Ostracism: 'Cancel culture' Ancient Greek-style

Pericles' Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician who used ostracism to have his rival Cimon, exiled | Wikipedia | Public Domain

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, 'cancel culture' is defined as ‘a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you'. It is a method by which people can be called out and removed from mainstream culture; they effectively become 'cancelled'.

Although it might seem like a recent phenomenon, cancel culture has been described as a modern form of ostracism - an Ancient Greek practice dating back over two thousand years that saw an individual sent into exile for a decade due to the results of a popular vote. The people exerted their democratic power to ensure those who threatened the system could be kept in check.

Around 13 men were ostracised from Ancient Athens between the years 487 – 416 BC,

The practice of ostracism was used in the Greek state of Athens, the world’s first democracy, during the 5th century BC. According to the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, Cleisthenes was said to have created the punishment of ostracism to prevent a single person from becoming a tyrant. Cleisthenes, who has been referred to by historians as the 'the father of Athenian democracy', helped reform the Athenian constitution during the late 6th century BC.

Every year Athenian citizens were asked in the ecclesia (assembly), whether or not they wished to hold an ostracism that year. If an ostracism was voted for then a special meeting known as an ostracophoria (election to ostracise) would be conducted two months later in the agora (central public space).

The gap between the initial vote in the assembly and the final one in the agora allowed the public and any likely candidates to debate and discuss the upcoming ostracism. Much like a modern election, it was a period to present for and against cases in various public settings.

When it came time to vote in the agora, the boule (council of over 500 citizens) along with 9 archons (chief magistrates) supervised the election. Athenian citizens anonymously scratched the name of the candidate they wished to see exiled onto a piece of pottery known as an ostrakon, the origins of the word ostracism. The ostraka were an ancient kind of scrap paper; not only were pottery shards in abundance but they were also cost-effective.

Those who could not write declared their wishes to a scribe who would then scratch their vote onto an ostrakon for them. A person then placed their scribed pottery shard into an urn.

A minimum of 6000 votes had to be cast for the ostracism to be considered valid. When all were cast, the officials would sort the pottery shards into piles before tallying the number of votes. The individual with the largest count was ostracised. They would have ten days to collect their things and sort out any business before they had to leave the city. The decision was final, no appeal was allowed. If they refused or attempted to re-enter the city before the punishment had been completed, they were sentenced to death.

Although the ostracised individual could not return for ten years, they were allowed to hold onto any property as well as retain their citizenship. It seems that there was also no stigma attached to the punishment when the time had been served, as a person could come back with status still intact and even serve in public life.

Around 13 men were ostracised from Ancient Athens between the years 487 – 416 BC, demonstrating that the people didn’t wish to exile someone each and every year. Some of those ostracised didn’t even see out their entire sentences, with a couple of individuals being recalled to the city before their ten years were up. Xanthippus (ostracised in 484 BC) and Aristides (ostracised in 482 BC) were both pardoned and allowed to return to the city to help prepare for war against the Persians in 479 BC.

The process did claim its fair share of notable figures from Greek history. Themistocles, who was once one of the most prominent statesmen in Athenian politics, was ostracised in 472 or 471 BC. His power and subsequent arrogance had earned him a few enemies who had become jealous of his prestige. Ostracism prevented him from becoming too big for his boots or as the Greek historian Plutarch wrote, '[ostracism] was not a penalty, but a way of pacifying and alleviating that jealousy which delights to humble the eminent, breathing out its malice into this disfranchisement.’

However, Ostracism was often not personal at all but rather based on politics, as was the case for the aforementioned Aristides. Aristides vigorously opposed Themistocles’ wish to expand the Athenian naval fleet. When a large amount of silver was discovered at an Athenian mine at Laurium, Aristides wished to distribute it amongst the citizens of the city whilst Themistocles declared it should go to building that new fleet.

In the end, the ostracism vote of 482 BC came down to policies and the people endorsed those of Themistocles whilst Aristides was sentenced to exile. Although it should be noted that at least one vote cast against Aristides that year was purely down to spitefulness. In his writings, Plutarch recounts the story of an illiterate man who approached Aristides. Not recognising him, the man asked the politician to write the name Aristides on his ostrakon. When Aristides asked why, the man replied that he was fed up hearing the politician always being referred to as 'The Just', demonstrating how ostracism was sometimes nothing more than a popularity contest or in this case an unpopularity one.

Although nothing is known for sure, some evidence exists that suggests ostracism election fraud might have occurred. Archaeological excavations around the Acropolis, the city’s ancient citadel, uncovered 190 ostraka that had been placed in a well. They all had the name Themistocles scratched on them and analysis of the handwriting showed that only 14 people helped to write them.

They were obviously created to be handed out to voters, perhaps to help those who were illiterate or perhaps to help those who wished to fraudulently sway the results of the ostracism. Their discovery hidden away in a well suggests these ostraka might not have been entirely above board.

Ostracism continued to be proposed to the Athenian people every year well into the 4th century BC. However, it had clearly run out of favour with the public earlier than this, as 416 BC was the last time an ostracism was vote