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

Ostracism (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 be gone 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.



The name is derived from the ostraka, (singular ostrakon , ὄστρακον), referring to the pottery shards 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 section of the agora set off and suitably barriered,[1] citizens scratched the name of a citizen they wished to expel on pottery shards, and deposited them in urns. The presiding officials counted the ostraka submitted and sorted the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka would be banished, provided that an additional criterion was met, about which there are two contradictory reports:

  • According to Philochorus,[2] the "winner" of the ostracism must have obtained at least 6,000 votes.
  • According to Plutarchus,[3] the ostracism was considered valid if the total number of votes cast was at least 6,000.

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 ostracised 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.[4]

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 may suggest that their creators wished to hide them. If so, these ostraka provide an example of organized groups attempting to influence the outcome of ostracisms. The two-month gap between the first and second phases would have easily allowed for such a campaign.

There is another interpretation, however, according to which these ostraka were prepared beforehand by enterprising businessmen who offered to them for sale for persons who could not easily inscribe the desired names for themselves or who simply wished to save time.[5]

The 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.[4] 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,[6] 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 (possibly ostracised twice [7])
  • 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 (possibly ostracised twice [7])
  • 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[citation needed]. 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.[8]

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.[9] 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".[10] Perhaps merely the sense that someone had become too arrogant or prominent was enough to get someone's name onto an ostrakon.

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 important 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. Furthermore, pottery shards identified as ostraka have been found in Chersonesos Taurica, leading historians to the conclusion that a similar institution existed there as well, in spite of the silence of the ancient records on that count.[11]

A similar modern practice is the recall election, in which the electoral body removes its representation from an elected officer. There have also been comparisons drawn in the United Kingdom with appointment to the European Commission, which has the effect of removing political figures from the country for a period of years.[12]

It is interesting to note that unlike under modern voting procedures, the Athenians did not have to adhere to a strict format for the inscribing of ostraka. Many extant ostraka show that it was possible to write expletives, short epigrams or cryptic injunctions beside the name of the candidate without invalidating the vote.[13] For example:

  • Kallixenes, son of Aristonimos, "the traitor".
  • Archen, "lover of foreigners".
  • Agasias, "the donkey".
  • Megacles, "the adulterer".

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.

^ The second ostracisms of Megacles and of Alcibiades son of Kleinias are reported only by Lysias in the quoted passage - no other ancient author refers to them. Thus, Lysias's report is regarded as probably spurious by many modern historians.


  1. ^ According to some sources, part of the agora was roped-off, according to others it was temporarily immured with wooden planks.
  2. ^ [1] See n. 30
  3. ^ [2] Life of Aristides 7.5
  4. ^ a b Plutarch, Life of Cimon 17.2–6.
  5. ^ See Surikov, pp. 284-294
  6. ^ Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 22.3
  7. ^ a b Lysias 14.39
  8. ^ Mabel Lang, (1990). Ostraka: 3–6, Athens.
  9. ^ Plutarch, Life of Pericles 11-12,14.
  10. ^ Plutarch, Life of Aristides 7.7
  11. ^ see Surikov, pp. 121-122.
  12. ^ Cartledge, Paul (July 2006). "Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece" (in English). History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-43.html. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  13. ^ see Surikov, pp. 73-80, and references therein.

Additional ancient references

From Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians:

From Philochorus, Atthis

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

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Игры ⚽ Нужно решить контрольную?

Look at other dictionaries:

  • ostracism — OSTRACÍSM s.n. 1. Formă de judecată a adunării poporului, în vechea Atena, prin care un cetăţean, considerat primejdios pentru libertatea şi securitatea regimului, era exilat temporar. 2. Persecuţie, ostracizare. – Din fr. ostracisme. Trimis de… …   Dicționar Român

  • ostracism — os tra*cism, n. [Gr. ostrakismo s, fr. ostraki zein to ostracize. See {Ostracize}.] 1. (Gr. Antiq.) Banishment by popular vote, a means adopted at Athens to rid the city of a person whose talent and influence gave umbrage. [1913 Webster] 2.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • ostracism — I noun avoidance, ban, banishment, blackball, blacklist, blame, blockade, censure, condemnation, Coventry, criticism, decrial, deportation, disbarment, dislodgment, dismissal, displacement, dissociability, distance, ejection, elimination,… …   Law dictionary

  • ostracism — (n.) 1580s, a method of 10 year banishment in ancient Athens, by which the citizens gathered and wrote the names of men they deemed dangerous to the state on potsherds or tiles, and a man whose name turned up often enough was sent away. From Gk.… …   Etymology dictionary

  • ostracism — [n] banishment avoidance, blackballing, boycott, cold shouldering, exclusion, excommunication, exile, expulsion, isolation, rejection, shunning; concepts 25,130 …   New thesaurus

  • ostracism — [äs′trə siz΄əm] n. [Gr ostrakismos < ostrakizein: see OSTRACIZE] 1. in ancient Greece, the temporary banishment of a citizen by popular vote 2. a rejection or exclusion by general consent, as from a group or from acceptance by society …   English World dictionary

  • ostracism — /os treuh siz euhm/, n. 1. exclusion, by general consent, from social acceptance, privileges, friendship, etc. 2. (in ancient Greece) temporary banishment of a citizen, decided upon by popular vote. [1570 80; < NL ostracismus < Gk ostrakismós… …   Universalium

  • ostracism — [[t]ɒ̱strəsɪzəm[/t]] N UNCOUNT Ostracism is the state of being ostracized or the act of ostracizing someone. [FORMAL] ...those who have decided to risk social ostracism and stay on the wrong side of town. ...denunciation, tougher sanctions and… …   English dictionary

  • ostracism — [16] In ancient Greece, when it was proposed that a particular person should be sent into exile for a period, because he was becoming a danger to the state, a democratic vote was taken on the matter. The method of registering one’s vote was to… …   The Hutchinson dictionary of word origins

  • ostracism — /ˈɒstrəsɪzəm/ (say ostruhsizuhm) noun 1. the act of ostracising. 2. the fact or state of being ostracised: *Men and women … live together, more or less publicly, without being married and also without fear of ostracism –frank crowley and lorna… …  

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”