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Ostraka for Ostracism

Ostraka for Ostracism - Museum of the Ancient Agora - Joy of Museum

Ostraka for Ostracism

These Ostraka for Ostracism are pieces of pottery, broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessels and inscribed with the name of Athenians being voted for Ostracism. Ostraka refer to pottery shards that have writing scratched into them for the purpose of ostracism during the 5th century B.C.

Ostracism

Ostracism was a procedure in the Athenian democracy in which any citizen could be expelled from Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the citizen, ostracism was also often used preemptively. It was used as a way of neutralising someone thought to be a threat to the state or a potential tyrant.

The name is derived from the ostraca (or ostraka) referring to the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens. Broken pottery was abundant and almost free, the pottery shards served as a kind of scrap paper. Papyrus, which was imported from Egypt as a high-quality writing surface was too expensive to be disposable.

Each year the Athenian citizens were asked in assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If they voted “yes”, then an ostracism would be held two months later. Citizens gave the name of those they wished to be ostracised to a scribe, as many of them were illiterate, and they then scratched the name on pottery shards and deposited them in urns. The officials then counted the ostraka and sorted the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka would be banished, provided that there was a quorum of 6,000 ostraka.

The person who was ostracised had ten days to leave the city. If they attempted to return, the penalty was death. Notably, the property of the man banished was not confiscated and there was no loss of status. After the ten years, they were allowed to return without stigma. It was also possible for the assembly to recall an ostracised person ahead of time during an emergency.

Some of the names scratched on these Ostraka in the picture include:

    • Sokrates Anargyrasios – 443 BC (4)
    • Hippokrates Anaxileou – 490 BC (5)
    • Hippokrates the Alkmeonid – 490 BC (6 – 8)
    • Xanthippos – 484 BC (9 – 11)
    • Perikles – 444 BC (15)
    • Kallixenos – 483 BC (23-29)
    • Themistokles – 460 BC (32 – 39)

Exploring the Ancient Agora Museum

Reflections

  • Is Ostracism relevant in certain communities today?

Ostraka for Ostracism

  • Name:            Ostraka for Ostracism
  • Date:              5th century B.C.
  • Material:        Terracotta
  • Country:         Greece
  • Museum:        Museum of the Ancient Agora

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“Time is the wisest counsellor of all.”
– Pericles

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Photo Credit: JOM