Ostracism, "the judgment of the potsherds": Athenian juridical practice in which a potentially dangerous person would be exiled from the city without loss of property or civil rights.

Ostracon mentioning Hipparchus

One of the problems in any democracy is the possibility that a leader arises with too much charisma. Of course this is not a crime, but people with too much personal influence can become dangerous for the democratic system itself, even when their ideas are not divisive or dangerous. A well-established democracy can cope with these people, but charismatic personalities can destabilize early democracies and become tyrants (as happened several times in ancient Syracuse).

A possible measure to protect democracy would be to exile the man who was too influential, but although a very common way to protect the city from rivalries, this was a harsh measure that was only taken by the community as a whole. (In fact, the right to send people away was, like the death penalty, something in which the city-state showed its independence and autonomy.) Because it was seen as too strong a measure, the ancient Athenians - perhaps the statesman Cleisthenes - developed the practice known as ostracism, which can be described as "exile light". This happened in two stages.

  1. Every year, the People's Assembly (ekklesia) was asked whether a vote of ostracism should be held. If there was no clear majority, this was the end of the matter. But if the people wanted to ostracize a person, a day was set, typically two months later.
  2. Every voter was given a potsherd (ostrakon) on which he wrote down the name of a politician he believed to be potentially dangerous. (Or he asked someone else to do the writing.) If a certain quorum was reached, the politician who had received most votes was sent away from Athens.

The difference with an ordinary exile is that the man who was ostracized remained a citizen, had to leave the city for a fixed period of ten years, did not lose his possessions, and could be recalled - which happened quite often.

Ostracon mentioning Pericles, son of Xanthippus

Our sources are unclear about the quorum. Plutarch of Chaeronea says that a grand total of 6,000 potsherds had to be cast; Philochorus, however, states that the exiled man had to receive 6,000 votes.

Although the practice was intended to protect the democratic procedures against charismatic politicians, it appears that it was often used by conservatives who already had great influence against politicians who challenged their positions. On the list of ostracised people (below), several are known to have been "new men". On the other hand, the first four names belong to people who were associated with the tyranny of the Pisistratids.

Ostracism could also be applied in the struggle between politicians. For example, in 415, there was a general feeling that the extravagant Alcibiades should leave the city, but after the decision to organize an ostracism had been taken, he found the support of Nicias, and together they were able to obtain more votes for someone else, Hyperbolus, a radical democrat.

The ostracism of an adviser of Pericles named "Damonides of Oe" or "Damon, son of Damonides of Oe" is mentioned in the Athenian Constitution, a treatise that belongs to the Corpus Aristotelicum. This ostracism cannot be dated.

After the ostracism of Hyperbolus, many people were convinced that this practice was outmoded. It was never officially abolished, but from now on, law suits were considered to be a better instrument against too powerful politicians. After a century, the Athenian democracy was well-established and no longer needed ostracism.

A similar custom existed in ancient Syracuse. The difference was that not sherds were used, but tree leaves; hence, it was called petalism. Argos, Miletus, Cyrene, and Megara sometimes organized "normal" ostracisms.


This page was created in 2005; last modified on 16 April 2020.