The ancient Greeks hit on some very clever and durable ideas in their time. Democracy was a particularly good one. Euclidian geometry has also come in handy, as, to a lesser extent, has philosophy. It’s probably reasonable enough to say that they invented Western civilization. Some of their innovations, however, never really made it past the death of Alexander the Great. One of these is the tradition known as ostracism. The term itself, of course, is one we still use today, but we use it only in a more or less metaphorical sense. When we say that someone has been ostracized, we are saying that what has happened to them is a little like what used to happen in ancient Greece.
Ostracism was a formal practice in Athenian democracy whereby any citizen could be exiled for a period of ten years. Every spring, people would gather to vote on whether one particularly troublesome or unpleasant public figure should be given their marching orders. The procedure took its name from the Greek word ostrakon, which referred to a broken bit of pottery. These shards of ceramic would be handed out to everyone present at the vote, and each person would scratch into their ostrakon the name of whatever citizen they wanted banished. The shards would then be collected and sorted into piles for each name; whoever had the largest pile would be given ten days to get their affairs in order, pack their bags and make themselves scarce for a decade, with their property held safely for them until they returned.
A quorum of 6,000 votes was needed for an ostracism to be effective; a significant number of people had to find a guy objectionable, in other words, before he was exiled (you couldn’t just campaign to have someone osctracized for, say, skipping the queue at the legume stand down the Agora). Ostracisms therefore tended to be political in nature, in that those who got exiled were usually powerful figures felt by their rivals to present too large a threat, or who were considered liable to become tyrants.
In a way, the idea has survived in an attenuated form in the guise of reality TV, where a nation (or the part of it that cares about Big Brother) gets to choose which of a number of excessively tanned and hair-gelled extroverts to banish from a house, and, at least notionally, from its screens. But it could also work on a broader societal level. Not for criminals, whom you obviously want to lock up and keep society safe from, but just for people who are getting on everyone’s wick, or are somehow damaging to society in a way that isn’t technically illegal. There might, that is, be something to be said for holding a vote every spring on which of a selection of public figures – your Donald Trumps, your Jeremy Clarksons, your Michelle Bachmanns, your Bonos – would be exiled for the next ten years. It would be like collectively saying, “look, you’re more than welcome to keep doing what you’re doing, but you just can’t do it in our line of sight. Now make yourself scarce until July 2022 at the earliest.” There’s something attractive about the idea of this collective power; of sentencing people not to death or imprisonment, but to essentially just clearing off out of it for a bit. It would probably be a logistical, legal and political nightmare – not to mention a human rights farrago waiting to happen – but it’s nice to daydream about anyway.
July 9, 2012
exile-as-a-boon, greece, ostrakon