Ostracism in Ancient Greece

‘In ancient Athens, ostracism was the process by which any citizen, including political leaders, could be expelled from the city-state for 10 years.

Once a year, ancient Athenian citizens would nominate people they felt threatened democracy—because of political differences, dishonesty, or just general dislike. Today, although we can vote politicians out of office, we can’t exactly banish them from politics for a decade. Do you think ostracism would work in a democracy today? Would you vote to ostracize someone? Why?’

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Codrus sacrifices himself for his own country

In his oration Against Leocrates, the fourth century BC Athenian orator Lycurgus accuses his fellow citizen Leocrates of having left the city just before the battle of Chaeronea in order to escape the dangers of war, thus failing his duties towards his country and his fellow citizens.

The passage belongs to the middle of the oration (chh. 84-7), when Lycurgus makes a list of mythical and historical examples which demonstrate the abnegation, the sense of duty, and the heroism of the Athenians of the past in order to emphasise by contrast Leocrates’ pusillanimity.

Domenico Beccafumi: Il sacrificio di re Codro
(Siena, Palazzo Pubblico. Fonte: Wikimedia commons)

The example of the heroic sacrifice of the last mythical Athenian king, Codrus, is interesting. The story is set during a famine, when the Peloponnesians declare war on Athens to conquer its territories and exploit its resources. Before embarking on military operations, the Spartans sent a delegation to Delphiin order to consult Apollo’s oracle on the outcome of the war. According to the tradition, the oracle replied: ‘Dear Spartans, you will overthrow Athensonly if you do not kill his king, Codrus’. The Peloponnesians, then, left the oracle self-confidently and warned their soldiers not to kill king Codrus for any reason. However, a certain Delphian called Cleomantis learned about the response of the oracle and secretly informed the Athenians.

Here is the text of the first part of the passage: (more…)