According to this question - Why did non-monarchic rule meet with so little success in ancient China?, elections in the ancient era were mostly conducted in city-states, due to feasibility, logistical and political reasons.

How were the big elections in the ancient era like? Any record about how big the biggest elections were, in terms of number of voters or in terms of geographic coverage? Let's define the ancient era as "from the beginning of recorded history (c. 4000 B.C.) until the fall of the Roman Empire (c. A.D. 500).", as defined in

  • 1
    @Luke according to the tag wiki of ancient-history, it is defined as "from the beginning of recorded history (c. 4000 B.C.) until the fall of the Roman Empire (c. A.D. 500)."
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 23:08
  • @Luke done. added the definition
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 0:14
  • Have you seen the update to my answer? Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 9:29

1 Answer 1


Presumably this would be ancient Rome during the early Empire. The best numbers available come, I think, from Augustus' official autobiography. The English text can be found here. In paragraph 8 he says that in the Empire-wide census of 14CE "were counted 4,937,000 of the heads of Roman citizens". Now, it seems to be a vexing questions for historians what this number actually means - some think it includes women and children, who could not vote. Also, a great number of the citizens didn't live in Rome so could not vote.

How many voting citizens resided in Rome then? Well, in paragraph 15 Augustus goes on to say: "I gave to 320,000 plebs of the city HS 240 per man". So, I'd say 320,000 is your brutto number. How many of those actually bothered to show up for the elections? I don't know; to judge by modern participation ratios, it could be as few as 20%, i.e. 64,000.

Of course, it is rather ironic that absolutely nothing hinged on the result of the elections at that time.

EDIT: Playing it safely, we can go for Athens at its height. There are various estimates of how many citizens there were, but 50,000 is very near the top of the high end. There we can presume a very high participation ratio (Athens, the birthplace of direct democracy and all that). So I'd shoot at about 40,000. Maybe Republican Rome had more but not by an order of a magnitude. Perhaps experts on Roman assemblies could weigh in here.

EDIT2: The modern high end estimate for Athenian citizen population is the work of Mogens Herman Hansen who developed what he calls "the shotgun method". A brief summary of the figures I was relying on can be found here.

  • 1
    how about the biggest election that actually mattered (e.g. it elected a head of state or a position with very influential power)?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 6:18
  • @LouisRhys: I updated the answer.. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 12:06
  • 1
    The Athenian Assembly could only hold 6000 at a time, and those were often paid - otherwise there'd be too many empty seats. Before they started paying, the typical assembly was seldom more than 5000. Cite: books.google.com/… Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 19:32
  • @RISwampYankee: Like I said, it is a complicated issue and I do not profess to be an expert; nevertheless, I was quoting (roughly) figures from a monography I'd recently read. Now, if you look again at the link you gave, you'd notice two points: (1) The 5000 figure was given by oligarchs who wanted to restrict/abolish democracy, so naturally they were interested in revising the figures downwards. (2) The 6000 figure is a quorum - meaning the actual numbers during high-stakes votes (and, perhaps, elections) could be higher. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 20:27
  • You're going to need a cite for that. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 20:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.