What can we do about the bitter political polarization that divides Americans today?
Ancient Athens offers an answer. For that community, divided by democratic and elitist impulses, the solution was to embrace a common narrative, one that simplified and even distorted history in pursuit of unity. Their effort to find harmony “succeeded,” but only at the cost of complex conversation about the real issues beneath the painful divisions.
For much of the fifth century BCE, Athens’ iconic democracy had been flourishing, its preeminence among Greek city-states soaring to unprecedented heights. And Athenians could take pride in their political system — a model for aspiring democracies ever since. The citizenry took direct responsibility for governance, with a council of 500 and a body of annually selected magistrates running day-to-day affairs.
As late as 415 BCE, Athenian democracy was riding high. Fired up by the empire’s dominance in Greece’s oceans, the populace’s expansionist ambitions soared. In rabble-rousing speeches to the assembly, demagogues painted tantalizing dreamscapes, enticing poorer citizens with visions of lucrative conquest. Wooed by populists’ promises and dismissing warnings from cooler heads, the assembly voted to launch a reckless expedition to Sicily.
But two years later, instead of the triumphant tidings they expected, news trickled into the city that a coalition of Sicilians and Spartans had decimated their army. The Athenian populace heard of the corpses of fellow citizens heaped in a riverbed and of brave democratic soldiers slaving away in quarries as prisoners of war.
The debacle prompted soul-searching about the very validity of direct democracy as a political system. Questions that had remained latent during success surged to the surface: Should they really grant so much power to the masses, even to uneducated laborers and the unemployed? How could they trust the whims of direct democracy?
The different answers tore Athens into two ideological camps, and two vicious bouts of violence almost ripped the society apart.
Discord between “democrats” (who embraced rule by the whole body of citizen men as political equals) and “oligarchs” (advocating aristocratic government by the virtuous few) was already burbling beneath the surface. But the Sicilian debacle pushed these tensions into the foreground, highlighting the potential for disaster with power in the hands of the fickle masses. In both 411 and 404 BCE, oligarchic cliques capitalized on concerns about fickle-mass rule to seize power, sparking vicious violence.
When the democrats regained control after each elitist coup, they faced the challenge of reuniting a politically polarized community. Their first attempt, after they wrestled their way back into power in 410 BCE, failed.
On a basic level, they neglected to fix the loopholes in the constitutional system that had allowed the takeover in the first place. But even more troubling: The assembly voted to paint anyone who was not a chest-thumping democrat as an evil “tyrant.” They instituted new civic rituals and set up monuments that praised the democratic heroes of the recent conflict as “tyrant-slayers.” The problem: This solution left a significant portion of the population feeling marginalized and condemned.
And so, only six years later, this conflict resurfaced. In 404 BCE, Athenians witnessed months of arbitrary violence under the rule of the infamous Thirty Tyrants. The next year, a pro-democratic counterrevolution deposed this oligarchic clique, and democrats once again regained control.
This time, reconciliation was their first priority.
The city was keenly aware of its vulnerability. Memories were still fresh of Athens’ loss in the Peloponnesian War — of Spartan hoplites tearing down Athens’ proud Long Walls, accompanied by the music of flutes. With the city-state weak from its recent defeat, its empire dissolved and a triumphant Sparta inclined to favor oligarchy, the Athenians could ill afford to leave a large section of the populace hostile to their own community. Division was not an option.
The assembly chose to rewrite history, relabeling the conflict in 404 BCE, which had pitted citizen against citizen, as a war against external enemies and their traitorous agents. The Athenians celebrated an inclusive “democratic history” in public rituals, and they carved mementos of democrats’ heroic deeds on monuments and inscriptions throughout the city’s public spaces.
All but the most culpable oligarchs could slide back into the body of “good” citizens with little friction. Everyone could celebrate victory against foreign enemies and their unpatriotic minions, even if adopting this narrative required a creative act of “memory editing.” The victors welcomed the ideological opposition back into the fold, trying to create a version of democratic history with space for ex-elitists who had rejoined the community.
For example, when the citizens of Athens gathered for their festival to Dionysus each year, they honored the sons of men who had died protecting the city. In the early years of the fourth century BCE, the Athenians chose to erase the distinction between children of men who had fallen in the civil war and those of men who had died defending the city from outside attack. Athens’ citizens were trying to heal with a story — covering scars from two rounds of warfare with fellow citizens by transforming the painful internal conflict into a noble, unifying war against outsiders.
This solution proved remarkably resilient, and for over a hundred years, Athenians continued to rally around a reimagined narrative that they embraced and celebrated. Common stories of the democracy’s past and its heroes united the citizen body, which consciously worked to forget the divisions that had torn the city apart.
The Greek root of the word “amnesty” (amnestia) means “forgetfulness,” not just “forgiveness.” Athens needed “amnesty” in both senses. Lasting reconciliation required not just forgiveness, but strategic oblivion — an attempt to erase the memory of divisions that had splintered the city. Afterward, the citizens had to fill the vacuum in their collective memory by constructing a narrative, both of recent conflicts and of the whole community’s political history, with space for everyone except a few blatantly culpable scapegoats. They could condemn the Thirty Tyrants responsible for the coup in 404 BCE but had to embrace their sympathizers and enablers.
Although the U.S. has identified many foes — terrorism, North Korea and now Russian spies — it has yet to create a functional narrative of its history that promotes national unity. But useful as it was for the Athenians, perhaps that is not a bad thing.
Unity forged by scapegoating external enemies or isolated traitors is inevitably artificial. The case of Athens raises pressing questions about the extent to which we can have both healing and understanding. The Athenians created lasting consensus, but they sacrificed dialogue.
While the case of Athens holds out hope of durable reconciliation under certain conditions, it should temper easy optimism. When societies discover or create — and then actually embrace — inclusive stories, there is some chance of lasting reunion. The question is whether a national narrative has to be simplistic and unitary, without space for multiple perspectives.
Unity at the expense of whitewashing comes at a cost. Democracy is about dialogue, and simplistic triumphalism may not satisfy a nation that, at least hypothetically, values conversation. The U.S. can and should seek innovative solutions to bring people together, but not at the cost of marginalizing certain voices.