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ostracism (ŏsˈtrəsĭzˌəm), ancient Athenian method of banishing a public figure. It was introduced after the fall of the family of Pisistratus. Each year the assembly took a preliminary vote to decide whether a vote of ostracism should be held. If a majority approved holding an ostracism, a day was set for the voting. When the polling took place, each voter put into an urn a potsherd (ostrakon) marked with the name of a person he wished ostracized. The man named on the most ostraka was exiled, unless fewer than 6,000 votes were cast (some authorities believe that a total of 6,000 votes was necessary to ostracize a person). The exile lasted normally 10 years with no confiscation. Aristides, Cimon, and others were recalled before 10 years were up. The last ostracism was probably that of Hyperbolus (416? B.C.), a demagogue of humble origin. Other cities used ostracism also. Numerous ostraka have been found in modern excavations, many bearing the names of Aristides and Themistocles.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in ancient Athens, the banishment of certain citizens by order of the popular assembly.

Ostracism was instituted by Cleisthenes at the end of the sixth century B.C. as a measure against the restoration of tyranny. First used in 488–487 B.C., it later became an instrument of political warfare. Once a year the popular assembly decided whether a vote of ostracism should be held. If the majority voted in favor of ostracism, a day was set for the procedure. Everyone having the right to vote in the popular assembly would write on a potsherd the name of any person who, in his opinion, was dangerous to the people. Any individual against whom at least 6,000 votes were cast was obliged to leave Athens within ten days, usually for a period of ten years. (According to other sources, 6,000 was the quorum necessary for the assembly.) Banished individuals did not lose their property or their rights as citizens.

Ostracism was not often practiced. Among those who were ostracized were Aristides (483–482 B.C.), Themistocles (471 B.C.), and the philosopher Damon, the teacher of Pericles (443 B.C.). The last known case of ostracism was in 417 B.C., when the demagogue Hyperbolus was banished from Athens. Similar institutions for banishing citizens existed in Argos, Syracuse, and certain other Greek cities.


Carcopino, J. L’Ostracisme athénien. Paris, 1935.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Franks, who has frequent run-ins with the overwhelmingly Democratic Black Caucus, paints the group as being full of small-minded pols who would rather socially ostracize someone with different ideas than engage him in debate.