Ostracism was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which a prominent 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 pre-emptively. 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 defence, 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. Derived as it is from the Greek world, still, the classic social anthropological example of ostracism is the precolonial Australian Aboriginal social expulsion of tribe members, sometimes even resulting in actual physical death.
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 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.
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, Cimon, ostracised in 461 BC, was recalled during an emergency.
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 . 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.
That 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 . 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. [#endnote_Oration *] 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.
Around twelve thousand political ostraka have been excavated in the Athenian agora and in the Kerameikos. 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.
The first rash of people ostracised in the decade after the defeat of the first Persian invasion at the Battle of 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. 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". Perhaps merely the sense that someone had become too arrogant or prominent was enough to get someone's name onto an ostrakon.
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.
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.
A similar modern practice is the recall election, in which the electoral body removes its representation from an elected officer.
From Plutarch's 'Lives':
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.