The Long Life of a Shattering and Complex Idea

Civil War

by Brett Miller

12 June 2017

How a conflict is defined and labeled can make all the difference in whether an organization such as the Red Cross comes on the scene.
cover art

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

David Armitage

(Alfred A. Knopf)
US: Feb 2017

Among the many jarring statistics in the opening of this timely and perceptive book is one concerning the sharp rise of intrastate war. “Since 1989,” Armitage writes, “an average of twenty intrastate wars have been in progress at any moment—about ten times the annual average globally between 1816 and 1989.” The death toll from intrastate war, since 1945, is in the vicinity of 25 million—and that includes “battle deaths” only. Factor in civilian deaths along with all the suffering which no statistic can capture, and the resulting picture is exceedingly grim. It’s no wonder that Armitage characterizes our current global landscape as “a world of civil war”.

Is there anything that can be done? David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, makes no pretenses about providing a simple solution to these complex problems. But what he does offer is an indispensable contribution for how we understand the concept of civil war: by providing a history of its origins and transformations. Such a work has been conspicuously lacking in the literature and it is this lacuna which Armitage seeks to fill.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas canvases over 2,000 years of history, beginning first with ancient Rome, where Armitage definitively locates the conception of civil war, to our 21st-century crises, among them Syria’s ongoing situation. One of the benefits to this long-term approach is the chance to see the many transformations the concept of civil war has undergone since its original Roman conception. It’s through this kind of genealogical investigation that Armitage is able to shed so much light on why civil war is an “essentially contested concept”. That the use of the term “civil war” is mired in argument and definitional disagreement is rather apparent; consider, for example, debates in 2012 about whether Syria was or was not undergoing a civil war. But perhaps much less obvious is why this has come to be the case.

It is to the Romans, as mentioned, that Armitage turns our attention first in order to show not only the genesis of civil war but the Roman ways of thinking about it that would pervade so many centuries of later thought. Armitage makes the case that it was in republican Rome and “not any earlier setting, such as Greece” that civil war originated. Though the Greeks had certainly experienced internal conflict themselves—they had what they called stasis, or faction—the experience was more a “state of mind” than something inherently bound to violent confrontation. More crucially, the concept was never tied to “a political or legal definition of those who stood on each side of the internal division.” 

While recognizing elements of stasis in their own situation, the Romans felt it necessary to invent a new term to encapsulate their experience. Civilis (civil) was combined with bellum (war); both were existing notions but never before had they been put together. It was an explosive combination, for instead of a traditional enemy as the object of war it was now citizens and the commonwealth itself. The result was bellum civile, or civil war. 

Rome certainly had a lot of them. The first was between Marius and Sulla, near the beginning of the 1st century BC, then Caesar and Pompey’s of the same century, and a host of others off and on into the 4th century AD. Historians and poets of Rome tried desperately to make sense of this phenomenon; they offered narratives and analyses which sought to reflect the horrors of civil war as well as discover the causes of such destructive chaos. From Lucan’s Civil War to Augustine’s City of God, there was a torrent of passionate thought tackling this potent and recurring Roman problem.   

Not all of the narratives offered like-minded positions. Indeed, there were many different strands of thought. But the Roman framework for thinking about civil war and the language it was couched in would be hugely influential. In the second part of the book, “Early Modern Crossroads”, which looks at the 17th and 18th centuries, we can see these ideas very much present. The classical education received by Thomas Hobbes and John Milton, among many others, helped them reflect on the English Civil War in part through the prism of the Romans. 

Roman ideas about civil war would never go away, but an important juncture in the meaning of the term would come toward the end of the 18th century as the Age of Revolution began. The concept of civil war would need to be distinguished from the explosive and world-changing energy that powered the idea of revolution. But the distinction would prove not to be so easy—then or now. 

Nor for that matter would the task of bringing a legal framework to civil war. This shift forms another of Armitage’s key “turning points” in the history of the term. It was in the 19th century, amidst the American Civil War, that an attempt was made to bring civil war into “the emergent global framework of law”. The ramifications were monumental, and indeed the significance of the endeavor resonates strongly with the challenges faced by international and human rights lawyers today. As Armitage makes clear, how a conflict is defined and labeled can make all the difference in whether an organization such as the Red Cross comes on the scene.     

There are a wealth of other ideas contained in this book, all guided by Armitage’s acute analysis. The book’s relatively short length belies just how much intellectual history can be found within its covers. Much of the material is quite challenging, and Armitage should be commended for making it both lucid and relevant.   

Civil Wars is critical reading for anyone who wants to better understand the myriad problems bound up in the concept of civil war and its dense historical past. Armitage himself takes a cautiously optimistic approach to the future, believing that “what humans have invented, they may yet dismantle”. Not everyone will agree that civil war is such a construct, and may instead be inclined to view it as a deeply ingrained, perhaps inescapable, tendency in human nature. Nonetheless, Armitage’s engaging exploration of the idea of civil war can help provide us with the bearings we need in order to contend with this devastating phenomenon.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas


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