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For true democracy, bring back ostracism

Our electoral system does not answer the need for punishment, anger and rebellion, says Paul Johnson. What fun it would be to vote to get rid of our thoroughly bad eggs

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

Among the many complaints I have heard about this unsatisfactory election is this one: it is impossible for the general public to get rid of a thoroughly unpleasant, or corrupt, or dangerous politician if he (or she) sits in a safe party seat or in the Lords. Such people can thumb their noses at us, and do. But there could be a thoroughly satisfying way of meeting this need, and one with wider applications than mere politics. The new parliament, which we all trust will be more responsive than the last one, might consider going back 2,500 years in time and copying from the resourceful ancient Greeks the admirable institution of ostracism.

Most people understand the word but are unfamiliar with the process. I have been going into it while writing my present book, on Socrates and his world. Ostraka, a kind of rubbish, were broken potsherds, just big enough to make a cheap and convenient writing surface. Anyone who has studied ancient Egypt will know they form an important source for social history. They were used by schoolchildren for their exercises, officials for tax receipts, and the malevolent for casting spells — and for many other purposes. The Greeks used them too, but only in particular circumstances, as voting tablets.

Ostracism was probably introduced in 507 bc by Cleisthenes, the inventor of Athenian democracy, for precisely the reason it could be used to supplement our faltering democracy now. Under his law, the ecclesia or Assembly, the sovereign body of all Athenian citizens, could decide each year whether to hold a vote to ostracise anyone regarded as a public menace. If the vote was positive, the ostraka were piled up outside the entrance to the Assembly, and each citizen was allowed to write on the ostrakon the name of the person he wanted ostracised. These were deposited in a marked-off space in the Agora and counted.

The rule of the institution was that at least 6,000 citizens must vote for the process to be valid. This was a significant percentage of the total male citizen population, perhaps one tenth, and was a valid test of public opinion. The man with the highest number of ostraka against him was then sentenced. The penalty was exile from Athens for ten years. He did not lose his citizenship or his property, and after ten years could return with full rights restored. But for a decade he was effectively excluded from Athenian public life. Evidently some felt at times that the period of exile was too long, and it was reduced to five years. A few ostracised men were amnestied after two years. But the process was evidently popular and was adopted by various city-states. At Syracuse the names were written on olive leaves, and the institution was known as ‘petaling’.

We know the names of most of the people who were ostracised. The first (487 bc) was Hipparchus, believed to support tyranny. In 484 it was the turn of Xanthippus, father of Pericles, and a well-known general. But he was amnestied when Xerxes and his Persian horde invaded. In 482 bc Aristeides, another general-statesman, was ostracised. This showed that no one was beyond the reach of public disapproval, for he was famous for his rectitude and patriotism, and was known as ‘Aristeides the Just’.


But he evidently had his faults, though he, too, was amnestied two years after sentence. Other prominent men who were booted out for a time were Themistocles, Cimon and Thucydides (the general, not the historian).

Dumps of potsherds, with names written on them, have been found by archaeologists in Athens. They provide the nearest thing we have to records of a political general election in antiquity. A pile of 191 ostraka, dating from the time when Themistocles was ostracised in 471 bc (the year before Socrates was born), has been found and investigated carefully. All bear his name but the writing, mysteriously, is in only a few different hands. It may well be that a systematic campaign against Themistocles was organised by his enemies, and that citizens, especially illiterates, were handed potsherds already inscribed with his name as they arrived at the Assembly. ‘Against that awful fellow are you? Well, just hand this in. No trouble, eh?’

Other recovered voting-potsherds show totally unknown names, singly. Evidently some citizens took the opportunity to work off a private grudge, albeit to no purpose. But I suppose it was a stigma of sorts if even a single vote was cast against you, and it was known. Evidently there were frivolous votes too. Plutarch reports that at the time of Aristeides’s ostracism, as he was hovering nervously at the entrance to the Assembly, a citizen came up to him, said he could not write, and asked him to put ‘Aristeides’ on his voting-potsherd. Much hurt, Aristeides asked, ‘Why, what harm has he ever done you?’ The man said, ‘None at all. I don’t even know him. But I am sick and tired of always hearing him called “the Just”.’

The last ostracism we know of was in 417 bc, when a demagogue called Hyperbolus, a lampmaker by trade — much disliked by the comic playwright Aristophanes — who was trying to organise the ostracism of Nicias or Alcibiades, found himself voted out. After that we hear no more of such votes, though the law was never repealed, I think.

If we adopted the institution here, there would be no need to see politicians as the only potential victims. Nor would exile necessarily be the most suitable punishment. Obviously a successfully ostracised man or woman would lose the right to sit in either house of parliament for a fixed period, or to vote, or to occupy an office of profit under the crown, such as a quango job. To this I would add the right to sit on the board of a public company or to represent Britain in sport or — perhaps the biggest punishment of all — to appear on TV or in other mass-media.

Obstracism could be directed not merely against politicians but against horrible sportsmen, foul-mouthed entertainers, greedy businessmen and bankers, nasty writers (including militant atheists), objectionable members of the royal family or indeed any of those tiresome celebrities and busybodies who grin at us safely from the newspapers. Plutarch rightly noted that one virtue of the system was that it ‘appeased the envy of the people’. Not just envy either. There is a lot of hatred in this country today which finds no harmless outlet in our political institutions. People feel impotent and rebellious.

Ostracism could provide a wonderful safety valve. Lawyers would be totally excluded from the process since it would be a simple vote, with no prosecution, defence or appeal, as under the old law of ‘attainder’. The entire nation of those eligible to vote would take part, and whoever received the largest number of votes would be ‘out’. (Unless of course we decided that each year ostracism would apply to, say, half a dozen people.) There might also be provision for subsequent annulment or mitigation of sentence again by universal vote.

Now I am aware that my proposal might fall foul of the Human Rights Act, the European court and other such obstacles to justice and democracy. On the other hand, once established in Britain, the institution might prove so popular that other countries would adopt it. The French and the Italians would love it; and the Greeks might be glad to return to it. I invite readers to make their own suggestions, and classical scholars to point out any useful aspects of the ancient system I have missed. But no one, I think, can deny the sheer pleasures in store.


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