Continuing the occasional series on modern phrases or expressions that have Greek origins (see Halcyon Days), this post is about the word ostracize.
Nowadays, the word means to exclude from a group by common consent and the word comes from the practice of ostracism in ancient Athenian society. The idea behind this was to protect democracy from people who were felt to be too influential or dangerous.
Firstly, the People's Assembly was asked whether a vote of ostracism should be held and if there was a clear majority, a date was set. On that day, every voter was given a potsherd, or ostrakon (hence the name ostracism) on which he wrote down the name of a politician he believed to be potentially dangerous (or he asked someone else to write it). If a certain quorum was reached, the politician who had received most votes was sent away from Athens.
The man who was ostracised remained a citizen, had to leave the city for a fixed period of ten years, did not lose his possessions, and could be recalled - which happened quite often.
Below, you can see some examples of these potsherds, or ostrakon, with people's names written on them. These are all from the Agora Museum in Athens.
So now you know!