Ancient Greece Had Hard Lessons on Partisan ‘Stasis’

For the Greeks, factionalism and civil strife went together.

The Acropolis in Athens
The setting sun illuminates the ancient Acropolis in Athens, on Feb. 16. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

The American experiment, riven by ever-rising partisan tensions, is beginning to come apart. Dire warnings from both the left and the right about partisan polarization preceded a contentious election. In response to the former president’s lies, with his apparent encouragement, a violent insurrectionary mob attempted to storm the legislature. It is in that context that President Joe Biden has promised to heal America and resolve some of its divisions.

Discussions about America’s collapse are not new, and they traditionally reach for one of the republics uppermost in the minds of the founders themselves, Rome. That analogy was quick to appear in discussions of the Capitol insurrection. But the collapse of Rome’s into monarchy in a spasm of violence offers few practical solutions. While Augustus put an end to the tensions of the republic, it is hardly a solution to be desired.

Ancient Greece makes a more promising source of solutions, not least because it offers a more robust “data set.” Greece in the archaic and classical periods (c. 800-323 B.C.) was filled with dozens of small, independent, self-governing states with broadly republican or democratic institutions run by elected officials and voting assemblies. Each Greek city, while fiercely independent, shared many of the same institutions of popular assemblies, elected magistrates, and citizen voting. Some cities were rather more oligarchic, some more democratic, and a few at any given time had succumbed to the one-man rule of a tyrant, but Greece itself was a veritable lab experiment in different forms of government.

The Greeks even had a word for something very much like partisan polarization and violent civil strife: stasis (pronounced stah-sis rather than stay-sis). Much like its derivative, the English word stasis, it means at its root “a standing”—but while stasis in English means a standing still, Greek’s stasis came to mean a political faction (a “standing together”) and from there “factionalism” and finally “civil strife.” That the Greeks had such a compact word for this civil strife should hint that this was a depressingly common feature in Greek civic politics.

It was so common, in fact, that the Greek historian Thucydides provides a veritable taxonomy of the phenomenon as it occurs in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides writes that “one city after the next fell into stasis” as that war progressed and inflicted economic hardships that set citizen against citizen. His description of the results of this infighting could just as easily be applied to modern politics, writing that “reckless audacity was thought to be loyal courage, while careful delay was veiled timidity; reasonableness was a guise for cowardice … the extremist was always to be trusted, the moderate to be suspected.” Norms collapsed in the increasingly violent competition as “men set the example in their retribution against one another of undermining those common laws which all alike can rely on in adversity.” Outside powers, Thucydides notes, would play both sides against the middle, seeking their own advantage at the expensive of the stricken polity, just as they do today, but in every case it was divisions within the city that made outside interference effective. Thucydides grimly declares, as many pundits today fear, that competition will escalate into bloodshed until “as is wont to happen in such events, there was no limit that the violence did not surpass.”

The United States, as any ancient Greek would likely have recognized, has fallen into this kind of stasis.

Thucydides’s portrait is just as grim as the narrative of the Roman Republic; he presents no escape. Indeed, he insists that “The misfortunes brought by stasis were many and grievous, such as have and will always occur so long as the nature of humans remains the same.” But cities could escape stasis, including Thucydides’s own home city of Athens. As war drained Athenian resources, the city grew even more volatile than usual. In 411 B.C., an oligarchic coup overthrew the democracy, in part by storming and dispersing the Athenian council with an armed mob of their supporters. This oligarchy in turn succumbed to a democratic counter-coup supported by the Athenian navy, but that was not to be the end of the matter, just as the Capitol violence is unlikely to be the last spate of America’s Greek-style stasis.

Instead, Athens, weakened and divided, was finally defeated in 404 B.C. by the Spartans, who exploited internal divisions to overturn the democracy and establish a new government of “Thirty Tyrants” from within the oligarchic faction in Athens. The Thirty Tyrants swiftly executed a reign of terror, exiling or murdering hundreds of Athenians in an effort to secure their rule and stamp out support for the old democracy. The regime was so brutal that the Athenian exiles were able to instigate a civil war within a year, which succeeded when the Spartans, initially supportive of the Thirty, withdrew their protection.

After this—the coups, counter-coups and civil wars, with the steady escalation of violence that led to the murderous reign of the Thirty, along with the self-interested intervention of foreign powers—any Greek ought to have known what to expect: The Athenian democrats would wreck bloody revenge on the oligarchic faction, and the latter would flee, seeking foreign support from Athens’s many rivals for yet another coup. Athens would spiral deeper into violence and dysfunction, becoming a proxy battleground for foreign powers. Stasis would consume the city until there was no partisan kindling left to burn.

Except it didn’t. Athens found an escape without wholly annihilating either faction or shredding the laws. As the historian Andrew Wolpert has demonstrated, this was the result of a deliberate choice. First, there was justice. The Thirty themselves and their inner circle were forced into exile, lest they face prosecution for their crimes, while an amnesty was extended to the other members of the oligarchic faction, provided they abided by the laws. The democratic faction, in its victory, stubbornly insisted on following the laws instead of further bloody escalation, but it also insisted on the laws and on strict accountability for those who had so misused their power during the reign of the Thirty.

More than that, as Wolpert notes, the Athenians constructed a collective narrative in their laws, speeches, and civic conduct. The real Athens, they maintained, with a considerable degree of constructive fiction, had been in resistance to the Thirty, and consequently, as Wolpert puts it, “the restored democracy was now composed of the opponents of the Thirty, their victims, and innocent bystanders,” comparable to French résistancialisme after World War II. Though pardoned, the lingering members of the oligarchic faction could either reinvent themselves as supporters of the democracy or else be written out of the Athenian story, treated as a regrettable aberration. It wasn’t through a single speech or edict but through a deliberate choice, enacted in speech after speech and decree after decree that enabled the restored democracy to cement its victory through reconciliation and thus cut off further stasis.

The United States now faces a similar threat of Grecian stasis, and record numbers of American voters seem to have recognized their peril.

The United States now faces a similar threat of Grecian stasis, and record numbers of American voters seem to have recognized their peril. Biden won on a platform of healing and reconciliation, promising compromise and redefining his coalition to include even those who voted against him, against a candidate who promised to dominate and to win, indeed, until Americans get tired of winning, and who escalated tensions to inevitable violence. A clear majority of American voters have rejected former President Donald Trump and instead seem to have chosen the Athenian model, but now it is up to Biden to execute it.

If he wants to follow the Athenian example, Biden should resist the calls from some members of his coalition to salt the earth on policy or to attempt to exile every Republican who worked with Trump into outer darkness. Instead, he should grasp every opportunity to present a broader, post-Trumpian unity politics and by doing so defining Trump, his cynical enablers, and his fiercest supporters out of the American story; COVID-19 relief would seem to be the most obvious opportunity of this sort, but there are doubtless others, and it seems as though there will be a small number of Republicans willing to be partners in that effort. That will require a certain accommodation; figures who were silent about, or even supportive of, Trump when he was in power but want to be on the right side of the narrative must be given a chance to do so. It might not be perfect justice, but mutual fictions are sometimes necessary to accomplish even partial justice.

At the same time, the Athenian recovery required accountability under the law for the Thirty themselves. They knew from hard experience what happened if would-be tyrants were given a pass to keep trying until they succeeded; Peisistratus had attempted and failed to overthrow the Athenian state twice only to succeed and make himself tyrant on the third try in 545 B.C. In the aftermath of the clear attempt to subvert the Constitution by violence, Biden must rethink his decision not to have the Justice Department look into Trump-era crimes.  Likewise, impeachment and conviction, which might block Trump from running again, should also be considered. Legal accountability for would-be tyrants is just as much a part of the Athenian model as reconciliation and inclusive definition.

Athens chose the law, with both accountability and reconciliation, and saved their democracy from stasis; can Joe Biden’s America do the same?

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.

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