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date: 07 December 2022



  • D. M. MacDowell


  • Greek Law

Ostracism in Athens in the 5th cent. bce was a method of banishing a citizen for ten years (cf. exile, Greek). Each year in the sixth prytany the question whether an ostracism should be held that year was put to the ekklēsia. If the people voted in favour of holding an ostracism, it was held on a day in the eighth prytany in the agora under the supervision of the archontes and the boulē. Each citizen who wished to vote wrote on a fragment of pottery (ostrakon) the name of the citizen whom he wished to be banished. The voters were marshalled by phylai in an enclosure erected for the occasion, to ensure that no one put in more than one ostrakon. When all had voted, the ostraka were counted and, provided that there was a total of at least 6,000, the man whose name appeared on the largest number was ostracized. (An alternative view, attributed to Philochorus, FGrH 328 F30, is that the ostracism was valid only if at least 6,000 votes were cast against one man.) He had to leave the country within ten days and remain in exile for ten years, but he did not forfeit his citizenship or property, and at the end of the ten years he could return to live in Athens without any disgrace or disability.

The date of the institution of ostracism has been a matter of dispute. According to the standard account (Arist.Ath. Pol.22) the law about it was introduced by Cleisthenes(2) in 508/7, but the first ostracism was not held until 487. Some modern scholars accept this account and offer various conjectural explanations of the twenty years' interval. Others maintain that the law cannot have been passed until shortly before the first ostracism in 487, and that Cleisthenes therefore was not its author; a statement attributed to Androtion (FGrH 324 F6) has been adduced in support of this view, but its interpretation and value are doubtful. A third view, based on later sources, is that Cleisthenes introduced a different method of ostracism by the boulē and was himself ostracized by this method, which was subsequently replaced by the method first used in 487.

The man ostracized in 487 was Hipparchus son of Charmus, a relative of the ex-tyrant Hippias(1). He was followed in 486 by Megacles, one of the Alcmaeonids (see alcmaeonidae), and in 485 by some other adherent of Hippias' family, probably Callias son of Cratius. No doubt these three had all become unpopular because it was thought that they favoured the Persian invaders and the restoration of the tyranny. Xanthippus was ostracized in 484 and Aristides(1) in 482, but both of these returned from exile in 480 when an amnesty was declared in an attempt to muster the full strength of Athens to resist the invasion of Xerxes. Other prominent men known to have been ostracized are Themistocles about 470, Cimon in 461, and Thucydides(1) son of Melesias in 443. Hyperbolus was the last victim of the system; his ostracism is usually dated in 417, though some scholars have placed it in 416 or 415. Ostracism then fell out of use, although the law authorizing it remained in force in the 4th cent. The graphē paranomōn was found to be a more convenient method of attacking politicians.

It is often hard to tell why a particular man was ostracized. Sometimes, as in the cases of Cimon and Thucydides (1), the Athenians seem to have ostracized a man to express their rejection of a policy for which he stood and their support for an opposing leader; thus an ostracism might serve a purpose similar to that of a modern general election. But no doubt individual citizens were often actuated by personal malice or other non-political motives, as is illustrated by the story of the yokel who wished to vote against Aristides because he was tired of hearing him called ‘the Just’ (Plut.Arist. 7. 7).

Over 10,000 ostraka, dumped in the Agora or Ceramicus after use, have now been found. The names include not only men whom we know to have been actually ostracized but also a considerable number of others. Some are men quite unknown to us, and it may well be that they were not prominent politicians but merely had an odd vote cast against them by some malicious personal acquaintance. Particularly interesting is a find of 190 ostraka in a well on the north slope of the Acropolis (see athens, topography), all inscribed with the name of Themistocles by only a few different hands. Presumably they were prepared for distribution by his opponents. This suggests that he was the victim of an organized campaign, and it illustrates the importance of ostracism as a political weapon in 5th-cent. Athens. See also literacy.


  • R. Thomsen, The Origin of Ostracism (1972).
  • E. Vanderpool, Lectures in Memory of L. T. Semple 2 (1973), 217–70.
  • M. L. Lang, The Athenian Agora 25: Ostraka (1990).
  • P. Harding, Androtion and the Atthis (1994), 94–8.
  • P. J. Rhodes, in R. Osborne and S. Hornblower (eds.), Ritual, Finance, Politics (1994), ch. 5. S.
  • Brenne in W. Coulson and others (eds.) The Archaeology of Athens and Attica under the Democracy (1994) 13–24: illustrations.
  • S. Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy (2005).