Ostracism & Aristides

The most honorable man of Athens according to Herodotus: Aristides. His sense of morality, justice, and prudence, made him famous all over the Greek world.  He was reputed to be so fair-minded, that he was known to everyone as Aristides ‘the Just’ (dikaios). He was so scrupulously honest that, in spite of the wealth that passed through his hands, he remained poor.

Now, sometime in the early 5th century BCE, the Athenians began the practice of ostracism, a form of election designed to curb the power of any rising tyrant. Once a year, every spring, citizens wrote the name of whichever man they wished to see exiled on a piece of broken pottery (called in Greek ostrakon), and the leader with the most votes against him was forced to leave Athens for ten years.

As Aristotle explained, ‘The threat ostracism was meant to combat could also come from a man’s great personal prominence, if he became so prominent that he could appear to overshadow all others on the political scene and thus threaten the egalitarian principles of Athenian democracy, in which no one man was supposed to dominate the making of policy’.

But soon the Athenians realized that this procedure was problematic…

Aristides and the peasant. Painting by Ernest Hillemacher

On the balloting day for an ostracism, when the Athenians were voting in their Agora, an illiterate peasant approached Aristides and handed him a potsherd, asking him to scratch on it the name of the man’s choice for ostracism.

“Certainly,” said Aristides. “Which name shall I write?”

“Aristides,” replied the man.

Aristides, without revealing his identity, remarked  “Very well. But tell me, my friend… What harm has Aristides done to you?”

“Oh, nothing,” sputtered the peasant, “I don’t even know the man! I’m just sick and tired of hearing everybody refer to him as ‘The Just.’”

Aristides without hesitating he proceeded to inscribe his own name on the ostrakon, and, without uttering a word, gave it back to that man…

Pottery shards (ostraka) displaying Aristides’ name

Published by George Kokkos

Having studied Ancient History and Archaeology both in Britain and in Greece, George took part in different excavations, worked as a translator, private tutor. Since 2009 he focuses on Educational Tourism as a tour creator & manager, while in 2019 he became a founding member of the 'Traveling Students Academy', based in Atlanta GA. An aspiring science popularizer and indefatigable lecturer in academic or tourism settings, George's mastery is to make accessible complex and profound subject matter that can then be appreciated by an extremely broad audience. George has just published a book on Ancient Greek philosophy, while his main focus the last five years is the history of the ancient Athenian Democracy and her impact on modern-day republics. He has lectured extensively on the values of Democracy in schools, universities, the 'European Commission Learning Center' etc.

2 thoughts on “Ostracism & Aristides

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: