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. 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.” The primal Greek historian Thucydides influenced his successors among Roman writers, most notably Sallust, “the rival of Thucydides” (as another Roman chronicler called him). And in the first century C.E., Roman historians writing in Greek naturally used Greek terms to describe Rome’s civil wars. 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. To call this kind of war “civil” followed the Romans’ practice of naming their wars after the opponents they were fighting. 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. 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.

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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). 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.”

Excerpted from “Civil Wars: A History in Ideas” by David Armitage. Copyright © 2017 by David Armitage. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission.