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Power to the people?

That is not as easy to decide as we might imagine, and the whole issue is clouded by the almost universal hostility to democracy of surviving ancient commentators and the almost universal admiration of modern historians. Plato was not the only writer to see the Athenian electorate as an undisciplined, uneducated and fickle mob, swayed by unscrupulous demagogues; and he was not quite as wrong as one might hope. On one notorious occasion, the people assembled on one day and voted to put to death the entire male population of the town of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, as punishment for their revolt against Athenian imperial control. On the next day, they decided to have a second vote – the ancient equivalent of a second referendum – and opted instead for leniency. A desperate race ensued, as the ship taking news of the change of heart rowed furiously to catch up with the first one already dispatched. It just made it, and the victims were spared.

A different version of manipulation put an end to the whole system. Despite its modern fame, ostracism only lasted about seventy years and fewer than fifteen people were ever sent into exile this way. The last was an unlucky character, who is supposed to have been the victim of a stitch-up in 416 BC – when two rival establishment figures, Nikias and Alkibiades, both major candidates for exile, decided to do a deal and get their own supporters to turn their votes against a third party, by the name of Hyperbolos. It was he who was sent away, while the intended targets escaped scot-free. No one could have failed to spot what had gone on. And the glaring exposure of establishment control and of their self-interested trade-off destroyed any myth of people power. Ostracism was never used again.

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