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

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

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

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


This book explores the cultural and political significance of ostracism in democratic Athens. In contrast to previous interpretations, Sara Forsdyke argues that ostracism was primarily a symbolic institution whose meaning for the Athenians was determined both by past experiences of exile and by its role as a context for the ongoing negotiation of democratic values.

The first part of the book demonstrates the strong connection between exile and political power in archaic Greece. In Athens and elsewhere, elites seized power by expelling their rivals. Violent intra-elite conflict of this sort was a highly unstable form of "politics that was only temporarily checked by various attempts at elite self-regulation. A lasting solution to the problem of exile was found only in the late sixth century during a particularly intense series of violent expulsions. At this time, the Athenian people rose up and seized simultaneously control over decisions of exile and political power. The close connection between political power and the power of expulsion explains why ostracism was a central part of the democratic reforms.

Forsdyke shows how ostracism functioned both as a symbol of democratic power and as a key term in the ideological justification of democratic rule. Crucial to the author's interpretation is the recognition that ostracism was both a remarkably mild form of exile and one that was infrequently used. By analyzing the representation of exile in Athenian imperial decrees, in the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and in tragedy and oratory, Forsdyke shows how exile served as an important term in the debate about the best form of rule.


When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a
poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the
document where it is most opaque, we may be able to
unravel an alien system of meaning. The thread might
even lead into a strange and wonderful world view.

—Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre

PERHAPS no ancient Greek practice is more opaque to us than the Athenian institution of ostracism. Scholars have repeatedly labeled it bizarre, intrinsically paradoxical, and exotic. If we follow Darnton's exhortation (1984: 5), however, our puzzlement is not a cause for dismay, but a signal of fertile territory for the acquisition of a new perspective on the ancient Greek past. In many ways, I hope that the study that follows validates Darnton's claim. By investigating ostracism, I have sought to open new perspectives not simply on one particular practice, but on broader attitudes and developments in Greek culture and society. In particular, I hope that by exploring the historical origins and cultural and ideological meanings of ostracism, I shed new light on such central topics as the rise of the polis, the origins of democracy, and the relation between historical events, cultural practices, and the ways that society represents itself to itself.


The main argument of this book is that there was a strong connection between exile and political power in archaic and classical Greece, and that this relation had a formative effect on the institutional and ideological development of the Greek city-states (πόλεις, poleis). Specifically, I argue that in the archaic period (c. 750–500), elites engaged in violent competition for power and frequently expelled one another from their poleis. I label this form of political conflict the “politics of exile,” and I suggest that it was particularly unstable, since exiled elites often called on foreign allies to help them return to their poleis and expel their opponents in turn. Many of the institutional developments of the archaic poleis can be viewed as attempts by elites to prevent violent conflict over power and the political instability that it . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.