BMCR 2017.05.54

Peace in the Ancient World: Concepts and Theories. Ancient world: comparative histories

, Peace in the Ancient World: Concepts and Theories. Ancient world: comparative histories. Oxford; Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. x, 186. ISBN 9781118645123. $89.95.


This book is intended as a continuation of Kurt Raaflaub’s previous edited volume: War and Peace in the Ancient World, (Oxford, 2007).1 Outlined within Raaflaub’s introduction (1-11), the work’s purpose is the study of ‘ancient efforts to identify, explain, and resolve the relevant problems [of peace] on a conceptual and theoretical level’ (1-3). Consequently, the volume’s key question is why explicit discourses, concepts and theories of peace occurred, or did not occur, within certain societies (2).

Raaflaub’s opening chapter, ‘Abhorring War, Yearning for Peace’ (13-42), submits the book’s framework and core thesis: that concepts and theories of peace relied on three inter-connected conditions. The first condition, war beyond normal expectations, providing a heightened need for peace, is presented through five brief case-studies: the Iroquois League; China in the Warring State Period; Classical Athens; the Late Roman Republic; and St Augustine’s City of God (13-18). All demonstrate how, under particularly intense or protracted conditions of warfare, peace-making and the debate over peace could arise within a society. However, Raaflaub’s focus on intense warfare as a catalyst for peace consideration inadvertently ignores other influences (17-18). To take the Iroquois League, although the five Iroquois tribes enacted peace between themselves through the formation of the league (13-14), due to their continual conflict, the confederacy resulted in a powerful military alliance, which was used almost immediately for aggressive expansionism, resulting in the displacement of several other tribes across numerous regions.2 Consequently, the need to establish peace among the Iroquois appears to have been driven by, or at any rate not to have inhibited, territorial and imperial ambition, and not just strained conditions of conflict.

Continuing, Raaflaub outlines the concern for peace within ancient societies, submitting that it can be found within every culture, primarily within their religious or intellectual sphere. He is careful to point out, however, that while all ancient religions had some idea of peace, or at least peace-making, not every society had a deity or cult dedicated to it (19-24). In regard to intellectual concerns regarding peace (26-29), Raaflaub emphasises that far fewer societies produced, or have left evidence of, specific concepts or theories. Why this did, or did not, occur within particular societies is left to the later chapters, but Raaflaub does present his two additional conditions for concepts and theories of peace to arise: the capacity for abstract and philosophical thinking, and the political and critical independence of said thinkers (30). Although the three conditions for potential peace theorising are reasonable, albeit narrow, it is unclear whether enacted politics fits into Raaflaub’s definition of concepts and theories of peace, which proves problematic for the later chapters.

Susanne Bickel’s chapter, ‘Concepts of Peace in Ancient Egypt’ (43-66), is the first of four to focus upon a specific civilisation, in order to test the overriding thesis and the conditions for peace outlined above. Beginning with Egyptian cosmology, Bickel succinctly details how antagonism was key to Egyptian ideological concerns over the cosmos (44-5). Maat, a goddess who represented order, justice and cohesion, acted as a linchpin to both cosmological and social order, but was forever threatened by disruptive forces, thereby requiring continual conflict to restore and maintain her (45-6). Consequently, Bickel argues Maat was not opposed to conflict or violence; rather, it was about the correct order of things, not the violent processes that were required to maintain it (46).

Building upon this, Bickel demonstrates how this cosmological narrative was closely intertwined with Egyptian state policy: it was a Pharaoh’s duty to maintain state order, which demanded the subduing of outside forces that could threaten Egypt’s stability (48-9). Subsequently, military campaigns against Egypt’s neighbours were frequently encouraged, rarely questioned and usually framed as defensive in nature (48, 52-8).

Bickel’s argument that this ideology prevented concepts and theories of peace from emerging within Egypt is convincing, up to a point. However, where the assumed dominance of Egyptian ideology comes unstuck is in her treatment of the Egyptian-Hittite treaty (c. 1259 BC). Despite emphasising that the traditional ideological superiority of Egypt was promoted internally (59-60), she offers no suggestion as to why this ideology did not hold back Ramesses’ II Realpolitik peace-making with the Hittites; indeed, if ideology was so vital to conceptualising and theorising peace, why was it so easily abandoned by the Pharaoh when the situation required?

‘Thinking about Peace in Ancient India’ (p. 67-97), by Johannes Bronkhorst, is an exploration of Brahmin and Buddhist ideological positions regarding power and the state, from approximately 300 BC to AD 1000. Brahmanism (69-73) is judged the more pragmatic of the two, concerned primarily with statecraft (69). Briefly considering key Brahmin texts, Bronkhorst emphasises that Brahmanism had a stratified vision of society, promoting conquest and thereby maintaining its position within ruling elite circles (70-2). Consequently, the author is at pains to emphasise that the Brahmins were not concerned primarily with peace; however, it is clear that they did envision peace, albeit through conquest and unification (69, 71). The rest of Bronkhorst’s paper is concerned with the Buddhist tradition (73-87). It surmises that Indian Buddhism did not at first concern itself with statecraft, but did so later, adopting Brahmin texts and their justifications for conflict; from this it is concluded that the Buddhists did not develop ideas about political peace (87).

Due to Bronkhorst’s focus, his concern is largely with how the two ideologies dealt with matters of the state, rather than peace itself. Furthermore, he is particularly concerned with refuting the myth that ancient Indian culture was non-violent. However, his assertion that ‘Indian antiquity has produced no credible ideas about political peace ’ (87) is even contradicted by his own conclusion, which admits that the Brahmins’ idea of peace obtained through conquest was actually achieved during certain periods of Indian history (88). While Bronkhorst is probably correct that the Brahmins were more concerned with their own position than with peace itself, this does not prove that they did not possess a working concept of peace, albeit one that Bronkhorst finds uncomfortable.

Robin Yates’s paper, ‘Searching for Peace in the Warring States’ (98-121), centres on the political schools and philosophers that arose during China’s Warring State Period (c. 500-221 BC). However, before discussing their thoughts on peace, Yates carefully examines how the conditions for these thinkers’ work arose, emphasising that it was the lead-up to the turbulent period that created the political and economic context for the rise of state advisers (101-2). It was these exact conditions that allowed thinkers not only to demand peace, but accordingly to contemplate what actual peace could be (104).

Yates provides a brief analysis regarding definitions of peace, highlighting that it can be defined with numerous conditions; in this, he emphasises that the Warring State Period thinkers, although considering peace, were more concerned specifically with order and disorder (105-6). Due to this, Chinese philosophers were deeply concerned with the ideal ruler, who, coincidentally, would bring about peace, much like the Brahmin thinkers of India (above). Peace, therefore, was primarily conceptualised through subordination and order, brought about by a strictly defined hierarchy (111).

In directly addressing Raaflaub’s three conditions for peace theorising, Yates notes that the debate over war and peace began in the 6 th century BC, not during the protracted warfare witnessed later; furthermore, the Chinese philosophers, due to their intimate ties to the ruling classes, did not possess much political independence when compared with those of Greece and Rome. Besides these marked differences from the book’s thesis, peace theorising occurred widely throughout the history of Chinese philosophy, which probably hinged on the fact that China was not yet a unified empire. With conflicting states and interests, much as in Greece, ideas of peace were perhaps more free to develop than within single empires like Egypt.

Kurt Raaflaub addresses ancient Greece within ‘Greek Concepts and Theories of Peace’ (122-57). From the start of Greek literature, the Iliad, he postulates that the Greeks had ‘developed procedures to … avoid war and resolve conflicts peacefully‘ (125), though they were not always successful. He goes on to explain that the Greeks had an on-going dialogue concerning peace, which can be found throughout their history and writing; this provides the primary focus for the rest of the chapter. Raaflaub first demonstrates this concern through enacted politics and political rhetoric, including inter- polis organisations and treaties, Isocrates’ ideas concerning peace, and Athens’ prevention of stasis after the fall of the Thirty oligarchs (127-33). For Raaflaub, these actions and thoughts reflect this underlying Greek discussion of peace, which as he goes on to demonstrate was taking place not only in philosophical circles, but within drama and the historians’ writings (134-44).

Raaflaub’s central argument is persuasive: that peace was a multifaceted issue within ancient Greece, that it had early origins, that it was discussed within numerous circles, and that there was an array of ideas and practices designed to tackle peace. Of all the four societies explored, ancient Greece appears to fit the underlying thesis particularly well. However, up until this chapter, enacted politics has been ignored in favour of ideological and philosophical positions regarding concepts and theories of peace; with the inclusion of Greek inter- polis organisations and treaties (common peace), this chapter changes the pitch. This is particularly problematic considering that Bickel disregards the Egyptian-Hittite peace-treaty as evidence for Egyptian peace theorising, which is ironic considering that it lasted longer than any known Greek treaty.

The Hellenistic period is also strikingly absent from the book, aside from a rather odd remark within Raaflaub’s conclusion, which asserts that ‘338/7 … ended an experiment … of independent collective “war and peace management” by an assemblage of free poleis.’ This ignores Hellenistic poleis ’ collective efforts to create peace, or at least durable independence, such as in the Achaean koinon, which for a certain time was completely independent of direct Macedonian influence (c. 281-226 BC). It also ignores the independent peace-making and arbitrations that poleis frequently undertook throughout the Hellenistic period, whether they were under Macedonian influence or not.3 Furthermore, this comment is at odds with Raaflaub’s analysis of the most famous Greek ‘common peace’, namely the King’s Peace of 387 BC, which was underpinned by the outside involvement of the Persian king and imposed by a hegemonic Spartan state.

Hans van Wees’s concluding chapter, ‘Broadening the Scope: Thinking about Peace in the Pre-Modern World’ (158-80), provides a broad categorisation framework for the different concepts of peace that developed in the aforementioned societies, dividing them into ‘universal peace’ (159-61), ‘inner peace’ (161-3) and ‘common peace’ (164-73). ‘Universal peace’ is outlined to be characteristic of empires, like Egypt, which envisioned a state of peace through a powerful ruler and coercive power. Oddly enough, van Wees does not place Indian thinkers, especially the Brahmins, within this category, even though they themselves, as noted by Bronkhorst, saw stability and peace as being attained by conquest and unification (cf. 69-73). Chinese thinkers are also mentioned, albeit very briefly.

Van Wees’s ‘inner peace’ is the counterpart of ‘universal peace’, which rejects peace attainment through violent coercion; rather, ‘inner peace’ is gained through the rejection of personal desires. Such ideas arose strongly within schools of Chinese, Indian (Buddhist) and Greek thinkers (161-3), in the so-called Axial Age. However, due the structure of such philosophy, ‘inner peace’ is primarily focused around the individual and the ideal, with the result that it took barely any political root. Van Wees is surely right, though, to emphasise that despite their political shortcomings, particularly in India and China, these new ideas did provide a new way of conceptualising peace as an idea, separately from militarily applied coercion.

The section on ‘common peace’, which occupies the bulk of van Wees’s paper, follows on from Raaflaub’s Greek chapter and focuses on Greek arbitration, treaties and inter-polis organisations. For van Wees, it is these political negotiations and the accompanying Greek attitudes that resemble most closely modern thinking regarding peace (164-5): that is, something to be negotiated between conflicting parties (164). An interesting insight offered by van Wees is that Greek historiography stands out as particularly distinctive, in that numerous Greek thinkers early on framed conflict around competing mortal interests, even when the gods were involved (165-7). Consequently, by the time Thucydides was analysing the Peloponnesian War, he did so in entirely secular terms (167). It is this distinctive inquiry concerning human interests running throughout Greek writing that van Wees sees as enabling the Greeks to develop complex peace processes, including their large common peace agreements, which saw numerous poleis sign up to a series of contractual terms. While admitting that the work on ancient peace is hardly finished, van Wees’s paper is an interesting contribution on ancient forms of peace theorising, particularly how unique and somewhat modern the Greeks’ ideas of peace were.

Considering how under-studied ancient peace is compared with conflict, this work is a welcome and important contribution to an increasingly topical subject; the issues addressed concern scholars not only in peace, but in international relations, state doctrines, philosophical schools and historiography, which provides the book with the benefit of a wide readership. By allowing for cultural comparisons, the book allows for a wider engagement concerning the issues that are usually omitted in political discussions of antiquity. However, the book’s strength proves also to be its greatest weakness: the sheer breadth and scope means that all four selected cultures are only provided with 20 pages or so to summarise their thinking concerning peace, sometimes over millennia. No matter how concise the discussion, details are going to be omitted in such a slim volume. Consequently, the claims made within each chapter require further elaboration through the consultation of more detailed, specialised publications. Raaflaub and the other scholars deserve credit for bringing this research gap to the forefront, with the next logical step being the development of larger, society-specific studies of peace, or at least particular periods of history, fleshing out the details covered, and adding those omitted, within this work.

Where the book falls short is the handling of peace itself, in both form and conception. Neither Raaflaub’s introduction nor his opening chapter deals directly with what peace is. Bickel is the first to do so, framing peace as the opposition to conflict or aggression (43). Bronkhorst has a different focus, namely whether peace theories are ‘politically credible’ (87), whereas Yates goes further by exploring the multitude of ways in which peace can be conceptualised (105-6). Such discussions could usefully have been put at the beginning of the work when the framework was being introduced. As such, each chapter has a slight variation in how peace is framed, adding a serious problem to the overall comparison between the cultural case-studies; fortunately, van Wees carefully deals with this shortfall in his discussion of peace categories. Furthermore, as mentioned above, how peace theories and concepts relate to enacted politics is never addressed. The result is that Bickel’s, Bronkhorst’s and Yates’s papers are predominantly focused upon philosophical positions, whereas Raaflaub’s and van Wees’s allow Greek arbitration, treaties and inter-polis organisations to contribute as evidence for Greek peace theorising. There is a subsequent disconnect and inconsistency here concerning peace, which ultimately lets the book down on what is an important premise. 4

Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors vii
Series Editor’s Preface ix
Introduction, Kurt A. Raaflaub 1
1 Abhorring War, Yearning for Peace: The Quest for Peace in the Ancient World, Kurt A. Raaflaub 12
2 Concepts of Peace in Ancient Egypt, Susanne Bickel 43
3 Thinking about Peace in Ancient India, Johannes Bronkhorst 67
4 Searching for Peace in the Warring States: Philosophical Debates and the Management of Violence in Early China, Robin D. S. Yates 98
5 Greek Concepts and Theories of Peace, Kurt A. Raaflaub 122
6 Broadening the Scope: Thinking about Peace in the Pre-Modern World, Hans Van Wees 158
Index 181


1. Reviewed in BMCR by Peter Hunt, BMCR 2008.01.53.

2. For analysis of Iroquois expansionism, see Diana Muir, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (Hanover, NH, 2002), 13; John Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods Iroquoia, 1534-1701 (East Lansing, MI, 2010), esp. 13, 14ff, 41ff; cf. Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (Oxford, 1994) and Paul A. W. Wallace, Indians in Pennsylvania (University Park, PA, 2007).

3. See Sheila Ager, Interstate Arbitrations in the Greek World, 337-90 B.C. (Berkley, CA, 1996) in particular for evidence of collective poleis peace-making and arbitration processes. On Hellenistic Greek leagues or koina, including the Achaean koinon, see in particular J. A. O. Larsen, Greek Federal States: Their Institutions and History (Oxford, 1968) and Emily Mackil, Creating a Common Polity. Religion, Economy, and Politics in the Making of the Greek Koinon (Berkeley, CA, 2013); see also Beck and Funke (eds.), Federalism in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015).

4. From a technical standpoint, the book suffers from editorial issues. The index features only proper names, with occasional incorrect reference locators. Regarding the papers, some rely heavily on secondary references in regard to primary material, which proves frustrating for locating particular material evidence; there are also missing references within the bibliographies.