order and the father a vexatious old man addicted to jury service. The play mocks the judicial system of the city, in which 6000 Athenians - at least, those who were male, free born and over the age of 30 - could enrol themselves for jury duty each year. These juries formed the stinging "wasps" of Aristophanes' play. In comparison to most trials in Australia, Athenian juries were enormous. They could comprise 200, 500, 1000 or 1500 people, and sometimes even the full complement of 6000 enrolled jurors. Each potential juror was issued one of these bronze tags which confirmed their identity and was used to allocate them to trials. On the day of a trial, the prospective jurors appeared before a magistrate in charge of selecting a jury and participated in the following process, which Aristotle described in The Athenian Constitution. They inserted their tags into a selection device known as the kleroterion, following which black and white balls were drawn from a tube. Black balls dismissed the first row of candidates and white selected them for service. This continued until the full damning of jurors was selected. This practice of random selection was designed to establish an impartial jury, while their scale was supposed to prevent corruption. It was also an important part of Athenian democracy, ensuring that all citizens who put themselves forward for this service had an equal chance of active service. Once the full jury was assigned, these identification tags were then returned to the empanelled jurors to grant them a few obols to purchase a modest lunch.
Thousands of these bronze identification tags were once produced, although only a few have survived today. As official administrative items, they were supposed to be returned at the end of each year. Many have been discovered during excavations in the Athenian agora where the law courts were located, often with evidence of re-use. In such cases a juror's identity has been erased and replaced with another's. However, identification tags have also been found in burials. This particular tag is in such a good state of preservation, with no evidence of re-use, that it was likely discovered in a burial too - although, we unfortunately have no information about its discovery and archaeological context. After all, Thucydides had good reason to be so proud of this pinakion that he wanted to bring it with him on his journey to the afterlife. Made from bronze, it was a valuable object which declared his status as a citizen and acknowledged his service to the state. The tendency to keep hold of these tags rather than return them at the end of a year's service probably explains why they were replaced with wooden versions in the mid-4th century BCE. This change in material is recorded only through literary evidence and no wooden tags have survived in the archaeological record.
The British Museum purchased Thucydides' pinakion in 1895 from Jean P Lambros, a dealer in Athens who advertised himself in contemporary guidebooks and auction manuals as "the oldest and most reliable dealer in coins and antiquities in Greece" and who sold widely to museums throughout Europe. You can find it on display in Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.