The Prisoner’s Dilemma,
or Purposes of the Athenian Ostracism
Ostracism was a very peculiar form of excluding a leading politician from Athenian political life for ten years with all his property intact, a ‘constitutional’ measure enabling banishment of a suspect citizen by a popular vote and without a trial. It seems customary to interpret ostracism as a tool of the political and ideological supremacy of the demos in fifth-century Athens or as a means of to prevent tyranny. However, some disquieting elements of our knowledge of the Athenian ostracism, and in particular the relative rareness of securely attested cases of effectively expelling a citizen from Athens using this procedure, seem to complicate this picture.
My answer to the question of the original purpose of this institution is that ostracism was invented in order not to be applied and was originally intended as a threat to make the quarrelsome Athenian politicians come to terms with their political enemies thus stabilizing the political life of democratic Athens. Once the preliminary vote proved positive, one among the powerful political leaders was doomed to banishment and nobody could feel truly safe; they were trapped in an ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’, as game theory, and in particular the theory of the evolution of cooperation would put it. To act together and block the procedure of ostracism, the leading politicians had to meet backstage and strike a deal. But to reach a reliable agreement there must have been a minimum of mutual trust all year long. As long as the mechanism was effective, ostracism was not implemented. It took extremely intransigent leaders (such as Themistocles and Pericles) and/or extremely difficult political circumstances to hold one, as the historical distribution of the attested cases of the ostracism shows well.
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