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Civil War Seen Through the Lens of Ancient History

The words and concepts we use to describe a particular war speak volumes about who we are as individuals and as a community, and where we stand in an unfolding conflict. Concepts have always been used to occupy the moral high ground. Rebellion, for example, is used to delegitimise those who rebel. In Rome, the allied communities were not legally Roman citizens and therefore their rebellion was not a ‘civil war’. However, these non-citizens were considered part of the same polity as Roman citizens; the idea of an internal war was born, in debates in the Senate and beyond, debates between friends and foes. We debate! And sometimes we use violence, or even go to war against each other. It happens now, and it has happened many times in the past. The writings of contemporaries (and later sources) reflect these debates. From the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 to the Social War in 91, the Romans of the long second century had protracted debates about the changing nature of warfare – including the rebellion of their allies in the midst of the Second Punic War – conceptual and otherwise – culminating in Rome’s first civil war in 88 BCE.

At its core, my forthcoming book, From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome (Studies in Ancient Civil War, De Gruyter), attempts to trace these debates and to show how, over the course of the second century, the language of external war was slowly adapted to a new language of internal and, ultimately, civil war. It combines two ideas: 1) the formative role of antebellum on the one hand, and 2) the importance of the ‘great’ war before the civil war on the other hand; in preparing for the next conflict, Rome looked back at the last great one. It suggests that the period from the Second Punic War constituted, conceptually speaking, an ‘antebellum’ period to Rome’s later civil wars. It traces the origins not only of the concept and terminology of the bellum civile, but also of related terms.

However, the book does not really propose a ‘conceptual history’ (Begriffsgeschichte) in the manner of Reinhart Koselleck. The basic idea that, at some point in modernity, old words have acquired new meanings so that they no longer need to be translated seems overly simplistic, partly because it gives undue weight to modernity (it is close(r) to our contemporary world = it is modern = it is different from the non-modern world, or so the argument often seems to go. I work mostly on old stuff (= a long time ago), but it is just not pre-modern, it is very modern, conceptually speaking certainly so). It is true that some concepts recur throughout history, but even so we must accept, with Quentin Skinner, that they were never immutable and never had a (pre-)determined meaning. We can accept that the phenomenon of civil war recurs (with Thucydides’ description of the stasis in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War, 3.81-85) in the understanding that civil wars occur throughout history: Corcyra, the late Roman Republic, the late Roman Empire, the English Civil War, the American Civil War, and so on. More than anything, my book is about the history of the use of concepts rather than a history of concepts.

What is more, however coherent definitions may be in theory, in practice they were as contestable in ancient times as they are today. Can we still believe – in the spirit of positivism – that deciphering the examples from our evidence will provide us with a correct basic definition of the concepts we are considering? Hardly! We should never accept that civil war is a concept that everyone agreed on in ancient times. Language has an unfortunate tendency to obscure the extent to which sources disagree, both in ancient times and today. Is stasis the same as civil war? Stasis can be a polemos, a (civil) war, but it can also be a sedition. The ancients simply never agreed on a definition of such slippery concepts as stasis and civil war. Why would they? Why would we? Concepts naturally change over time as they are used in a particular context.

In 43 BCE the warmonger Cicero was trying hard to get the proconsul M. Antonius (cos. 44) declared a hostis publicus. He was strenuously opposed in this endeavour by L. Iulius Caesar (cos. 64), who insisted that the term bellum be replaced with tumultus (Phil. 12.17):

I consistently called Antonius a public enemy [hostis], while others [L. Iulius Caesar] called him an adversary [adversarius]; I consistently called this a war [bellum], while others called it a public emergency [tumultus].

Cic. Phil. 12.17

There has never been, and never will be, a single narrative. Reading, for example, David Armitage’s fine 2017 book Civil Wars. A History In Ideas, it quickly becomes clear that the concept of civil war has always been, as I said, a slippery one. Importantly, I firmly believe that scholars should ultimately accept that we can safely assume that some features of ancient civil wars are indeed regular features of any civil war, and that we should therefore accept the civil war in ancient Rome as a valid and instructive example to consider in modern debates about civil war. This should come as no surprise! And it works just fine without history repeating itself.

Accordingly, all scholars working on civil war—including social and political scientists—need to learn their history as well as the traditions of the concepts they apply. After all, history is the only laboratory we have. The next question must be about the consequences of such an approach.

In the book I write:

Through careful historicization, it is possible to highlight the ahistorical nature of modern definitions of civil war. All modern debates about civil war should ideally take the Late Republic as their conceptual point of departure: its genesis after lies there (a “war” between “citizens”). Alternatively, the concept needs to be abandoned by moderns altogether and the concept of “internal war” used instead (as famously proposed by Eckstein in 1965 [On the Etiology of Internal Wars]). The problem with this alternative new concept of “internal war” is that this, too, was already theorised by the Romans in Latin and is not new at all: bellum intestinum, mainly but not exclusively a concept used in connection with wars between Rome and its allies or within the polity of allies. The semantic range of civil wars is today being stretched to encompass ideological differences within for example political parties, so that there is a risk of it losing any conceptual specificity

Lange, From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome (forthcoming)

The problem today is that the concept of civil war is too often stripped of its basic meaning (citizenship and war). Not surprisingly, this is further complicated by issues such as the definition of war. When is a war a war? It is safe to say that a true civil war requires at least something resembling armies and battles, with actual fighting between citizens. In his famous book The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Stathis Kalyvas gives us a definition: “armed combat within the borders of a recognised sovereign entity between parties subject to a common authority at the beginning of hostilities” (2006, 17). His definition not only lacks references to and understanding of both war and citizenship (bellum civile), the words that make up the concept it defines, but also lacks the exclusivity necessary for it to function; it is vague. As I wrote in 2017 in a review of David Armitage’s 2017 book:

The terms “inclusive” [Kalyvas’ vague definition] or “exclusive” [something a kind of conventional war and battles between citizens] are often connected to definitions, as if we will somehow finally understand a concept by having agreed on its definition. Of course we all need definitions, mainly in order to agree that we are talking about the same thing (15-18, 219 n.50).

Lange, Review of David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History In Ideas (2017)

Those of us who study civil war must accept that we are studying a spectrum of violence, from stasis and seditio to bellum civile: from antebellum to bellum. In terms of contemporary relevance, what we see today are debates about the naming of conflicts, similar to those in ancient times. I write about this in the book:

Unsurprisingly, similar debates are also part of political landscapes today. On the night of the so-called Capitol Riots in 2021, NBC broadcast journalist Savannah Guthrie described the situation on live television as a “stasis, for lack of a better word”: that is, a period of debilitating and incapacitating civil strife or upheaval, taken directly from the Greek expression for “standstill” (στάσις), used in this book in its meaning of sedition. We will see in chapter 1 that these so-called riots have themselves already been described using numerous different concepts, all related in some way to stasis; Guthrie’s comment is the ideal point of departure for any discussion about the enduring ambiguity of labels and definitions for internal conflict, in the modern world just as in the ancient. Stasis and civil war exert so profound an influence that societies must confront it in all periods.

Lange, From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome (forthcoming)

Let’s play around with a hypothetical scenario: what if the United States were to descend into civil war again? Barbara Walter, in her fine book How Civil Wars Start. And How to Stop Them (2022), is already ahead of us. According to her analysis, incidents such as the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, the so-called Capitol Riots in 2021, and the recent attack on Representative Nancy Pelosi and her husband in 2022 are indeed examples of a potentially unfolding civil war. As such, these events may one day be easily described by future historians as part of the ‘antebellum’ period leading up to the Second American Civil War, to explain its genesis.

I am an ancient historian specialising in Republican Rome, not a specialist in contemporary American politics, but I will say this as a scholar of civil war: Joanne Freeman, in her wonderful book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, focuses on physical violence in the US Congress from 1830 to the outbreak of the Civil War (2018). It sheds new light on the systemic breakdown in the decades leading up to the Civil War. It allows us to ask whether we can have a relatively well-functioning political system and a systemic breakdown at the same time. The prelude to the American Civil War, and indeed Late Republican Rome, suggest just that; suggest that it is possible. There may be a growing fear – with Barbara Walter – that something similar is afoot in contemporary US politics and society. The concept of polarisation is crucial to our understanding of current events. Another great book can help us decipher modern US politics. Ezra Klein says as much in Why We’re Polarised:

To appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (2020), xix

Citing once again from my book, “This could easily be a description of antebellum politics in ancient times, of ancient civil strife and civil war language.”

Returning to the above debate about definitions of civil war, Barbara Walter, similar to Stathis Kalyvas, claims that (2022, xiv-xv): “Gone are the large battlefields, the armies, and the conventional tactics. Today, civil wars are waged by different ethnic and religious groups, by guerrilla soldiers and militias, who often target civilians.”

My answer I give in the book is as follows: “The issue here is, as mentioned, historicity—an awareness of the repetitive nature of civil war and its features in earlier periods—which is vital for us to compare conflicts over time. Problematically, this historicity is lost in her approach. In any case, what Walter discusses and defines as civil war would seem to any reader of Thucydides to clearly be not civil war but rather stasis. Walter’s basic point regarding an (potentially) unfolding civil war can survive this, as this would, if a civil war happens, be its antebellum period (as mentioned in the introduction). There is however a distinct lack of language and knowledge of history.” I wrote above that concepts change over time as they are used in a specific context. But this is simply too much and makes any comparison over time difficult or even impossible.

More than anything else, I fear that the legacy of Rome will be lost. Now, I understand that this may be difficult for non-historians to accept as a major problem, but in doing so we will ultimately lose the ability to understand the legacy of Rome, and we may lose the ability to understand the fundamentally repetitive nature of civil war (understanding historical similarities as opposed to history repeating itself).

Taking these issues further, the contemporary unfolding US debate about the 2020 election and its aftermath, including the so-called Capitol Riots, is of great interest to an ancient historian working on civil war and related concepts. A debate about which concepts to use to describe what happened and what is happening, which happens to be very similar to debates about the changing nature of warfare and conflict in ancient times.

Former President Trump’s incitement to violence (and arguably to a coup) may not be a straightforward repetition of past events in every respect, but there are certainly patterns. These patterns illustrate the fundamental relevance of history to our understanding of the world around us.

In the end, Capitol Riots – a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd of people – seems a poor choice of words; it hardly conveys the seriousness of what happened. In the book I write:

The period from the 2020 US election onwards has more than anything shown that we today lack a nuanced language of internal political violence and conflict. Mainstream political discourse channelled through mass media lacks a spectrum of concepts related to organised violence, or perhaps better, we do not use them. Where attempts are made, they often stretch the semantic range of ‘civil war’ beyond recognition.  … When the so-called Capitol Riots of 2021 are included, the term that springs to mind more readily than civil war is in fact political violence through insurrection—as we shall see further below—and stasis or tumultus or similar. But to claim that we might ultimately have a Second American Civil War is to invoke the legacy of one million military casualties of the American Civil War (1861–1865), of which as many as three-quarters died (…). This is about creating – perhaps even subconsciously – a mental picture of the horrors of not just civil war in principle, but the American Civil War in particular. All labels are of course political at the outset. We as scholars may agree that a conflict is either a civil war or not, but that may not reflect the language used to describe the war at the time.

Lange, From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome (forthcoming)

But this post is not about Trump, not about his norm-breaking presidency, not about the US Constitution which presupposes a peaceful transition of power, not about “the president’s infamous walk to St John’s with his entourage, including Secretary of Defense Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley in camouflage uniform, as well as Attorney General William Barr” (from my book), and not about Trump wanting to send in the armed forces against protesters.

But whatever we think of contemporary US politics, the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 has already changed the USA forever. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is a testament to an ongoing and still unfolding debate about the so-called Capitol Riots, but it is also a testament to a committee that seeks to inform and shape future debates. The report suggests that Trump took advantage of an unfolding situation of his own making. The evidence seems overwhelming to support this conclusion. Trump was plotting to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election.

This is hardly the place to go into detail, but Chapter One is called THE BIG LIE! Suffice it to say that the phrase was used by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925 Vol. 1, 244) to explain how people could be made to believe a colossal lie. Whether the comparison is fair or not is not the point. Polarisation is!

In terms of the language of crisis, the report uses many terms to describe what has happened: Terrorist attack (3 times), incite/incitement (20 times, but intent 44 times), civil war (20 times), riot(s) (25 times), coup (89 times), sedition (87 times; seditious conspiracy (65 times)), insurrection (100 times), mob (126 times), conspiracy (200 times). One might have wished for some prioritisation, but more than anything this reflects an unfolding debate about what future generations might end up calling the so-called Capitol Riots. Suffice it to say that stasis is perhaps the best concept to use, at least seen from the perspective and through the lens of ancient history.

Writing about the American Civil War, Aaron Sheehan-Dean (2018, The Calculus of Violence. How Americans Fought the Civil War, 44) emphasises, “[b]eyond their claims to a defensive and hence just position, the language each side used to frame its recourse to war in 1861 shaped how they behaved in the years to come”. Translated into relevance today this is certainly food for thought. We can learn from history, and we need to accept its relevance today. But this can only happen if we accept the historicity of the concepts we use to describe contemporary (and past) conflicts. Not only do scholars working on the ancient use new words to describe old societies. We also use old words to describe modern society.

References

  • David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History In Ideas, New Haven: Yale University Press 2017.
  • Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized, New York: Avid Reader Press 2020.
  • Carsten H. Lange: From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome (Studies in Ancient Civil War; vol. 1), Berlin: De Gruyter 2024. ISBN 978-3-111-33309-0 (Print), ISBN 978-3-111-33521-6 (eBook) [website]
  • Aaron Sheehan-Dean, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press 2018.

Featured image (c) Tyler Merbler (flickr; CC BY-ND 2.0)

DOI: 10.59350/5b9hv-1xz57

From Hannibal to Sulla: The Birth of Civil War in Republican Rome

Carsten Hjort Lange

Studies in Ancient Civil War 1, 2024

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From the Editors

Stasis. An Academic Blog on Ancient Civil War

Welcome to Stasis – Avenues to Ancient Civil War, an academic blog on polarization, internal conflict, and reconciliation in antiquity.

Internal conflict has shaped the course of civilizations, and studying this multifaceted phenomenon offers invaluable insight into the cohesive forces and disintegrative potentials of human culture. Yet our understanding of how polarization, violent disintegration, and reconciliation transformed the ancient world remains limited to date. Against this backdrop, this blog – and a new book series Studies in Ancient Civil War (StACW) to which it is related – provide unique and timely academic fora for exploring the processes and implications of civil war in antiquity, from factionalization and destructive internal strife to reintegration and reconstruction. Interconnecting historical, philological, and archaeological perspectives, the blog covers the wider Mediterranean world and the Near East from the second millennium BCE through the first millennium CE. It seeks to deepen our understanding of the profound impact that the collapse and reconstruction of political orders in civil wars had on ancient societies.

The blog welcomes contributions exploring any given aspect of ancient civil war (including its wider socio-political, cultural, and ideological implications), and examining its lasting reverberations throughout time. Posts on this blog can have the form of source readings, reviews, opinion pieces, project presentations, introductions to forthcoming articles and book etc. We invite scholarly contributions from all fields of study related to the ancient world, from the archaic period through late antiquity, including the early medieval period, early Byzantium, and early Islam.

All contributions are subject to peer review to maintain academic quality standards. Authors can republish their posts in the submitted, accepted, or published version in other repositories, on their own website, in journals or books at any time. The blog uses persistent identifyers: Each post has a unique and permanent URL as well as a registered DOI and registered metadata.

For more information, see About the Blog, and Impressum.

DOI: 10.59350/377m7-vkt78

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