Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other language, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.
For this article, we will be focusing on the word ostracism. The word itself is derived from the Ancient Greek ostrakon, which was, funnily enough, a piece of pottery. So how did a word for pottery enter the English language in the form of a word defined as ‘exclusion or expulsion from a social group’?
In an archaeological and epigraphical context, ostraka (plural of ostrakon) are tied to a specific social practice in Ancient Athens, deeply ingrained in the fabric of the first true democracy. It was the procedure by which any Athenian citizen could be banished from the city-state. The practice of banishment or exile was not uncommon in Ancient Greece. What sets the Athenian variation apart is the fact that it was temporary, specifically for a period of ten years. Furthermore, the individual who has been expelled retains all their property in Athens, held in what was effectively a trust until their return. Nor did the individual lose any status. After ten years, they were free to return, without stigma. In emergencies, the assembly could recall the banished individual before the period expired. This is known to have occurred on at least four occasions, typically former military leaders recalled in times of war.
The strangeness of this practice is compounded by the fact that it stands in stark contrast from the rest of the Athenian judicial processes. There were two stages to the procedure of an ‘ostracism’. Firstly, a vote was held among all Athenian citizens to determine if an ‘ostracism’ was to be held, then, two months later, the vote itself. There was no charge nor any defence that could be offered. To return before the ten years ended or before they were recalled was punishable by death. This works in almost the opposite of the Athenian judicial process, where a charge is laid against an individual, who then has the right to have their case heard by a jury of their peers.
But how does this involve pottery?
The answer lies in what the votes were written on. Paper had not yet been invented and its predecessor, papyrus, was far too expensive for anyone other than the wealthiest individuals to own, let alone use in a vote. Instead, the Athenians made use of the one material they had in abundance: pottery. An ostrakon is a shard of pottery, onto which a citizen carved the name of the individual they wanted to be expelled. Hence the term ‘Ostracism‘.
These ostraka were then counted by officials. This individual with the most votes would be expelled, provided there were enough total votes as well as enough votes for that person.
It would be easy to assume that the process would just be a means of venting public anger against an individual and, in a few known cases, this was certainly the case. However, more often than not, an individual was expelled not because of public anger, but rather in a preemptive attempt to neutralise a person considered a potential threat to the state or a potential tyrant. Even the Athenian equivalent of national heroes were not immune to this practice. Indeed, often they were ‘ostracised’ precisely because they were famous, powerful and influential. Prominent figures that were known to have been expelled include Aristides (nicknamed ‘the Just’ and described by ancient historian Herodotus as the ‘best and most honourable man in Athens’) and Themistocles, who had, thanks to his spectacular victory at the Battle of Salamis, effectively saved Athens from extinction.
Around 12,000 ostraka have been excavated in the Agora and in the Kerameikos, providing a fascinating insight into one of the stranger processes in Athenian society.