Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

In ancient Greece, the mechanism of ambassadorial accountability was one of the links in the system of state supervision, balance check, and protection of citizens’ rights. Many developed countries with their institutions for human rights protection would envy that system today. The measure of punishment known as ostracism (ostrakismos, derived from the ostraka, referring to the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens) played a major role in this. They ostracized officials, and naturally ambassadors, too, and it was feared more than the death sentence.

Ostracism was one of the special institutions of democracy in Athens. It had more of a political rather than legal character and was used against Athenians as a way of expelling them from the city-state (without a trial). It was a preventive law, which excluded a misdemeanor instead of punishing it.

Ostracism was instituted by Cleisthenes in 487 BCE as a measure against the restoration of tyranny. The banished citizens could be anyone from the lowest to the highest officials. Each year the Athenians were asked in the Assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If a person’s loyalty toward the city-state and its citizens was put under question, a quorum of six thousand decided the fate of that person. In a section of the agora, privately, citizens scratched the name of the person they wished to expel on pottery shards (the ostraka) and deposited them in urns. All of this was done secretly. The illiterate would ask for help from the literate. This was more honest than the way they do it today in the Armenian Parliament, when the MPs reach over and press a button on their neighbor’s desk to vote on his or her behalf. When the quorum of six thousand wrote the same name and crossed it out, the ostracized citizen had to leave the city-state within ten days and stay away for ten years. The crossing out of the name had a psychological effect—a person can’t exist without a name.

As in all empires, the center of the Greek empire directed the provinces. The working style of the Athenian political institutions was somehow reflected in other cities. They ostracized in Argos, Syracuse (Sardinia), and in other cities.

The Syracusans called it "petalism” and used olive leaves instead of the pottery shards for ballots. And the period of banishment was milder—it was for five years, instead of ten.

In critical situations or when a certain danger threatened the state, the Assembly brought back the exile by a special decision. During the Greek-Persian war, for example, right before the battle of Salamis, Pericles’ father, who had been ostracized, returned to Athens.

In a way, ostracism reminds of the Soviet "political exile” of the 1930s, which in reality was much more cruel and inhumane.
The ambassadors in Greek antiquity were characterized as honest and ambitious. As well-informed and top level professionals, they took government service seriously and conducted their affairs with utmost responsibility. For indifferent and fraudulent behavior, ambassadors were treated poorly to the point of being ostracized. Corruption and fraud were not tolerated. A diplomat’s error or failure had an extremely high price in Greece.
1886 reads | 10.04.2013

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