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

By Sara Forsdyke | Go to book overview

Introduction
PROBLEMS, METHODS, CONCEPTS

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 ARGUMENT

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

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