Ostrakon mentioning Alcibiades, 416-415 B.C., Clay
The Agora Museum, Athens
The object above is an ostrakon (a transliteration of the Greek word ὄστρακον meaning 'pot-sherd'). It is a small, broken piece of a clay vase, with some letters inscribed into it: ...]ΛΚΙΒ[... / ...]ΛΙΝΙ[... It is, in fact, a fragment of a larger sherd on which the name Alcibiades, son of Klinias was originally written (the letters which remain spell A]lcib[iades, son of K]lini[as). And it was used to vote for his exile.
The process of ostracism was a procedure within Athenian democracy, by which any citizen – given that enough votes were cast against him – could be exiled from the city for ten years. Votes were cast in the agora, the central meeting-place of ancient Athens, inscribed on sherds of broken pottery (ostraka) – the ancient equivalent of scrap paper. The person with the most votes against them was then exiled, provided that a certain quorum was met. There was no required charge for an ostracism to be held, and no possibility of defence; and if the citizen returned to Athens within the ten year period of his exile, he was sentenced to death.
Alcibiades, son of Klinias, mentioned on this ostrakon, was a prominent politician of the late fifth century BCE, who rose to power during the Peloponnesian War – the thirty-year conflict between Athens and Sparta which ultimately led to Athens' defeat and the end of the so-called 'Golden Age' of Athenian democracy. Around 416/415 BCE, the Roman historian Plutarch tells us, Alcibiades was almost ostracised after Athens' particularly inhumane treatment of the inhabitants of the island of Melos after the Athenian victory there in 415 (the historian Thucydides records that all the men of Melos were killed and the women and children enslaved); but, Plutarch says, Alcibiades used his power and influence to deflect the vote against another politician, Hyperbolos, instead. The ostrakon above, small as it is, provides a singularly suggestive window onto the complexity – and brutality – of fifth century Athenian politics.