Ostracism

This is going to sound strange, considering how much of modern politics already comes from Athens, but there's one thing we didn't pick up which I think we should have: a fun little system called ostracism.

Ostracism was a method to toss annoying people out of the city for ten years. After that they were allowed back, but if they set foot in Attica during their period of exile, then the penalty was death.

It worked like this. There was a council of 500 citizens, called the Boule, which was an executive administration. Membership of the Boule swapped 10 times every year, so everyone eventually got a turn. Each year during the 6th of those administrations, the council would vote on whether an ostracism should be held. There was no particular victim in mind at this point. In theory, that is. I'm quite sure everyone who voted had an enemy they'd like to see go.

The vote usually failed, but if it passed, then it guaranteed someone was about to be exiled, but no one knew yet who was going.

Two months later, the entire populace then voted to select the victim. Everyone wrote down the name of the person they'd like to see go on a piece of broken pottery. Pottery shards were called ostrakons, from which we get the word ostracism. Ostrakons were the voting slips of the ancient world. You simply scratched the name of your preferred victim into the pottery shard and dropped it into one of the voting urns. As long as there were at least 6,000 votes, the "winner" was given ten days to get out of town, or die.

This might sound bad, but a lot of high profile Athenian politicians took a hit on this. Even the father of Pericles, Xanthippus, got tossed at one point. He was recalled early though, because luckily for him the Persians invaded and the Athenians needed him back. Possibly the most remarkable thing about Pericles is that he managed to avoid being ostracized, unlike many of his friends and enemies.

A zillion of these ostrakons have been discovered because, when your voting slips are solid ceramic, the only thing they're good for after use is landfill. Here are some from Wikimedia:



The top word is Pericles. The bottom is a variant spelling of Xanthippus: Tsan(th)ippo. This is a vote to ostracize Pericles son of Xanthippus. But he survived.




This is Aristeides son of Lysimachus. He lost this vote. There's a famous story about his ostracism. Aristeides was known as the most honest and fair man in Athens. Rare qualities in Athenian politics. Everyone called him Aristeides the Just. When the ostracism was held, Aristeides came across an illiterate farmer who'd come to town to cast his vote. The poor farmer couldn't write, so Aristeides offered to help and asked who he wanted to nominate. The farmer, not recognising to whom he spoke, said he wanted to ostracize Aristeides son of Lysimachus. Taken aback, Aristeides asked the farmer, what had Aristeides ever done to him? The farmer replied, "Nothing. But I'm sick of all this talk of Aristeides the Just this, and Aristeides the Just that." So Aristeides meekly wrote his own name and dropped it into the urn. Ten days later, he left town.


Kimon son of Miltiades. Miltiades was the General who led the Athenians at Marathon, and his son Kimon likewise was a great military man. Kimon was also a super-conservative and the arch-enemy of Pericles. It was Pericles who engineered Kimon into being exiled. Kimon had blocked the democracy, and the moment he was out the city gates, Pericles' friend Ephialtes introduced the democratic reforms. A few days after that, Ephialtes was murdered. and The Pericles Commission begins. This vote was cast within a few days of the opening scene of my first book!


12 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Plutarch's biography of Aristides is one of my favorite of the Lives. I've always loved that story about the illiterate farmer.

Great post!

Amalia T. said...

I was just thinking about Ostracism the other day. I had to appeal to twitter for someone to remember the word for it for me! ha. Very timely!

It would definitely be interesting to see it applied to the modern world. I think work visas in other countries might prove problematic for the victims.

Do we know what these guys did with themselves during their exile?

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Elizabeth. Needless to say, I managed to edge the Aristeides story into Pericles Commission as a small but shameless piece of exposition.

Luckily for me, the son of Aristeides is known to have been a personal friend of the father of Socrates.

Elizabeth said...

I'm all for short and shameless exposition if it's about Aristides.

By the way, your book comes out on my little brother's birthday. I consider this a good omen. :)

Gary Corby said...

The cool thing about you Amalia is you can say things like, "I was just thinking about ostracism the other day..."

I have a small list of local politicians I'm ready to ostracize.

All right, it's actually a long list.

What they did...well Meghan can tell you Themistocles took the opportunity to defect to Persia. Most of them had friends in other cities and they hung out with their buddies. Kimon considered slaughtering Persians a good way to relax, so he hired boats and started raiding.

Stephanie Thornton said...

When I tell my students about ostracism they think it's pretty cool- some wish they could do it at school.

And I'd definitely like to see ostracism incorporated into America's modern political system. There's one Alaskan politician I'd put at the top of the list.

Lexi said...

An extra interesting post. The thing is, one can immediately see the appeal of the system, and think of several people one would love to see the back of. But your story about Aristeides shows why it's a Bad Idea.

Then there's tall poppy syndrome; you only get truly loathed after you're successful. Failures are seldom disliked.

Ricky Bush said...

Darned good post, Gary. I must say that I learn something each time I venture over her. Makes me wish that I still taught geography and could share your research with my class.

Ricky Bush said...

Darned good post, Gary. I must say that I learn something each time I venture over her. Makes me wish that I still taught geography and could share your research with my class.

Gary Corby said...

Glad you like it, Ricky. Does this count as ostracism though? I probably should write about geography some time. Thanks for the idea.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, come to think of it, ostracism would make a very cool exercise in learning civics. Like that exercise some people do with brown eyes vs blue eyes. I'm not sure it would be safe for school though.

Gary Corby said...

You're dead right it almost always lopped off tall poppies, Lexi.

Usually the most disliked prominent guy got his marching orders. The people seem to have used it to break deadlocks between any two powerful people who couldn't agree, when the people got bored with an interminable argument.

There was one instance though when ostracism took out a complete nonentity in spectacular fashion. I'll schedule that story for the blog!