Factional Politics: The Ostracism of Themistokles

A group of ostraka found together in a pit on the North Slope of the Acropolis is of special interest. There were 190 ostraka, mostly the round feet of drinking cups, all inscribed with the name of Themistokles son of Neokles, of the deme Phrearrhios, the far-sighted architect of Athenian naval power.

The picture of party politics comes into sharper focus when one carefully examines the handwriting, for these 190 ostraka were written by only fourteen people. Three samples from each of four hands are represented in the 12 ostraka here; letter forms and sizes as well as incised lines show the characteristics of individual handwriting. The deposit apparently represents the leftovers of a plot to remove Themistokles; his enemies were equipped in advance with ready-made ostraka for distribution to illiterate or undecided voters.

Ostraka of Themistokles.

The democratic voters of Classical Athens were as fickle as electorates elsewhere at other times. Though never ostracized, even Perikles was voted out of office after winning fifteen consecutive annual elections. Seen in retrospect, Themistokles was as great a figure in Athenian history. When a great find of silver was made in southern Attica, it was he who convinced the Athenians not to distribute the money among themselves but to spend it building a great fleet of 200 triremes (war ships). These ships proved crucial in the decisive victory of the Greek fleet over the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C., as did Themistokles' own guile in tricking the Persians into fighting in the narrow straits.

But that the salvation which the Hellenes achieved at that time came from the sea, and that it was those very triremes that restored again the fallen city of Athens, Xerxes himself bore witness, not to speak of other proofs. (Plutarch, Life of Themistokles 4A)

Despite his extraordinary success in turning Athens into the dominant sea power, which led to her military success throughout the 5th century, Themistokles made numerous personal enemies, and we hear disparaging remarks about his greed and ambition. Finally, he was ostracized in 472 B.C. and died in exile several years later, fulfilling the prophecy of his father as preserved in the following anecdote:

There are some who say that his father fondly tried to divert him from public life, pointing out to him old triremes on the seashore, all wrecked and neglected, and intimating that the people treated their leaders in like fashion when these were past service (Plutarch, Life of Themistokles 2.6).
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).