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Ostracism: From Divine Punishment to Political Maneuvers

Ostracism: From Divine Punishment to Political Maneuvers

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As the world’s powers perpetually rise and fall, exile and banishment have forever been ubiquitous elements of human history. Exile and ostracism have afflicted individuals and nations, inspiring eminent works of Classical literature and immortalizing core themes of religious belief. The most illustrious stories from the ancient world revolve around banishment. Its status as a judicial and political maneuver traces back to the origins of democracy.

The Four Exiles of the Jewish People

The Arba Galuyot, or “Four Exiles” are a foundational component of Jewish history. The precursor  galut (exile) began in 1523 BC, when disaster struck the land of Canaan (ancient Israel). In Genesis and Exodus, the Hebrew Bible tells that famine forced the people of Jacob to wander into Egypt. They settled there successfully before the Egyptian Pharaohs enslaved them for centuries. The belief is that God sent Moses and the famous plagues to liberate his people, and after 40 more years of wandering through the desert, they returned to Israel around 1313 BC.

The prophet Daniel supposedly foretold the four exiles that followed as four great beasts:

“I saw in my vision by night...four great beasts…The first was like a lion...and behold, another beast, a second one, similar to a bear…Afterwards I beheld, and there was another, similar to a leopard…After that, as I looked on in the night vision, there was a fourth beast—fearsome, dreadful and very powerful.”

Based on teachings by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, many Jews and Christians regard the ancient Jewish exiles as Yahweh’s divine punishment for disobedience and idolatry.

The Palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon (David Stanley / CC BY 2.0)

The First Beast: The Lion and Babylonian Captivity

Judeo-Christian faith maintains that both the Holy Temple and holiness itself reigned over Jerusalem until the early sixth century BC, when Israel crumbled at the hand of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish nation’s humble population were spared, and remained free under the Jewish King Zedekiah. But Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Holy Temple and banished 10,000 of the most prominent citizens – the wealthiest, the most skilled, the most holy and influential – to Babylon. Ignoring the pleas of their prophet, Jeremiah, those remaining in Jerusalem rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, who in turn exiled them to Babylon as punishment as well.

2 Kings 24-25 recounts the resulting siege, the desecration and mourning, but the Jews eventually became accustomed to Babylon.

The Second Beast: The Bear and the Persian Kings

About 70 years later, in the 530s BC, the Persians came to power under King Darius. He purportedly took kindly to the Jewish people, appointing the prophet Daniel as his chief minister and sparking jealousy among his other officials. This brought about the Biblical story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. The envious officials of Darius convinced him to ban any prayer not directed at himself, which Daniel of course defied. 

Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Peter Paul Rubens (Jorge Elías / CC BY 2.0)

When the king hesitantly punished Daniel by throwing him to the lions, he survived by a miracle of God. This caused Darius to throw the conniving officials into the den in Daniel’s place. Darius’s successor King Cyrus then brought the Jews back into Israel to rebuild.  

The Third Beast: The Leopard and Greek Persecution

Alexander the Great conquered Persia during the fourth century BC, leaving Jewish people under the rule of the Greeks. This resulted in a major cultural conflict, as the Greek way of life encroached and corrupted Jewish tradition. 

The Greek kings that followed made Jewish elders translate the Torah into Greek for the first time, and murdered and persecuted Jews. They attacked Jewish holy laws such as Shabbat, until a group of Jews called the Maccabees rose up to emancipate themselves, the event from which the holiday of Hanukkah derives.

The Fourth Beast: The Fearsome Beast of Rome

The Roman Empire annexed Judea in the 60s BC and Israel 30 years later. The Jews fractured into four sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Sicarii and Zealots, and they rose up in revolt against Rome. This set in motion an onslaught of oppression – from murder and the destruction of the second Holy Temple under Nero, Vespasian and Titus, through repeated banishments and bloodshed during the Crusades of Europe, and so on.

Ostracism Outside the Bible: Greek Politics

The democratic law imposed by the Athenians to root out governmental corruption is by far the most famous formal practice of ostracism in history. The renowned Greek philosopher Aristotle documented ostracism when he wrote his account,  Athenian Constitution. The people engaging in ostracisms in ancient Athens left behind artifacts called  ostraka (s. ostrakon), which have given scholars fascinating insights into Athenian society and culture.

Aristotle (Sergey Sosnovskiy / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the late sixth and early fifth century BC, before ostracism existed in AthensArchons (rulers) came to power through indirect elections among democratically elected generals. Aristotle insists that they did not violate the newly reformed Athenian constitution, but generals had begun to resort to corruption by consistently granting power to members of their own groups. 

Although there is some debate about exactly when the Athenians first enacted the ritual of ostracism, it is clear that Cleisthenes - who is known as the ‘father of Athenian democracy’ - adopted the law with the intention to punish convicted and potential tyrants and prevent their reinstatement. One possible starting point was when the Athenians won the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC over the Persians. Exiled former tyrant Hippias had returned alongside the Persians, planning to resume control over Athens.

The Official Process of Ostracism

The first step was a preliminary vote, probably in the weeks or days preceding the elections of generals. In the  ecclesia (assembly), citizens of Athens would vote on whether or not they should hold an ostracism that year. If the majority approved, another meeting called the  ostracophoria would commence weeks later for the second vote. A citizens’ council of over 500, called the  “Boule”, along with 9 Archons, would supervise as citizens voted for whichever candidate they wanted to ostracize.  

Voters would use pottery shards called  ostraka as scrap paper, anonymously etching the name of the candidate they wanted to ostracize. Since not all citizens of Athens were literate, scribes would help some people write the name. If they tallied at least 6,000 votes, the person with the most votes was sentenced to exile for ten years. They would permit the ostracized individual ten days’ preparation to leave. There was no appeal process, and the consequence for returning before ten years had elapsed was death.

Who Was Ostracized, and Why?

It is not entirely certain exactly how many candidates were actually banished between 487-416 BC, when Athens practiced ostracism, but it is believed to be about thirteen.  

Depiction of Ancient Greek Voting (Brygos Painter / Public Domain)

Hipparchus, Hippias’s brother, was the first casualty of ostracism, because they were both related to Pisistratus, a powerful military commander and tyrannical leader. Scholars suspect that Hipparchus’s conduct around the time of the Battle of Marathon must have given Cleisthenes cause for alarm.  

Megacles was ostracized in 486 BC. More than 4,000 ostraka denoting votes for him have been found in Athens. As Aristotle writes, “the Athenians continued for three years to ostracize the friends of the tyrants, on account of whom the law had been enacted,” which likely refers to Megacles.

Xanthippos was ostracized in 484 BC. Once the friends of tyrants were removed, Aristotle says, they “took to removing anyone else who seemed too powerful: the first man unconnected with the tyranny to be ostracized was Xanthippos son of Arriphron.” This may be the point when ostracism began to deteriorate into a sly political maneuver.

Aristeides was ostracized in 482 BC. The historian Plutarch recalls that one illiterate citizen who needed help writing Aristeides’s name on his ostraka admitted that Aristeides had done no harm. The citizen went on to remark, “I do not even know the fellow, but I am sick of hearing him called 'The just' everywhere!”

Hippocrates was ostracized in the 480s BC. He is otherwise unknown, but may have shared some relation to Pisistratus.

Later Candidates for Ostracism

Kimon was ostracized in 461 BC. In the decade before, he had been a soldier and politician, leading a faction of aristocrats. Kimon’s ostracism may have been the result of political rivalry with Pericles, and he was recalled to return to Athens within five years.

Ostracon bearing the name of Kimon, 486 or 461 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. (Marsyas, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Interestingly, Pericles was a candidate for ostracism in the mid-fifth century BC, but he was never ostracized, despite being deeply corrupt.  He was the son of Xanthippos, and gained influence after the ostracism of Kimon, continuing on to win numerous consecutive elections as general. He redirected defense funds towards grandiose construction projects like rebuilding the Acropolis.

Pericles (Vatican Museums / CC BY 3.0)

Thucydides was ostracized in 443 BC. He was another political opponent of Pericles and opposed Pericles’ lavish building ambitions. Thucydides’ ostracism left Pericles uncontested as Athenian state leader.

Hyperbolos was the last person ostracized when his two political adversaries united against him and ostracized him merely as an act of sabotage in order to defeat him and share power.

In The Life of Aristeides, the historian Plutarch explains the desertion of the punishment of ostracism in 417 BC, saying:

“Now the sentence of ostracism was not a chastisement of base practices, instead it was speciously called a humbling and docking of oppressive prestige and power; but it was really a merciful exorcism of the spirit of jealous hate, which thus vented its malignant desire to injure, not in some irreparable evil, but in a mere change of residence for ten years. And when ignoble men of the baser sort came to be subjected to this penalty it ceased to be inflicted at all, and Hyperbolos was the last to be thus ostracized… The people were incensed at this for they felt that the institution had been insulted and abused, and so they abandoned it utterly and put an end to it.”

The Historical Implications of the  Ostraka

Of all the  ostraka shards discovered, 40% are from plain ceramic jars and pitchers, 27% from black-glazed vases, 23% of partially glazed bowls and vases and 10% come from vases painted with black and red figures, lamps, and terracotta pipes and roof tiles. Some of the  ostraka with proper spelling and neat handwriting are of finer materials and even painted instead of etched, while some of the crudely-written and badly misspelled  ostraka are from common, unglazed materials. With the specifics about Athenian education systems largely unknown, these clues seem to form a faint silhouette of implications about Athenian class, and resulting literacy divides.  

Surviving ostrakon with a vote for Pericles (Wally Gobetz / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Historians are certain that scribes assisted the illiterate in writing names on  ostraka, but the portion of the Atheniansthat would have been literate or not remains somewhat of a mystery. Archaeologists did however uncover possible evidence of  ostracophoria election fraud when they found nearly 200  ostraka bearing the same name hidden in a well. Handwriting analysis revealed only fourteen engravers of the 190 pottery shards.

Ostracism and Exile in Literature

Ostracism and exile, although intended to punish transgressors without executing them, was at times an infamous event fraught with yearning, and it influenced prominent works of classical literature.

Medea, the play by Euripides, saw its first performance in 431 BC. Princess Medea begins as a tragic and sympathetic character, who forfeits family and homeland for Jason, who has his heart set on the daughter of Creon. Creon exiles them both. Medea finds refuge in Athens, then tricks Jason and sends her children to poison his new bride and her father, before murdering the children as well.

The Exile of Ovid

The poet Ovid lived from 43 BC to 17 or 18 AD, some of his notable pieces being  Metamorphosis and Fasti. He was a contemporary of Horace and beloved in Rome before Augustus unceremoniously banished him in 8 AD for no apparent reason.  Some have speculated that Ovid’s rumored promiscuity might have implicated Augustus’s granddaughter or that his poems celebrating love and affairs offended the emperor’s morals. 

The Ruins of Tomis (Denis Barthel / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Exiled to Tomis (now Romania) on the Black Sea, surrounded by more primitive shepherds of a different tongue and the threat of barbarians, Ovid continued to write- though his writing became more forlorn, and eventually made friends with nomads. Here he wrote  Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, unrequited love letters to Rome, full of longing. He never returned to Rome, and was buried in Tomis where he died.

The Psychology of Ostracism

Modern-day researchers have studied the effects of ostracism on people. Even the most brief and trivial ostracism, for only passing moments and under experimental situations, causes abrupt negative effects on behavior, mood, cognition, motivation and physiology. Long-term ostracism has proven to lead to depression and dysfunctional, antisocial behavior, including outright hostility, retaliation and further withdrawal.

Suffice it to say most people cannot imagine banishment from everything familiar and comforting. Through history, sometimes cultures and nations are exiled, sometimes offending individuals, and still today, countless people continue to become displaced from their homes and even severed from their families amid conflicts. The moving expressions in Biblical and Classical literature can provide a glimpse into their plights. For their worlds of the past are not very distant from our own.

Top image: Henri Vidal’s Statue of Cain. Source: Adam Wasilewski / Adobe Stock

By Mary Mount


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Mary Mount's picture


I am a writer and editor with several years of experience in an extensive range of topics including ancient history and archaeology.  My bachelor's degree is in Music Education, and over the course of that degree, my favorite subject was... Read More

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