Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.06

Timothy Howe, Lee L. Brice (ed.), Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Brill's Companions in Classical Studies: Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xvi, 372.  ISBN 9789004222359.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by Gabriel Moss, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

From its very title, Brill’s Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean invites controversy. Setting out to test the validity and utility of applying modern military terminology to ancient evidence, this volume dares critics to charge it with gross anachronism. Yet its best chapters make a strong claim that, with cautious and considered application, the theoretical toolsets of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and terrorism provide useful ways to narrate and analyze conflict in the ancient world. This said, in contrast to modern, popular understandings of the term, the terrorism discussed in this volume is mostly perpetrated on behalf of states, not against them. The relative silence of ancient sources on non-state terrorism certainly justifies this focus, although co-editor Lee Brice’s technologically deterministic argument that non-state terrorism was all but impossible before the invention of gunpowder and mass media fails to convince.

The volume is divided into three sections, exploring insurgency and terrorism in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, respectively. It begins, however, with an introductory chapter by Brice, defending the intellectual validity of the undertaking. He argues that the modern terms “insurgency” and “terrorism,” while they may not always perfectly describe particular types of violence found in ancient sources, provide a useful and previously under-utilized lens through which to consider low-level conflict in the ancient world. Brice casts this volume as a series of case studies demonstrating the advantages and (occasionally) drawbacks of this approach. His chapter also meditates (with an excellent bibliography) on how historians should define insurgency and terrorism. In planning the volume, Howe and Brice ultimately established working definitions of these terms for contributors to start from. Insurgency is "a revolt or rebellious movement intended to overturn or eliminate a constituted government or authority by subversion or military force."1 State terrorism is “the intentional use or threat of violence by state agents against individuals or groups who are victimized for the purpose of intimidating or frightening a broader audience."2 However, as the contents of the volume bear out, Brice and Howe allowed the authors ample freedom to adjust or reject these definitions as their case studies warranted.

The first section of the Companion explores the application of these terms and their attendant theoretical frameworks to conflicts in the Ancient Near East. Seth Richardson opens with an argument against overly broad application of modern terminology to ancient violence. He argues that while rebellions against early Mesopotamian polities appear frequently in the historical record, we must distinguish them from the modern definition of insurgencies: ultimately, early Mesopotamian societies did not have state structures with sufficient ideological and bureaucratic development to be the targets of insurgencies as modern scholars conceive them. Sarah Melville’s contribution takes a more narrowly focused look at insurgency and counterinsurgency in Assyria under Sargon II. Relying primarily on Assyrian letters rather than royal inscriptions and annals, she makes a compelling case that Sargon faced opponents whose tactics strongly resembled modern insurgencies, and that he responded to them with a sophisticated strategy not so different from modern counterinsurgency doctrines. The final chapter of this section, by Josef Wiesehöfer, narrates Sidon’s revolt from Persia in the 4th Century BCE as an example of an ancient insurgency, suppressed by the Great King in a violent exercise in state terrorism.

The second section tackles insurgency in the Greek and Hellenistic world. Ellen Millender uses theoretical models of state terrorism to examine the relationship between Spartans and Helots, suggesting that the Spartiates’ brutal repression of their slave class had as much to do with reifying and reinforcing the social identity of elites as with winning any tangible security benefits. State terror is here a social and cultural performance, one which grew all the more necessary as manpower shortages weakened the once unassailable position of Spartiates within Spartan society. Timothy Howe reconsiders the evidence for Alexander’s campaigns in Bactria and Sogdiana, flying in the face of a long historiographical tradition which portrays Alexander as fighting a distinctive “Afghan Insurgency.” Scholars since the 19th century have claimed that Alexander’s war in what is now Afghanistan was exceptional for the enemies he faced and the tactics he employed. Howe now makes the compelling case that the campaigns in Bactria and Sogdiana were routine for the Macedonians. A careful reading of the evidence indicates that Alexander did not face a proto-nationalist Afghan insurgency, but a quite typical war of resistance by Persian diehards. The methods he used against them marked no new development in counterinsurgent strategy, but rather had deep roots in Macedon’s constant warfare against its mountain-dwelling subjects and neighbors. To conclude this section, Paul Johstono explores how concepts of insurgency and counterinsurgency clarify our understanding of Egypt’s “Great Revolt” against the Ptolemies in the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE. He argues that the cautious application of modern theory helps historians turn a chaotic and fragmentary record of ancient violence into a narrative of organized and purposeful action on the part of Egyptian rebels. It was the Ptolemaic kingdom’s calculated mixture of brutality and conciliation which ultimately ended this twenty-year insurgency.

The third and final section focuses on the Roman experience of insurgency and terror. Francisco Marco Simón studies Rome’s Spanish Wars of the 2nd Century BCE, arguing that Roman operations in Hispania can be understood as state terrorism. Roman troops, he claims, waged war with exemplary brutality in order to suppress opposition to Roman power. Frank Russell considers early imperial policy in Judaea, emphasizing that Roman policy here reflected careful, flexible counterinsurgency strategy, rather than ingrained and unvarying anti-Semitism. He emphasizes how this strategy varied over time in response to political conditions both in Judaea and in Rome itself. Brian Turner presents a fascinating reevaluation of the Batavian Revolt of 69-70 CE. By modelling insurgency as a competition between rival patronage networks within an underdeveloped political society, Turner challenges prevailing notions of Civilis’ revolt as a unified, proto-nationalist Batavian uprising. He casts this war instead as a multi-polar conflict between Rome and an internally divided agglomeration of rebels. The final chapter of the section, by J. Grant Couper, evaluates the late antique Bagaudae as potential insurgents. Through a thorough review of primary evidence and secondary scholarship, Couper (like Richardson in the first section) warns against overly liberal applications of modern terminology. In his view, the Bagaudae lacked the unifying political aims that characterize a modern insurgency, and are better conceived as a relatively undirected peasant “jacquerie.” The volume ends with a concluding chapter by Jonathan Roth, responding to other chapters in the Companion and suggesting directions for future research.

Some chapters in Brill’s Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean are outstanding, others less successful. Several do not sufficiently engage with the definitions and theoretical literature of insurgency and terrorism, producing results that look more like traditional event-histories than innovative approaches to the past. Simón’s view of the Roman Republic’s wars in Spain is far from groundbreaking. To argue that the Romans used state terror to deter potential enemies adds little to Susan Mattern’s Rome and the Enemy (1999) which, despite Simón’s claim, is no longer “very recent” scholarship (223 n. 1). Wiesehöfer’s examination of the Sidonian Revolt against Persia is more nuanced, but it still reads like a traditional narrative of military conflict. The problem here is not necessarily that Wiesehöfer ignores models of insurgency and terroristic counterinsurgency when crafting his narrative, but rather that this “thinking with insurgency” is not made explicit for the reader. In a volume aiming to demonstrate innovative methodological approaches as much as their results, we might expect Wiesehöfer’s approach to his subject to be more transparent.

In contrast, the best contributions combine shrewd interdisciplinary thinking with rigorous, traditional historical research, adopting the language and conceptual models of the social and military sciences, while not allowing tidy theories to blind them to the complexities of ancient evidence. Millender’s work on Sparta is outstanding in this respect; sociological theory connecting state terrorism and elite identity formation informs her interpretation of Spartan society, but at every point her analysis is based on a careful reading of the literary sources. Theory helps to give meaning to textual evidence here, but it is not allowed to stand on its own in the absence of that evidence. Melville’s exploration of insurgency and counterinsurgency under Sargon II, and Johstono’s account of Egypt’s “Great Revolt” against the Ptolemies, deserve similar praise. In both cases, modern military categorizations of insurgent violence and counterinsurgent strategy bring clarity and organization to an otherwise chaotic conflict: the considered application of modern terminology allows the construction of more coherent narratives than would otherwise be possible. Yet, as with Millender, theoretical models do not replace substantive evidence; rather, they help to inform its interpretation in productive ways.

Turner’s chapter on the Batavian uprising warrants special attention, not only for the skill of its execution, but also for the model it adopts to understand ancient insurgency. Whereas the vast majority of contributors adopt Brice’s “consensus” definition of insurgency, which is based primarily on the American military’s Field Manual on the subject, Turner makes use of William Reno’s network model.3 In it, insurgencies consist of patronage networks centered around powerful individuals or groups, who compete to provide services and win control in the power vacuums created by weak governments. As noted above, Turner uses this model to craft a narrative of Civilis’ revolt that better captures the multi-polar messiness evident in Tacitus’ account. Given the success of Reno’s theories in explaining this revolt, the reader is left wishing that his approach had received more attention throughout the Companion (it is briefly addressed in Brice’s introduction, but otherwise receives little mention). Reno’s model, presupposing power vacuums, seems a natural fit for Richardson’s discussion of rebellion against the kingdoms of early Mesopotamia, polities which he stresses lacked the institutions and power structures of later states. Again, Reno’s fragmentation of unified revolutions into squabbling, power-hungry factions would seem to make his work an ideal way for Couper to view the amorphous Bagaudae, or for Howe to tackle the complicated motivations of Alexander’s Bactrian and Sogdian opponents. In short, the success of Turner’s chapter calls attention to a missed opportunity.

Brill’s Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean has its limitations. But, with some outstanding contributions, it stakes a bold methodological claim, demonstrating that historical interpretations of the past can and should be shaped by insights from related disciplines. To turn modern lenses on ancient evidence can produce instructive results.

Authors and Titles

1. Lee Brice, “Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient World, Grounding the Discussion.”
2. Seth Richardson, “Insurgency and Terror in Mesopotamia.”
3. Sarah Melville, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Assyrian Empire during the Late Eight Century BCE.”
4. Josef Wiesehöfer, “Fourth Century Revolts against Persia: The Test Case of Sidon (348-345 BCE).”
5. Ellen Millender. “Spartan State Terror: Violence, Humiliation, and the Reinforcement of Social Boundaries in Classical Sparta.”
6. Timothy Howe, “Alexander and ‘Afghan Insurgency’: A Reassessment.”
7. Paul Johstono, “Insurgency in Ptolemaic Egypt.”
8. Francisco Marco Simón, “Insurgency or State Terrorism? The Hispanic Wars in the Second Century BCE.”
9. Frank Russell, “Roman Counterinsurgency Policy and Practice in Judaea.”
10. Brian Turner, “From Batavian Revolt to Rhenish Insurgency.”
11. J. Grant Couper, “Gallic Insurgencies? Annihilating the Bagaudae.”
12. Jonathan Roth, “Epilogue: Looking Ahead.”


1.   Pp. 11-12, following U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency (2006).
2.   P. 15, following Jackson, Murphy, and Poynting (eds.) Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Practice (2006).
3.   Reno, “Insurgent Movements in Africa” in Rich and Duyvesteyn (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency (2012). See also Brice’s discussion on p. 11.

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