On ostracism

In Ancient Athens, ostracism, a mechanism for exiling citizens written into its laws, was thought to play a pivotal role in preserving the health of the city-state. But how did it play out in practice?

A shard of pottery ostracising Themistokles. The piece can be found at the Athens Agora Museum. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
A shard of pottery ostracising Themistokles. The piece can be found at the Athens Agora Museum. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Ostracism, as this process was known, its name derived from the shards of broken pottery – ostraki – upon which voters would inscribe the name of those they wished to exile, stands in striking contrast to the normal practices of Attic civil life. Unlike the rest of its legal system, it was a process defined first and foremost by its sheer arbitrariness. Not only was there no process of establishing the innocence or guilt of the person to be exiled, but there was not even the requirement for any kind of charge to be levelled against them. Under such a system, personal vendetta could carry as much weight as genuine political concerns about a person – all one needed was 6,000 other people to share in the dislike, according to the account of Greek historian Philochorus. 

The case of Aristides ‘the Just,’ one of Athens’ generals during the Persian wars, underlines the capricious nature of the practice. Called by Herodotus ‘the best and most honourable man in Athens,’ Aristides’ biography is recounted in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, where he is assessed in opposition to Roman statesman Cato the Elder. Part of Plutarch’s account concerns the general’s ostracism, which is believed to have occurred between 485 BC and 482 BC as the result of a feud with fellow strategos Themistocles, best known as the mastermind of Athenian naval supremacy.

As Plutarch tells it, on the occasion of the ostracism, Aristides was approached by an illiterate citizen who, failing to recognise the general, asked him to write Aristides’ name on his shard of pottery in order to cast him out of the city. Mystified, the statesman asked whether Aristides had ever wronged the other citizen. ‘No,’ he replied; ‘I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear him everywhere called the just.’ But as if to underscore how closely this practice was respected by Athenians, Aristides went ahead and did as the man requested, resulting in his eventual banishment. Within three years, under the renewed threat of Persian invasion, he had been recalled to the city.

We can sometimes be so keen to emphasise our descent from the citizens of Classical Athens that we prefer to elide the differences between our two worlds to play up this lineage. The existence of institutions such as ostracism, however, reveal the true gulf between our two societies, a gulf so often covered by appeal to the word ‘democracy.’ But even in the Athens of 450 BC the practice of ostracism would have loomed over its populace as the remnant of a not-so-distant past where the ritualistic and the civic co-existed in a way that is often difficult to square with the way Athenians saw themselves.

At the heart of this ritual is the idea of the pharmakos, a tradition common to a great many ancient cultures. At times of crisis, such as in drought or famine, an individual – normally a slave, criminal, or any other kind of second-class citizen – would be chosen from the ranks of the community and cast out in a bid for catharsis ­– purification. Likewise, in the Hebrew tradition, the high priest would send a goat out into the wilderness on Yom Kippur, taking the sins of the community with it. For Christians, the scapegoat takes flesh in the form of Christ himself, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through his death on the cross.

The surviving list of those who were ostracised contains many of the great and good of fifth-century BC Athens, including Pericles’ father Xanthippus, Alcibiades, and Themistocles himself. Though clearly imperfect as a process, the same idea of purification is clearly identifiable here – ostracism, as Plutarch has it, is the process by which the city removes individuals of; excessive greatness and power ’in order to preserve the balance of the polis, a little like banning former presidents and prime ministers from active political life after they have left office. In this vision of the state, the glory of Athens the city was the good to be preserved, and any individual whose own prestige risked eclipsing this had best watch out.


Edward Thicknesse