BMCR 2002.12.13

Remembering Defeat. Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens

, Remembering defeat : civil war and civic memory in ancient Athens. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xviii, 190 pages). ISBN 0801877199 $42.50.

In a well-known passage in Book 3, Thucydides relates the horrors of civil conflict, what the Greeks called stasis, and how a community destroyed itself in bloody conflict. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens too experienced civil war, yet managed to avoid total destruction and restored, with a little Spartan help, society and state. The horrors of civil war and how Athenians dealt with the memory of such conflict is the subject of Andrew Wolpert’s study. He argues that in the process of restoring the democracy, the Athenians reclaimed the rule of law, though in the process sacrificing Socrates. Reconciliation of the warring factions enforced by a stringent policy of amnesty for past wrongs strengthened the restored democracy, enabling it to enjoy success as the Greek city-states declined, or so Wolpert suggests, in the fourth century. This is not an easy book to curl up with and most undergraduates would find it a difficult read. More advanced readers will find the discussion of orators who are usually ignored, Lysias for example, valuable, as well as the commentary on the legal battles that followed the restored democracy. In making his case, Wolpert introduces recent views on the nature of violence and memory, and while his arguments are not wrong, they might have been developed more fully.

Defeat at sea followed by a protracted siege brought Athens to its knees and so the city surrendered to Sparta in 404 BCE. Within a short time a Spartan-supported Athenian clique that later came to be known as the “Thirty Tyrants” ruled brutally over their city. Hundreds were killed and more exiled before a party of democrats in exile led a revolution that brought them down, thanks as well to the Spartan king Pausanias who intervened to end the conflict. Wolpert relates well the “reign of terror” orchestrated by the Thirty on their fellow Athenians, but his account has a remote quality to it. In several places he refers to “systemic” violence, but nowhere defines the term. He seems to fault as well those Athenians who hesitated to support the democratic “rebels”, calling their reluctance to get involved “surprising.” Yet the Thirty had disarmed Athenians they distrusted, which surely explains their reluctance and disinclination to get involved. The larger point, however, is that the program of violence organized by the Thirty so intimidated a majority of Athenians that apathy seemed the best and safest course of action. This should not be a surprise. Moreover, twenty-seven years of war and violence had left many in Athens mentally exhausted (cf. the impact of violence and resulting trauma) and simply not able to cope with more. Again this should not be much of a surprise.

Confronting violence is something not easily forgotten and, in fact, remembering it is more like a curse. In examining the nature of memory, Wolpert follows the ideas of M. Halbwachs, who argues that all memory is determined by the social group and that past memories are determined by the present. Such a view, however, is only part of the story. Thucydides, for one, knew that there were different memories of events like battles, and that men at the same battle could have different views of the same thing. He was right. So too with memories of past events in the present. These do change as a society collectively “remembers”, but there are other influences on memory besides the needs and concerns of the present. Artifacts, for example, provide an anchor of sorts to a particular event in a particular time and no amount of “presentness” can dislodge the memory of that past event (see e.g., M. Sturken, Tangled Memories. The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997], p. 19: “Memory is often embodied in objects — memorials, texts, talismans, images.”). What all of this adds up to is a certain static nature to the past and to memories of it. While there is no denying that the present contributes to a (continual) reshaping of the past, it is equally true that there are discrete elements that keep the past “past.”

In chapter one, Wolpert discusses the end of the Peloponnesian War and the ensuing civil war that other communities had experienced during the recent conflict. Overall, the treatment is effective and shows how Sparta forced Athens’ surrender and then added to its control over the city with the establishment of the Thirty. The role of Theramenes, as self-seeking a politician as Athens ever produced, receives appropriate attention here, as does his elimination by the truly evil Critias, who gave orders for some very bad things. But Thrasybulus’ democratic revolution ended this horrific experience. Seizing first Phyle and then the Piraeus, Thrasybulus stubbornly held on and forced the Thirty to retire to Eleusis, while in Athens a new group, the “Ten”, emerged to lead those who had formerly supported Critias and company. Wolpert argues that the Ten were a new oligarchic leadership, but Xenophon suggests otherwise. In telling the origin of the Ten, Xenophon notes that they were selected, “one from each tribe” (Xen. Hell. 2.4.23). This is in essence a democratic means of selection, and its appearance here suggests that the Ten, or rather the Athenians they represented, were far from agreement as to policy or action. Wolpert argues that the Ten continued the platform of the now absent Thirty, but their actions are more reactive than proactive and, more importantly, they proved amenable to the overtures of Pausanias to join in a “cease-fire” and negotiate with Thrasybulus’ democrats. (A stronger review of the sources for all this might also have been made: Xenophon was contemporary with the events, the author of the Ath. Pol. was not). In this fashion, the Athenian civil war ended.

Restoration of the democracy followed Pausanias’ intervention, and Wolpert examines this in chapter two. Wolpert suggests that in negotiating with the hated oligarchs in Eleusis, the restored democracy became more conservative as it absorbed this element into the body politic. Problems involving the return of property, and how to reintegrate those who had supported the oligarchic Thirty (through the review process known as euthyna) are examined in detail. Wolpert argues against the prevailing view that the restored democracy became more conservative than its fifth-century predecessor. The refusal to grant citizenship to those non-Athenians who had fought with Thrasybulus shows this, revealing the survival of old fifth-century democratic jealousies and policies. Wolpert argues that, in the political turmoil at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the democracy had twice voted itself out of power. The appointment of a board of law-givers in 403 BCE, the nomothetai, protected the democracy, making it “impossible to subvert the democracy from within democratic institutions” (p. 41).

Many of those who had survived the terror orchestrated by the Thirty naturally desired some kind of retribution, but the amnesty imposed by the settlement prevented this. In chapter three, “Recrimination”, Wolpert takes up this issue and discusses the ways in which the oligarchs and their sympathizers, including Socrates, were dealt with. Blackmail, public embarrassment and humiliation were alternate forms of attack, while the law courts saw much action as old scores were settled in roundabout ways. The amnesty prevented direct reference to past actions, but by challenging those with a checkered past democrats did attempt to settle old scores. The open nature of Athenian law and procedures made this possible, and while it could be controlled to some extent it could not be stopped. Socrates’ trial and condemnation does not receive as much attention as might be expected, and some points defending the Athenians in their judgment of Socrates are awkward. For example, Wolpert faults Socrates for not preventing the arrest of Leon of Salamis or joining Thrasybulus in the Piraeus. Yet Socrates was in his mid-sixties (not exactly prime material for a warrior), he had small children and a nagging wife, and to expect him to act otherwise seems a bit unrealistic. The Athenians had been hard on intellectuals before (cf. Anaxagoras, even Euripides), factors that need consideration too, as well as the realization that in the eyes of many Socrates was proven guilty by those he had associated with, despite his refusal to do wrong.

In remembering the amnesty, the subject of chapter four, Wolpert notes that other Greek communities, e.g., Megara and Samos, had put in place an amnesty “not to remember past wrongs.” As the Megarian experiment proved, however, some people could not let bygones be bygones and sought retribution. Wolpert suggests that the Athenians attempted to erase the past, to not talk of the horrors of stasis. They may have tried, but the law suits brought forth by individual Athenians against those who had sided with the oligarchs suggest otherwise. Moreover, the monuments to the democrats who died, the honoring of their orphaned children, and the tomb of the Spartans who died in Athens, planted prominently in the Kerameikos, suggest otherwise. With its inscription naming the Spartan dead (part of which has survived, see IG II 2 11678), the Athenians would have been reminded daily of the Spartan sacrifice and how the civil war had ended (as noted by Xen. Hell. 2.4.33, written c. 380s BCE, so C.J. Tuplin, s.v.“Xenophon”, OCD 3, p. 1629).

In the years following the restoration of the democracy, the Athenians worked hard to reestablish the idea of civic virtue or loyalty, the subject of chapter five. The “men of the Piraeus”, the men who had supported Thrasybulus in bringing freedom (though in reality most who fought the oligarchs were not citizens but resident aliens, mercenaries and even slaves), became an honorific extended to all Athenians in spite of the fact that nearly all had remained passive. In much the same way, the “men of the city”, i.e., those who had supported the oligarchs openly or tacitly, acquired a neutral meaning of non-reproach. These denied committing any crimes, and in a sense took pride in what they did not do, i.e., act like the Thirty. Both groups, Wolpert argues, created and perpetuated fictions to absolve themselves of any wrong and so in the process pulled the community together and avoided future civil war.

This communal willingness to imagine the past other than as it was continued into the fourth century as the Athenians constructed a new future (chapter six). The Thirty not only became a negative example, but also came to be seen as outsiders, the “other” whose misdeeds marked them as anything but Athenian. Wolpert suggests that the old aristocratic value of the agathoi became a democratic value as a result of democratic resistance to the oligarchs. So too the role of the Spartan king Pausanias in brokering peace disappeared as it seemed inconvenient to democratic mythmaking. The Spartan tomb lying in the Kerameikos, however, would have been hard to miss, and, while many might have tried hard to forget why it was there, memory of the Spartan role in ending the civil war did survive, as Xenophon shows.

In concluding, Wolpert argues that the institution of nomothesia reclaimed the rule of law for the democracy though it claimed Socrates as a sort of sacrificial victim. The Athenians, however, needed to construct a culture that provided amnesty so as to promote reconciliation, something Wolpert sees as a cultural construct “first and foremost” (p. 138). And here he argues rightly which rewards the reader’s efforts: memory involves a certain amount of forgetting, which when violence is involved is not necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, memory is also an inventive process and this allowed the Athenians to pull together by accepting each other’s inventions of what they did or did not do, and so together they restored the democracy. During the years that followed in the fourth century, Athens was not again threatened by oligarchic politics or conspiracy, a point that might have been made more emphatically. I was a only little sorry to see Wolpert, in bringing this tale of redemption to closure, repeat the old view that fourth century Athens was a “time of decline”, a perception belied by the city’s energetic resistance to Philip of Macedon, its valiant fight at Chaeronea.