A highly original history, tracing the least understood and most intractable form of organized human aggression from Ancient Rome through the centuries to the present day.
We think we know civil war when we see it. Yet ideas of what it is, and what it isn't, have a long and contested history, from its fraught origins in republican Rome to debates in early modern Europe to our present day. Defining the term is acutely political, for ideas about what makes a war "civil" often depend on whether one is a ruler or a rebel, victor or vanquished, sufferer or outsider. Calling a conflict a civil war can shape its outcome by determining whether outside powers choose to get involved or stand aside: from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq, pivotal decisions have depended on such shifts of perspective.
The age of civil war in the West may be over, but elsewhere in the last two decades it has exploded--from the Balkans to Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and Sri Lanka, and most recently Syria. And the language of civil war has burgeoned as democratic politics has become more violently fought. This book's unique perspective on the roots and dynamics of civil war, and on its shaping force in our conflict-ridden world, will be essential to the ongoing effort to grapple with this seemingly interminable problem.
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DAVID ARMITAGE is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, where he teaches intellectual history and international history, and former Chair of Harvard's History Department. His many publications include The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000) and The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007).
Social media: Twitter @davidrarmitage
Armitage / CIVIL WARS
Roads from Rome
Inventing Civil War
The Roman Tradition
Civil war was not a fact of nature, waiting to be discovered. It was an artifact of human culture that had to be invented. That invention, a little over two thousand years old, can be dated quite closely to the first century b.c.e. The Romans were not the first to suffer internal conflict but they were the first to experience it as civil war. Perhaps having been first to define what was “civil”—meaning, among fellow citizens—they inevitably understood their most wrenching conflicts in definitively political terms, as clashes among citizens that rose to the level of war. Those elements would remain at the heart of concepts of civil war for much of its history.
Thus, having conceived the “civil” and then joined it—reluctantly, paradoxically, but irreversibly—to the idea of war, the Romans created the unstable, fissile compound that remains disturbingly with us today: “civil war.”
The inventor is unknown. He—and it must have been a man, because he was surely a Roman citizen—joined together two distinct ideas to make an explosive new amalgam. No one before that obscure Roman had yoked these two elements together. The Greeks had a clear understanding of war, or what they called polemos—from which many modern languages derive the fighting word “polemical.” But they imagined the “wars” within their own communities as “something completely different” from what the Romans had.1 This is not to say that there was an unbridgeable chasm between Roman and Greek ideas of internal strife. Roman writers sometimes attributed the origins of their own political divisions to the importation of dangerous Greek notions like “democracy.”2 The primal Greek historian Thucydides influenced his successors among Roman writers, most notably Sallust, “the rival of Thucydides” (as another Roman chronicler called him).3 And in the first century c.e., Roman historians writing in Greek naturally used Greek terms to describe Rome’s civil wars.4 And yet, despite these continuities, the Romans were sure they were experiencing something new, for which they needed a new name: civil war, or, in Latin, bellum civile.
For the Romans, war had traditionally implied something quite specific. It was an armed conflict, in a just cause and fought against an external enemy. Mere aggression did not count, for that could hardly be just. Nor did individual violence rise to the level of war, because that could not be constrained by the laws of war, which the Romans had. And the enemy (hostis) was by definition unfamiliar, either from outside Rome or at least beyond the community of free Roman citizens: Romans fought wars against slaves, like the great leader of the slave revolt Spartacus, and they battled against pirates in the Mediterranean; they also warred against enemies on their frontiers, such as Parthians and Carthaginians. What made “civil” war so different was that the enemies were all too familiar and could even be thought of as familial: it was one’s fellow citizens—or cives—who were on the other side. Such a war, then, challenged the standard Roman criteria for war, the very definition of it, to the breaking point. The enemies were not others; they were, in effect, the same. And it was hard to see a struggle against them as just when it so obviously affronted the very definition of justice in war, which implied a legitimate enemy as well as a proper cause for self-defense.
The resulting idea of civil war was deliberately paradoxical: a war that could not be a war, fought against enemies who were not really enemies. In the propaganda battles during Rome’s civil wars, the competing sides trumpeted the rightness of their cause to win support and also to assimilate their conflicts to the conventional understanding of war as fought for a just cause.5 To call this kind of war “civil” followed the Romans’ practice of naming their wars after the opponents they were fighting.6 This tradition lasted into the nineteenth century, with the “Napoleonic Wars” in Europe and Britain’s “Zulu Wars,” “Boer Wars,” and “Māori Wars,” for example.7 It has not persisted into our own time; even in the United States, there are few who would now call the U.S. Civil War “Mr. Lincoln’s War,” and no one there, or anywhere else for that matter, called the Gulf Wars “Saddamic” wars. In the West, we generally give wars the names of the places where they are fought, and so we have the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the first and second Gulf Wars, and even the “world” wars of the twentieth century.
This is not to say that the Romans never thought of their wars in terms of geography, only that they more typically named them for the opposing ruler or people. In this way, they called the three wars they fought against Carthage in the third and second centuries b.c.e. the “Punic” Wars, the Carthaginians being descendants of the Phoenicians, or Poeni; a later war against the North African king Jugurtha in 112–105 b.c.e. would be named the “Jugurthine” War. In the years 91–89 b.c.e., Rome also struggled with its various allies, or socii, in Italy over the question of extending the full rights of citizenship throughout the peninsula; collectively, those contentions became known as the Social War. Likewise, the military efforts to crush slave revolts, most notably that of Spartacus in Sicily in 71 b.c.e., were known as the Servile Wars, or the wars against slaves (servi).8 Each of these terms would have an intermittent afterlife, as, for instance, when writers during the American Revolution compared the revolt of the British American colonists to the Social War or slaveholders spoke of the threat of “servile war” in the early nineteenth-century U.S. South. Neither, however, would take root as firmly or enduringly as “civil war.”
The Romans adopted the idea of civil war reluctantly at first. For a long time, they used it only with trepidation. They faced it as something novel and unsettling, and it still takes a feat of the imagination to recall just why civil war was originally so disturbing and invoked only with fear. “ ‘Civil war’ in English has lost the paradoxical sense it held in Rome,” one scholar of the Roman tradition has noted. There “the distinction between ciues and non-ciues was a crucial determinant of status, obligations, and rights” in a way that was not clear before the Roman invention. It left only ghostly etymological traces that can now barely be discerned.9
For the Romans, civil war was the subversion of city-dwelling civilization. Yet there was also an enduring and disturbing strain of Roman history that suggested there was a tight relationship between civil war and civilization itself. These conflicts came back so often across the history of the republic and into the early empire that they appeared to be woven into the fabric of Roman public life. For this reason, the Romans were at pains to explain the causes of their civil wars. They soon saw links between occurrences and likened them to natural phenomena, like the activity of a volcano, which could fall dormant after an eruption but with no certainty that it would not explode again. Seen in this light, Rome’s history appeared to be nothing less than a series of civil wars and the brief moments of calm between them. This created a narrative—in fact, a set of narratives—of civilization as prone to civil war, even cursed by it—that would last for centuries and inform later understandings of civil war across early modern and modern Europe and beyond.
At this point, we should ask just what conception of internal conflict there was before the Romans invented their ideas of civil war. The Romans themselves had two places to look for answers to that question: in the history of the city-states of ancient Greece and in their own early history, all the way back to the founding of the city of Rome. In the Greek past, especially Athenian history, they would have found something that looked like civil war, but they did not recognize it as being the same as their own turmoils. Nor could they find the thing itself in the early Roman past, though they could uncover some of its roots—that is, the moral and often immoral causes that had ultimately led Rome to perhaps its most destructive innovations. Out of their analyses of the long-term causes of civil war emerged a set of historical narratives to explain the present and predict the future. All of these stories were highly political, and therefore all highly contested. To see why, let us look first at the Greek and Roman histories of internal conflict in turn.
Conceptions of civil war have changed with understandings of civilization and of war itself. For much of its history, civil war has been closely associated with ideas of the city. This should not be at all surprising if we recall that the very foundations of Western ideas of both civilization and politics derive directly from the experience of organizing human beings into the complex, highly ordered, and often tightly bounded communities we call cities. For the Greeks, the city was the polis, the self-sustaining paradigmatic community described by Aristotle and others, from whose name we still derive the word “politics.” For their Roman heirs, the city was the civitas, inhabited by citizens or cives, whom we distantly commemorate every time we use words like “civil,” “civility,” and “civilization.”10 By no coincidence, for the last two thousand years, the city has frequently been the stage for civil war, that contention between citizens who are also (as the name suggests) city dwellers.11 Civil wars were struggles between citizens, then, but they were also often fought within cities, actual as well as imagined.
For classical thinkers, the city was a metaphysical space as much as it was a physical place—Athens or Rome within its civic boundaries, for example. It was a zone of cooperation and peace, where humans could cultivate their humanity under the rule of law. It was a space increasingly distant from the perils and incivility of wild nature, literal and figurative, because the city was constructed and maintained to keep the threats of irrationality, savagery, and animality at bay, outside its bounds.12 When such evils returned, it was in the form of violence that broke into the pale of civilization itself. That is the reason why so much of the imagery of civil wars, from classical times to the present, has reflected barbarism, bestiality, and inhumanity, the very picture of nature red in tooth and claw.
Greek thinking about politics prized harmony above all other values, at least to judge by the broadly aristocratic defenses of city life we have from Plato and Aristotle. “Do we know of any greater evil for a polis than the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one,” asks Socrates in Plato’s dialogue The Republic, “or a greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?”13 This would be at the heart of Plato’s vision of the ideal city, in which the balance of an individual soul mirrored the ideal balance of elements within the polis itself. And if harmony was the greatest good, then division would be the greatest evil.
The Greek name for the evil that divided the polis was stasis. Like the Roman conception of civil war, stasis was founded on a paradox. The word is the root of “static,” and one of its literal meanings was the absence of movement; however, another meaning was “position” or “standing,” and hence by implication “taking a stand” in a political dispute.14 (It can even mean a literal place to stand patiently; stasis is still the term for bus stop in Modern Greek.) But the meaning that concerns us here is the one connected with the idea of the polis, as a condition in that most fundamental and natural community. As a hostile and divisive political stance, one defying the polis’s unity and common purpose, stasis also became synonymous with faction, partisanship, and something close to what would later be called civil war: close, but not in fact the same thing. For the Athenians, politics—as an art of rule, the mechanism for distributing honor and office among citizens, and as the means to manage conflicting interests for the public good and without bloodshed—was in effect the cure for stasis and its replacement.
Stasis for the Greeks remained a state of mind rather than an act of physical resistance. It might lead to war, or even arise from war, but it did not in itself entail actual warfare; in this sense, it could mean what we might call a standoff or impasse without actual aggression or bloodshed.15 And the Greeks never qualified stasis with any adjective implying a political or legal definition of those who stood on each side of the internal division. In short, it was not “civil,” nor did it necessarily entail the presence of “war.”
The Greeks did however distinguish between two particular kinds of struggles: division within the polis, and war between political communities. They did not treat the distinction systematically, but it was a meaningful one for them. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon, his partner in the fictional dialogue, that those who would defend the ideal city he envisages should respect the distinction between Greeks, who are friendly and civilized, and barbarians, who are hostile and alien; if Greeks fight against fellow Greeks, they should not destroy their lands or burn their houses as they might when battling barbarians. The boundary between Greeks and barbarians was, thus, also the border between the two kinds of conflicts—one among Greeks, the other with outsiders. According to Plato, conflict among “the friendly and the kindred” was called faction or, in Greek, stasis; conflict with “the alien and the foreign” was instead war, or polemos.16
Similarly, in Plato’s very last work, the Laws, the Athenian—a character who seems to voice Plato’s own views—questions whether anyone setting up a polis would want to organize it to face the threat of warfare from without: “Would he not much rather pay regard to the internal warfare which arises, from time to time, within the city, and is called, as you know, stasis—a kind of war any man would desire never to see in his own city?” The Athenian goes on to draw a contrast between stasis, “the most dangerous kind of war . . . [and] the other, and much milder form . . . [which] is that waged when we are at variance with external aliens.”17
The ancient Greeks also spoke of stasis emphylos, a faction or division within the community bound by blood and kinship, phylos being the word for family or clan. But they used the word “war” (polemos) for their most dangerous discords, even intra-communal, though they did so in a way that was different from later Roman conceptions. When conflict took place within the community, they called it a war within the extended clan, or emphylios polemos. In much later centuries, Byzantine historians would use this term to describe armed conflicts within the empire, though they rarely deployed it referring to contentions with fellow Christians, and by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it had lost its strictly cultural or ethnic connotations.18 The expression also persists in Modern Greek usage, for example to describe the divisive conflicts in Greece between 1944 and 1949.19
The idea of community shifted somewhat, depending on context. Socrates, as we have heard, distinguished firmly between contentions among Greeks, on the one hand, and wars against barbarians, on the other. Wars between Greek communities—like that between the Athenians and the Spartans and their respective allies chronicled by the historian Thucydides—were in the nature of conflicts within a single extende...
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