Ostracisim in Athens

Ostracisim is derived from the ostraka, 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, and was used by the citizens of Athens to write down the name of the one they wised to be ostracised. In contrast, papyrus, which was imported from Egypt as a high-quality writing surface, and was thus too costly to be disposable.

The ostracism procedure was installed in Athens under the reformist laws installed by Cleisthenes [1]. He had swept away the old tyrannical ways that had burderned Athens for so long, and given wide sweeping powers to the ordinary citizen. To keep the threat of another tyrant rising again, and stealing the newly democratic powers away from its citizens, the ostracismwas put in place.

Ostracismwas a pre-emptive strike to take down any citizen who seemed to be trying to take control of the city. Because it could be done so early in anyones political career, it helped defuse any major confrontations between rival politicians or political groups before it overheated into civil war.

Each year, around January or February, the Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If they voted "yes", then an ostracism would be held around 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

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 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, Kimon, ostracised in 461 B.C., was recalled during an emergency.

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. Further, the elite Athenians who suffered ostracism were rich or noble men who had connections outside of Athens, and who, unlike genuine exiles, were able to access their income in Attica from abroad.

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.


487 Hipparchos Charmos   a relative of the tyrant Peisistratos
486 Megacles Hippocrates Alcmaeonidae Cleisthenes' nephew (ostracised twice)
485 Kallixenos   Alcmaeonidae Nephew of Cleisthenes
484 Xanthippus Ariphron Alcmaeonidae Pericles' father
482 Aristides Lysimachus Antiochis  
471 Themistocles Neocles Leontis maybe earlier
461 Kimon Miltiades Philaïd  
460 Alcibiades Kleinias Alcmaeonidae Grandfather of Alcibiades x2
457 Menon Meneclides   less certain
442 Thucydides Milesias    
440s Kallis Didymos   less certain
440s Damon Damonides   less certain
416 Hyperbolos Antiphances   +/- 1 year


Around twelve thousand political ostraka have been excavated in the Athenian agora and in the Ceramicus. 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.

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.

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 492 BC were all related or connected to the tyrant Peisistratos, who had controlled Athens for 36 years up to 527 BC.

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. Similar but more controversial claims have been made about the ostracism of Kimon in 461 BC.

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

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.


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  • *01 Aristotle's Athenian Constitution 22.3




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