A Word for Wednesday

Sortition - n. [L. sortitio] Selection or appointment by lot

From what I can gather, this word was largely - almost exclusively - used in the context of politics. It actually still exists in the electoral system today, but it is used to fill lower level offices (such as selecting jurors). In ancient Anthens, though, sortition was the primary method of appointing officials. In it's entry discussing Athenian politics, the Encyclopaedia Britannica  says, "The real effect of sortition was to equalize the chances of rich and poor without civil strife. Now it is perfectly clear that it could not have been this object which impelled Solon to introduce sortition; for in his time the archonship was not open to lower classes, and, therefore, election was more democratic than sortition, whereas later the case was reversed."

The use of the lot as a tool to fill political appointments was not particular to the Greeks. It seems the Romans used it as well, as mentioned in this passage from A History of Rome During the Later Republic and Early Principate. "The existing system did not even make it possible to elect a man who would certainly have the conduct of the African war; and if we suppose that in this particular case the division of the consular provinces did not depend on the unadulterated use of the lot, but was settled by agreement or by a mock sortition, the probity rather than the genius of Metellus must have determined the choice, for Silanus was assigned a task of far more vital importance to the welfare of Rome and Italy."

Edmund Burke made a similar complaint - that the lot has no eye to choose men suitablee to the position - in Vol. III of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. "No rotation, no appointment by lot, no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects: because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty, or to accommodate the one to the other."

Sortition had one other historical use. And that was in the athletic arena. I found an article in Gerald P. Schaus' Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games that said this: "The sortition procedure [...] apparently took place near the judges' seating. Small lots (mikroi kleroi), inscribed with letters, were thrown into a silver vessel that Lucian called a kalpis, dedicated to the god. The competitors prayed to Zeus, then each on picked a lot from the vessel. A whip-wielding mastigophoros was standing by to make sure no one looked at his letter." If you think about it, we have a sortition procedure in sports today. It involves a coin, a toss, and the definite absence of whip-wielding mastigophoros ;)

Now, generally, I try to incorporate some of the history and common usage of the word into my scenes. I'm not going to be able to do that this time. I tried, I did. As it turns out, though, I am incapable (at least right now) of writing a political scene or an ancient Greek one. Go figure. Anyway, here it is:

"This is absurd," I said, trying to fasten my cuff link and keep up with Jon. "Father knows how I feel about this."

"Yes, and he's chosen to ignore your opinion. Why are you surprised? You had to know this was coming."

"I'm not. I just - will you help me with this?" I stopped and held out my arm.

He fastened my link and then straightened my cravat. "Edmund, I know you don't like this. But you must follow Father's wishes. For all our sakes."
"Jon, I will not have my future or my happiness decided by sortition."

He licked his lips and glanced at his boots. "Ed, if you do not - "

"I know. Believe me," I took a breath. "I know."

He met my gaze again. "Tread carefully then, brother."

I nodded and he left me to face the ponderous double doors alone.


  1. Political scenes are hard, anyway. Besides, your excerpt is great the way it is. You do choose interesting words. How do you decide which word to use? Was this a random pick?

    Anyway, I hope you're having a great weekend. ;)

  2. No kidding, espcially an Athenian political scene. That was definitely beyond me without extensive research.

    I go through the dictionary one page at a time looking for unfamiliar words. Unless one strikes me rigth away (which has happened - I get the story idea just from reading the definition), I'll normally find two or three words. Then I'll do a quick search on all of them and pick the one that has the most interesting backgroud or usage.

    I'm having a wonderful weekend. Autumn has arrived, so I am very happy :) I hope your weekend is as good as mine.


Do share your thoughts - I enjoy reading them :)