An ostrakon with the name and patronymic (indicating his father) of the nominee, Cimon, son of Miltiades
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To-day the term ‘ostracism’ is often used loosely to allude to exclusion from a social group : what school-children might call ‘sending some-one to Coventry’ ; it is, however, a specific procedure with origin in ancient Athens.
Ostracism was aimed at curbing the ambitions of any-one that might aspire to the seizure of power in Athens. Although traditionally described as one of the reforms of Cleisthenes, ca. 508 (unless otherwise stated or implied by the context, all dates are b.c.), it was not used till 487 and many scholars now doubt this ascription ; it fell in to disuse around 417.
It was a process whereby, once a year, one Athenian — usually a politician or a general — might be banished from Attica for ten years (but without loss of property).
First, at a time we’d think of as late January, the Assembly would be asked whether it would hold an ostracism in that year. If so, the vote itself would take place a month later, giving time for word to reach the demes — the rural communities around Attica — that an ostracism was to be held and for citizens to arrange to be there for the vote, a quorum being 6,000.
A citizen would write the name of him he would have ostracized on a sherd of pottery (ostrakon, plural ostraka) ; although the average Athenian would have been illiterate, he would have been able either to have another inscribe for him or to collect one of many ostraka that had been inscribed in advance, each in the name of a particular ‘candidate’. (Many surviving sherds are clearly crafted by few hands ; this should not be taken as a sign of corruption : literacy was rare and it was normal for people — likely hoping to promote a particular candidate’s ostracism — to prepare sherds for the use of any-one that might want — or be persuaded — to vote against him.)
When all the sherds had been collected and counted, he whose name had appeared on the most ostraka would be banished.
An ostrakon nominating Themistocles (son of Neocles)
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