Ostracism, political practice in ancient Athens

In ancient Athens, there was an unusual method of condemning and banishing important political persons: it was voted by the Athenians in the so-called “Ostracism or Ostrakismos” judgment and final decision was question whether a person was potential threat for Athens democracy and whether the person should leave the Athens. The term “ostracism” was named after the Greek word ostrakon (also ostraca) which means a peace of pottery. The Ostracism or Ostrakismos in ancient Greek were firstly introduced in Athens by Cleisthenes (cca 570 – 506 BC) at the end of the 6th century BC. The ostracism was part of Cleisthenes far-reaching reforms, which established the first ancient democracy in Greece. Cleisthenes devised the Ostracism as political practice to protect Athens and newly created democracy from potential tyrants. For example, demagogues were able to gain influence at the popular assembly through their speeches and question the democratic system. And since it was very difficult to prove in court that a particular individual was a danger for Athens democracy, Cleisthenes devised a different procedure: only if a certain number of people believed that the person represented a danger could it banned. This is how the procedure of the Ostracism started. The first known practice of the Ostracism held in  488/7 BC because Cleisthenes afraid that Hippachos (who was a relative of the tyrant Peisistratos) could become a new tyrant in Athens.

A process of the octracism consisted of the two steps. The first step was to decide at the Ekklesia (the democratic assembly of the people of Athens) whether an octracism should take place or not. The vote took place by hand lifting. If the majority at the assembly gave their voice, two months later the process of “ostracism” begins again on the Agora (Central Market and Assembly Square in Athens) after gathering participants who had the right to vote. This was the second step of the sham court: Around the agora, a wooden barrier with ten gates was set up, a gate for every tribe in Athens. Just like the National Assembly, only free men were allowed to participate in the process, and women and slaves were excluded. On potsherds the participants now scratched the name of the person who wanted to banish from Athens. Everyone had only one shard at their disposal. Then the pieces were collected and counted. The historical sources are unclear as to whether 6,000 shards with the name of a person were necessary to banish them, or whether 6,000 shards were needed in total for the ostracism to be valid at all. However, it can be stated with certainty that a minimum number of broken pieces with a specific name was necessary to obtain a banishment. If someone was convicted by the cullet, the culprit still had exactly 10 days to prepare from leaving Athens. After that, he was exiled for 10 years and that person was not allowed to enter the city anymore. Other penalties were not provided.

This practice were often used for political struggle between opposing sides. During the Greco-Persian Wars, Themistocles had a plan to build a strong Athenian fleet but Aristides opposed him. Because of that, Aristides was exiled with by ostracism in 483/2 BC. After about 12 years Themistocles had the same destiny and he was also expelled from Athens by the ostracism. In the biography of Cimon (Kimon), Plutarch wrote that the immediate cause of Themistocles exile from Athens was his quarrel with Aristides and Cimon. According to Plutarch, this dispute was due to the fact that the Themistocle “aspired to democracy more than it needed”. In some cases decision of the ostracism were annulled and the person could return in Athens. Thus in 461, Cimon was expelled from Athens. But at the suggestion of Pericles, Cimon was invited to return in Athens around 457 BC because he was previously good at negotiation with Spartans. Cimon was able to make short peace with Sparta. Later with the money gained throughout Delian League, Cimon started in Athens many construction projects because many buildings in Athens were destroyed in war against Persian Empire. Individuals who had to leave Athens by decision of the ostracism were:

  • 488/7 Hipparchos son of Charmos, a relative of the tyrant Peisistratos
  • 486 Alcmaeonidae Megacles, Cleisthenes’ nephew
  • 485 Kallixenos; Cleisthenes nephew
  • 484 Xanthippus, Pericles’ father
  • 483/2 Aristides son of Lysimachus
  • 471 Themistocles;  Athenian politician and general known who fought at the Battle of Marathon
  • 461 Cimon son of Miltiades
  • 460 Alcibiades, Athenian statesman, orator, and general who changed his political allegiance several times during the Peloponnesian Wars (possibly ostracised twice) 
  • 457 Menon son of Meneclides
  • 442 Thucydides son of Melesias
  • 440 (around) Callias son of Didymos
  • 440 (around) Damon son of Damonides
  • 417/16 Hyperbolus son of Antiphanes

The last practice of the ostracism held in 417/16 BC. Thereafter, the shard dish was never used again. Democracy came at the end of the 5th century BC. In a crisis and was replaced by an oligarchy. Although there were democratic structures in Athens after that, there was also a vote on the ostracism. But never again a majority of citizens decide to use it. Perhaps because the Athenians had learned from crises in the past that decision to exile people by the ostracism was not always the measure of all things.