Chapter 4

Thinking about war

After 9/11 the one remaining superpower declared a ‘war on terrorisin’. A manifestation of this has been two largely ‘conventional’ wars which have resulted in ‘regime change’ in two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. Warfare, in its different forms, is something that affects everyone now, and something we all need to know about. Thinking about the morality of the then forthcoming war in Traq, the eminent philosopher Richard Sorabji considered the views, among others, of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and early Christian thinkers. The thinkers of the classical world were much concerned with war, and their ideas on the causes of war, its justifications, and its acceptable limits, the subjects of this chapter, not only tell us about the past, but can inform modern discussions and attitudes.

Classical Greeks

The great historians of classical Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides, each took a war as their central theme: respectively the Persian War (480-479 bc) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 tic). They analysed the causes of these wars. For Herodotus, revenge, kinship, and obligation were key motivating forces in history. To explain how the Persians of Asia came to fight the Greeks of Europe first he canvassed a series of mythical wrongs done by either side. Deciding that he could not judge the truth or falsity of these myths, Herodotus chose to begin where he claimed his own knowledge started.

Croesus of Lydia (in Asia Minor) decided to attack the new power of Persia. With the defeat of Croesus (547 bc), the Greeks of Ionia (now the Aegean coast of Turkey) came under the rule of Persia. When the Ionian Greeks revolted (499-494 bc), their kinsmen the Athenians aided them. This prompted the Persian expedition to Marathon (490 bc), and defeat there caused the main invasion of 480-479 bc. Herodotus gives various reasons for Croesus’ action which starts the whole chain of events. One level of explanation is human, including Croesus’ desire both for a pre-emptive strike and revenge for Persian treatment of his brother-in-law. The other level is divine. It fulfils a divine promise of revenge on the Lydian royal house. The two levels are not seen as contradictory, but complementary.

Thucydides downplayed the role of the divine in his history to just Tyche, chance or fortune. In his analysis of the causes of the Peloponnesian war, Thucydides famously distinguished between the publicly expressed causes of complaint and the ‘truest’ reason, the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta. Although rather different from those looked for by modern historians, the analyses of the causes of these specific wars given by Herodotus and Thucydides are plausible and sophisticated. Neither, however, is particularly concerned with the justice of the wars they narrate, or offers any explicit discussion of the causes of war in general.

We might expect to find more general discussions of war in the works of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. They concerned themselves with war, discussing who should participate in war, their education, the strategic site and defensive works of the ideal state, and its military command and organization. They did discuss problems of justice within warfare, such as the rewards and punishments due to one’s own combatants, and the treatment of the enemy. Yet neither produced an extended or systematic discussion on the justice of war. The nearest they came were their infamous views on Greeks fighting barbarians, based on the ethnographic stereotypes we explored in Chapters 1 and 2, and these received just a summary outline. For Plato in the Republic (469b-47lb), wars between Greeks and barbarians were natural, while those between Greeks were not. As such, restraint should be exercised in the latter, but not the former. Greeks should not enslave each other, and this would encourage them to turn on barbarians. Aristotle in the Politics (1333b38-1334a2) claimed military training had three objectives: to prevent those being trained becoming slaves, to win a leadership which would serve the interests of those being led (that is, other Greeks), and to enslave those who deserve to be slaves (that is, barbarians). The latter glances back to the opening of the Politics where Aristotle had worked out his theory of natural slavery.

Partly from the prescriptions of the philosophers, and partly from the narratives of historians, we can form an impression of what constituted the norms of acceptable behaviour in war. Sanctuaries and internationally recognized festivals (such as the Olympic Games) were meant to be inviolate. Yet pragmatic reasons could over-ride the ideology. Sanctuaries contained wealth and were often tactical strong-points. Only heralds appear almost always to have enjoyed immunity. It was widely accepted that prisoners of war could be ransomed or enslaved. Whether it was acceptable to put prisoners to death was more debatable. After the sack of a city, the conquerors were completely within their rights to kill the men, and enslave the women and children. Killing the non-combatants, however, was morally dubious.

The idea of just and unjust wars seems to have been common currency in Greek political discourse. For example, the orator Isocrates advised the Cypriot king Nicocles never to fight unjust wars (To Nicocles, 24). Yet what made a war just or unjust was seldom elaborated. A 4th-century dialogue featuring Socrates, which in antiquity was ascribed, probably wrongly, to Plato (Alcibiades, 1), held that an unlawful war was one that was fought when the enemy had done no wrong. The sort of wrongs that might make for a just war were deceit, violence, or spoliation. It is to be noted that the wrong committed does not have to be a real or potential attack. Deceit is a wrong. In classical Greek thought, unlike in most modern theories, just wars do not have to be wars of self-defence.

The failure of the Greeks to produce extended and systematic theory on the just war might suggest that they thought war was the normal state of humanity, and thus did not call for elaborate theorizing. In the Laws Plato makes one of the speakers hold just that position: ‘what most people call “peace” is nothing but a word, and in fact every city-state is at all times, by nature, in a condition of undeclared war with every other city-state’ (626a). But Plato introduces this argument into the dialogue to demolish it. The character who speaks it mocks the ignorance of the majority because they hold the opposite view (625e).

The Greeks’ lack of extensive theorizing on the justice of war probably did not stem from a belief that war was the normal state of affairs. Instead, the need for an elaborate ideology was weak because the causes of war were thought to be self-evident, were widely agreed, and were thought to be inherent to humanity. Most Greek authors agreed that the causes of war were the desire for profit, the pursuit of honour, and self-defence. As Thucydides made the Athenians say, it was all down to security, honour, and self-interest (1.76.2; and look again at the passage of Aristotle’s Politics above). The causes of war thus were unproblematic for the Greeks. Equally, as there was no time limit on pointing to wrongs done, and all Greek cities were enmeshed in webs of kinship and alliance, a reason for a just war was usually to hand. The enemy, or their allies, had at some point committed a wrong towards your own people, or their allies. Such a claim need have involved no hypocrisy on the part of those invoking it.

Republican Romans

With the Romans of the Republic we seem to find systematic and formalized thinking about the ‘just war’. In the process of acquiring a large and stable empire, above all after their conquest of the Greek east in the 2nd century bc, the Romans came to feel the need to justify their possession of such a power, and thus of the wars that had won it. Our best evidence comes from a fragmentary work by Cicero, but, as we will see, the views expressed probably are not atypical.

In book three of his Republic, Cicero wrote that the ideal state should not undertake a war unless to keep faith (Jides), or for its safety/health (solus, 3.34). In another passage it was stated that a just war must have a cause, either revenge or defence (3.35). These should not be interpreted as justifying only wars of self-defence, or defence of allies. They are included, but the statements imply much more. Fides included a commitment by Rome to defend her allies. But the concept went both ways: the allies should keep faith with Rome. From the 2nd century bc onwards, Romans thought of all their allies as subservient, what we would call ‘client states’, and any people who had had diplomatic dealings with Rome could be thought to fall into this category. Failure by an ally to comply with the wishes of Rome constituted a breach of faith, and thus Roman ‘revenge’ would be a just war. It did not end there. Any injury to Rome, not only an attack on it or its allies, could call for revenge. A hostile attitude, or even the mere existence of a foreign power, could be considered a threat to the solus of Rome, and thus Roman aggression could be a just war.

In another passage preserved from the Republic, Cicero said that no war was just unless it had been declared (denuntio), a formal warning given (indictio), and reparations demanded (rerum repetitio). Here the reference is to the rituals of a Roman college of priests called the Fetiales, who were in charge of declaring war. Although we cannot be sure when they were founded, or how continuous was their existence, the Fetiales did reveal Roman attitudes. The Romans believed that in their original form the rituals consisted of the three stages which Cicero gives in reverse chronological order; the demand for reparations coming first. The rituals imply that the other side has committed a wrong towards Rome (how else could reparations be demanded?), but not necessarily that this has been an attack on Rome or an ally. Also, it is Rome that sets the level of reparations to be paid, and these could be set at a level that it was known the other side could not meet. Rather than as a strong break on aggressive war-making, these rituals should be seen as a formalized way of putting the dispute before a tribunal of the gods. The gods’ verdict came in the outcome of the war. If the victor was Rome, then the war had been just. After victory Rome often forced the vanquished to reimburse the costs of the war. By so doing the other side was made to acknowledge that Rome’s cause had been just.

Civil war

The threat of civil war was ever present in the classical world, and it posed severe ideological problems. As Herodotus put it (7.102.1), Greece and poverty had always been foster-sisters. The unequal distribution of limited resources and the resulting division of the population in all Greek cities into a large number of the ‘poor’ and a much smaller group of the ‘rich’ meant that there was always potential for what the Greeks called stasis (civil strife or war). During the 5th century bc stasis became politicized into conflict between those who favoured government by the many (democracy) and those who desired rule by the few (oligarchy). From the Peloponnesian War (431-404 bc) onwards, there was an increased readiness both for politicians within cities to call for outside intervention in times of stasis and for external powers to answer these appeals. Athens, and later Thebes, tended to favour democrats, while Sparta, and later Macedonia, normally backed oligarchs.

Our best evidence for an outbreak of stasis in a Greek city is Thucydides’ account (3.69-85) of events in Corcyra (Corfu) in 427 bc. The stasis escalated from disputes in the law courts. In this case it was the oligarchs who first resorted to violence, but it was the democrats who carried out the worst atrocities.

There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there.

(Thucydides 3.81, tr. R. Warner)

Thucydides wrote up these events at length not so much because of their intrinsic importance, but more because the stasis at Corcyra was the first big outbreak during the Peloponnesian War, and thus he could use it as a peg on which to hang general reflections on the phenomenon. As the passage quoted above partially shows, Thucydides thought that stasis involved not just political breakdown, but also social, religious, and moral collapse. Even language changed; for example, thoughtless aggression became courage. The leaders of the opposed factions invoked admirable-sounding motives, equality for the many or sound government, but these were just covers for self-seeking. The episode was written up as a support for one of Thucydides’ key themes; that the war had brutalized the Greek character. Thucydides considered that such stasis could always happen while human nature remained the same, but it would be less severe in time of external peace, because, in his famous phrase, ‘war is a violent teacher’.

Things looked very different if you were a participant in civil war. Although its foundation myth included fratricide, as Romulus killed Remus, and after the internal conflicts which brought down the Republican form of government civil war haunted the Roman imagination, Rome during most of its history was rather better than Greek cities at avoiding civil war, possibly in part because of its relentless militarism towards other powers. Yet at times civil war was a real as well as ideological threat. The years 63 to 62 bc saw the ‘conspiracy of Catiline’, which ended in armed conflict. We have better documentation for this episode than for most, but ironically this makes evaluation all the harder. Our main source is Cicero, and he claimed for himself the role of chief opponent of the conspiracy. Even before the beginning of armed conflict, in his speeches In Catilinam (Against Catiline) Cicero described the conspiracy as a *war’. The ‘war’ against Catiline was depicted as a war against luxury, madness, and crime (2.11). It was a war of virtue against vice (2.25). Other civil wars had been bad, but nothing compared to this one. In others the aim was a change of government, here the intention was the destruction of the state (3.24-5). Not only had they tried to recruit barbarian Gauls into the plot, but the conspirators themselves had become like barbarians: they were marked by criminal audacity (audacia), impious crime (scelus), and mad rage (Juror, 1.31 etc.). In civil war it was necessary to show that your opponents had given up the right to be treated as fellow citizens; instead, being like barbarians or even worse (3.25), they deserved to be declared enemies (hostes) of the state. To fight another Roman it helped if you could show that he was not a Roman at all!

About twenty years after the conspiracy, the Latin historian Sallust wrote a pair of monographs to illustrate the moral decline of Rome: the ‘War against Catiline’ (Bellum Catilinae) and ‘War against Jugurtha’ (Bellum lugurthinurri). Modelling his style on Thucydides, in the ‘War against Catiline’ Sallust condemned the way in which political leaders cloaked their self-interest in a language of the public good (38). For Sallust, however, it was not external war that encouraged civil war, but rather its absence.

Peace and prosperity had led to first a lust for money, then a lust for power (10). This was the distinctively Roman concept of the necessity of an enemy to fear. As Sallust expressed it in the ‘War against Jugurtha’ before the destruction of Carthage ‘there was no strife among the citizens either for glory or for power: fear of the enemy [metus hostilis] preserved the good morals of the state’ (41).

Greeks under Rome

The circumstances of Greek philosophers under the Roman principate were very different from those in earlier ages. They were now ruled by a non-Greek autocrat, the Roman emperor. This autocracy was stable; individual emperors might be removed, but there was no realistic likelihood of the system being changed. It claimed rule over all the world, or at least the best part of it, and, with the exception of the occasional civil war, had banished war to distant frontiers, where it was fought by professional soldiers. We have already seen one effect of these altered circumstances. While Plato and Aristotle had a respect for warriors, Greek philosophers under the principate usually regarded them with a mixture of antipathy, contempt, and fear. Views on war itself also changed. Two of these views will be looked at here.

Classical philosophers had condemned wars for glory or gain, but not ones for self-defence, and thus had never sought to deny the existence of the just war. Under the principate philosophers continued to criticize wars for self-interest or ambition. But now they went further. Both Dio Chrysostom (Or. 80.3) and Epictetus (4.1.171-2) denied the validity of wars fought for political freedom, which logically denies the validity of wars of self-defence, and casts into doubt the validity of any war at all. Various reasons can be given for this flirtation with pacifism. Rejecting the legitimacy of wars of self-defence might be considered easier if there is no likely chance of having to fight one. Also these men were adherents of Stoicism, the dominant school of philosophy in the principate. For a Stoic, what did not affect the inner man was an irrelevance. So war, which they believed was a disturbance of cosmic harmony caused by man’s wickedness or wrong judgement (and these amounted to much the same), and its horrors, such as death and enslavement, were irrelevant to a good man. Epictetus held that death lay outside the moral purpose (3.3.15), and Dio Chrysostom wrote two orations (15 and 16) to show that ‘stone walls do not a prison make’.

Given their strong metaphysical objections to war, it is a surprise to find that one of these Stoics, Dio Chrysostom in his second oration On Kingship, could produce a cover-all justification for war. His argument ran as follows. The king (or the emperor) rules because he has complete virtue {arete). The most important element of this was love of mankind (philanthropia), which manifested itself in his giving benefits to his subjects. Thus if the king came across a tyrant he should defeat him so that in future he could give benefits to the ex-subjects of the tyrant. Equally, he should fight any other king. The winner would be shown to have the greater virtue, and would thus give greater benefits to the ex-subjects of the defeated. Although it is obviously flawed, as it imagines wars resolved by single combat between rulers and that all wars will end in total conquest, this elegant theory was to have a long and dangerous history.

Christians under Rome

Christians have always had a problem with war. How can the bloodthirsty Old Testament be reconciled with the pacifist New Testament? As we have seen, early Christians, such as Tertullian and Origen, inclined to pacifism, allegorizing away the endless ‘smiting’ by God and his chosen people in the Old Testament. Not wishing to antagonize the pagan authorities, they claimed that, while they would not fight in temporal wars, their prayers for the health of the empire formed them into a spiritual army. This, unsurprisingly, cut no ice with the pagans. It was precisely the Christians’ prayers to their one God, and thus not to all the others, that threatened the Pax: Deorum (divine peace) on which the empire rested. With the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine (reigned ad 307-337) everything changed. Pacifism was not a realistic option for a religion of empire.

Although it is uncertain how influential his views were with his direct contemporaries, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo ad 395-430, was by far the most influential writer in the development of late antique and medieval Western thinking about war. Not knowing Greek, Augustine did not draw directly on the works of pagan Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. But, well read in Latin literature, he did use Cicero. Although, as far as we know, Augustine never produced an extended and systematic discussion of war, in passages scattered in various works he tried to show that it was acceptable for Christians to engage in warfare. He accepted from Cicero and the Roman tradition that a just war must be in response to a wrong committed by the other side (Questions cm the Heptateuch 6.10). From Old Testament history he produced evidence that the wrong did not have to be an attack (ib. 4.44). For this Christian, as for pagans, a just war was not limited to one of self-defence.

Two elements in Augustine’s thinking were distinctively Christian. First was an appeal to authority. While a private killing, even in self-defence, was not acceptable, it was for a soldier who had a lawful commission to take life (Letter 47.5).

Since, then, a righteous man who happens to be serving under an ungodly sovereign can rightfully protect the public peace by engaging in combat at the latter’s command when he receives an order that is either not contrary to God’s law or is a matter of doubt (in which case it may be that the sinful command involves the sovereign in guilt whereas the soldier’s subordinate role makes him innocent), how much more innocent is involvement in war on the part of him who fights at the command of God who, as everyone who serves him knows, cannot command anything that is evil.

(Against Faustus 22.75, tr. L. J. Swift)

Here part (and only part) of the responsibility is shifted to the ruler. The implication is that if the ungodly ruler issues a command which obviously is contrary to God’s law, the soldier who obeys would be guilty. Stemming from the Christian division of temporal and spiritual power, and the wars started by barbarian invaders which Augustine lived through, this appeal to authority had no echo in earlier pagan thinking on war.

The second distinctive element in Augustine’s thinking is a distinction between inner disposition and outward, bodily action.

It is the state of mind of the participants that is all-important: ‘It should be necessity, not desire, that destroys the enemy in battle’

(Letter 189.6). In this passage God allows war in order to bring peace, in another God sends war to correct men’s morals (City of God 1.1), and in a third it is a greater glory to destroy wars with a word than enemies by the sword (Letter 229.2). Yet, if fought in the right Christian frame of mind, it could almost become a duty to fight others for their own good.

If the state observes the precepts of Christian religion, even its wars will not be conducted without the benevolent design that, after the resisting nations have been conquered, provision may be more easily made for enjoying in peace the mutual bond of piety and justice.

(Letter 138.14)

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