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Ancient Greek ὀστρακισμός was so called because the banishment was effected by voting with potsherds or tiles (ὄστρακα , plural of ὄστρακον ostracon n.), on which the name of the person whom it was proposed to banish was written.



Ostracism (Greek: έξω-οστρακισμός – exo (out)-ostrakismos) was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the victim, ostracism was often used preemptively. It was used as a way of defusing major confrontations between rival politicians (by removing one of them from the scene), neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state, or exiling a potential tyrant. Crucially, ostracism had no relation to the processes of justice. There was no charge or defense, and the exile was not in fact a penalty; it was simply a command from the Athenian people that one of their number be gone for ten years.

A modern use developed from the term is to describe informal exclusion from a group through social rejection. Although the psychology of ostracism takes this further, where it has been defined as “…any behaviour in which a group or individual excludes and ignores another group or individual”. This could therefore be an intentional act or an unintentional one.

The name is derived from the ostraka, (singular ostrakon , ὄστρακον), referring to the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens. Broken pottery, abundant and virtually free, served as a kind of scrap paper (in contrast to papyrus, which was imported from Egypt as a high-quality writing surface, and was thus too costly to be disposable).

Each year the Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. The question was put in the sixth of the ten months used for state business under the democracy (January or February in the modern Gregorian Calendar). If they voted "yes", then an ostracism would be held two months later. In a section of the agora set off and suitably barriered, citizens scratched the name of a citizen they wished to expel on pottery sherds, and deposited them in urns. The presiding officials counted the ostraka submitted and sorted the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka would be banished, provided that an additional criterion of a quorum was met, about which there are two principal sources:

  • According to Plutarch, the ostracism was considered valid if the total number of votes cast was at least 6,000.
  • According to a fragment of Philochorus, the "winner" of the ostracism must have obtained at least 6,000 votes.

Plutarch's evidence for a quorum of 6,000, on a priori grounds a necessity for ostracism also per the account of Philochorus, accords with the number required for grants of citizenship in the following century and is generally preferred.

The person nominated had ten days to leave the city. If he attempted to return, the penalty was death. Notably, the property of the man banished was not confiscated and there was no loss of status. After the ten years, he was allowed to return without stigma. It was possible for the assembly to recall an ostracised person ahead of time; before the Persian invasion of 479 BC, an amnesty was declared under which at least two ostracised leaders—Pericles' father Xanthippus and Aristides 'the Just'—are known to have returned. Similarly, Cimon, ostracised in 461 BC, was recalled during an emergency.

The Psychology of Ostracism

Most of the research on the psychology of ostracism has been conducted by the social psychologist Kip Williams. He and his colleagues have devised a model of ostracism which provides a framework to show the complexity in the varieties of ostracism and the processes of its effects. There he theorises that ostracism can potentially be so harmful that we have evolved an efficient warning system to immediately detect and respond to it.

In the animal kingdom as well as in primitive human societies, ostracism can lead to death due to the lack of protection benefits and access to sufficient food resources from the group. Living apart from the whole of society also means not having a mate, so being able to detect ostracism would be a highly adaptive response to ensure survival and continuation of the genetic line.

It is proposed that ostracism uniquely poses a threat to four fundamental human needs; the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem, and the need to have a sense of a meaningful existence. A threat to these needs produces psychological distress and pain. Thus, people are motivated to remove this pain with behaviours aimed at reducing the likelihood of others ostracising them any further and increasing their inclusionary status.[1]