Dealing With Undesirables

by Doug Ordunio


In ancient Athens, there was a rather civil way of dealing with undesirables. It was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which a prominent citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the victim, ostracism was often used pre-emptively.

It was used as a way of defusing major confrontations between rival politicians (by removing one of them from the scene), neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state, or exiling a potential tyrant. Crucially, ostracism had no relation to the processes of justice. There was no charge or defense, and the exile was not in fact a penalty; it was simply a command from the Athenian people that one of their number be gone for ten years.

The word “ostracism” comes from the idea that pieces of broken pottery were used as voting tokens which would be cast against the offending parties. Thus if you had a designated number of ostrakons cast against you by the people you would be banished from the community. The precise process was as follows. Each year the Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If they voted "yes", then an ostracism would be held two months later.

In a roped-off area of the agora, citizens scratched the name of a citizen they wished to expel on potshards, and deposited them in urns. The presiding officials counted the ostraka submitted; if a minimum of six thousand votes were reached, then the ostracism took place: the officials sorted the names into separate piles, and the person receiving the highest number of votes was exiled for ten years.

There was no charge made against the person, and there was no defense. If the Greeks said you have to go, there was no questioning. You were banned. One unusual discovery that was made, and the purposes of this are uncertain, is that there was found a cache of 190 ostraka discovered dumped in a well next to the acropolis. From the handwriting they appear to have been written by fourteen individuals and bear the name of Themistocles, ostracized before 471 BC and were evidently meant for distribution to voters. This was not necessarily evidence of electoral fraud (being no worse than modern voting instruction cards), but their being dumped in the well suggests that their creators wished to hide them. What they do indicate is that groups attempted to influence the outcome of ostracisms, although how successful these attempts were is unknown. The two-month gap between the first and second phases would have easily allowed for such a campaign.

So, really things haven’t changed much, have they? In some camps they might be referred to in a kindly way, as influence peddlers.

Eventually, ostracism as a practice died out, and undesirables were dealt with in new and more efficient ways. Still, the old ways die hard.