BMCR 2010.08.15

Ultima ratio regis: control y prohibición de las armas desde la Antigüedad a la Edad Moderna

, Ultima ratio regis: control y prohibición de las armas desde la Antigüedad a la Edad Moderna. Madrid: Ediciones Polifemo, 2009. 487. ISBN 9788496813236. €25.00(pb).

Ultima ratio regis is an original survey on a crucial aspect of military history: who controlled the manufacture and distribution of weapons in ancient times. The author, Fernando Quesada, is one of the very few Spanish scholars specializing in ancient military history, and he intends in this work to fill a gap in academic research (p. 17-18), especially in Spanish military scholarship. As a specialist in the Roman republican army, Quesada focuses on the ancient world, although extending its main argument to later periods, until the advent of gunpowder. His aim is to offer a comprehensive approach to the subject (p. 18), and for that purpose he surveys different historical periods and regions, from the Near East to early modern Europe.

The book is structured in ten chapters. The first one serves as an introduction both to the case study and to the methodology and objectives of the work. Quesada justifies here his approach from the point of view of mentality, arguing that the patterns of weapon control and distribution are connected to social and ideological considerations. The following nine chapters intend to put this thesis to the test: five of them are devoted to different chronological and geographical areas of the ancient world —the Near East (ch. 2), Greece (ch. 3), the pre-Roman Iberian Peninsula (ch. 4), republican and imperial Rome (ch. 5), early mediaeval Europe (ch. 9) and late mediaeval Europe (ch. 10)—; the other three, inserted in the chronological layout, deal with specific topics like machinery and heavy weapons (ch. 6), prohibition as an alternative way of weapon control (ch. 7), and the “Greek fire” (ch. 8). The book displays a considerable set of illustrations, and includes an updated and extensive bibliography.

Quesada argues that control, limitation and prohibition of weapons are common features in Western history since the Bronze Age. He suggests that the process of weapon limitation must face (and ultimately overcome) a common and widespread ideology in ancient Mediterranean cultures, what he calls the “aristocratic military ethos”. This “ethos”, according to the author, is common to all military aristocracies in history (p. 34), in which warrior values play a central role.1 These values are in turn characteristic of “warlike societies of archaic mentality” (p. 25; cf. 150, 168, 430ff.), a way of thinking intended to maintain weapons as a central element in public and private life. Despite its label as “archaic” this mentality is not specifically “ancient” or “primitive”, Quesada says (p. 168), and in fact a great deal of the argumentation is intended to prove, that this “aristocratic ethos” is preserved almost untouched until the eve of the Modern age. Greece is for him the perfect example of this “archaic mentality”: status warriors, military aristocracies with military ethos and values, and emphasis on masculinity (p. 30-33, 108-42).

Weapons, Quesada concludes, are therefore extremely difficult to control in these “aristocratic societies”, due to their presence in daily life for non-military purposes (p. 50-62) and to their “comparatively easy process of fabrication” (p. 62-64). In this context, he introduces the main thesis of the book: that only state organizations are powerful enough (both politically and economically) to confront the “aristocratic ethos” and restrict the spread, use and display of weapons for the sake of the common good and safety. Hence, weapon control entails state organization.2 For the author, this is a complex phenomenon: the book intends to show the difficulties the emerging states encounter to achieve a gradual abandonment of the “aristocratic ethos”. The process is clearly described in his chapter on Greece (ch. 3), and it is explored again in the cases of the pre-Roman Iberian Peninsula (ch. 4), Republican Rome (ch. 5), and early mediaeval Europe (ch. 9).

Quesada constantly emphasizes the symbolic aspect of weapons, which represented honor, respect and freedom for their bearers: expensive weapons are associated with power, prestige and wealth, and bearing weapons is the mark of the free man in opposition to the slave (p. 41-50, 143). He rightly shows that weapons are much more than simple tools for killing: they are subject to cultural and ideological considerations regulating their shape, use and public display. They are not mere expressions of violence and physical power, but complex messages transmitting social, political and economic information (p. 112-13). This makes him part of a long list of scholars trying to assess the role of weapons in ancient (and modern) societies, like Victor D. Hanson or Hans van Wees for Greek warfare. It is fair to say, however, that he sometimes seems to push the relevance of weapons to define (free) status in ancient societies a bit too far: in his approach, military service leads directly to political rights and participation (p. 42-43).3

The most crucial concept of the book, however, is “weapon control”, and something must be said about Quesada’s notion of it. To start with, he defines “control” as an effort by states to limit or reduce the spread and use of (some) weapons (p. 15-16). This entails two critical consequences: the first one is that “weapon control” is thus exclusively connected to states, as the only institutions capable of successfully curbing the individualism of aristocratic interests. The second one is that “weapon control” is consistently defined as a state monopoly. This basically accounts for the title of the book, “ ultima ratio regis ” (the expression is explained by Quesada on p. 392-93), is fairly clear in the opening pages (p. 19-30), and is corroborated throughout the book (p. 94ff., 106, 136, 366-72, 384-94). Weapons, however, can be restricted for other reasons and by other agents, not always explicitly connected to monopoly on the part of the state. Quesada himself recognizes that he is using a restricted notion of “control” (p. 429). These other reasons and processes are tackled in this book as well, but not as thoroughly and extensively as the main argument. Thus, Quesada discusses only superficially the role of aristocracies themselves in reducing or limiting the spread and use of weapons in the ancient Mediterranean (p. 147-48, sometimes rejecting that role, p. 167-68).

The thrust of this main argument overshadows the contribution of the “aristocratic ethos” to the limitation of weapons. This “ethos” is, however, paradoxically useful to explain other, more frequent forms of control of weapons (based on socio-economic considerations) in some ancient societies. In fact, most of the weapons limitations in archaic and classical Greece (and also in Regal and Republican Rome) could be better explained from the point of view of aristocratic exclusiveness: the differential distribution of military equipment across the different social classes, the contempt for “non-aristocratic” equipment (like bows, javelins, slings), the alleged ritualism of military practices (banning missiles, indulging in duels, giving priority to hand-to-hand combat). Aristocratic competition, again, helps to understand archaic legislation and traditions on weapons: the prohibitions to attend the assembly in arms (in the legislations of Zaleucus, Carondas and Diocles), or the definition of “sacred” spaces free of weapons (like the Roman pomerium) seem to answer the need to limit the most violent effects of aristocratic competition. Quesada himself tackles some of these issues in ch. 7, but without further development.

Moreover, the gradual centralization of weapon production in some Mediterranean societies is not necessarily synonymous with the creation of a state monopoly. Quesada argues that the funds and skills necessary to produce certain “sophisticated” weapons en masse could only be provided by centralized organizations controlling vast resources and groups of skilled laborers (p. 80, 94, 106, 129-33, 175ff., 384-94). That is true, but it is not a real obstacle to local aristocracies, for instance, producing and maintaining their own weapons, as he himself recognizes in the case of mediaeval artillery (p. 359-62). Production costs are a barrier against mass production, but not necessarily an argument in favor of weapon restriction or monopoly.

Finally, while “common” weapons like spears or shields are the main focus of Quesada’s arguments and theoretical approach, he suggests that “decisive” weapons are more likely to be subject to restriction and monopoly (p. 64), due to the extraordinary costs of their production and the complex technology required to engineer, build and maintain them (p. 235-40). As a result, they command a great deal of the attention in the book, and are logically presented as typical examples of “weapon control”: there are extensive discussions on the chariot and the composite bow (p. 65-105), siege machinery, artillery and elephants (p. 221-69), the “Greek fire” (p. 313-28), and gunpowder and modern artillery (p. 373-427). Quesada therefore ends up including all these “decisive” devices in the same “weapon control” discussion alongside “common” weapons, applying similar arguments and giving similar treatment to both of them. This perhaps overshadows the fact that they were distinct in use, manufacture and diffusion, and as a result the process of control or limitation could follow different patterns (something Quesada himself recognizes at one point, p. 236).

Quesada displays here a considerable research effort: he commands sources from different historical periods and employs both literary and archaeological evidence to a great effect. The book is full of ancient passages quoted in detail, of pictures of archaeological sites, diagrams and charts; they all contribute to illustrate the main text in a very lively way. Moreover, the book benefits from a long list of examples and references drawn from the history of the Iberian Peninsula, which are commonly overshadowed in modern research.

To conclude, Ultima ratio regis is an ambitious book, intended to cover a considerable part of Western military history. The narrative tends to be more descriptive than interpretative at times, offering detailed descriptions of weapons, typologies and their use (for example the chariot, p. 73-75). This feature, useful as it is, overshadows from time to time the central argument of the book (the dynamics of weapon control in ancient and mediaeval history), which then takes a secondary role. The result is a detailed history of ancient military technology, from the point of view of the gradual “statalization” and professionalization of war. This analysis of the historical phenomenon of weapon control and limitation (in practice a much broader phenomenon than the “state monopoly” discussion) offers a good starting point for further research.


1. Quesada strongly emphasizes the similarities between military aristocracies across history: he is fully aware of the differences (p. 38), but in practice he makes them almost interchangeable in their military ethos (p. 34-41).

2. Quesada uses the word “state” to denote centralized political entities in the ancient and medieval worlds, from the Bronze Age onwards.

3. In this sense, he seems to interpret the testimony of Aristotle rather literally (p. 42). Aristotle naturally emphasized the importance of weapons ownership, but systematically concluded that the key to full citizenship lied on participation ( metéchein, Pol. 1275a 22-23; 1275a 24-28; 1275b 31-32), both in the army and in the assembly ( Pol. 1329a). Weapons are employed here (as in other ancient Greek sources) as a metonymy to describe social and political status.