July 16, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein

The Dionysia Drama Contest

In the many national and international competitions for literary and artistic prizes, there are two basic methods of determining the result.  The most common, perhaps, is to choose a panel of judges (generally composed of professional experts), let them deliberate behind closed doors, and wait for a verdict which all the members of the panel are prepared to agree on or at any rate to accept.  But in some cases the decision is reached by a voting procedure, most spectacularly in the Eurovision Song Contest, which is decided by the votes of all the participating countries (including those which did not reach the final).  Formerly each country appointed a jury, but now the voting is done by public telephone poll, under the constraint that no one may vote for his or her own country.  The system has notorious flaws (the presence in some countries of large expatriate communities, the tendency of kindred peoples such as Greeks and [Greek] Cypriots to vote for each other, etc.), but it usually produces a clear winner whom those in the know generally acknowledge to have been the best of the year (even if those not in the know can’t always fathom why), and no one cares very much about any of the lesser places except for that occupied by their own country.

In classical Athens, the competitions in tragedy, comedy and dithyramb (choral lyric compositions, nominally in honour of Dionysus), at festivals such as the City Dionysia, were judged by ten-man panels selected by lot from longer lists of nominees; except by a rare accident, the judges would not be professional dramatists or poets, and such expertise as they might possess would only be that of the educated and experienced spectator (like all Athenians holding positions of public responsibility, they would have to be at least thirty years old).  One of Aristophanes’ comic choruses can happily divide the judges into the two classes of “intellectuals” and “those who enjoy a laugh” (of course they solicit the votes of both groups alike).  The judges were under oath to give a fair and impartial decision, but comedy generally assumes that they were very susceptible to evidence of the preferences of those sitting beyond and behind them.

How did they vote, though?  As so often happens when we ask questions about the working of institutions in the ancient world, there is no systematic account surviving, and we are dependent on incidental remarks in texts of all kinds.  One thing that we know for certain is that in tragedy and comedy, at least, the judging process resulted in a complete ranking order of the competitors from first to last.  Another is that not all the judges’ votes were actually counted; it was proverbial that victory lay “in the lap of five judges”, and a speaker in a court case regrets that he cannot bring proof of how his opponent had voted in a dithyrambic contest, because his voting tablet “was not drawn in the lottery”.  It is unlikely that each individual judge wrote down a complete ranking, and even more unlikely that the result was determined (as that of the Eurovision Song Contest is) by any sort of points system.  The best proposal yet made was put forward by Toph Marshall and Stephanie van Willigenburg in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, volume 124 (2004), pages 90-107.  The following is my summary of the procedure they envisage.

1. Each judge wrote on his tablet the name of the competitor he thought the best (and probably also his own name, since it was apparently known afterwards who had voted for whom).

2. Five of the ten tablets were drawn at random and read; the competitor with most votes was declared the winner.

3. In the event of a tie, two further tablets were drawn, and if there was still no clear winner, one more was drawn at a time, if necessary until all ten tablets had been read, but stopping as soon as there was one competitor alone in first place.

4. Any tablets that had not been read were destroyed or erased.

5. Competitors other than the winner were ranked in order of the number of votes they had received; if two or more contestants had tied with (say) one vote each, preference was given to the first to reach that score.

As so far described, this system makes no provision for the situation in which two or more contestants had received no votes at all.  Now Plato in book nine of the Republic refers to a figure called “the all-through judge”, and the context shows that this means a judge who ranked all the competitors from top to bottom; so it looks as though the voteless tail-enders were ranked, in effect, by this single judge.  Perhaps one of the judges was simply chosen by lot and asked to declare his ranking of the tail-enders orally; perhaps all the judges were asked to write down such a ranking, and one of their tablets was then drawn at random and read.  At any rate, the lower places mattered:  Aristophanes was proud of having gained second place on debut, and one of his rivals (confusingly named Plato), who finished fourth the first time he directed one of his plays in person, found that he was not selected for the next year’s City Dionysia.

The system ingeniously combines quality assessment with a considerable element of what we would call chance; Athenians probably saw the latter as giving the god of the festival an opportunity to take part in the judging.  This may have made it easier to accept a close defeat without resentment:  the loser could tell himself, sometimes truthfully, that if the tablets had been drawn in a different order he might (or even would) have won.  The artist, and the country, who come a close second in the Eurovision Song Contest can have no such consolation.

Posted in Uncategorized