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Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece

by Paul Cartledge

Executive summary

  • Ancient Greek democracy had a number of practices which made it very different from modern democratic systems.
  • Elections were regarded as likely to favour the most well-known, usually the richest and best-educated, thus resulting in oligarchy. So citizens were selected for public office by lotteries, in order to increase the chances of ordinary, poor citizens being successful.
  • There were some votes to posts which required special expertise, for example military leadership. However, the corollary was severe punishment for inadequate performance by those elected, often death.
  • There were also votes for de-selection through the annual possibility of an 'ostracism', in which citizens could write down any name and the 'winner' was sent into exile for ten years, effectively ending their political career.
  • It seems likely that this procedure was devised to resolve deadlocks in policy and leadership over very important and highly-divisive issues, especially in foreign policy.
  • Within the modern British democratic system there are ways of dealing with those whose influence is on the wane but who are still too important to be allowed to remain active at the centre of domestic politics: for example, appointment to the headship of an Oxbridge college, as a European Union Commissioner or a special envoy of the United Nations.
  • But a more accurate modern parallel to ostracism would be giving the public a direct say in the resolution of deadlocks within major parties: have political parties now become such overwhelmingly important voluntary associations that their leadership should not be left entirely in the hands of their own members?

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One of the very first things that a citizen of a modern western liberal democracy instantly thinks of, when she or he does think about modern western liberal democracy at all, is voting: voting in 'free and fair' elections, one person one vote, everyone counting for one and no one for more than one. That is just what is conspicuously, definitionally, not on offer in un- or anti-democratic regimes, whether it is President Kim Il Jong's North Korea or President Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Yet by one of those ironies that remind us sharply of the paradox that we both are and are not 'all Greeks' (in Shelley's hopeful phrase), elections were not considered uniquely or even distinctively democratic in ancient Greece. Indeed, they were thought oligarchic, a mark of regimes where rule (archy) was in the hands of the rich few (oligoi), as opposed to in the power (kratos) of the people (demos). Elections were believed to, and surely did, favour differentially the 'notables' - those whom the Greeks called the 'well-known' or 'the most conspicuous' - meaning basically the richest, sometimes also the best born, and certainly the best educated.

This was mainly because ancient Greek states were face-to-face, direct forms of self-government. They did not recognise and would not have wanted to recognise our indirect, representative mode of democracy, which an ancient Greek democrat would have dismissed as elective oligarchy anyway. Nor did the ancient Greeks recognise anything like our notion of the separation of powers: in a demo-kratia the demos exercised its kratos in the legislative, executive and judicial spheres alike: the very same people acting as both judge and jury in matters of law and decision-making for which they had been the original voters too.

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Lotteries and elections

So holding public office in an ancient Greek democracy was a very different thing from being an elected representative today, and the democratic way to choose citizens to serve the community by holding public office was the use of a lottery system: the equivalent of pulling names out of a hat, though actually the Greeks did not use hats and pieces of paper but pots full of beans or sometimes quite complicated mechanical allotment machines. The lottery was thought to maximise the chances of ordinary poor citizens getting chosen, and indeed was designed to encourage them to volunteer, to put their names forward for consideration. The lottery also emphasised randomness: any citizen, it was implied, could hold the relevant office and perform it satisfactorily without having any special economic, educational or genetic qualifications. Provided, that is, you were adult, male, free and, in some states, born in legal wedlock: becoming a citizen in ancient Greece was by no means a free-for-all.

Actually, though, in practice not even the democratic Athenians in the fifth century BCE went quite the whole hog. Even they recognised that some offices - military and financial ones - did require special and specialist expertise. So, for those they made an exception to their general, ideologically-driven rule, and held elections. These took place once a year, in public assembly, and votes were registered by the raising of the right hand and were counted by designated tellers. The corollary of this conscious, deliberate exception was that the people came down extremely hard on elected officials who were deemed in some way to have failed them, by losing a key battle as a general, say, or embezzling public funds as a sacred treasurer. For such high crimes and misdemeanours the penalty could all too often be death.

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Ostracism in theory

But there was one other kind of election that was a peculiarity of ancient Greek democracies. A peculiarity in both senses: it was both unique to democracies, as far as we know, and it was a very odd procedure. Indeed, it was a sort of reverse election, what one might be tempted to call a de-selection, except that the persons so affected might not actually be holding any office at the time, whether elective or allotted. The procedure was known at Athens in the fifth century BCE as 'ostracism' - a word that has made its way into English to refer to a particular form of social disfavour, whereby the person ostracised is 'sent to Coventry', cast out of the favoured social circle. But in Athens its implications were much worse than that.

The term ostracism was derived from ostrakon, the Greek for a piece of broken pottery, a potsherd. For the voting tokens used in an ancient Athenian ostracism were potsherds bearing the name of the candidate whom the voter wished to see ostracised. Every year at a particular juncture in the civil calendar the members of the Athenian Assembly (in principle all Athenian citizens, of whom there might have been as many as 50,000, though only a fraction of those attended any one meeting) were asked whether they wanted to hold an ostracism that year. If a majority raised their right hands in assent, the relevant officials took steps to see that it would be held some months later. On the appointed day citizens were invited to attend in the Agora or civic centre of Athens, bearing a potsherd on which their candidate's name had been scratched or painted. Provided a quorum of 6,000 such ostraka were handed in and counted, the ostracism was valid, and the candidate with the most potsherds to, or rather against, his name 'won'. One notorious anecdote, probably false, told of an illiterate country voter coming up to Athens desperate to vote against one Aristeides and asking the said Aristeides, whom presumably he had never even seen before, if he would not mind scratching the name 'Aristeides' on his potsherd. When Aristeides mildly enquired why, the rustic replied that he was sick of hearing Aristeides called 'the Just'!

The 'victorious' candidate was thereby obliged to quit the city and the home territory of Athens (an area about the size of Luxembourg or Derbyshire) as soon as possible, and to stay outside certain fixed geographical limits for a stretch of ten years: a lifetime in the career of a serious professional politician then as now. He was not formally deprived of his citizen status, though he was no longer in any position to exercise his citizen rights. Nor was he formally deprived of any property he held in Athens or elsewhere: in fact, he might well be able to live quite comfortably on property he held outside the limits of the Athenian state. But politically, civically, he was dead, or at any rate in a state of suspended animation for the ensuing decade of his 'sentence'.

Tradition had it that the democracy's founder Cleisthenes, himself a high aristocrat and an ancestor of the great Pericles, had invented ostracism as part and parcel of his radical reform package passed in 508/7 BCE. One reason for thinking this was the belief that the aim of ostracism was to forestall the recurrence of tyranny (personal despotic rule) at Athens: the kind of rule Athens had experienced for over a third of a century before Cleisthenes's democratic reforms. But actually the cumbersome ostracism procedure was not well-designed to forestall a determined would-be tyrant, so probably ostracism was really introduced to prevent deadlock in public decision-making, when the Athenian voters were faced with a choice between programmes and their champions that were too evenly matched for comfort. As, for example, in foreign policy over the deeply-divisive issue of what attitude the city should take towards the mighty Persian empire to the East: compromise and peaceful coexistence, or outright aggression and conquest?

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Ostracism in practice

At any rate it was over that particularly fraught issue that the first recorded ostracisms, a spate of them in the 480s, did actually take place. And with what proved to be a triumphantly successful outcome, since the 'losing' candidate, the one not ostracized, was always Themistocles. For he stood for a policy of developing a major war fleet, and it was that Athenian fleet that played a key role in repulsing the Persian invasion of 480-479, at the Battle of Salamis and elsewhere. This extraordinary success also had the not inconsiderable consequence of confirming, indeed enhancing, the political power of the mass of ordinary poor Athenian citizens. For they rowed the warships and justifiably claimed increased benefits and privileges as their political reward.

But it was also over a comparably major foreign-policy issue two generations later, at the end of the fifth century BCE, that the ostracism procedure eventually failed democratic Athens. And failed it so badly that after 416, although it remained on the statute-book in theory, it was never used again. In 416 there were two principal candidates for ostracism, Alcibiades and Nicias, vying for supremacy against the following background. Athens had been at war with its major Greek enemy, Sparta, for ten years from 431 to 421. The peace that followed was an uneasy, phoney, peace. The former candidate, Alcibiades, favoured outright resumption of war with Sparta on all possible fronts, including even Sicily far away to the west. The latter favoured the peace treaty concluded in 421 that was named after him, Nicias, as its chief Athenian negotiator. In 416 ostracism seemed to offer the only viable way of resolving the deep differences between the two men, and their policies, and clearing the air without resorting to civil violence. An ostracism was indeed held, but each of the two principals urged his supporters to canvass support and to vote for a third party, an altogether lesser political figure with the unfortunate name of Hyperbolus. And their collusive ploy worked, or rather it worked to disastrous effect, as that third politician received the most votes, leaving Nicias and Alcibiades, and Athens, just where they all were before.

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Against ostracism: Aristotle's criticism

The Athenians were savvy enough to see that the procedure had failed, but also conservative enough and loyal enough to the memory and, as they thought, wishes of their founder not to expunge it completely from the statute book. They invented other means of removing or nullifying politicians who had great followings but could not regularly and unambiguously command majority support. For intellectual critics of the Athenian democratic system as such, though, ostracism remained a prime instance of democracy's inherent weaknesses and indeed immoralities. One such intellectual critic was Aristotle. He was not himself an Athenian citizen, but he knew Athens well, since he lived most of his adult life in the city as a resident alien, having first come to reside there in his later teens in order to study as a pupil in Plato's Academy.

In his Politics - a work of political theory whose title meant 'Matters concerning the polis or citizen-state' - Aristotle singled out ostracism for his withering scorn and contempt. In his usual way he interpreted it in class terms. Democracy for him was the rule of the many poor citizens over the few rich ones. The many poor prided themselves on their equality, whereas the few rich were by self-definition exceptional and un-equal. Ostracism was therefore one of the measures introduced by the demos artificially to equalise to the masses the elite few people who stood out for their wealth, or for the number of their friends and supporters, or for some other means of exercising undue political influence. This Aristotle, no natural egalitarian, considered to be monstrously unjust: the equivalent of a tyrant (an unelected autocrat) getting rid of his enemies by having them murdered! What seems particularly to have upset him was that ostracism had often been used against people pre-eminent in excellence, that is, morally superior to the vulgar common herd who crudely wielded this blunt instrument against them.

Aristotle was of course entitled to his view. But it must be seen for what it was, the view of a man opposed in principle to all forms of ancient democracy, which he saw as the rule of the poor majority over the superior minority in the interests, not of the community as a whole, but of the poor (and selfish, ignorant, fickle etc) majority of citizens.

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For ostracism: the popular view

But suppose we look at it from the point of view of those same masses. How do you ensure that a rich and powerful individual, an Alcibiades say, always conforms to what the masses believe to be in their own best interests, advised as it may be by a genuinely pro-democratic leader such as Pericles, who just happened to have been Alcibiades' guardian as he was growing up?

One way was to make all allotted and elected officials formally responsible, that is, subject to regular accounting for their actions in office to some public body or other, at the limit to the Athenian People in Assembly as such. But even that degree of formal control was not always by itself enough, as the career of Alcibiades himself so blatantly demonstrated: he turned out to be a self-serving triple-crossing traitor. And in any case it was possible to be politically powerful in Athens without holding any formal office whatsoever. Moreover, though public opinion of a sort did indeed exist in fifth-century Athens, it too was an inadequate expression of popular control over their leading politicians' behaviour. Alcibiades did not have to contend with anything like the terrors of the press, the Fourth Estate, as it is rumoured some politicians feel they do today. So some other strong institutional means of curbing such excessively great or grand people was clearly a necessity in an ancient democracy. Here, ostracism, or so Cleisthenes had apparently thought, would fit the bill. And so it did until its aims and intentions were perversely perverted and diverted in 416.

Although ostracism might seem rather a strange idea at first, there are significant modern parallels. For example, within the British democratic system we have long had ways of dealing with those whose power and influence is on the wane but who are still too important to be allowed to remain active at the centre of domestic politics. One traditional form of removal was appointment to the headship of an Oxbridge college, to which has been added more recently removal from the country altogether as a European Union Commissioner or a special envoy of the United Nations. However, ostracism was not primarily a way of removing individuals from formal public office, but rather of making decisions over the policies and leadership of political factions. A modern parallel would be giving the public a direct say in the resolution of deadlocks within major parties. We do have an independent and often campaigning press, but no actual democratic vote: have political parties now become such overwhelmingly important voluntary associations that their leadership should not be left entirely in the hands of their own members?

July 2006

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Further reading

  • Aristotle (attributed to) The Athenian Constitution, trs. P. Rhodes (Penguin Classics 1984)
  • Aristotle Politics, trs. T.A. Sinclair, rev. T.J. Saunders (Penguin Classics 1981)
  • S. Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism and Democracy. The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece (Princeton University Press, 2005)
  • M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, rev edn (Bristol Classical Press, 1999)

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About the author

Paul Cartledge is Professor of Greek History in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University. His most recent books are The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (2nd edn, 2002); The Spartans: An Epic History (2nd edn, 2003); and Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (2004). His current major project is on the political thought of Greeks from Homer to Plutarch.

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