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The potential conflict between Athenian radical democracy's principle of privileging the interest of the majority while valuing the freedom of the individual can be seen most dramatically in the official procedure for exiling a man from Athens for ten years. Every year the assembly voted1 whether to go through this procedure, which was called ostracism2 (from the word ostrakon, meaning a piece of broken pottery, the material used for ballots). If the vote was affirmative, all male citizens on a predetermined day could cast a ballot on which they had scratched the name of the man they thought should be exiled. If 6,000 ballots were cast, whichever man was mentioned on the greatest number of them was compelled to leave Attica for ten years. He suffered no other penalty, and his family and property could remain behind undisturbed. It is important to emphasize that ostracism was not a criminal penalty: men returning from ostracism enjoyed undiminished rights as citizens. Ostracism served different purposes. The first ostracisms3, for example, which occurred in the 480s B.C., were intended to protect democracy, after the appearance of the ex-tyrant Hippias with the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C.4 had spread the fear that someone might try to reestablish tyranny in place of democracy. Ostracism could also serve as a mechanism for placing blame on an individual for a failed policy that the assembly had orginally supported. Cimon, for example was made the scapegoat for the disastrous Athenian attempt to cooperate militarily with Sparta during the helot revolt of the late 460s and therefore ostracized.5 Ostracism was not undertaken casually, it seems, at least not if one judges from the number of men ostracized in the fifth century. The total of men ostracized probably amounted to no more than a total of a dozen or two. Ostracism fell into disuse after about 416 B.C. because the procedure was discredited by the discovery of a conspiracy by two prominent politicians, Alcibiades and Nicias,6 to manipulate the process to keep themselves from being ostracized.

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