BMCR 2006.06.02

Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Exclusion in Ancient Greece

, Exile, ostracism, and democracy : the politics of expulsion in ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xiv, 344 pages). ISBN 9781400826865. $45.00.

In this excellent book, Sara Forsdyke (F.) argues convincingly that ostracism was not an anomalous or paradoxical process, but an institution central to the practice and justification of the Athenian democracy. Exile had been one of the most important weapons in elite political conflict throughout Greece in the Archaic period; the demos’ assertion of its authority over such decisions was central to its general assertion of political control under Cleisthenes. The mildness of the practice of ostracism compared with the elite’s banishment of political enemies came to symbolize not only the power of the people but their moderation.

When a book is a revised dissertation as F.’s is, it is customary for reviewers to detect signs of its origin. Such relics, including occasional repetitiveness, may certainly be found here, but they are mainly for the good. The thoroughness of the research is impressive and the ample signposting and summarizing of arguments will make F.’s work useful even for those who do not read it cover to cover. With this substantial work, F. makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of archaic politics as well as the advent and self-representation of Athenian democracy. This review will consist of a summary by chapter of the book’s main arguments and then a discussion of the two main areas where I had reservations.

After a succinct summary of the book’s main arguments, the introduction delineates the type of history F. will be writing: her interest is “the dynamic relation between historical events and the ways in which a society represents these event to itself through its practices and ideologies . . .” (4). In particular, she views ostracism as both a response to the instability caused by elite political strife and a symbol of democratic moderation that shaped subsequent actions (5). “Intra-elite Conflict and the Early Greek Polis,” contains further prolegomena. F. attributes most changes in archaic political systems and, indeed, the development of the state itself, to elite competition. In reaction to historical views that focus on the mass of the people or on slow, structural forces—economic ones for example—her view of history is top-down and emphasizes the agency of particular actors within the elite (19).

F. takes a “chronologically deep and geographically broad approach” (15) to the institution of ostracism. Thus her second chapter, “The Politics of Exile and the Crisis of the Archaic Polis,” considers political conflict as far back as the eighth century in four cities outside of Athens: Mytilene, Megara, Samos, and Corinth. F. argues that in each city competition among the elite was the driving force behind political conflicts, most conspicuously those which resulted in the establishment of tyrannies or their overthrow. The parties to these fights often exiled their opponents—hence the relevance to ostracism—but exiles often managed to gather external allies, come back, and then banish their enemies in turn. Thus the “politics of exile” led to instability. Further, she consistently maintains that these power struggles were waged entirely within the elite “with little or no intervention of non-elites” (78)—a claim I revisit below.

In chapter 3, F. turns to Athens. She examines the role of exile in all attested political conflicts in archaic Athens beginning with the conspiracy of Cylon. Her interpretation of these events is generally in line with her depiction of the “politics of exile” in other states: elite actors dominated politics; exile was one of their main weapons; and political instability resulted. Nevertheless, in the case of Athens, F. is less skeptical about reports of non-elite involvement in politics. So, for example, she interprets Solon’s puzzling law requiring that “Whoever does not join the side of one faction or the other in a situation of civil war shall be an outlaw,” (Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 8.5) as an attempt “to legislate popular involvement in politics” (99). Solon’s boast that he brought back home those Athenians who had been sold into slavery away from Athens portended the symbolism of later democratic rejections of mass banishment (94-95). Later Pisistratus too broke with the “politics of exile” by allowing many of his political enemies to remain in Athens after his victory at Pallene (121-125); he also appealed to the backing of non-elite Athenians (125-126). Although Pisistratus’s policies combine a rejection of political exile and a greater involvement of non-elite Athenians in politics, the “politics of exile” continued in Athens and manifested themselves in a particularly virulent form under Hippias and especially in the events after his deposition (129-133). F. follows the argument of Josiah Ober1 that there followed a popular uprising that preceded the reforms of Cleisthenes and “marks a fundamental break from past instances of intra-elite politics of exile” (141). F. makes two points here that are central to her whole argument. First, ostracism was a moderate form of exile, and its use, once per year at most, contrasted with the wholesale exile of political opponents practiced by earlier elite factions. Second, the institution of ostracism played an important and organic role in the establishment of the Athenian democracy: “at the same time as the Athenian people took control over political power in the polis (as evidenced by the democratic reforms that followed their uprising), they also took control over decisions of exile” (136).

Chapter 4 turns from the origins of ostracism to its practice and what this practice symbolized. F. expands on her point that ostracism was a relatively mild form of exile. In contrast to the exiles that resulted from the conflicts of elite factions, ostracism was a legal process. Its term was limited and the person’s property was not confiscated. It seems to have carried little stigma and, indeed, men on occasion returned from ostracism and resumed distinguished political careers (151-153). There are only ten ostracisms securely attested (164, 177) and F. assumes that that is the total number.2 For this reason, she emphasizes the symbolic importance of the Athenians’ considering whether to hold an ostracism each year which “remind[ed] the elite annually of the potential of non-elites to intervene decisively in violent intra-elite conflict” (151). Known ostracisms occurred “in times of particularly intense political conflict between rival political leaders and their supporters” (169). This basic interpretation notwithstanding, when it comes to the reasons that various Athenians voted against this person or that, F. makes the sensible observation that we should not expect to find a single explanation since “ostracism was a collective ritual practiced by a diverse group of Athenians over a fairly lengthy period of time” (161). The last section of the chapter contrasts the banishments perpetrated by the Thirty with the moderation of ostracism and of the restored democracy—an issue which she revisits in chapter 6: moderation in imposing exile became a touchstone by which to evaluate democratic and non-democratic regimes, typically to the latters’ discredit.

The next chapter, “Exile and Empire,” finds parallels between the practice of ostracism as a mild and legal alternative to the “politics of exile” within Athens and the moderate and legalistic way that the Athenian empire regulated decisions about exile in its subject cities. In the Chalcis Decree ( IG I 3 40), for example, no major judicial penalties could be imposed at Chalcis without allowing appeal to a trial before the Athenians. Many previous scholars—such as Russell Meiggs 3—interpret this as a gross infringement of the autonomy of Chalcis. Even though F. accepts that there was eventually a general “judicial decree” that reserved to Athens the right to impose major penalties in all cities of the empire (223-225), she argues that this was a sign of moderation rather than of repression. F. points out that the Athenians seem to have been proud both of the Chalcis Decree—which was publicly displayed in both cities (215)—and of their commitment to the rule of law (228-229 on Thucydides 1.77.1-3). This is fair enough, but the repeated claim that “Substantively and symbolically, the Athenians therefore placed the Chalcidians on a par with their own citizens, extending to the Chalcidians privileges that were central to their own conception and practice of democratic citizenship,” (219, also 218) goes too far.4 The promise that penalties would only be imposed legally and by the Athenian people did not have the same, reflexive force for the Chalcidians as it did for the Athenians.

In “Exile in the Greek Mythical and Historical Imagination,” F. argues that exile played an important role in Athenian accounts of the past and their justifications of democracy. Democratic discourse associated the abuse of exile with illegitimate governments such as archaic tyrants and the Thirty, and contrasted this with ostracism and with the amnesty after the Thirty were deposed. This ideological tendency affected the Athenians’ understanding of their history. That the archaic tyrants banished elite rivals was reinterpreted as a crime against the people in general, “democratic appropriations of archaic anti-tyrannical traditions” (244). Thus F. can supplement Andrew Wolpert’s argument about Lysias’ account of the Thirty.5 Wolpert interprets Lysias’ implication (12.95-97) that all Athenians suffered exile at the hands of the Thirty as “a vital ideological construction by which the actual divisions among the Athenian citizens were elided and the Athenian community was reunited following the brutal civil war” (263). In F.’s view, Lysias’ exaggeration also exemplifies the long-standing democratic association of illegitimate government and mass exile. But the critics of democracy had their say too. F. analyzes how Thucydides and Xenophon depict the democracy itself as tyrannical in its treatment of Alcibiades. Plato, too, in his Apology (37d), conjures up the image of Socrates as an exile from an evil democracy. Finally, Aristotle explicitly criticizes ostracism on the grounds that it cuts down the outstanding men in a state just as a tyrant does ( Politics 1284a26-37).

The book concludes with three appendices. The first considers the vexed question of the date of the introduction of ostracism. Forsdyke justifies in detail her earlier contention that the law was Cleisthenic and adds two arguments to this debate. First, given the infrequent use of the ostracism in the rest of the fifth century the gap between Cleisthenes’ other reforms and the first use of ostracism in 488/7 appears less puzzling6. Second, given F.’s argument that ostracism represents the people asserting control over the “politics of exile,” it at least fits well within Cleisthenes’ other democratic reforms. The second appendix consists of a brief summary of the inconclusive evidence about ostracism and similar practices outside of Athens—including “petalism” at Syracuse. The final appendix considers exile at Sparta. Although the evidence is scanty, F. argues that elite conflict at Sparta also manifested itself in the “politics of exile.” She considers the role of exile in Sparta’s image of itself. She considers Athenian attitudes towards Sparta and embraces the conclusions of those scholars, such as Rebenich, who have argued that the practice of xenelasia was exaggerated in Athenian sources.7 Such exaggeration fits well with F.’s argument that moderation in the use of exile—or the lack thereof—played an important role in Athenian judgments of the legitimacy of different regimes.

As should be obvious I found F.’s overall argument convincing and her book important and valuable. Nevertheless, I had two main disagreements, one with her methodology and the other on a particular point. F. is not alone in either of these opinions—thus they do not constitute the book’s contribution to the field—but the issues are important for her subject and so I dwell on them in some detail.

F. relies often on the argument that later accounts of archaic politics represent nothing more than the projection onto the past of classical political ideas and experiences (e.g., 32, 51, 65 n. 146, 72, 75, 76, 81, 112, 138, 169-170). Anachronism is admittedly a danger always to keep in mind, but it does not deserve the status as a clinching argument that F. sometimes gives it. That something happened in the classical period does not mean that something similar could not have happened in the archaic period. Our other sources of information about archaic politics, archaeology and elite poetry, are neither trustworthy nor easy to interpret: to adopt a universal policy of abandoning later accounts for inferences based on these problematic, albeit contemporary, sources is to jump from the frying pan into the fire. In particular, F. often uses the argument of anachronism to dismiss reports of popular involvement in archaic politics. If she had been less skeptical about reports of non-elite political activity in other cities, developments at Athens and particularly the reforms of Cleisthenes, including ostracism, would not mark quite the dramatic and almost unprecedented break with Greek “politics of exile” that she suggests.

Second, F. endorses the view that ostracism cannot have been aimed at preventing tyranny and rejects the fourth-century tradition that this was precisely its aim (153-154).8 On F.’s own reading, tyrannies arose from conflict among the elite and ostracism checked such conflicts. Why then couldn’t potential tyrants be one important target of ostracism? The argument that a would-be popular tyrant could get someone else ostracized is hardly compelling: in the absence of political organizations even the most influential politician would have trouble directing an ostracism in the direction he wanted.9 More crucial is the consideration that, even if the Athenians did not find a perfect prophylactic against tyranny, they may well have welcomed a device that would tend to eliminate or discourage potential tyrants. F. places a great deal of weight on a second argument, that the Athenians had other, harsher laws against attempting to establish a tyranny. But these laws required that an attempt be made and would be moot in the case of a successful attempt.10 Ostracism required no charge and, in my view, would have been pretty useful against the prominent but controversial figures most possessed of tyrannical potential. I would not argue that this goal was the only one, but concern about tyranny was real, provided one motivation for the institution of ostracism, and complements the other functions of ostracism so ably detailed in this fine book.


1. Josiah Ober, “The Athenian Revolution of 508/507 B.C.E.: Violence, Authority, and the Origins of Democracy,” in Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke, eds., Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 215-232.

2. F. is not quite consistent. In some places, she assumes that ostracism was rarely used (164-165 and esp. 283), but in others she more carefully describes our ten cases as “the known instances of ostracism” (165 bottom).

3. Russell Meiggs, The Athenian Empire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, page 224.

4. It also begs the question to call the thesis that “the Athenians ruled their empire repressively” a “preconceived notion” (226). This “notion” is based on evidence such as the Chalcis decree.

5. Andrew Wolpert, Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

6. This argument is only compelling if there were no more ostracisms than are attested. See note 2 above.

7. S. Rebenich, “Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Sparta? Überlegungen zur Tradition der spartanischen Xenelasie,” Klio 80 (1998) 336-359.

8. For this ancient view P. J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993 [reprint with addenda], 269 cites Aristotle’s Politics 1284a17-22, 1284b15-22, 1302b15-21, 1308b16-19.

9. Compare F.’s skepticism that the ostracism of Hyperbolus was the result of political manipulation (170-174).

10. Indeed Athenian law is often described as having an “open texture” in general, since more than one procedure or charge could be applied as a remedy to a given act. See Christopher Carey, “Offense and Procedure in Athenian Law,” in Edward M. Harris and Lene Rubinstein, eds., The Law and the Courts in Ancient Greece, London: Duckworth, 2004, for a recent survey of this issue.