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On Ostracism

I’d heard of the Athenian phenomenon of ostracism in high school. I was taught that it was an indication that Athenians were not so civilized after all but, indeed, rather cruel. Turns out, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Every year Athenians voted on whether or not to ostracize a citizen of the polis. Most years there was no ostracism. There can be only one ostracism per year and only one person can be ostracized at a time. So, in effect, the people had a democratic tool to expel the one person that they deemed most dangerous to the polis.

They would cast their ballot on an ostraka, which is a piece of broken pottery.  If  more than 6,000 Athenians voted, then the votes would be tallied (so, roughly speaking, 1 in 3 citizens would have to vote to stage the ostracism). If the person in question receives a simple majority than he will be expelled from Athens for 10 years.

Unlike the potential outcome of a judicial procedure, the ostracized is not found guilty. He is not deemed criminal, his family is not harmed or disgraced, and his land is not taken.

It seems that there are three main justifications for ostracism. The first is if the person in question is treasonous. A second justification is if the person is deemed to be a genuine threat to the system. If Athens is governed by democratic reformers then hardcore aristocrats might be deemed dangerous and vice versa. Lastly, one could be ostracized if he is promoting factionalism among the politae.

Donald Kagan argues that ostracism was a civil democratic device used to reduce treason and minimize discontent. He suggests that such a “safety valve” promoted unity and minimized the threat of civil war.

On one hand, I’m not sure how civil, let alone humane, this is. On the other hand would it not, for instance, be nice to send Sarah Palin packing for a decade?


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