Pandora’s stories: Just deserts?

Sometimes the democracy is fickle in the way it treats people. Remember the story of Aristides.

Aristides was the son of Lysimachus, who came from a wealthy family. In his early life he became a follower of the statesman Cleisthenes and sided with the aristocratic party in Athenian politics. He first came to notice as strategos (general) in command of his native tribe at the battle of Marathon, and no doubt in recognition of the distinction which he achieved there he was elected archon eponymos for the following year (489-488 BC). By promoting a conservative policy which aimed at maintaining Athens as a land power, he became one of the chief opponents of the naval policy proposed by Themistocles.

The conflict between the two leaders ended in the ostracism (exile for up to ten years) of Aristides at a date variously given between 485 and 482. It is recorded by the biographer Plutarch that an illiterate voter, who did not know Aristides, came up to him and giving him his voting shard asked him to write upon it the name of Aristides. The latter asked if Aristides had wronged him. “No,” was the reply, “and I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear him everywhere called ‘the Just’.” Aristides then wrote his own name on the shard (normally a piece of broken pottery – see image). Although he was ostracised, Aristides was recalled early to help at the time of the next Persian invasion.

In addition to being popularly nicknamed ‘the Just’, the historian Herodotus described him as “the best and most honourable man in Athens”, and he received similarly reverent treatment in the writing of the philosopher Plato.

So, did Aristides get his just deserts?

Shard with the name of Aristides

Shard with the name of Aristides


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