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Ostracism and Democracy in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, an individual could reach the highest potential with the support of the system, the polis, but only while climbing the ladders of socially accepted regulations. According to philosophers of the time, the most crucial relationship an individual could have was with the system in which society operated, and it needed thus to be nurtured with responsibility and dedication (Aristotle, 350 BC). To be excluded from the community meant to be deprived of everything. The Romans fittingly defined such a fate as capital punishment (Gorman, 1992). Although this process of ostracism comes across as brutal, it was one of the indispensable tools in creating democracy. It is still unclear whether ostracism was just a convenient measure implemented by the elite to manipulate the rest of society or a much-needed expedient to prevent tyranny, which the ancient Greeks passionately despised. Still, the remodeling impact of ostracism in developing the justice system and the lasting effect on today's democracy is indisputable.

To comprehend why ostracism was considered such a harsh punishment, it is essential to understand what citizenship symbolized and what tyranny represented in the ancient Greek polis. In Athens, for instance, to be a citizen entailed privileges and rights, but it also required fulfilling specific duties. To be vigorously involved in serving the city politically and religiously was the only way to be regarded as a true citizen. Robert F. Gorman (1992), professor emeritus of political science and a specialist in international law, wrote that "citizenship implied a close union with the ancestral soil and worship in the ancestral religion" (p. 6). Therefore, a foreigner could not enjoy all of the rights or exclusivity to which a citizen was entitled. The role of citizenship was vital and considered valuable, especially to well-born men; they enjoyed more rights and could climb the highest on the social ladder compared to women and men from plebeians or common families.

Figure 1: The Acropolis at Athens (von Klenze, 1846).

In his work Politics, Aristotle explains that tyrants appeared as a response to overbearing aristocrats, and the angered people welcomed them. Robert Drews (1970), an American historian and Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at Vanderbilt University, implies that the growing Greek economy created a gap between the old aristocrats and the newly prosperous. The new elite represented a novelty in Athens society, as they were not backed by ancestral connections but rather by recently acquired wealth. As old aristocrats were abusing their power, they were now challenged with a ruler installed by a larger group of citizens who now had the same financial power. However, Aristotle writes that tyrants turned out to be the "degenerative species with the monarch's genes" as they no longer gave stability to the polis but started to use power for personal advantages (350 BC, 1310 B). Once the elected leaders started acting oppressively and self-serving, the attitude of the citizens changed. In the year 508/7 BC, ostracism was first introduced as a way to control the tyrants (Forsdyke, 2000). After that, whenever a ruler started showing the attributes of a tyrant, the demos would react.

Ostracism was a voting system that enabled Athenians to vote once a year, deciding if compromised citizens should be forced to leave the polis for ten years. Citizens were invited to Agora to determine if, that year, there was a contender for ostracism. Agora was the center of public life in ancient Greece. It was a central open space in the city dedicated to the gathering of free-born citizens where they could carry out civic duties, discuss politics, and exchange views. After the people elected a possible candidate for ostracism, they cast their votes on shards of broken pottery, called ostraca, determining if the accused should be removed from the political and social life of the polis. A boule, a group of 500 men that served in council, and nine archons, chief magistrates, oversaw that the process was legitimate (Doenges, 1996). Over 6000 citizens needed to cast their vote, and two months passed between the nomination and the voting, so the accused had an opportunity to plead their case and influence the public. Charles Alexander Robinson Jr. (1952), an American classical scholar and a classical history author, noted that ostracism was once used to prevent tyranny but was later used as a weapon of political warfare. Aristotle claims that sometimes men of virtue were exiled due to manipulation, so it is not difficult to speculate that the process was not always used for its intended goal (350 BC, 1284 A). Archaeological evidence in the form of almost 200 pieces of grouped pottery shards with a single name written on them shows that there was a possibility for manipulation in the voting process (Lang,1990).

Figure 2: A piece of pottery shard, ostraca, with the name of Megacles, son of Hippocrates, 487 BC (Dall'Orto, 2009).

When ostracized, a citizen would lose his status and family ties and immediately leave the city's borders. Material belongings and property were safe until the ostracized person returned from exile. Still, the psychological toll of being forced to leave the ideal polis and the family ties devastated an individual. "To be exiled was to be denied the benefits of one's household religion, to be cast away from the ancestral land, and to be denied the protection of civic gods. To be exiled was to be excommunicated" (Gorman, 1992, p.9). Gorman also claims that in "some cases these famous exiles found welcome in other countries, others were able to repatriate and pursue long and successful careers in their native cities, but in many cases, they ended up dying in a foreign land" (p.9). Even though some tyrants could survive the ostracism or come back earlier from exile, for example, if an ostracized person was needed to help fight in a battle, most of them never regained the position and influence enjoyed prior to ostracization, and many died abroad.

Ostracism was first recorded as a legal process in Archaic Greece. Still, it was arguably utilized in many social groups long before societies and laws were defined and long before it was consciously recognized as a way of societal control. It is also evident how misused the process was and how easily it could have been manipulated. "In short, banishment was viewed by the ancients as a potentially useful tool of the criminal justice system and as a means of preserving the integrity of the state from violent political upheaval" (Gorman, 1992, p.15). Even though exile was recognized as a flawed measure, it proved effective in regulating the ruling class and yielded several favorable outcomes.

Figure 3: Antigone accompanies her father, Oedipus, into exile (Kokular, 1828).

A significant contribution of the legacy of ostracism is the accountability of the elite, as ostracism held the wealthy liable for their actions and forced them to be politically responsible. Ostracism's second contribution, perhaps more significant, was the inclusion of ordinary citizens participating actively in the justice system. Ancient Greeks were among the first societies where the ruling class could be replaced by the demos, not by a revolution or a coup but with an official law regulation.

From today's perspective, many laws from the ancient world are entirely incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the profound historical impact of ostracism is evident in today's society, as some forms of ostracism are still actively practiced, as in the form of cancel culture. Whether the act of the accused justifies the idea of removing a person entirely from society, credit must be given to a practice that, even if cruel and easily misused, contributed to the development of democracy.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle. (2009). Politics (B. Jowett, Trans.). The Internet Classics Archive. (Original work published 350 BC).

Doenges, Norman A. (1996). Ostracism and the “boulai” of Kleisthenes. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 45(4), 387–404.

Drews, R. (1972). The first tyrants in Greece. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 21(2), 129–144.

Forsdyke, S. (2000). Exile, ostracism and the Athenian democracy. Classical Antiquity, 19(2), 232–263.

Gorman, R. F. (1992). Citizenship, obligation, and exile in the Greek and Roman experience. Public Affairs Quarterly, 6(1), 5–22.

Kuokkanen, S. (2020). Ostracism, inner change and the dynamics of reintegration in classical Athens. Pallas, 112, 67–91.

Lang, M. L. (1990). Ostraka. The Athenian Agora, 25, iii–188.

Robinson, C. A., Jr. (1952). Cleisthenes and ostracism. American Journal of Archaeology, 56(1), 23– 26.

Visual sources

Cover image: Von Foltz, P. (1852). Pericles Gives the Funeral Speech [Painting]. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Private collection.

Figure 1: Von Klenze, L. (1846). The Acropolis at Athens [Oil on canvas]. Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Figure 2: Dall'Orto, G. (2009). Ostrakon of Megacles, son of Hippocrates, 487 BC. Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens, Greece.

Figure 3: Kokular, A. (1828). Oedipus and Antigone [Oil on canvas]. The National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland.


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Marija Pejic Zivanovic

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