Vincent Azoulay: An electoral campaign in reverse

An article by Vincent Azoulay, professor of ancient history in the University of Paris-Est/Marne-la-Vallée, in france culture (original in French, my translation [corrections welcome]):

An electoral campaign in reverse: the ostracism

Let us start from a finding that is at first surprising. We possess no detailed record of an electoral campaign in Athens – despite it being history’s first democracy! There are multiple reasons for this: first, elections may not have necessarily been important events, being considered an aristocratic selection mechanism, being the opposite of the more egalitarian mechanism of sortition. Most importantly, when elections were held – when selecting generals, for example – they were most often if not unanimous then at least less-contentious: because it was never for selecting a single individual, a bitterly competitive affair, but a board of ten magistrates, which made the competition not as harsh.

To find the real electoral campaigns in Athens, with their maneuvers and intrigue, we have to turn to a celebrated institution, the ostracism, which may be considered as an election in reverse, as it was for politicians who would definitely not be elected!

The function of this important institution of the Athenian democracy is well known: following the reforms of Cleisthenes the Athenians put in place an exceptional measure aimed at preventing the return of tyranny. Each year, the people could decide to exile one person judged too influential for a period of ten years. The ostracism took place in two stages. In the sixth month of the year, a first vote by a show of hands decided whether the ostracism process should be initiated. If that was approved, a second vote, in secret this time, was held two months later to select the condemned. The vote took place using pottery shards (ostraka), on which the citizens wrote the name of the one they wanted to be ostracized. The person who had the most votes was then exiled, conditioned on having a quorum of at least 6,000 voters.

Ostracism appears to have been, then, a sort of a “presidential election” in reverse, with a plurality poll round and a secret ballot round, preceded by a veritable campaign taking place between the first vote (triggering the process) and the second (determining the unfortunate elect!): it is in this interval that you could forge agreements or hatch plots.

The case of Themistocles, the victorious general of the battle of Salamis in 480 against the Persians, is in the regard illuminating. He was ostracized by the Athenians in 472, after having been the object of a systematic denigration campaign. Through the detailed analysis of hundreds of shards found in the Agora, the archeologists were even able to establish that his adversaries prepared in advance dozens of shards with his name – written by the same hand – to be distributed on the day of the vote and facilitate the selection!

And the names of the birds that flew on that occasion. Indeed, the writing on some ostraka indicated not only the name of the citizen selected, but also specify the reason for their expulsion. In one of the shards found in the Agora the same Themistocles is called a “sodomite” (katapugon): far from leveling simple verbal abuse, the insult carried political weight, in that any adult citizen was forbidden, under penalty of loss of civic rights, from assuming a passive role in a homosexual relationship (which by itself is perfectly legal). Beyond the anecdote, ostracism appears to have been a way for the people to define the norms of expected behavior for those who vie for the public roles, including in sexual matters.

For this is the crucial point that we must remember here. Beyond those who are targeted by name, these electoral anti-campaigns exerted a profound influence on the political life of the city. According to Plutarch, it was because Pericles feared being ostracized, as his father had been, that he sided with the people (demos). A Sword of Damocles, the ostracism represented a constant threat hovering over prominent Athenians, incentivizing them to conform to popular expectations.

Should we institute this procedure today, resulting in the temporary exclusion of one of the contenders for presidential power? Maybe this procedure will lead to the moderation of the passions of certain candidates and the silencing of the more foolish proposals that circulate currently in these times of growing extremism.

5 Responses

  1. Headlam argues that ostracism (which was replaced by the graphe paranomon) was the ancient precedent for modern electoral politics. Hansen laments that when Aquinas re-presented Athenian politics to the modern world he failed to mention the severe penalties for politicians who displeased the people.


  2. *** Ostracism, at the beginning of the Athenian democracy, was targeted against a would be tyrant or oligarchic leader, among the heads of the nobiliary clans. It was an humanized and sweeter version of the “politics of exile” which was one character of the civil strifes in 6th century Greece. A relevant book: Sara Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece
    *** It may have become, during the 5th century, a kind of “presidential election in reverse”, as suggests Pr Azoulay.
    *** In the Second Athenian Democracy, developed during the 4th century, and which is the system interesting for kleroterians as citizen juries became one of the main channel of popular sovereignty, ostracism was kept in the legal code, but fell out of use.
    *** Keith Sutherland thinks that its role in the very antagonistic politics of Athenian Democracy went to the judiciary fights between politicians. There is probably a lot of truth in this idea.
    *** But I will propose that this change may be linked to a change in the politicians and their mental relationship with citizens. The ideal-type for 5th century, from Cleisthenes himself to Pericles, is a man belonging to an old nobiliary family, a military leader joined to a statesman, a leader with a charismatic link to his followers. The ideal-type for 4th century is a man from a family usually educated and rich, but not always of high lineage; a man who did not look for a military office, left to a specialist; a man seen as adviser or a potential minister (as a lawyer or a doctor in our societies), a professional politician ( “politeuomenos”, a newly used word). The first ideal-type man is dangerous from his simple presence, ostracism is the adequate institution. A second ideal-type man may be punished when his role is judged bad for the dêmos by his fault – as today we see complaint procedures of patients against doctors.
    *** There were many differences between Themistocles’ Athens and Demosthenes’s Athens; including the institutional differences which are interesting for us kleroterians. Elucidating the causation links is, I am afraid, a difficult endeavor.


  3. Andre,

    >A second ideal-type man may be punished when his role is judged bad for the dêmos by his fault – as today we see complaint procedures of patients against doctors.

    Would not a better modern analogy be competitive elections? The politician is effectively ostracised if she fails to be re-elected. I believe that to be Headlam’s argument. If the second demokratia had survived it would have been interesting to see if the 4th century increase in the use of election developed any further.


  4. Does anyone on this blog see a role for ostracism today?


  5. I’m sure many would like to see me ostracised from this site.


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