Ostracism was a method of banishment that was used in Athens during the 400s B.C. In a special election, Athenian citizens could vote to exile a person from the city for ten years. Other Greek states, including Miletus, Syracuse, and Argos, also had some form of ostracism.
Once a year, the assembly of citizens in Athens voted on whether to hold an ostracism. If the assembly voted in favor, a special election was held in the agora* under the supervision of city officials. A quorum* of 6,000 was required for the ostracism to proceed. Each voter wrote the name of the person he wanted to exile on a piece of pottery, called an ostrakon. After the votes were cast, the pottery pieces were counted. According to most historical evidence, the man whose name appeared on the greatest number of ostraka was ostracized. (An alternative view is that a total of 6,000 votes against one individual was required to ostracize.) A banished citizen had to leave Athens within ten days and was not allowed to return for ten years. However, he could retain his citizenship and property, and he could return to Athens at the end of his exile and live without any disgrace or further penalty.
* agora in Greece, the public square or marketplace
* quorum number of members of an organization who must be present for the group to conduct business
Ostracisms were often held for political reasons. In some cases, Athenians ostracized prominent statesmen, such as Thucydides (the son of Mele- sias, not the historian) and Cimon, as a way of rejecting the policies for which they stood. However, Athenians could also vote to ostracize a person they simply disliked. The Greek biographer Plutarch relates the story of a man who wanted to ostracize the widely admired statesman Aristides, simply because he was tired of hearing people refer to him as “Aristides, the Just.” More than 10,000 ostraka from the 400s B.C. have been found in Athens. Many bear the names of people who were actually ostracized.
It is not certain when ostracism started. Some scholars believe Cleis- thenes introduced some form of ostracism in 508-7 B.C., although the first actual ostracism did not take place until 20 years later. Ostracisms were held in three successive years beginning in 487 B.C. Since two of the three ostracized men were related to a former Athenian tyrant* and the third had ties to the Persian Empire, it is believed that the three exiled men were unpopular because they favored the Persians and wanted to restore the tyranny. Hyperbolus, the last Athenian to be ostracized, was exiled in 417 B.C. (See also Democracy, Greek; Tyrants, Greek.)
* tyrant absolute ruler