Ostracophoria

In Ancient Greece, an ostracophoria was an election to determine who would become which of the following?

Considering the possible answers of Heir apparent, Ostracized, Treasurer, and Queen, the answer is: ostracized.

Photo courtesy: Marsyas, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia

In the 5th Century BCE, Athenians would vote for someone to be ostracized, or exiled. The person chosen would have 10 days to prepare, and then they had to leave, never to return for at least 10 years.

Rather than instate new leaders (as a traditional vote accomplishes), Athenians' ostracophoria elections forcefully removed transgressive community members. Seen as a sort of negative popularity test, citizens of Athens would cast their votes for the member of the community to which they designated the most harm. If that person received enough votes, they would be banished for 10 years.

Most of the time, ostracophoria elections occurred when someone had committed a wrong that was not criminally triable. This was a way for the community to prevent the rise of tyrannical leaders, or right the wrong from a specific incident. Ostracophoria elections were highly formalized, and needed to receive a vote in favor for it to even occur. After everyone cast their ballots, the candidate needed to receive at least 6,000 votes in order to be ostracized.

Ostracism was also a way to keep the ruling class in power. While ostracophoria elections took place largely in the heyday of Athenian democracy, it was still largely controlled by a much smaller, elite group of men. Most of the time, those nominated to be ostracized were rival political opponents.

Learn more about the history and practice of the ostracophoria elections here.


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