Historical Tidbit of the Day: Ostracism
Posted on June 24, 2019
In ancient Athens, the citizens would vote from time to time to exile particular citizens from the city for ten years. We know about the practice from Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, from Plutarch, and no doubt from other authors. The idea was that each year the citizens were asked whether they wanted to exile someone. If they voted yes, then a second vote was held, in which each citizen wrote the name of the citizen he wanted to be exiled on a shard of pottery. When the votes were tallied, the person whose name appeared the most was exiled for ten years. There was no trial, no right to make speeches in defense, and no question of guilt or innocence. The idea was to give the citizens a way to protect the polis from people considered to pose a danger or to be potential tyrants. They called the process “ostracism” (ostrakismos) because the voters wrote the names on ostraka, or shards of pottery.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting we try this in America. If we did we probably would end up exiling Cass Sunstein or Gustavo Dudamel or someone. Still, it is interesting to consider another democracy that, when faced with the appearance of a danger to the polity, was able to come up with a novel solution of protecting themselves from the danger. It’s not as though Athenian ostracism had existed since time immemorial. According to Aristotle, Cleisthenes had instituted the law after the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias and the expulsian of the Spartans who had helped the Athenians overthrow Hippias but had then sought to rule Athens to their own advantage.