Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Paul Johnson recently wrote about the use of Athenian-style ostracism to send bores of one's choice into exile. The device would better serve a hung parliament.

The point about Athenian ostracism is that it was not a random way of exiling anyone that any Athenian felt like, at any time. Had that been the case, Athens would have been emptied very quickly. It was purely political. Just once a year, the question was put to the sovereign decision-making assembly (all Athenian male citizens over 18) whether they wanted an ostracism. To judge from the very few that actually took place, it seems mostly to have been triggered when the assembly felt that its very existence was threatened (e. g. by advocates of tyranny) or its ability to reach important conclusion hampered by strong, rival factions. It was not, in other words, a judicial but an administrative act. The person so ostracised lost no property or rights; he was just asked not to come back for ten years.

But then the system failed. When the Athenians were discussing the invasion of Sicily (415 BC ), there were deep divisions between the pro faction (youthful Alcibiades) and the anti (cagey Nicias). …

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