Out with you

Among my favourite potsherds from the ancient world are the ostraka of the Athenians. Although the surface may be inscribed only with one name, and that long forgotten, there is something exhilarating about them. Once, I held one in my hand.

Shards of earthenware, flakes of limestone, and other materials with messages written on them are a commonplace of archaeological sites throughout the Near East — from the age when papyrus was available, but too expensive for use as scrap paper. For which reason, we get a higher class of messaging from the deep past on that papyrus: things meant to be permanent.

On the ostraka we might get instead a simple prayer or invocation; an adage; a snippet from the lyrics of a song; a shopping list; a medical prescription; a curse or blessing, or magical spell; a desperate appeal for money; or a rude little caricature, very portable and perhaps intended to find its way to its subject. A hundred and one household uses. Such short notes improve in value after centuries of aging, and what they show, along with much else, is that the deadly sins practised today have always been popular.

There are papyrus fragments, too, marvellously preserved in the dry Egyptian sands. I have books up here in the High Doganate, transcribed from the better bits and pieces that floated up, including fragments of classical poetry and very high-class prose. An elitist myself, I am prone to collect such documentation of a time long ago and far, far away; and to weep for what was lost from the once grand private and public libraries. But this is not what I am thinking of, at this moment. For all the originals may be consulted in Heaven; and really it is just a question of getting there.

Still there is the thrill of holding an ostrakon in one’s hand, from old Athens that was full of sin, but also of a few brilliant ideas. For a moment, time out of mind, one queues in the Agora, to hand one’s fragmentary transient write-in ballot over to the counters.

For these were the ballots from the old Athenian democracy — that went the way our “representative” imitations of it are now going — but was in its own time small and personal, like something from a valley in the Swiss Alps.

Voting, prior to post-modernity, was always and everywhere restricted to a relatively small, aristocratic or at least upper-middle class of propertied free males, and thus carried the possibility its members would know each other; sometimes, know each other too well. In retrospect it seems a better idea than great masses of the lower classes, lacking charm or style, forming “yuge” voting blocks like virtual mobs, and ever threatening to descend into real ones. But everything — absolutely everything including the best-governed states — winds up on the trash heap of history. And who is to say there will always be archaeologists?

No, the potsherds that amuse me most carry the names of candidates for Ostracism. From time to time the “elite” of Athenians would pick someone to be exiled for a decade or so. Not hanged, not drawn, not quartered — not even merely blinded in the more humane Byzantine manner — but only invited to live abroad for a while. It was an honourable fate, by our modern standards. It showed people could at least spell your name; and that you had achieved your fifteen minutes of infamy in the public mind. Of course there was the death penalty, if the winner tried to return before his time was up. Meanwhile, he had ten days to get out of town.

It was about this time of year, in the old Athenian Assembly. Full citizens would vote on whether to hold another Ostracism. If they did, it was probable that they already had at least one promising candidate. Plutarch tells us a quorum of six thousand was required, to vote for having this vote; and another minimum of votes to win if it was held, a couple of months later. It was a way to send someone like “The Donald” on his way.

He could keep his hotels and office blocks, and get them back on his return; or whatever else he happened to own before departure. It was thus not an opportunity for envious, punitive taxation. But God be praised, there might be one less potential tyrant, or bogeyman to deal with, in the interval of his absence, after he had been sent off “to make Athens great again” — in Phrygia, or wherever. Meanwhile, his irritating supporters would have time to cool their heads; and his opponents would be spared the inconvenience and risk of arranging an assassination.

Not a bad idea at all, at all; but like so many other fairly good ideas, it would not work in an “advanced modern democracy.” For in no time, with the help of computers, we’d be holding instant Ostracisms every day. And this would only lead to fresh refugee crises.