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Pieces of broken pottery as voting tokens. The persons nominated are Pericles, Cimon and Aristides, each with his patronymic (top to bottom).

Ostracism-(Εξωστρακισμός) (Greek: έξω-οστρακισμός - exo (out)-ostrakismos) was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the victim, ostracism was often used preemptively. It was used as a way of defusing major confrontations between rival politicians (by removing one of them from the scene), neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state, or exiling a potential tyrant. Crucially, ostracism had no relation to the processes of justice. There was no charge or defense, and the exile was not in fact a penalty; it was simply a command from the Athenian people that one of their number begone for ten years.

The procedure is to be distinguished from the modern use of the term, which generally refers to informal modes of exclusion from a group through shunning. A social anthropological example of ostracism is the pre-colonial Australian Aboriginal social expulsion of tribe members, sometimes even resulting in death.



The name is derived from the ostraka, (singular ostrakon , ὄστρακον), referring to the potsherds or pieces of broken pottery that were used as voting tokens. Broken pottery, abundant and virtually free, served as a kind of scrap paper (in contrast to papyrus, which was imported from Egypt as a high-quality writing surface, and was thus too costly to be disposable).

Each year the Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. The question was put in the sixth of the ten months used for state business under the democracy (January or February in the modern Gregorian Calendar). If they voted "yes", then an ostracism would be held two months later. In a roped-off area of the agora, citizens scratched the name of a citizen they wished to expel on potshards, and deposited them in urns. The presiding officials counted the ostraka submitted; if a minimum of six thousand votes were reached, then the ostracism took place: the officials sorted the names into separate piles, and the person receiving the highest number of votes was exiled for ten years.

The person nominated had ten days to leave the city — if he attempted to return, the penalty was death. Notably, the property of the man banished was not confiscated and there was no loss of status. After the ten years he was allowed to return without stigma. It was possible for the assembly to recall an ostracized person ahead of time; before the Persian invasion of 479 BC, an amnesty was declared under which at least two ostracised leaders — Pericles' father Xanthippus and Aristides 'the Just' — are known to have returned. Similarly, Cimon, ostracised in 461 BC, was recalled during an emergency. [1]

Distinction from other Athenian democratic processes

Ostracism was crucially different from Athenian law at the time; there was no charge, and no defence could be mounted by the person expelled. The two stages of the procedure ran in the reverse order from that used under almost any trial system — here it is as if a jury are first asked "Do you want to find someone guilty?", and subsequently asked "Whom do you wish to accuse?". Equally out of place in a judicial framework is perhaps the institution's most peculiar feature: that it can take place at most once a year, and only for one person. In this it resembles the Greek pharmakos or scapegoat — though in contrast, pharmakos generally ejected a lowly member of the community.

A further distinction between these two modes (and one not obvious from a modern perspective) is that ostracism was an automatic procedure that required no initiative from any individual, with the vote simply occurring on the wish of the electorate — a diffuse exercise of power. By contrast, an Athenian trial needed the initiative of a particular citizen-prosecutor. While prosecution often led to a counterattack (or was a counterattack itself), no such response was possible in the case of ostracism as responsibility lay with the polity as a whole. In contrast to a trial, ostracism generally reduced political tension rather than increased it.

Although ten years of exile would have been difficult for an Athenian to face, it was relatively mild in comparison to the kind of sentences inflicted by courts; when dealing with politicians held to be acting against the interests of the people, Athenian juries could inflict severe penalties such as death, unpayably large fines, confiscation of property, permanent exile and loss of citizens' rights through atimia. Further, the elite Athenians who suffered ostracism were rich or noble men who had connections or xenoi in the wider Greek world and who, unlike genuine exiles, were able to access their income in Attica from abroad. In Plutarch, following as he does the anti-democratic line common in elite sources, the fact that people might be recalled early appears to be another example of the inconsistency of majoritarianism that was characteristic of Athenian democracy. However, ten years of exile usually resolved whatever had prompted the expulsion. Ostracism was simply a pragmatic measure; the concept of serving out the full sentence did not apply as it was a preventative measure, not a punitive one.

One curious window on the practicalities of ostracism comes from the cache of 190 ostraka discovered dumped in a well next to the acropolis.[citation needed] From the handwriting they appear to have been written by fourteen individuals and bear the name of Themistocles, ostracised before 471 BC and were evidently meant for distribution to voters. This was not necessarily evidence of electoral fraud (being no worse than modern voting instruction cards), but their being dumped in the well suggests that their creators wished to hide them. What they do indicate is that groups attempted to influence the outcome of ostracisms, although how successful these attempts were is unknown. The two-month gap between the first and second phases would have easily allowed for such a campaign.

That two-month gap is a key feature in the institution, much as in elections under modern liberal democracies. It first prevented the candidate for expulsion being chosen out of immediate anger, although an Athenian general such as Cimon would have not wanted to lose a battle the week before such a second vote [1]. Secondly, it opened up a period for discussion (or perhaps agitation), whether informally in daily talk or public speeches before the Athenian assembly or Athenian courts. * In this process a consensus, or rival consensuses, might emerge. Further, in that time of waiting, ordinary Athenian citizens must have felt a certain power over the greatest members of their city; conversely, the most prominent citizens had an incentive to worry how their social inferiors regarded them.

Period of operation

Ostracism was not in use throughout the whole period of Athenian democracy (circa 506–322 BC), but only occurred in the fifth century. The standard account, found in Aristotle's Athenian Constitution 22.3 [2], attributes the establishment to Cleisthenes, a pivotal reformer in the creation of the democracy. In that case ostracism would have been in place from around 506 BC. The first victim of the practice, however, was not expelled until 487 BC — nearly twenty years later. Over the course of the next sixty years some twelve or more individuals followed him. The list may not be complete, but there is good reason to believe the Athenians did not feel the need to eject someone in this way every year. The list of known ostracisms runs as follows:

  • 487 Hipparchos son of Charmos, a relative of the tyrant Peisistratos
  • 486 Megacles son of Hippocrates; Cleisthenes' nephew (ostracised twice [3])
  • 485 Kallixenos Nephew of Cleisthenes and head of the Alcmaeonids at the time (not known for certain)
  • 484 Xanthippus son of Ariphron; Pericles' father
  • 482 Aristides son of Lysimachus
  • 471 Themistocles son of Neocles (last possible year)
  • 461 Cimon son of Miltiades
  • 460 Alcibiades son of Kleinias; grandfather of Alcibiades (ostracised twice [3])
  • 457 Menon son of Meneclides [less certain]
  • 442 Thucydides son of Milesias
  • 440s Callias son of Didymos [less certain]
  • 440s Damon son of Damonides [less certain]
  • 416 Hyperbolos son of Antiphanes (+/- 1 year)

Around twelve thousand political ostraka have been excavated in the Athenian agora and in the Kerameikos. The second victim, Cleisthenes' nephew Megacles, is named by 4647 of these, but for a second undated ostracism not listed above. The known ostracisms seem to fall into three distinct phases: the 480s BC, mid-century 461–443 BC and finally the years 417–415: this matches fairly well with the clustering of known expulsions, although Themistocles before 471 may count as an exception. This suggests that ostracism fell in and out of fashion. [4]

The last known ostracism was that of Hyperbolos in circa 417 BC. There is no sign of its use after the Peloponnesian War, when democracy was restored after the oligarchic coup of the Thirty had collapsed in 403 BC. However, while ostracism was not an active feature of the 4th-century version of democracy, it remained; the question was put to the assembly each year, but they did not wish to hold one.

Purpose of ostracism

Because ostracism was carried out by thousands of people over many decades of an evolving political situation and culture, it did not serve a single monumental purpose. Still, observations can be made about outcomes, as well as the initial purpose for which it was created.

The first rash of people ostracised in the decade after the defeat of the first Persian invasion at Marathon in 490 BC were all related or connected to the tyrant Peisistratos, who had controlled Athens for 36 years up to 527 BC. After his son Hippias was deposed with Spartan help in 510 BC, the family sought refuge with the Persians, and nearly twenty years later Hippias landed with their invasion force at Marathon. Tyranny and Persian aggression were paired threats facing the new democratic regime at Athens, and ostracism was used against both.

Tyranny and democracy had arisen at Athens out of clashes between regional and factional groups organised around politicians, including Cleisthenes. As a reaction, in many of its features the democracy strove to reduce the role of factions as the focus of citizen loyalties. Ostracism, too, may have been intended to work in the same direction: by temporarily decapitating a faction, it could help to defuse confrontations that threatened the order of the State.

In later decades when the threat of tyranny was remote, ostracism seems to have been used as a way to decide between radically opposed policies. For instance, in 443 BC Thucydides son of Milesias (not to be confused with the historian of the same name) was ostracised. He led an aristocratic opposition to Athenian imperialism and in particular to Perikles' building program on the acropolis, which was funded by taxes created for the wars against Persia. By expelling Thucydides the Athenian people sent a clear message about the direction of Athenian policy. [5] Similar but more controversial claims have been made about the ostracism of Cimon in 461 BC.

The motives of individual voting citizens cannot, of course, be known. Many of the surviving ostraka name people otherwise unattested. They may well be just someone the submitter disliked, and voted for in moment of private spite. As such, it may be seen as a secular, civic variant of Athenian curse tablets, studied in scholarly literature under the Latin name defixiones, where small dolls were wrapped in lead sheets written with curses and then buried, sometimes stuck through with nails for good measure.

In one anecdote about Aristides, known as "the Just", who was ostracised in 482, an illiterate citizen, not recognising him, came up to ask him to write the name Aristides on his ostrakon. When Aristides asked why, the man replied it was because he was sick of hearing him being called "the Just". [6] Perhaps merely the sense that someone had become too arrogant or prominent was enough to get someone's name onto an ostrakon.

Another theory as to the purpose of Ostracism is that it served as an incentive to politicians to do what was best for their country, as if the public decided that they weren't, they would be removed from Athens for ten years.

Fall into disuse

The last ostracism, that of Hyperbolos in or near 415 BC, is elaborately narrated by Plutarch in three separate lives: Hyperbolos is pictured urging the people to expel one of his rivals, but they, Nicias and Alcibiades, laying aside their own hostility for a moment, use their combined influence to have him ostracised instead. According to Plutarch, the people then become disgusted with ostracism and abandon the procedure forever.

In part ostracism lapsed as a procedure at the end of the fifth century because it was replaced by the graphe paranomon, a regular court action under which a much larger number of politicians might be targeted, instead of just one a year as with ostracism, and with greater severity. But it may already have come to seem like an anachronism as factional alliances organised around Big Men became increasingly less significant in the later period, and power was more specifically located in the interaction of the individual speaker with the power of the assembly and the courts. The threat to the democratic system in the late 5th century came not from tyranny but from oligarchic coups, threats of which became prominent after two brief seizures of power, in 411 by "the Four Hundred" and in 404 BC by "the Thirty", which were not dependent on single powerful individuals. Ostracism was not an effective defence against the oligarchic threat and it was not so used.

Other cities are known to have set up forms of ostracism on the Athenian model, namely Megara, Miletos, Argos and Syracuse. In the last of these it was referred to as petalismos, because the names were written on olive leaves. Little is known about these institutions.

A similar modern practice is the recall election, in which the electoral body removes its representation from an elected officer.

See also

Notes and references



^  Oration IV of Andocides purports itself to be speech urging the ostracism of Alcibiades in 415 BC, but it is probably not authentic.


  1. ^ a b Plutarch, Life of Cimon 17.2–6.
  2. ^ Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 22.3
  3. ^ a b Lysias 14.39
  4. ^ Mabel Lang, (1990). Ostraka: 3–6, Athens.
  5. ^ Plutarch, Life of Pericles 11-12,14.
  6. ^ Plutarch, Life of Aristides 7.7

Additional ancient references

From Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians:

From Plutarch's 'Lives':

  • A list, differing slightly from that given above, of known ostracisms and many of the key Greek passages translated, from John Paul Adams's site at CSU Northridge.

Note that the ancient sources on ostracism are mostly 4th century or much later and often limited to brief descriptions such as notes by lexicographers. Most of the narrative and analytical passages of any length come from Plutarch writing five centuries later and with little sympathy for democratic practices. There are no contemporary accounts that can take one into the experiences of participants: a dense account of Athenian democracy can only be made on the basis of the much fuller sources available in the 4th century, especially the Attic orators, after ostracism had fallen into disuse. Most of such references are a 4th-century memory of the institution.

Additional modern references

  • (1996). "Ostracism". Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-860165-4.
  • Mabel Lang, (1990). Ostraka, Athens. ISBN 0-87661-225-7.
  • Eugene Vanderpool, (1970). Ostracism at Athens, Cincinnati. ISBN 3-11-006637-8
  • Rudi Thomsen, (1972). The Origins of Ostracism, A Synthesis, Copenhagen.
  • P.J. Rhodes, (1994). "The Ostracism of Hyberbolus'", Ritual, Finance, Politics: Athenian Democratic Accounts presented to David Lewis p. 85-99, editors. Robin Osborne, Simon Hornblower, (Oxford). ISBN 0-19-814992-1.
  • Mogens Herman Hansen, (1987). The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes, Oxford. ISBN 0-8061-3143-8.
  • Josiah Ober, (1989), "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric", Ideology and the Power of the People, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02864-8.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

OSTRACISM, a political device instituted, probably by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C., as a constitutional safeguard for the Athenian democracy. Its effect was to remove from Athens for a period of ten years any person who threatened the harmony and tranquillity of the body politic. A similar device existed at various times in Argos, Miletus, Syracuse and Megara, but in these cities it appears to have been introduced under Athenian influence. In Athens in the sixth prytany of each year the representatives of the Boule asked the Ecclesia whether it was for the welfare of the state that ostracism should take place. If the answer was in the affirmative, a day was fixed for the voting in the eighth prytany. No names were mentioned, but it is clear that two or three names at the most could have been under consideration. The people met, not as usual in the Pnyx, but in the Agora, in the presence of the Archons, and recorded their votes by placing in urns small fragments of pottery (which in the ancient world served the purpose of waste-paper) (ostraca) on which they wrote the name of the person whom they wished to banish. As in the case of other privilegia, ostracism did not take effect unless six thousand votes in all were recorded. Grote and others hold that six thousand had to be given against one person before he was ostracized, but it seems unlikely that the attendance at the Ecclesia ever admitted of so large a vote against one man, and the view is contradicted by Plut. Arist. c. 7. The ostracized person was compelled to leave Athens for ten years, but he was nOt regarded as a traitor or criminal. When he returned, he resumed possession of his property and his civic status was unimpaired. The adverse vote simply implied that his power was so great as to be injurious to the state. Ostracism must therefore be carefully distinguished from exile in the Roman sense, which involved loss of property and status, and was for an indefinite period (i.e. generally for life). Certain writers have even spoken of the "honour" of ostracism. At the same time it was strictly unjust to the victim, and a heavy punishment to a cultured citizen for whom Athens contained all that made life worth living. Its political importance really was that it transferred the protection of the constitution from the Areopagus to the Ecclesia. Its place was afterwards taken by the Graphe Paranomon. There is no doubt that Cleisthenes' object was primarily to get rid of the Peisistratid faction without perpetual recourse to armed resistance (so Androtion, Ath. Pol. 22, Ephorus, Theopompus, Aristotle, Pol. iii. 13, 1284 a 17 and 36; viii. (v.), 3, 1302 b 15). Aristotle's Constitution of Athens (c. 22) gives a. list of ostracized persons, the first of whom was a certain Hipparchus of the Peisistratid family (488 B.C.). It is an extraordinary fact that, if ostracism was introduced in 598 B.C. for the purpose of expelling Hipparchus it was not till twenty years later that he was condemned. This has led some critics (see Lugebil in Das Wesen ... der Ostrakismos, who arrives at the conclusion that ostracism could not have been introduced till after 496 B.C.) to suspect the unanimous evidence of antiquity that Cleisthenes was the inventor of ostracism. The problem is difficult, and no satisfactory answer has been given. Aelian's story that Cleisthenes himself was the first to be ostracized is attractive in view of his overtures to Persia (see Cleisthenes), but it has little historical value and conflicts with the chapter in Aristotle's Constitution - which, however, may conceivably be simply the list of those recalled from ostracism at the time of Xerxes' Invasion, all of whom must have been ostracized less than ten years before 481 (i.e. since Marathon). With the end of the Persian Wars, the original object of ostracism was removed, but it continued in use for forty years and was revived in 417 B.C. It now became a mere party weapon and the farcical result of its use in 417 in the case of Hyperbolus led to its abolition either at once, or, as Lugebil seeks to prove, in the archonship of Euclides (403 B.C.). Such a device inevitably lent itself to abuse (see Aristotle, Pol. 38, 1284 b 22 arao acrTCKi EXpWUTO).

Grote maintains that ostracism was a useful device, on the grounds that it removed the danger of tyranny, and was better than the perpetual civil strife of the previous century. The second reason is strictly beside the point, and the first has no force after the Persian Wars. As a factor in party politics it was both unnecessary and injurious to the state. Thus in the Persian Wars, it deprived Athens of the wisdom of Xanthippus and Aristides, while at the battle of Tanagra and perhaps at the time of the Egyptian expedition the assistance of Cimon was lacking. Further, it was a blow to the fair-play of party politics; the defeated party, having no leader, was reduced to desperate measures, such as the assassination of Ephialtes. To defend it on the ground that it created and stimulated the national consciousness is hardly reconcilable with the historic remark of the voter who voted against Aristides because he wished to hear no more of his incorruptible integrity; moreover in democratic Athens the "national consciousness" was, if anything, too frequently stimulated in the ordinary course of government. Aristotle, admitting its usefulness, rightly describes ostracism as in theory tyrannical; Montesquieu (Esprit des lois, xii. cc. 19, 29, &c.) defends it as a mild and reasonable institution. On the whole, the history of its effect in Athens, Argos, Miletus, Megara and Syracuse (where it was called Petalismus), furnishes no sufficient defence against its admitted disadvantages. The following is a list of persons who suffered ostracism: - Hipparchus (488); Megacles (487), Xanthippus (485), Aristides (483), Themistocles (471?); Cimon (461?) Thucydides, son of Melesias (444), Damon, Hyperbolus (417) and possibly Cleisthenes himself (q.v.).

Authorities. - For the procedure in O. see Appendix Photii (Porson, p. 675); see also, besides authorities quoted above, Busolt, i. 620; Miiller's Handbuch, iv. I, 121; Gilbert, Gr. St. i. 446-466 and Greek Constitutional Antiquities (Eng. trans., 1895); A. H. J. Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional Antiquities (1896); histories of Greece in general. The view maintained in the text as to the number of votes necessary is supported by Duruy (H. of G. ii. I, 36), Boeckh, Wachsmuth, &c.; opposed by Grote, Oman and (on the whole) by Evelyn Abbott. On the danger of privilegia in general see Cicero, de Legibus, iii. 4, and note that in Athens, ostracism gratuitously anticipated a crime which, if committed, would have been punishable in the popular Heliaea. Cf. also article EXILE. (J. M. M.)

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