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An A-Level essay about ostracism in ancient Athens.
In the passage, ‘Plutarch, The Life of Nicias 11’, a clear picture can be created as to how ostracism functioned in the late fifth century. Throughout the passage, it describes the two men, Nicias and Alcibiades in the late fifth century when ostracism was practiced. We can immediately understand that Nicias was wealthy and that he came from an upper class background, as there is evidence of this and the envy caused by his wealth in Plut. Nic. 11.2, where it states,

“…and in the case of Nicias, his wealth made him an object of jealousy.”

Envy may have been one contributing factor as to why some of the citizens wanted Nicias to be ostracised (to be banished from Athens for ten years). It is possible that they may have feared him getting too powerful. It appears to be a similar case for that of Alcibiades. In the passage, it is clear that he was also disliked by many of the citizens in Athens. Evidence of this is also found in Plut. Nic. 11.2, where it states,

“…men loathed his manner of life and dreaded his boldness…”

This can be an explanation as to why some of the Athenians wanted Alcibiades to be ostracised. It is fair to conclude from the text that ostracism in the late fifth century was used to banish a leader from the country on the grounds of wealth, power or any reasons the community felt the leader posed a danger to their state.

It appears that there were certain safeguards in place with the use of ostracism and this becomes evident in the way in which it functioned. However, there does appear to be much controversy around the process involved which allows us to question how fair ostracism indeed was for certain individuals. The text also creates a picture as to how the contribution of citizen’s thoughts and actions helped in functioning the practice of ostracism which again may affect the way in which ostracism was intended to function as citizens of a higher status would most certainly have more weight in their opinion.

We can therefore learn that although ostracism may have been effective in some cases there are arguments around how effective and for whom. It is especially clear that ostracism was an important part of Athenian political life, however, there is evidence that there was a need for change,

“The dissension between alkibiades and Nikias became so acute that recourse was had to the procedure of ostracism.”

Several other sources also support the view that ostracism was an important part of Athenian political life. This practice clearly helps in banishing an individual who may be considered to pose a threat to Athens. It is important to note that although the individual was to be banished for ten years, they would not lose their house, belongings etc so much of their status remained intact. Also they could be voted back in to the country in certain circumstances, which could lead to the question of how useful ostracism actually was if it could be over ruled in this way. Grote, maintains that ostracism was a useful device. However, he only maintained this on the grounds that ostracism removed the danger of tyranny and was better than the perpetual civil strife of the previous century. In other words, ostracism was almost like a safeguard for Athenian democracy. It was also an excellent way in which clashes among Athenians with strong opposing opinions on public issues could be solved.

However, the functioning of ostracism appears to have carried some disadvantages. For example, ostracism was strictly unjust to the victim and can be considered as a heavy punishment to a cultured citizen for whom Athens contained everything that made that individual’s life worth living. Some sources such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Aristotle: Constitution of the Athenians not only helps us to create a clear image of how ostracism worked and the effect it had but they also give an explanation and understanding as to how political decisions were made in Athens.

Pericles was not ostracised because of the impact and influence he had made on Athens, this therefore made people like him. He contributed tremendously to the creation and beginning of democracy and he had built several important and magnificent buildings, such as the Parthenon, which architects and historians are still influenced by right up to this day. In my opinion, it would be fair to conclude, considering the information given above, that Pericles achieved many great things during his time and this contributed to the fact that he was never once ostracised.
The sources indicate that ostracism did give ordinary citizens some power over leading politicians because a politician was at the mercy of Athens when it voting took place with the ostrakon in order for ostracism to take place. The victim must have at least six thousand votes in order to be ostracised. This reinforces the idea that there had to be a certain level of safeguarding in the functioning of ostracism. Finally as neither Nicias nor Alcibiades was ostracised and Hyperbolus was instead, this could suggest the way in which, the public’s decisions altered quickly. However, there may have been contributing factors that led to this and influenced the decisions of the Athenians.

The case of Hyperbolous was not an isolated case and this happened quite often throughout the fifth century where it was thought that one leader may be ostracised but where a different leader altogether was ostracised. For example, one politician who was a leader for a long period of time was suddenly ostracised from Athens due to a sudden and dramatic change within the decisions that were made by the public and other individuals of ancient Athens.
It appears that democracy and ostracism go hand in hand when attempting to enforce the law and keep peace within Athens. It was an important part of life in the fifth century and it could be suggested that it almost became a way of life as there is evidence of it happening often (at least more often than perhaps would be expected).

Looking at several sources and the original text, it is fair to conclude that the practice and procedure of ostracism had both advantages as well as disadvantages. It did appear to function effectively in the fifth century as although a need for change was highlighted it continued to be practiced for a significant period. It can also be concluded that ostracism had contributed to the running of ancient Athenian government and politics as well as helping to shape democracy during the late fifth century. There are certain levels of controversy surrounding the issue of ostracism but it does appear evident that most sources recognise if not support the view that ostracism was an important part of Athenian political life.
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