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Ostracism and personal prominence

The anecdote about Aristides and the illiterate voter may well be apocryphal, but Aristides was indeed ostracized in 482 B.C. (and recalled early in 480 B.C. to fight the Persians1). Nevertheless, it makes a valid point: the Athenian political system assumed that the right way to protect democracy was, even in cases in which an individual might be unfairly penalized, to rely on the judgment of the mass of ordinary male citizens as expressed in a majority vote. This conviction required making allowances for irresponsible types like the kind of man depicted in the story about Aristides. It rested on the belief that the cumulative political wisdom of the majority of male citizens would outweigh the eccentricity and irresponsibility of the few. And personal prominence certainly did not usually lead to ostracism. Pericles2, the most prominent and famous of Athenian political leaders of the fifth century, was never ostracized, even though his political opponents apparently tried to use that procedure against him on at least one occasion. Pericles presumably avoided ostracism because the majority of the voters approved of his policies and because he was able to outmaneuver his opponents by rallying popular support when they tried to get him ostracized.

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