BMCR 2003.04.10

The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens. Translated by Corinne Pache with Jeff Fort

, The divided city : on memory and forgetting in Ancient Athens. New York: Zone Books, 2002. 358 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 1890951080. $30.00.

Loraux’s latest volume, comprising a collection of previously written essays concerning stasis in ancient Athens at the tail end of the fifth century, offers elegant interpretations of the intersection between conflict, “the political,” and voluntary forgetting.1 Loraux considers the post-oligarchic Athenian amnesty of 403 in light of decades of previous Greek thought on stasis, concluding that at this point in history Athens was founded anew by purposeful obliviousness to the political divisions that had become natural within the city. For Loraux, being truly “political” in the Athenian sense thus involves willful forgetting after both defeat and victory, as the construction of an altar to Lethe in the Erechtheion, the site of the original quarrel and reconciliation between Athena and Poseidon, attests.

The particular strength of Loraux’s work lies in her close readings of subsections of the Eumenides, in her associative analyses of terms, especially kratos, compounds of luo, alastos and related terms, kasignetos, diaphora, and of course, stasis. Also stimulating are her thoughts on Athenian amnesia concerning Ephialtes and his murder (pp. 71-75); oaths as speech-acts (pp. 130-134, 168); remembering in Sophocles’ Elektra (pp. 164-168); the Athenian calendar (pp. 171-190); stasis in fourth-century Phlius (pp. 242-244). This collection will be useful for general classicists and ancient historians; excerpts may also prove constructive for graduate students and perhaps even for advanced undergraduates, particularly in light of Loraux’s brief outlines of some her own earlier ideas and her occasional summaries of other important French scholars’ research.

In Part I Loraux considers Greek condemnations of civil war, as seen in part in praise of its opposite: legitimate war against foreign enemies. She sets stasis back into its political context, instead of considering it an offshoot of some abstract agonistic tendency in Greek mentalité. She argues that the Greek city is intrinsically divided through discourse yet at the same time reflectively offers a united model as a means of mitigating internal stasis. It is also through the ideology of Athenian autochthonous kinship and the peaceful or resolved unity of the family that the city is supplied with the means of suppressing memories of unwanted yet real civic discord. Loraux offers a close reading from the Oresteia, a trilogy which offers an example of stasis as animalistic subversion of familial normalcy, finally resolved on the civic level by creating a political collectivity from the families living within it and the permanent installation of the placated yet threatening Erinyes.

In this section Loraux also offers useful advice on interpreting Attic vase painting; she rightly advocates situating the relative lack of civic images into the larger context of the entire system of iconographic representation. She uses this critique to explicate further the relationship between conflict and the political, which she proceeds to discuss via examples of sacrifice and the meson. Loraux also reflects on treating the city as subject, a tendency found in Greek sources and problematized by modern scholars; she returns to this theme at the end of Part I and defines it in Platonic terms.

It is not until page 65 that Loraux fully turns to definitions of stasis and its denial. Here she stresses the impossibility of the historian’s task in reconstructing an accurate picture of attitudes toward stasis from “repressed material” (or rather, silence). Yet she pushes on by considering kratos, a term not often used in civic speeches or historical writing but one which interestingly informs civic ideology through its appearance in inscriptions relating to the Athenian empire. The absence of kratos within the fifth-century city as a term referring to party loyalties or victorious factions — even the compound demokratia was avoided — indicates civic denial of conflict and a visibly promoted facade of consensus. In a similar fashion Loraux argues that the Athenians actively promoted forgetfulness about party conflict in Athens during the developing democracy, thereby repressing details about the tyrannicides, Kleisthenes, and particularly Ephialtes. In closing Part I Loraux uses Platonic thought to investigate the city as subject, composed of individuals who give it meaning yet at the same time derive their own identities from it.

In opening Part II Loraux briefly considers Hesiod’s double Eris and two of her mythic children: Oblivion and Oath, by both of which one forgets their mother. Hesiod’s Eris is double precisely because she is hateful to the city yet necessary to its proper functioning. Loraux then analyzes the term dialuo as a means of introducing words that signify opposites, such as, in this case, dissolution and reconciliation. Along these lines, she moves on to reconsider the meson through the agora, a place in the middle of the community where opposing sides argue and one emerges victorious. She then returns to stasis through Solon’s law concerning civil strife and the exile of those who refuse to choose sides, a clue that the engagement of every citizen in civic strife was understood as a means of unifying the community.2

Her treatment focuses also in part on another investigation, this time etymological, into the term stasis itself. Derived from histemi, stasis simultaneously indicates both unitary motionlessness and insurrection. To understand the term, Loraux urges envisioning stasis not merely as civic discord but rather as movement involving the entire city: “two halves of a whole.” (p. 108). As a clever analogy Loraux adduces the kukeon, the barley and flour mixture served to the initiates at Eleusis. Using a comment on the drink by Heraclitus as her starting point, Loraux likens civic communities to the mixture; both the city and the kukeon must be shaken up for its disparate elements to remain mixed. As “the conflict that connects,” stasis is also especially visible through the Ares of epic, a divinity who reconciles at the same time as he divides and whose name leads Loraux through a pleasant excursus on the root ar and related terms for joining, fitting, and harmony (and also a hypothetical etymology for Ares’ name itself).

Loraux centers the next subsection of Part II on oaths, oath-breaking, and the genealogy of Oath ( Horkos). Oath, like stasis, is double-sided, both a negative and a positive force, although Greek sources tend to emphasize the negative character of horkos as a scourge for humanity. Loraux reads Oath as a speech-act, “words that cannot be unsaid,” which bind the speaker in advance, should he lie; Loraux gives a nice selection of civic oaths which delineate specific punishments and further reflects on the loss of land, family, and hence identity for a perjurer. She then returns to Oath as son of Eris, omnipresent in a civic setting through decrees and at times nearly indistinguishable from law. Oath’s ancestry informs this context, since decrees, treaties, and alliances are sworn after discord is put aside. In a sense the stasis of late fifth-century Athens can be read as a war of oaths, first between factions, then subsumed under a new oath of commitment by all the citizens. This oath, sworn individually in the first person singular, ties the private individual to his civic status as member of the collective. Thus, as a unit of individuals, Athens in 403 chooses to renounce memories of hostility towards its own members.

To this explication of Oath Loraux adds an essay on amnesty, at once a ban on memory and an allusion to what one has banned. Here Loraux recalls the early Athenian banning of Phrynichus’ Capture of Miletus, an action that to Loraux signifies a communal decision to forget events causing painful recollection for the civic, in this case Ionian, collectivity. The Athenian amnesty of 403 consists in both voluntary forgetting and an oath against remembering, and use of the term mnesikakein in this context involves “wielding memory like a weapon.” The idea of purposefully recalling civic misfortunes thus evolves from a pre-Phrynichus neutral act to an openly hostile and vindictive act by the end of the fifth century. Amnesty serves to rid the city of uncomfortable memories of conflict — to erase the past abstractly, as one more concretely erases a decree with whitewash. In this way amnesty allowed the Athenians to “be reconstituted, one and undivided,” as if the original wrath which divided the city had never occurred. To this wrath Loraux adds the facet of mourning, an aspect of remembering which each individual must negate through oath and amnesty if the city as collective is to recover from stasis.

In the final chapter in Part II Loraux considers Athenian banning of calendrical days as a result of willful forgetting of strife. Her example concerns post-400 Athenian omission of the second of Boedromion, the day Poseidon and Athena quarreled over Athens, as reported by Plutarch (whom Loraux sees no reason to disbelieve). Discord at the heart of the city’s identity is thus purposefully suppressed, even though Poseidon ultimately put aside his resentment. In her discussion Loraux, after Chantraine, ties the term apophras to phrazo and designates hemerai apophrades as abominable, negative days that must be suppressed ( eksairein) as a political act by the all the members of the civic body.

In Part III Loraux examines politics more closely. She first concentrates on the figure of brotherhood in civic communities, an ambiguous model based on both friendship and frequent discord and stasis, and a model that remains relatively constant in Greek thought from Homer to Aristotle. After Roussel, Loraux distinguishes between adelphoi and phrateres, the latter being a political body based on civic kinship and a positive “small-scale model watching over” the democratic city. Kasignetoi are collateral relatives, a second positive brotherhood; both phrateres and kasignetoi differ from adelphoi in the sense that only the latter term hides the ambiguity between positive and negative involved in the figure of brotherhood within the Greek city.

In her next chapter Loraux turns specifically to a decree commemorating civic reconciliation of the late fourth-century Sicilian community of Nakone. For Loraux this decree serves as an instructive parallel to the Athenian amnesty of 403. She spends a portion of the chapter constructing a reading of the important term diaphora, “disagreement,” which does not seem far removed from stasis in other ancient sources, especially in light of the resolution of both diaphora and stasis by dialusis, a term which Loraux discussed earlier in the volume. Loraux argues that for Nakone the division of the civic community was complete; evidence comes primarily from syntactical and linguistic parallels between the Nakonian stone and historiographic prose. In the latter part of this section Loraux returns to the figure of brotherhood by considering the elected brotherhoods of Nakone, five groups comprising the entire citizen body, now politically related but forbidden to be blood relatives. That family ties are suspect in the political arena is not a new idea in Greek thought, but as Loraux points out, their exclusion in the Nakonian decree gives the new brotherhoods deep symbolic significance in representations of the unitary city and in judicial arbitrations within it. This chapter is one of the finest and most convincing of Loraux’s essays in the volume.

Loraux follows this piece by considering the relationship between the rights of Athenian citizens to litigation, a democratic characteristic, with the courts’ link to dissention and stasis, as attested particularly in prose. After a brief excursus on the vocabulary and practice of Athenian courts, Loraux explores the establishment of public arbitrators in Athens after 403, an institution intimately tied to the “politics of amnesty” which Loraux considered in Part II, chapter 6. At the same time as the public amnesty for the oligarchs effected civic reconciliation, the city instituted a system of arbitration which prevented cases from coming to trial, thereby averting possible recollection and reopening of discord.

Loraux closes the collection by discussing the kratos of the Athenian democrats after the amnesty. Their power is gained in part through their generosity in victory over the Thirty in administering the amnesty and in instituting the new system of arbitration. Such generosity expresses the democrat’s superiority without turning to direct use of the carefully avoided term kratos. Both parties have agreed to an amnesty of moderation: to “forget” victory in exchange for forgetting resentment. Suppressing the idea of kratos within demokratia continues until the Hellenistic period and is effected by substituting alternative terms such as politeia or even polis, or subtly redefining the term itself. In this chapter Loraux thus identifies an active policy of forgetting in the democracy. Forbidding memory of misfortunes, however, is precisely and paradoxically the proof that the Athenians remembered well, which is the main reason why it was so important for the city to institute amnesia in 403. In closing Loraux considers select instances of Athenian views toward remembering the events of 403, such as certain speeches of Lysias and examples of the democrats’ attempts at clearing themselves from accusations of wrongdoing.

Troublesome is Loraux’s early emphasis on a modern divide between classical historians and anthropologists, a rigid categorization which to this reviewer no longer proves real. Both anthropologists and historians of ancient Greek society investigate the intersections and interreliances between ritual behavior, civic identities, and the political. Along similar lines, Loraux’s comments on modern historians’ mistrust and literary critics’ rules concerning the interpretation of tragedy are unnecessary to her otherwise convincing comments on the history of attitudes toward stasis in Greek thought (pp. 32-33).

Missing from the bibliography are important contributions in English to the history of the Thirty and to stasis in the late fifth century: e.g., Krentz. Of course, Price’s 2001 work on Thucydides and stasis and Wolpert’s most recent volume on civil war and memory in Athens, were printed much later than Loraux’s original French version of this volume, La Cité divisée. Nevertheless, it would have been instructive for Loraux to have made at least an introductory overture to these important contributions to her topic.3

The psychoanalytic approach behind many of Loraux’s chapters may, as she remarks, cause some readers to shelve her arguments. Yet Loraux offers a forceful and interesting defense of her practice which historians dismissive of a Freudian approach would do well to read (pp. 75-78; pp. 84-86 for further reflections).

Loraux’s style, especially in translation, will likewise not suit every reader, but her dense, stream-of-consciousness thought and juxtapositions of robust phrases with pithy comments produces an effect which can be savored much like poetry, a little at a time; many of her extended observations merit saving for future reflection, a refreshing change from standard academic prose.4 Occasionally Loraux may wax too poetic even for the diplomatic reader, as when she moves from discussing spatial proximity in fighting between epic warriors to acceptance of a bond of love between them ( philotes, pp. 115-116).

Most appropriately in light of her subject, Loraux closes with a particularly eloquent, haunting, and timely call for active modern remembrance of the events of the 1940’s in Europe.


1. The translators are careful to distinguish “the political,” a term which designates “the political form of social life,” from the more common term denoting politics in general or a specific political stance. This distinction is vital for classicists interested in refining understanding of stasis in oligarchic Athens.

2. Arist. Ath. Pol. 8.5.

3. Krentz, P., The Thirty at Athens, Cornell 1982; Price, J., Thucydides and Internal War, Cambridge 2001; Wolpert, A., Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens, Johns Hopkins, 2002.

4. E.g., “Discourse is the historiographical narrative that makes a permanent selection from reality,” p. 21; see also Loraux’s musings on scholarly “meanderings,” pp. 26-29, 63; on Hesiod’s double Eris, pp. 89-92; on the renaming of the Erinyes, p. 122; on memory and forgetting, p. 169.