Posted by: Dominic | November 8, 2010


In Classical Athens, ostracism was a political and judicial institution by which a citizen could be exiled from the city for ten years. After the introduction of democracy around 510 BCE, there was still great anxiety that a very popular leader could quickly become a tyrant. In order to prevent this, the system of ostracization was also introduced. Now, Athens was a direct democracy (for free adult males of military age). And all citizens could vote to kick out anyone they perceived as a threat to the democracy. Only those who received at least 6,000 votes and only one person per year could suffer the penalty.

And everyone thought that there would be no way this could ever be used as a tool to get rid of a political enemy or other such base behavior which is totally beneath the noble and great Athenians. Right?

Yeah, right.

My favorite victim of ostracism is Aristeides, son of Lysimachus, a 5th century BCE politician. Plutarch, composing a biography of him in the 2nd century AD, casts Aristeides as the honorable and staid aristocrat to the crafty and excitable Themistocles, a democrat if ever there was one. His honesty was renowned. Once, when prosecuting someone, the judges were so impressed with him that they decided that the defendant need not speak at all and could be declared guilty then and there; Aristeides sprang up and shouted that his opponent’s rights must be respected. Another time he was introducing a bill to be passed into law, and indeed the vote was about to be made and probably in his favor, when he realized that the opposition’s arguments were superior and so he hastily withdrew his own motion for fear his law would do harm to the state. Aristeides was so upright that he was called “the Just.”

Around 485, Themistocles spread the rumor that Aristeides wanted to become a tyrant. And so he became a prime candidate for exile. Aristeides was milling about as the voting was going on and an illiterate farmer came up to him and gave him a ballot and told him to write “Aristeides” on it. Aristeides was naturally taken aback a little, and asked, what wrong had Aristeides ever done to him? None whatsoever, said the man, but I’m just so damned tired of everyone calling him the Just!

Aristeides must have been really stunned, but he quietly scratched his name on the ballot and then began his journey out of the city.

Ostracism takes its name from the ballots themselves. Voting was done with shards of pottery, which in Greek are called ostraka. Hordes of them have been found in Athens, leading us to believe that they were pre-printed and distributed to the populace before the vote.

Ostraka. On the center shard is inscribed "Aristeides the son of Lysimachus."



  1. Hello Dominic,
    on a web search I found your Ostraka picture. Can you please tell me the source of the picture? If you made the picture yourself in a museum, would you maybe allow me to use it for a presentation in school? Thanks

    • Hi Tina, thank you for your comment. I did not take this picture myself. Honestly I don’t remember where I found this picture.

      I believe under fair use guidelines, the use of copyrighted media for educational purposes is allowed. I will add that I am not a lawyer, so my knowledge is limited in this area. Good luck on your presentation, and feel free to share anything that you learned about ancient Athens and ostracism here! Thanks again!

    • Update: the picture came from Wikipedia!

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