Why Boris should have remembered the Ostracism of Hyperbolus

UK Politics is just too distracting these days. Today we arrived at a point where both main parties are in the middle of differently shambolic leadership contests. These last few crazy days have brought to mind quite a few ancient parallels (read this excellent post by Caitlin Harris, one of our MA students, on voters’ remorse).

And then this happened:  Michael Gove, formerly Brexit-campaign right-hand-man of Boris Johnson decided to run for the leadership himself, and may well have teamed up, in some way, with Theresa May (the other front-runner) to prevent Boris Johnson from gaining his long-held dream of becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

I think this is an apt moment to look back at the story of the ostracism of Hyperbolos.

The ancient Athenians had developed this wonderful method of getting rid of politicians who got too big for their boots (just how much would you wish for that option now?!), called Ostracism (after the ostraca, potsherds, used for voting). Plutarch gives a good summary of the procedure and some of the problems with it. Once a year, the assembly could vote on the question whether anybody might need to be removed (ostensibly for posing a danger of trying to become a tyrant). If the assembly decided that somebody should be removed, an ostracism was held: everybody could write the name of one politicians they wanted to get rid of on a potsherd and submit that as a voting slip. If more than 6000 were submitted, the politician with the most votes had to go into exile for ten years. Only one politician could be thrown out in any given year.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians' names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians’ names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

This worked well for the Athenians from c. 487BC to 417BC. Quite a few people were ostracised. But the current farce in the Tory party reminds me most of the very last ostracism, held sometime between 417 and 415 BC. This was the ostracism of Hyperbolus.

At this time, Athenian politics was increasingly polarised by two ‘big beast’ politicians – Alcibiades and Nicias. Both made quite a mark on Athenian history in the following years. At this point, they were rivals, with Alcibiades pursuing an aggressive policy which would soon reignite war with Sparta, and Nicias as the advocate of the peace agreement Athens had concluded with Sparta in 421BC, the Peace of Nicias, which still bears his name.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.


Hyperbolus was probably himself a proponent of a more aggressive Athenian foreign policy at this time. In any case, he argued for an ostracism: his hope was presumably that one of the two most prominent politicians would have to go – either he would be rid of a rival on his own side, if Alcibiades was exiled, or the argument for peace would be seriously weakened, if Nicias had to go. This looks like a win-win situation for Hyperbolus (the whole story is in Plutarch, Nicias 11)

What really happened, however, was that this scheme did not go to plan. There was one thing both Alcibiades and Nicias could agree on, and that was that they needed to get rid of Hyperbolus (See Plutarch, Alcibiades 13.4). They campaigned together against their opponent, and Hyperbolus was ostracised as a result. One should also note, that even in exile, Athenian politics eventually caught up with him, and he was murdered when the shockwaves of an impending oligarchic coup in Athens reached Samos, where he had settled (reported by Thucydides 8.73 – who was not a fan -, see especially 8.73.3) .

I think that Boris Johnson might have done well remembering his Classics a bit better.

PS: isn’t Hyperbolus a brilliant name for a politician? The name is related to the word hyperbole, which now means exaggeration (and had similar meanings in ancient Greek as well). Hyperbolus’ parents, choosing the name, probably thought of the ‘good’ meanings of the ancient Greek word, literally ‘throwing beyond’, so somebody who excels or achieves beyond others. But in the context of the story, ‘overdoing it a bit’ seems a better association.

This entry was posted in Current events, Greece, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why Boris should have remembered the Ostracism of Hyperbolus

  1. CSW says:

    Or perhaps, in a rare moment of modesty, he recalls Tacitus’ criticism of Galba.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.