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

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

by Sara Forsdyke

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Classical Outlook - Daniel B. Levine
The style is clear and straightforward. Forsdyke repeats her main points; she makes good use of theories of poetry, anthropology, religion, and social science. This is an important work which upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and historians will profitably use. It demands much of its reader; it will open eyes and challenge assumptions.
From the Publisher
"The style is clear and straightforward. Forsdyke repeats her main points; she makes good use of theories of poetry, anthropology, religion, and social science. This is an important work which upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and historians will profitably use. It demands much of its reader; it will open eyes and challenge assumptions."—Daniel B. Levine, Classical Outlook
Classical Outlook
The style is clear and straightforward. Forsdyke repeats her main points; she makes good use of theories of poetry, anthropology, religion, and social science. This is an important work which upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and historians will profitably use. It demands much of its reader; it will open eyes and challenge assumptions.
— Daniel B. Levine

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Princeton University Press
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Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy



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, theorigins 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 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 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 caused. By instituting formal public offices and establishing laws, for example, elites attempted to enforce the orderly rotation of political authority among themselves. These attempts at elite self-regulation, however, were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing violent intra-elite conflict, although they played an important role in strengthening the civic structures of the early Greek poleis (chapters 1 and 2).

It was at Athens during the sixth century that a more permanent solution was found to the problem of exile (chapter 3). As a consequence of particularly frequent episodes of expulsion during the late seventh and sixth centuries, first Solon and then Pisistratus attempted to stabilize their polis by encouraging non-elites to play a role in the allocation of political power. By prompting non-elites to intervene in conflict between elites and to place their support behind a particular elite group, these leaders aimed to prevent the frequent changes of power that resulted from violent conflict solely between narrow groups of elites. I argue that Pisistratus was particularly successful in activating non-elite support on his side through his skillful use of the civic institutions, rituals, and cultural symbols of the Athenian community. Furthermore, Pisistratus departed strongly from earlier practices when he allowed his political opponents to remain in Athens and enjoy a measure of prestige during his tyranny.

Despite the gains made by Pisistratus in tempering violent intra-elite conflict, the problem of exile reemerged with particular intensity in Athens between the death of Pisistratus's son Hipparchus in 514 and the democratic revolution in 508/7. I argue that the revolution by which the democracy was established was a direct outcome of a particularly violent episode of intra-elite politics of exile. In brief, during the revolution of 508/7, the Athenian masses intervened decisively in the struggle between rival elite groups. By placing its support on the side of one elite group and driving the other into exile, the demos (people: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) asserted its control over decisions of exile. Furthermore, since political power and the power to expel one's opponents were one and the same in archaic Greece, the action of the demos in taking over decisions of exile was equivalent to its assumption of political power. The politician Cleisthenes essentially recognized this equivalency when, following the de-mos's action, he proposed the reforms by which the democracy was established. Among Cleisthenes' reforms was the institution of ostracism (chapter 3).

In sum, I argue that both democracy and the institution of ostracism were responses to the destabilizing effects of intra-elite politics of exile. Yet the institution of ostracism was not simply a democratic form of an elite practice (chapter 4). Through the institution of ostracism, the Athenians reenacted in symbolic terms their decisive intervention in violent intra-elite conflict during the democratic revolution and thus reminded elites of their fundamental power in the polis. Even more important, through ostracism, the Athenians found a mechanism for distinguishing - in both practice and ideology - democratic rule from the forms of elite rule that had preceded it. In contrast to intra-elite politics of exile, ostracism was a particularly limited and lawful form of exile. Whereas elites in the archaic period had violently expelled one another en masse, the democratic institution of ostracism allowed for the expulsion of a single individual per year for a limited period of time. The limited nature of democratic ostracism was important in at least two ways. First, by expelling only a single individual for a fixed period of time, the Athenians avoided the destabilizing effects of the mass expulsions of the archaic period. Second, the moderate use of the power of expulsion, as represented by the institution of ostracism, was a potent symbol of the moderation, justice, and legitimacy of democratic rule in contrast to the forms of rule that had preceded it (tyranny, oligarchy). This ideology carried over into the Athenians' imperial practices and ideologies, since exile, moderation, and justice are linked together in the justification of Athens' relations with other Greek states (chapter 5).

The relation between exile, ostracism, and justice is key to understanding the role of exile in the mythical and historical imagination of the ancient Greeks (chapter 6). Although exile certainly played a prominent role in Greek mythical and historical traditions before the democracy, the forms in which many of these traditions are preserved reveal the influence of the role of exile in the legitimation of democratic rule. I argue that the Athenian democracy appropriated and transformed earlier traditions of exile in order to reinforce a distinction between the just and unjust use of political power. While the Athenian democracy prided itself on its benevolent reception of exiles from other poleis (for example, in Athenian versions of the myth of the Heraclidae), the democracy characterized non-democratic regimes, such as tyranny and oligarchy, in part through the topos of mass expulsions. The delegitimization of non-democratic forms of rule through the theme of exile is particularly evident in traditions concerning archaic Greek tyrants (for example, Periander of Corinth) and in fourth-century representations of the oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 403. Analysis of these traditions shows that the historical experience of exile under these regimes was adapted and expanded to serve as a key criterion of unjust rule. Furthermore, examination of the criticisms of democratic rule made, for example, by Thucydides and Aristotle reveals the importance of the theme of exile in the debate about the best form of government in late fifth- and fourth-century Athens.

Methods and Approaches

In addition to this specific argument about the role of exile in the political development and historical imagination of the ancient Greeks, I hope that this book makes a contribution to the debate about ways of doing history. In particular, the first chapter - which at first may seem ancillary to the central argument made in later ones - is presented in the conviction that the social, political, and cultural development of Greece in the later archaic and classical periods (c. 500-323) can be fully understood only against the background of earlier developments. In chapter 1 I argue that intra-elite competition was an important factor in the earliest phases of the development of the polis. This argument then provides the background for my claim in subsequent chapters that intra-elite competition in the form of violent politics of exile played a fundamental role in the institutional and ideological development of the later archaic and classical polis.

Chapter 2 then analyzes the role of exile in the political development of four geographically dispersed poleis. By considering the communities of Greece in their full regional diversity, both common patterns and significant divergences can be identified. In this chapter, I argue that four poleis - Mytilene, Megara, Samos, and Corinth -demonstrate that the politics of exile was a common feature of the archaic polis. The various ways in which these poleis responded to the problem of exile, moreover, provide the context for understanding the unique role of exile in Athenian political development, as I argue in subsequent chapters.

Methodologically, chapters 1 and 2 attempt to integrate material evidence into the more conventional text-based study of Greek history. In order to make sense of the relatively mute archaeological data, furthermore, I make critical use of anthropological theories of social evolution and state formation. Although anthropological theories should not be used as templates into which the material evidence for early Greece is forced, they can nevertheless provide suggestive patterns of development against which the relatively scanty evidence can be analyzed. In these chapters, I demonstrate that although many of the larger communities of early Greece underwent similar processes of increasing social and economic stratification and formalization of state structures roughly between 1150 and 750, by the late eighth century the polis was only a very weak form of "state" in the anthropological sense. Specifically, I show that as late as the last half of the sixth century, features of non-state societies - in particular, personal and rapidly changing alliances between elites ("factions," in anthropological terms) - were the dominant political force in the polis, and were the structural basis for the particular form of politics that developed.

Even more important than the consideration of Greek historical development in its full chronological depth and geographical diversity, however, this study aims to strike a balance between diachronic, event-oriented historiography and synchronic inquiries into questions of identity, ideology, and social history. I argue that it is only by considering the dynamic relation between historical events and the ways in which a society represents these events to itself through its practices and ideologies that we can hope to gain insight into ancient Greek experience and understanding of the world. The conviction not only that events shape practices and ideologies but that practices and ideologies impact events is a product of recent trends in a variety of academic fields and is ultimately informed by theoretical work in sociology, political theory, and anthropology. In particular, the work of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Anthony Giddens has resulted in new emphasis on how practices and ideologies both reflect the political order of society as constituted through its historical development and can themselves actively transform the structures of society. In the work of these theorists, in other words, there is a reflexive relation between political or institutional history and social or ideological history (histoire des mentalités). In particular, social practices and ideologies themselves are given new and active roles in the explanation of historical change.

This study reflects the new orientation in historical scholarship in several ways. First of all, I argue that exile was important in Greek political history not simply as a historical event that determined Greek institutional development. Rather, I show that through a dynamic process both exile events and their later representation in the historical imagination of the ancient Greeks impacted the practices, ideologies, and further historical development of Greek society. To be more specific, I contend that the historical event of exile, and even more important, the conceptual and ideological categories that resulted from group reflection on the experience of exile, had a significant role in the creation of the group identities, group behaviors, and hence group responses to later historical conditions. For example, I argue that the institution of ostracism was both a response at the level of practice to prior historical events (archaic politics of exile; the democratic revolution) and a symbol that served at the level of ideology to define Athenian group identity and shape later Athenian group behavior. Through the institution of ostracism, not only did the Athenians define themselves in relation to the past history of exile by linking political power with control over decisions of exile, but they also marked themselves off from that prior history in both ideology and practice by using the power of expulsion with moderation. Indeed, democratic restraint in the use of exile as a political tool, I suggest, was motivated as much by the need to demarcate ideologically democratic rule from non- democratic forms of rule as by the practical need to avoid the destabilizing consequences of more extreme uses of the power of expulsion. Similarly, I argue in chapter 5 that Athenian restraint in the use of exile as a penalty against non-Athenians was as important in the justification of Athenian imperial power as it was in its practical effects of quelling civil war between democrats and oligarchs in the cities of the Athenian alliance.

In this way, exile events of the historical past and their representation in the collective practices and ideologies of the Athenians not only responded to one another but helped to transform Athenian political identities and practices under the democracy. In sum, by examining a specific cultural practice (exile/ostracism) in its full historical and ideological depth, one not only can see how events, practices, and ideologies interact to form the patterns of history, but can also gain new perspectives on some central developments in Greek history: in particular the origins, practices, and ideologies of democracy in classical Athens.

Exile, Boundaries, and Group Identity

One might still ask, Why exile? Why choose to investigate exile if it is simply one example of the many ways in which historical events, social practices, and ideologies interacted to reproduce and transform Greek society? To answer this question we can turn to recent work in a number of academic fields on group identity and interaction through the formation of boundaries, both conceptual and physical. Sociologists, political theorists, historians, and anthropologists have recognized that societies tend to create conceptual boundaries through their myths and norms. These myths and norms work by defining in positive terms who "we" are, but frequently by also defining "what we are not." Archaeologists, in turn, have borrowed the idea of the importance of conceptual boundaries and applied it to the physical features of a community's landscape. In particular, the role of "culturally specific symbols in border areas" has been found to be especially fruitful in understanding how groups define themselves and negotiate conflicts with one another.


Excerpted from Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy by Sara Forsdyke Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Ryan Balot
Forsdyke offers innovative interpretations of complex historical problems, and illuminates a major and largely neglected topic in archaic Greek history. This is an excellent book, carefully researched and well-conceived.
Ryan Balot, Washington University, St. Louis
Paul Cartledge
A remarkably exciting and intellectually formidable piece of work.
Paul Cartledge, Cambridge University

Meet the Author

Sara Forsdyke is Assistant Professor of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan.

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