BMCR 2008.01.53

War and Peace in the Ancient World

, War and peace in the ancient world. The ancient world--comparative histories. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2007. xii, 385 pages ; 26 cm.. ISBN 1405145250. $39.95.

Table of Contents

The historian of ancient law, Sir Henry Maine, famously remarked that “War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.”1 The chapters in the rich and fascinating War and Peace in the Ancient World, edited by Kurt Raaflaub, provide more confirmation than rebuttal of this claim. Most of the essays survey the overall role of warfare in a particular culture but then focus on the value accorded to peace or reconciliation.2 It turns out that a general preference for peace over war is easy to find, but war is often regarded as inevitable and many states seem to prefer peace only when it comes from their enemies’ complete submission.

This collection contains twenty essays, most of which were first presented at a colloquium and lecture series on “War, Peace, and Reconciliation in the Ancient World” at Brown University in 2002-2003. The ancient world is taken in a global sense with a focus on pre-industrial but complex, state-level societies. Thirteen civilizations are represented. Two essays cover early Jewish attitudes while Greece nets three chapters and Rome gets four — if we include the chapter on early Christian views. All the articles are by experts in their fields; the level of the writing, research, and editing is generally high.

Although this volume appears in a series on The Ancient World: Comparative Histories, each essay in it focuses on one culture; only the introduction engages in comparative history. The essays, however, would provide an excellent entrée for classical historians who want to introduce sustained contrasts or parallels into their research. Even just reading these pieces encourages comparative thinking. Most striking, many chapters provide cautionary parallels for practices and ways of thinking that classicists might otherwise assume are specific to Greece or Rome. Despite the claim of the editor (1-2) and some of the contributors (e.g., Salomon on 58), the overwhelming impression is of similarity among pre-industrial states: the high value accorded to military prowess is attested in culture after culture; war always requires justification, but such was not hard to find; war is seen as bloody and tragic but inevitable; treaties can end wars but are unstable despite the ubiquitous divine sanctions. That states prefer their enemies to submit rather than to have to fight them also seems almost universal. This preference is often as pacific a quality as this book’s authors could locate in the societies, often successful empires, that constitute their topics. Despite these commonalities, the individual investigations are often illuminating and nuanced.

Although attitudes towards war probably varied greatly within each society, the nature of our sources limits our view (see Foster on 66). One cannot expect criticism or even much complexity from royal propaganda — though even this too has its variants and subtleties. The most complex and critical views tend to come from the best-attested societies, especially Greece, Rome, and India; it is hard to tell whether this is a consequence of greater controversy and more profound reflection or just that more diverse opinions have been preserved in our texts.

Given the large number of chapters I have tried to make my summaries brief and have not been able to engage in extended critique or much evaluation. Even taken alone many of the individual pieces are substantial scholarly contributions.

Given the diversity of approaches and the breathtaking range of societies treated, Kurt Raaflaub’s introduction on “Searching for peace in the ancient world,” has its work cut out for it. Raaflaub succeeds in a fascinating tour of the main issues and topics covered in the volume. Most striking is his question “Why is it that the Greeks, unlike most other ancient civilizations developed such an intense discourse on questions of war and peace?” (24) The question is in the main justified by the comparative material assembled here; one hopes that Professor Raaflaub will some day provide a more extended answer than he is able to here.

Robin D. S. Yates, “Making war and making peace in early China” is more of a descriptive than an argumentative piece. It focuses on the “Spring and Autumn” and “Warring States” periods (ca. 722-221 BC) and sketches out the ways that warfare was limited or avoided. Many of these limits, on things such as the exchange of hostages or treaties, are far from pacifistic — and, indeed, do not seem to have been too successful: “Peace was, therefore, ‘an interim between wars'” during the whole second half of the period under consideration (35). He also treats the reasons and the grounds for war. Most of the elements in this picture will be familiar to classical historians: for example, Greek parallels will come to mind readily for each of the seven grounds for war mentioned in the Zuo Commentary (43, citing the categorization of Rebecca Byrne).

In “Ancient India: peace within and war without,” Richard Salomon considers the contrast between the emphasis on the inner peace and non-violence, arguably the best known aspect of Indian culture, and the bloody history of the sub-continent. One explanation he offers for the emphasis on internal rather than external peace is that “it was taken for granted that the world is by its nature a place of strife and war, and it was apparently assumed that to try to change this would be a waste of time.”(63) He does point out that the cases of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, who, after his victories, seems to have renounced violence and sought conquest by superior morality (whatever that would mean in practice)and of Mahatma Gandhi show that “the cultivation of peace from within the individual soul . . . has at least had some shining moments.”(63)

Benjamin R. Foster, “Water under the straw: peace in Mesopotamia,” begins with the observation that the predominance, from the earliest times, of military themes in the art may not reflect the complexity of Mesopotamia attitudes towards war and peace (66). Basing his treatment on textual evidence — with ample quotations — he highlights Mesopotamian appreciations of peace in a variety of contexts: “They developed mechanisms for making peace, they prayed for peace and spoke well of it, but they spoke of conflict as inherent in an intelligent and complete creation.” (78)

Richard H. Beal’s “Making, preserving, and breaking the peace with the Hittite state” surveys the foreign relations of the Hittite state as attested in official documents, mainly treaties, but also in public prayers to the gods. This evidence limits us to these official versions of events and practices. Hittite diplomacy was characteristic of ancient empires: for example, different relations were expected and different treaties sworn with equals and with subordinates (83-84); gods were invoked as witnesses and guarantors of treaties (86). The Hittites used marriage alliances to bind both equals and subordinates (88). They placed garrisons in subordinate states (86) and mediated quarrels between such states (87). As usual no amount of diplomacy obviated the need for warfare (“Any sign of weakness in the Hittite state could cause an outbreak of war”[89] and the Hittites themselves were willing to loot or burn cities to the ground when it suited their interests (93).

Lanny Bell’s chapter on “Conflict and reconciliation in the ancient Middle East: the clash of Egyptian and Hittite chariots in Syria, and the world’s first peace treaty between ‘superpowers'” provides a historical account of the conflict between the Hittites and Egyptians over their spheres of influence in Syria. The most famous episode in this war was the indecisive battle at Qadesh. But as both sides became concerned with more immediate threats than each other, they decided to make peace (108-9). The peace treaty lasted until the Hittite empire fell, about 80 years later. A contrast concludes Bell’s treatment: despite Egyptian royal “propaganda” which continued to celebrate military victories, largely imaginary, over the Hittites, “the success of the treaty was a milestone marking Egyptian recognition of peace as an acceptable alternative to war as a means of resolving conflict” (113).

Josef Wiesehöfer is stretched to cover three separate Iranian empires in his chapter on “From Achaemenid imperial order to Sasanian diplomacy: war, peace, and reconciliation in pre-Islamic Iran.” Although he admits “merciless revenge and cruel punishment of rebels and insurgents,” (125), Wiesehöfer is inclined to accept the rosy self-representation of the Achaemenid empire focusing on “good conduct of the subjects and royal generosity” (125). He then turns to the Parthians, whose attitude towards Hellenism provides his subject there: they were “more than superficially Hellenized . . . [but] they did not forget their Iranian roots” (130). Finally, he turns to the accounts and representations of military duels between Sasanians and Romans. Despite both empires’ ideological claims of superiority “in practice both sides had to recognize their equal rank and get along with each other for better or worse” (132) — although he does not make it clear how much of the time they did get along rather than fight wars.

In “War and reconciliation in the traditions of ancient Israel: historical, literary, and ideological considerations,” Susan Niditch surveys various strains of thinking about war and sometimes is able to specify their historical context. This is not an easy task: “the Hebrew Bible preserves a number of views of war, some of which overlap, while some seem at odds with one another” (144). Despite a determined attempt at interpretive charity, her overall picture is remarkably bellicose: the ban or herem requires that all members of an enemy state, regardless of sex or age, be killed as a sacrifice to God (144-146). I’m not convinced that passages that allow for enemies to surrender and be made into “forced laborers” of the Israelites really “overtly grapple with the justness of war” (149). Her final topic is the possible incorporation of captured women as legitimate wives, who cannot be resold as slaves (156): Niditch is well aware of the brutality and chauvinism of this passage, but “it is possible to see in Deuteronomy 21 an acknowledgement, albeit patronizing of women and prejudiced against the other, that the enemy is a human being” (157).

Thomas Krüger’s chapter, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares: a vision of peace through justice and its background in the Hebrew bible,” gives himself an easier case to make. Rather than offering an overall treatment, as Niditch does, he aims to explain a particularly pacific passage, while admitting that it is “rather unique” (170, quoting Bustenay Otto). This passage is the prophecy in Micah 4:1-5 and Isaiah 2:2-5 that Yaweh will become the judge of peoples and will eliminate war — hence the plowshares. Krüger argues that “the hope that war could finally be overcome by justice sounds amazingly modern.” (163). While he considers several possible antecedents and explanations of this prophecy, he puts the most weight on the “domestic analogy”: “the experience that within society violence had already successfully been tamed by justice” (163, see also 170). In “‘Laughing for joy’: war and peace among the Greeks,” Lawrence Tritle demonstrates that “the Greeks believed that peace was preferable to war, but finding it and keeping it was as elusive for them as it is for us today” (172). On topics such as Greece’s militaristic ethos, the difficulty of interstate security, the Common Peace treaties, and Aristophanes’ pro-peace plays, Tritle covers mainly familiar ground for Greek historians. The outbreak of the Peloponnesian war would seem to fit also in this category, but here Tritle takes an unconventional approach. He focuses on the attempts by both sides to negotiate a peaceful settlement of their differences. He takes a charitable view of several of the Spartan embassies as really trying to avoid war; in contrast, he regards as a ploy the Athenian proposals that disputes needed to be resolved by arbitration given the difficulty of finding a arbitrator in the polarized world of the time. This is too complex and controversial an argument to make convincingly in a few pages, but at least Tritle’s paper reminds us not to make too much of Sparta’s refusal of arbitration — even if Thucydides represents the Spartans themselves as emphasizing it (7.18.2).

David Konstan’s “War and reconciliation in Greek literature” is a complex and persuasive examination of violence in three plays of Euripides. His subjects are the “the problem of the warrior’s homecoming” and “the difficulty of reconciling enemies once hostilities were ended” (191). The first issue informs his reading of Heracles, in which Hera (through Lyssa) tricks Heracles into killing his wife and children. The play does not focus on the brutality of what he thought he was doing, killing “the presumably innocent children and wife of his enemy . . . But what the audience sees is a berserk warrior who acts out of character only in that he misdirects his martial savagery” (192). Konstan’s considerations of two other plays, the Suppliant Women and the Children of Heracles, shows how interested parties set upon revenge complicate the more objective morality that originally seemed to be at work for Athens in these plays. In both plays, “Euripides portrays war in all its aspects, both as an engagement based on principle and as a function of personal hatreds and revenge” (200).

Victor Alonzo’s piece on “Peace and international law in ancient Greece” argues for a more modern and less warlike world of Greek states than is currently fashionable. He sets the scene by endorsing the view that it is the scene of reconciliation in Iliad, book 24, rather than the brutal fighting or the touchy honor of the heroes, that sets the tone for subsequent Greek culture (206-207). In terms of practice he points out that many states managed to remain neutral and avoid warfare entirely for extended periods, e.g. Argos for most of the fifth century. Even states whose forces had fought each other in the territory of a third were not in a state of open war until one had attacked the territory of the other (215-217). He also and correctly gives short shrift to the philosophical hyperbole that all Greek states were in a perpetual state of war with one another with brief truces (208-209 on Plato, Laws 626a). Rather his examination of the norms and procedures of Greek interstate behavior leads to a more optimistic conclusion: “The ‘philosophy’ behind all this might be summarized as follows: if war is indeed frequently inevitable, let us limit it in space, delay its outbreak for as long as possible, leave a wide margin for diplomacy, and, once it begins, establish generally accepted formal procedures (such as truces, capitulations, and the protection of heralds) that will allow us to maintain relations between belligerent parties” (219). Treaties such as the “thirty-year peace” between Athens and Sparta — “This excellent diplomatic instrument” — and the Common Peaces of the fourth century earn his particular approbation (221).

Nathan Rosenstein treats “War and peace, fear and reconciliation at Rome.” His article surveys the course of Roman conquests from the early republic through the imperial period — the latter’s belligerence belies the notion of a pax Romana (226). He discusses the motivations behind Rome’s warfare, which included the desire for farmland (230-231), the necessity of choosing between conquering or being conquered (228), the need to conserve power by intimidation and never showing weakness (229), and the wealth and prestige to be gained through war, especially for the elite (237). He also examines the forces leading to reconciliation of various sorts. External threats provided a driving force behind the political compromises that allowed the social and political cohesion of the middle Republic (231). Although Romans viewed peace as something imposed by them on a defeated enemy (227), their brutality to the vanquished was limited by a desire “to husband and if possible increase their military manpower” (235) — this last goal was possible because of the Romans’ willingness to extend their citizenship, albeit slowly (232-234).

Carlin A. Barton, “The price of peace in ancient Rome” explores a well-known aspect of the Roman concept of peace: it is the peace imposed by a victor on a humiliated enemy. Although there was some sense that humbled enemies ought to be treated with mercy (250), she argues that “The Roman response to the entreaties of the defeated could not be calculated, any more than the responses of soldiers or muggers or rapists to the pleas of their victims. And it was . . . the very arbitrariness and unpredictability of the response of the conquerors that, for the Romans, demonstrated the fullness of their power” (251). She also presents the case for a change over time: during the period of the Republic it was only abject outsiders who asked for peace, but after the civil wars the Republic itself could be represented as begging for and receiving peace from the hand of the emperor: “the Romans accepted that the emperor’s mercy was as close to a social contract as they would henceforth get”(252).

In “The gates of war (and peace): Roman literary perspectives,” Jeri Blair DeBrohun focuses on the depiction of the temple of Janus in various authors of the Augustan period. Augustus’ own boast in the Res Gestae of having closed the gates three times, while they had only been closed twice before since the foundation of the city serves as a benchmark: “Nowhere in extant Roman literature is the close association between peace and military victory made more explicit” (259). Literary authors use the gates in more complex and ambiguous ways. Livy’s portrayal of the foundation of the temple by King Numa, a king devoted to peace, “might include a challenge to Augustus to follow this king’s genuinely peaceful example” (263). In Virgil, Jupiter prophesizes that, in the reign of Augustus, the temple will hold trapped within it the horrifying Furor Impius, likely a symbol of civil war (264) — and not necessarily contained for good (265). Horace, Odes 4.15 provides the depiction that displays the most confidence in the new era of Augustan peace, while Ovid in the Fasti depicts a complex situation in which either peace or war might be confined in the temple.

Louis J. Swift surveys “Early Christian views on violence, war, and peace.” He follows traditional thinking in seeing a break at the accession of Constantine, but warns: “it is . . . inaccurate simply to classify the two stages of the Christian approach to violence and war as pacifist versus belligerent or as principled versus expedient” (280). In the first of these periods, Swift notes how often a severe disapproval of taking part in war went hand-in-hand with an equally strong support of the empire. It was the possibility of Christians serving in the army that provoked controversy. After the accession of Constantine, Christians “saw themselves living in a new dispensation in which the Roman empire and Christianity were joint works of God” (286). While some Christians had no difficulty in the exercise of temporal power and the violence that often entailed, others showed “signs of a more reflective approach toward violence and of reservations about any easy convergence of spiritual and temporal aims” (287). Nevertheless, discussion — by Ambrose and Augustine especially — focused more on when a Christian could kill rather than whether it was ever permissible (287). Pacifists, such as Martin of Tours, were by then out of the mainstream.

Fred M. Donner’s chapter on “Fight for God — but do so with kindness: reflections on war, peace, and communal identity in early Islam” argues for a balanced view of early Islamic thinking on war and religion. Although there are passages in the Qur’an that advocate, without conditions, war against unbelievers (300), there are a number of escape clauses: it is individuals rather than communities who are guilty of unbelief (300); those who submit, repent, and pay tribute can be forgiven (300); some other “people of the book” may originally have counted as full believers (304-306). Although Donner warns against simplifying the “”yin/yang” quality of Qur’anic discourse” in order to avoid “Muslim apologetic, or Islam-bashing,” (301), given Islam’s violent and aggressive early history — generally admitted by Donner (306-309) — one leaves with the impression that, in that period at least, the need to “fight for God” received more emphasis than the qualification “with kindness.”

Ross Hassig’s chapter on “Peace, reconciliation, and alliance in Aztec Mexico” considers the interaction of warfare and politics within the state and Aztec methods of maintaining their conquests. Within the Aztec state “[v]irtually everyone benefited from warfare, kings, nobles, commoners, priests, merchants, and artisans. It fueled their economy, permitted their social mobility, and fed their gods” (325). The closest the Aztec came to pacifism was the practical recognition that “From the perspective of the empire, any form of voluntary submission was preferable to conquest as it was less costly in men and material, and it was much better than sacking a city, as that crippled its ability to pay tribute” (321). Two of the most striking aspects of Hassig’s treatment are his emphasis on the importance of elite “hyper-polygyny” as a motivation for war and his analysis of how the exchange of wives between Aztec kings and a conquered king helped bind new conquests to the empire.

Catherine Julien’s treatment of “War and peace in the Inca heartland” has to deal with scattered and difficult sources about this vast empire. These do, however, include accounts derived from the victims of Inca aggression — a rare view from the losers’ side. Her two main conclusions about the Inca are relatively straightforward. First, before the Inca expanded, their leadership seems to have been entirely based on prowess in war. Although the Inca elite later justified their rule in terms of lineage as well, success in war remained important. Second, the Inca seem always to have offered their enemies a chance to surrender. Although their brutality against those who resisted could involve extermination along with mutilation of corpses, their treatment of willing subjects was not harsh: “the contest for power was rigged in favor of peaceful submission to Inca rule” (345).

Neta Crawford analyzes “The long peace among Iroquois Nations” in terms of international relations theory. The Native American nations who made up the Iroquois League stopped fighting each other in 1450 and did not start again until 1777 (348). They did continue to fight wars against outsiders and, indeed, could be bellicose in starting these and brutal in their conduct — for example, captives could be tortured, killed, and eaten (350, 352-355). The League is not interesting because it was pacifist — it was not at all — but because the individual nations that constituted it kept their autonomy and independently determined both their domestic and their foreign policies. For example, almost all the wars with states outside the League were fought by individual Iroquois nations by themselves and not by the League as a whole. Thus the League was not merely another case of political units growing larger by the unification of smaller units, but rather exemplifies a “security regime” in which independent states construct “rules, norms, and decision-making procedures agreed to by all parties, [and] thus are able to mitigate the effects of international anarchy” (364). The related culture of the Iroquois nations and the shared democracy, rather than any balance of power, contributed to their ability to form such a regime (348-349, 365).


1. From Michael Howard, The Invention of Peace (New Haven, 2000) 1, which emphasizes the truth of Maine’s observation and the Enlightenment roots of the modern concept of peace and the value placed on it.

2. In this respect, the volume’s scope is more limited than similar multi-cultural collections with a focus on war, e.g. Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein, War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, The Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica (Cambridge, Mass., 1999) and Angelos Chaniotis and Pierre Ducrey, Army and Power in the Ancient World (Stuttgart 2002).