Don’t Look Back in Anger: On Remembering to Forget

Dobrinka Chiekova

Στάζει δ’ ἄνθ’ ὕπνου πρὸ καρδίας

μνησιπήμων πόνος· καὶ παρ’ ἄ-

κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.

‘’We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

The pain of pain remembered comes again,

And we resist, but ripeness comes as well.’’

                                             Aeschylus, Agamemnon 179–81  (transl. R. Fagles)

It is widely accepted that remembering the past and learning from it are processes of the utmost importance. It’s for this reason that we build monuments, keep archives, write and study history. But could there be a case to be made in favor of forgetting, of intentionally not dwelling on past wrongs and misfortunes? The ancient Greeks, at least, seem to have believed that Lēthē, the goddess of forgetting, could be the source of significant benefits for the political community.[1]

Memory and emotions are intimately linked. An object, an image, a phrase can bring up a memory – happy or sad, pleasant or traumatic – and invisibly steer the behavior of an individual and a community, in complex and powerful ways. Our memories of pain and pleasure, fear and joy, govern our actions and influence our choices. We want to remember, we cannot forget, we wish to forget. We are in a love-hate relationship with our own memories.

In Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey, the killing of the suitors represents the culmination of Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War. Young men from the noblest families in Ithaca and the neighboring islands had vied for the hand of Odysseus’ wife, the faithful Penelope, feasting shamelessly in his house, plotting against the life of his son Telemachus, and behaving arrogantly towards the king himself when he eventually returned disguised as a beggar. In the eyes of the hero they did not deserve any mercy, so Odysseus shows no desire to negotiate and accept their offer for reparations.

Odysseus slays the suitors (after John Flaxman, 1805)

Consequently, the slaughter in the great hall of Odysseus’ palace opens a wound at the heart of Ithaca’s community. The families of the murdered young men prepare to avenge him; a dreadful and bloody civil war seems unavoidable. At this moment, urged by Athena, Zeus wipes the murders from their memories and by this dramatic gesture brings an unlikely closure and peace to the people of Ithaca:

“Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge

let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,

and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter

of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,

devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth

come cresting through the land.”

Homer, Odyssey 24.533–7 (transl. R. Fagles)

The ancient Greeks worshiped their gods under many guises, with different epithets, each expressing a broad variety of functions and powers. Here it is the two deities most closely associated with politics, Zeus and Athena – often worshiped as Zeus Polieus and Athena Polias (protectors, guardians of the polis or city-state) – who apply the balm of amnesia to the community.

Let us now shift, though, away from the realm of poetry and myth (a realm in which this particular story continues to be reproduced and passed on), to a concrete, historical context: Athens in the year 403 BC, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, only a year after the city’s surrender to Sparta and her allies.

Athens had endured a devastating plague, suffering enormous casualties in battle and enemy troops garrisoned on her soil. She had lost her empire and witnessed her walls being torn down. She feared the worst – complete annihilation and the enslavement of her inhabitants.  An oligarchic regime that came to be known as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ replaced the democracy, then for eight months enacted a reign of terror. Many Athenians were murdered; others were exiled and had their property confiscated. The Thirty requested a Spartan garrison to protect them from their fellow citizens. Finally, a band of exiled democrats led by Thrasybulus returned to Attica and defeated the oligarchs at Munichia, just east of the harbour of Piraeus.

A map of Central Greece in the Classical period

At the end of the battle, while collecting the bodies of the dead, the two sides mingled. Combatants started talking to each other. The historian Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC) gives us the words of a speech he says was delivered by the Herald of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most sacred offices in Athens, to the defeated oligarchs, reminding them of the shared experiences:

“Fellow citizens, why are you driving us out of the country? Why do you want to kill us? For we never did you any harm, but we have shared with you in the holiest rites and sacrifices and the most splendid festivals, we have been companions in the dances and schoolmates and we have served as soldiers together, and we have shared with you dangers both by land and by sea for our common safety and freedom.”

Xenophon, Hellenica 2.4.20–1

The Spartans withdrew their support for the regime, and the remaining oligarchs surrendered themselves at Eleusis, their last stronghold. The ensuing settlement included a requirement that the two sides solemnly swear mē mnēsikakein  – not to recall past evils (or ‘wrongs’, ‘pains’, ‘misfortunes’).[2] Only the leaders of the oligarchs were excluded from the agreement and were later executed.

Mē mnēsikakein: this little phrase offers a wonderful example of polysemy, or multiple simultaneous meanings. Some authors interpret it merely as a clause in a legal contract between the two warring sides, indicating that the victors agreed to settle their claims, not necessarily to forget them.[3] Others emphasize the way the agreement was portrayed by writers of the 4th century BC as a moral choice, a general amnesty for the crimes committed during the civil war, in an attempt to unite the city and strengthen the restored democracy.[4]

In the last few decades of the Classical period, the author of the treatise on the Athenian Constitution written in Aristotle’s Lyceum would praise Athens’ democrats for what he saw as their decision to behave “towards the past disasters in the most completely honorable and statesmanlike manner of any people in history” (Athenian Constitution 40.2).

The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, written in the late 4th century (papyrus copy of c. AD 100, now preserved in the British Library, London)

The speechwriter Isocrates (436–338 BC) depicts the settlement of 403 BC in terms of a perfect, almost too-good-to-be-true consensus:

“Before we made this covenant we were at war against each other, some of us holding the city, others Piraeus after capturing it, and we hated each other more than we did the enemies bequeathed to us by our forefathers. But since we came to an agreement and exchanged the pledges, we have lived as citizens in such a noble unity, as if no misfortune had ever befallen us. And at that time all regarded us as the most foolish and unlucky people, but now we appear to be the most fortunate and the wisest of the Greeks.”

Isocrates, Against Callimachus 45–7

The picture of a perfect reunion after the settlement of 403 BC is undoubtedly something of an idealization. Athenians on both sides did not simply forget their grievances; some did attempt prosecutions. In 399 BC, the philosopher Socrates was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods. But the orator Aeschines would later give the game away, asking the Athenians, “Did you put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who put down the democracy?” (Against Timarchus 173).

Even if it was impossible in practice to completely ignore the memories of wrongdoing, the will for a new beginning can be seen in the fact that the year 403 BC represents a watershed moment in the legal history of Athenian democracy. The old law codes of Draco and Solon were revised and re-inscribed, and a new rule was brought in that the decrees of the citizen Assembly could not override the existing body of law.

In her book The Divided City[5], Nicole Loraux offers an insightful analysis of the meanings of mē mnēsikakein from a variety of perspectives, including the anthropological, historical, political, and psychoanalytical. The Greeks, she tells us, saw stasis – civil conflict – as the greatest evil, a curse on the land and the people, even as an emphylos phonos – a murder in the family.[6] At the same time, though, through a careful reading of a range of texts, from Hesiod’s Theogony to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Loraux defends her thesis that division and conflict are not an aberration afflicting the city, but, on the contrary, an essential feature of the experience of living together as a political community.

But conflict had to be accompanied and managed by a kind of forgetting. An altar of Lēthē, the goddess of Oblivion, was built in the Erechtheion, one of the most ancient sanctuaries on the Athenian Acropolis and a monument of the mythical dispute and reconciliation between Athena and Poseidon over who should reign as the city’s patron deity.[7]

The Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis

The solution brought about by the gods in the Odyssey to erase the recent murders from the collective memory of Ithacans in the name of peace; the decision of the Athenian democrats to abstain from punishing the collaborators in the crimes of the Thirty – these episodes are morally ambiguous, and were undoubtedly perceived that way by the Greeks. Can people truly be made to forget past wrongs? Will the suppression of the desire for revenge and justice heal the community, or harm it? Isn’t the city better off engaging with the traumas of the past than trying to repress the memory of them?

The Athenians were aware of these practical and ethical dilemmas.  And yet, with the ‘memorable forgetting’ of 403 BC, as Loraux calls it, they made the deliberate choice to step away from their memories of the sufferings and injustices of the past so that they could continue to live together.

One significant reason for their decision is the way they saw the history of their city, and history in general: not as marked by inevitable progress towards a future without divisions, but as a perpetual drama in which each generation faces its own forms of conflict. After periods of conflict, forgetting was neither an easy option nor one that was free from doubt and moral ambiguity. But it could indeed be a necessary one, if the city was to transcend the past and prosper.

Dobrinka Chiekova teaches Ancient History at The College of New Jersey. Her research focuses on various aspects of the history and epigraphy of the Greek city-states on the ancient Black Sea. Her monograph Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche explores the religious traditions and cultural interactions in the region.


1 Λήθη (Lēthē, ‘forgetfulness’, ‘oblivion’) was personified in Greek mythology as the daughter of Eris (‘Strife’), as reported by Hesiod in his Theogony. Tellingly, it was also the name of a river in the Underworld.
2 μὴ μνησικακεῖν (mē mnēsikakein) means ‘not to remember/recall past evils/pains/wrongs/misfortunes. It often conveys the general sense of ‘amnesty’, a word connected to the verb etymologically.
3 See, for instance, Edwin Carawan, ‘The meaning of mê mnêsikakein,’ Classical Quarterly 62.2 (2012) 567–81, hosted here (paywall).
4 See, for instance, Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens (New York, 2002; transl. Corinne Pache & Jeff Fort).
5 See the note above.
6 στάσις (stasis) literally means ‘standing’ or ‘position’, but commonly has a political sense: ‘faction’, ‘civil discord’, ‘societal conflict’.
7 So Plutarch at Quaestiones Conviviales (‘TableTalk’) 9.6, accessible here.