Roads from Rome


Inventing Civil War: The Roman Tradition

Civil war was not a fact of nature, waiting to be discovered. It was an artifact of human culture that had to be invented. That invention, a little over two thousand years old, can be dated quite closely to the first century B.C.E. The Romans were not the first to suffer internal conflict but they were the first to experience it as civil war. Perhaps having been first to define what was “civil”—meaning, among fellow citizens—they inevitably understood their most wrenching conflicts in definitively political terms, as clashes among citizens that rose to the level of war. Those elements would remain at the heart of concepts of civil war for much of its history.

Thus, having conceived the “civil” and then joined it—reluctantly, paradoxically, but irreversibly—to the idea of war, the Romans created the unstable, fissile compound that remains disturbingly with us today: “civil war.” The inventor is unknown. He—and it must have been a man, because he was surely a Roman citizen—joined together two distinct ideas to make an explosive new amalgam. No one before that obscure Roman had yoked these two elements together.

The Greeks had a clear understanding of war, or what they called polemos—from which many modern languages derive the fighting word “polemical.” But they imagined the “wars” within their own communities as “something completely different” from what the Romans had.1 This is not to say that there was an unbridgeable chasm between Roman and Greek ideas of internal strife. Roman writers sometimes attributed the origins of their own political divisions to the importation of dangerous Greek notions like “democracy.”2 The primal Greek historian Thucydides influenced his successors among Roman writers, most notably Sallust, “the rival of Thucydides” (as another Roman chronicler called him).3 And in the first century C.E., Roman historians writing in Greek naturally used Greek terms to describe Rome’s civil wars.4 And yet, despite these continuities, the Romans were sure they were experiencing something new, for which they needed a new name: civil war, or, in Latin, bellum civile.

For the Romans, war had traditionally implied something quite specific. It was an armed conflict, in a just cause and fought against an external enemy. Mere aggression did not count, for that could hardly be just. Nor did individual violence rise to the level of war, because that could not be constrained by the laws of war, which the Romans had. And the enemy (hostis) was by definition unfamiliar, either from outside Rome or at least beyond the community of free Roman citizens: Romans fought wars against slaves, like the great leader of the slave revolt Spartacus, and they battled against pirates in the Mediterranean; they also warred against enemies on their frontiers, such as Parthians and Carthaginians. What made “civil” war so different was that the enemies were all too familiar and could even be thought of as familial: it was one’s fellow citizens—or cives—who were on the other side. Such a war, then, challenged the standard Roman criteria, their very definition of war, to the breaking point. The enemies were not others; they were, in effect, the same. And it was hard to see a struggle against them as just when it so obviously affronted their conception of just war, which implied a legitimate enemy as well as a proper cause for self-defense.

The resulting idea of civil war was deliberately paradoxical: a war that could not be a war, fought against enemies who were not really enemies. In the propaganda battles during Rome’s civil wars, the competing sides trumpeted the rightness of their cause to win support and also to assimilate their conflicts to the conventional understanding of war as fought for a just cause.5 To call this kind of war “civil” followed the Romans’ practice of naming their wars after the opponents they were fighting.6 This tradition lasted into the nineteenth century, with the “Napoleonic Wars” in Europe and Britain’s “Zulu War,” “Boer Wars,” and “Māori Wars,” for example.7 It has not persisted into our own time; even in the United States, there are few who would now call the U.S. Civil War “Mr. Lincoln’s War,” and no one there, or anywhere else for that matter, called the Gulf Wars “Saddamic” wars. In the West, we generally give wars the names of the places where they are fought, and so we have the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the first and second Gulf Wars, and even the “world” wars of the twentieth century.

This is not to say that the Romans never thought of their wars in terms of geography, only that they more typically named them for the opposing ruler or people. In this way, they called the three wars they fought against Carthage in the third and second centuries B.C.E. the “Punic” Wars, the Carthaginians being descendants of the Phoenicians, or Poeni; a later war against the North African king Jugurtha in 112–105 B.C.E. would be named the “Jugurthine” War. In the years 91–89 B.C.E., Rome also struggled with its various allies, or socii, in Italy over the question of extending the full rights of citizenship throughout the peninsula; collectively, those contentions became known as the Social War. Likewise, the military efforts to crush slave revolts, most notably that of Spartacus in Sicily in 71 B.C.E., were known as the Servile Wars, or the wars against slaves (servi).8Each of these terms would have an intermittent afterlife, as, for instance, when writers during the American Revolution compared the revolt of the British American colonists to the Social War or slaveholders spoke of the threat of “servile war” in the early nineteenth-century U.S. South. Neither, however, would take root as firmly or enduringly as “civil war.”

The Romans adopted the idea of civil war reluctantly at first. For a long time, they used it only with trepidation. They faced it as something novel and unsettling, and it still takes a feat of the imagination to recall just why civil war was originally so disturbing and invoked only with fear. “ ‘Civil war’ in English has lost the paradoxical sense it held in Rome,” one scholar of the Roman tradition has noted. There “the distinction between ciues and non-ciues was a crucial determinant of status, obligations, and rights” in a way that was not clear before the Roman invention. It left only ghostly etymological traces that can now barely be discerned.9

For the Romans, civil war was the subversion of city-dwelling civilization. Yet there was also an enduring and disturbing strain of Roman history that suggested there was a tight relationship between civil war and civilization itself. These conflicts came back so often across the history of the republic and into the early empire that they appeared to be woven into the fabric of Roman public life. For this reason, the Romans were at pains to explain the causes of their civil wars. They soon saw links between occurrences and likened them to natural phenomena, like the activity of a volcano, which could fall dormant after an eruption but with no certainty that it would not explode again. Seen in this light, Rome’s history appeared to be nothing less than a series of civil wars and the brief moments of calm between them. This created a narrative—in fact, a set of narratives—of civilization as prone to civil war, even cursed by it—that would last for centuries and inform later understandings of civil war across early modern and modern Europe and beyond.

At this point, we should ask just what conception of internal conflict there was before the Romans invented their ideas of civil war. The Romans themselves had two places to look for answers to that question: in the history of the city-states of ancient Greece and in their own early history, all the way back to the founding of the city of Rome. In the Greek past, especially Athenian history, they would have found something that looked like civil war, but they did not recognize it as being the same as their own turmoils. Nor could they find the thing itself in the early Roman past, though they could uncover some of its roots—that is, the moral and often immoral causes that had ultimately led Rome to perhaps its most destructive innovations. Out of their analyses of the long-term causes of civil war emerged a set of historical narratives to explain the present and predict the future. All of these stories were highly political, and therefore all highly contested. To see why, let us look first at the Greek and Roman histories of internal conflict in turn.


Conceptions of civil war have changed with understandings of civilization and of war itself. For much of its history, civil war has been closely associated with ideas of the city. This should not be at all surprising if we recall that the very foundations of Western ideas of both civilization and politics derive directly from the experience of organizing human beings into the complex, highly ordered, and often tightly bounded communities we call cities. For the Greeks, the city was the polis, the self-sustaining paradigmatic community described by Aristotle and others, from whose name we still derive the word “politics.” For their Roman heirs, the city was the civitas, inhabited by citizens or cives, whom we distantly commemorate every time we use words like “civil,” “civility,” and “civilization.”10 By no coincidence, for the last two thousand years, the city has frequently been the stage for civil war, that contention between citizens who are also (as the name suggests) city dwellers.11 Civil wars were struggles between citizens, then, but they were also often fought within cities, actual as well as imagined.

For classical thinkers, the city was a metaphysical space as much as it was a physical place—Athens or Rome within its civic boundaries, for example. It was a zone of cooperation and peace, where humans could cultivate their humanity under the rule of law. It was increasingly distant from the perils and incivility of wild nature, literal and figurative, because the city was constructed and maintained to keep the threats of irrationality, savagery, and animality at bay, outside its bounds.12 When such evils returned, it was in the form of violence that broke into the pale of civilization itself. That is the reason why so much of the imagery of civil wars, from classical times to the present, has reflected barbarism, bestiality, and inhumanity, the very picture of nature red in tooth and claw.

Greek thinking about politics prized harmony above all other values, at least to judge by the broadly aristocratic defenses of city life we have from Plato and Aristotle. “Do we know of any greater evil for a polis than the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one,” asks Socrates in Plato’s dialogue The Republic, “or a greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?”13 This would be at the heart of Plato’s vision of the ideal city, in which the balance of an individual soul mirrored the ideal balance of elements within the polis itself. And if harmony was the greatest good, then division would be the greatest evil.

The Greek name for the evil that divided the polis was stasis. Like the Roman conception of civil war, stasis was founded on a paradox. The word is the root of “static,” and one of its literal meanings was the absence of movement; however, another meaning was “position” or “standing,” and hence by implication “taking a stand” in a political dispute.14 (It can even mean a literal place to stand patiently; stasis is still the term for bus stop in Modern Greek.) But the meaning that concerns us here is the one connected with the idea of the polis, as a condition in that most fundamental and natural community. As a hostile and divisive political stance, one defying the polis’s unity and common purpose, stasis also became synonymous with faction, partisanship, and something close to what would later be called civil war: close, but not in fact the same thing. For the Athenians, politics—as an art of rule, the mechanism for distributing honor and office among citizens, and as the means to manage conflicting interests for the public good and without bloodshed—was in effect the cure for stasis and its replacement.

Stasis for the Greeks remained a state of mind rather than an act of physical resistance. It might lead to war, or even arise from war, but it did not in itself entail actual warfare; in this sense, it could mean what we might call a standoff or impasse without actual aggression or combat.15And the Greeks never qualified stasis with any adjective implying a political or legal definition of those who stood on each side of the internal division. In short, it was not “civil,” nor did it necessarily entail the presence of “war.”

The Greeks did however distinguish between two particular kinds of struggles: division within the polis, and war between political communities. They did not treat the distinction systematically, but it was a meaningful one for them. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon, his partner in the fictional dialogue, that those who would defend the ideal city he envisages should respect the distinction between Greeks, who are friendly and civilized, and barbarians, who are hostile and alien; if Greeks fight against fellow Greeks, they should not destroy their lands or burn their houses as they might when battling barbarians. The boundary between Greeks and barbarians was, thus, also the border between the two kinds of conflicts—one among Greeks, the other with outsiders. According to Plato, conflict among “the friendly and the kindred” was called faction or, in Greek, stasis; conflict with “the alien and the foreign” was instead war, or polemos.16

Similarly, in Plato’s very last work, the Laws, the Athenian—a character who seems to voice Plato’s own views—questions whether anyone setting up a polis would want to organize it to face the threat of warfare from without: “Would he not much rather pay regard to the internal warfare which arises, from time to time, within the city, and is called, as you know, stasis—a kind of war any man would desire never to see in his own city?” The Athenian goes on to draw a contrast between stasis, “the most dangerous kind of war…[and] the other, and much milder form…[which] is that waged when we are at variance with external aliens.”17

The ancient Greeks also spoke of stasis emphylos, a faction or division within the community bound by blood and kinship, phylos being the word for family or clan. But they used the word “war” (polemos) for their most dangerous discords, even intra-communal, though they did so in a way that was different from later Roman conceptions. When conflict took place within the community, they called it a war within the extended clan, or emphylios polemos. In much later centuries, Byzantine historians would use this term to describe armed conflicts within the empire, though they rarely deployed it referring to contentions with fellow Christians, and by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it had lost its strictly cultural or ethnic connotations.18 The expression also persists in Modern Greek usage, for example to describe the divisive conflicts in Greece between 1944 and 1949.19

The idea of community shifted somewhat, depending on context. Plato, as we have heard, distinguished firmly between contentions among Greeks, on the one hand, and wars against barbarians, on the other. Wars between Greek communities—like that between the Athenians and the Spartans and their respective allies chronicled by the historian Thucydides—were in the nature of conflicts within a single extended family.20 This blurs the later distinction between what the Romans would call civil wars—those taking place within a single political community—and wars between states or cities. For the time being, as Plato’s Socrates observes in the Republic, they will “regard any difference with Greeks who are their own people as a form of stasis and refuse even to speak of it as war.”21

The classic Greek account of stasis appears in the third book of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. This is the episode of the seditions in Corcyra (the Ionian island known as Corfu) in 427 B.C.E. invoked by countless modern commentators as the primal image of civil war itself. As Thucydides relates, in the course of the war between Sparta and Athens, Corcyra had changed sides to support the Athenians; four years into the struggle, a group of Corcyrean captives were sent back to their home city to stir up revolt and to persuade the city to restore its earlier alliance with Corinth. The diplomatic division between Sparta and Athens followed the political split within Corcyra between the pro-Athenian democrats, who supported the rule of the common people, and the oligarchs, who supported the alliance with Corinth.

The fifth column of released Corcyrean prisoners tried to overturn the alliance with Athens by peaceful means but failed to persuade the assembly of Corcyra. They then tried to have the leader of the democrats, Peithias, prosecuted for enslaving Corcyra to Athens. That move also failed. When Peithias struck back against his accusers, they killed him with sixty of his allies. The oligarchs temporarily won out over the democrats, but after the arrival of a Corinthian galley an uneasy truce broke out into open factional fighting.

Thus war between foreign cities stirred the internal seditions between the two groups who skirmished from the different parts of Corcyra they had respectively occupied. Each tried to secure the support of the city’s slaves with promises of emancipation. The slaves chose the democratic faction, who, aided by the Athenians, gained the upper hand. The arrival of fleets from both Corinth and Athens further increased tensions, before a détente was reached, only to explode after an even larger fleet came from Athens. With that, the democrats launched a reign of terror that would become a historical byword for political subversion and the upending of established order. As the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it in his classic translation of Thucydides in 1629, “All formes of death were then seene…For the Father slew his Sonne; men were dragged out of the Temples, and then slaine hard by; and some immured in the Temple of Bacchus, dyed within it. So cruell was this Sedition.”22 It is notable that Hobbes nowhere uses the translation “civil war” in his version of the Eight Bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre; indeed, not until the nineteenth century would the words become the commonplace equivalent of Thucydides’s own terms in later versions.23

Thucydides had portrayed stasis as a disease that spread through the cities of Greece.24 In time of war, these divided communities became more vulnerable to the infection than they would have been in peacetime: “War taking away the affluence of daily necessaries, is a most violent Master, and conformeth most mens passions to the present occasion.” The symptoms of the disease were manifold. Evil deeds were commended, not decried. Laws were ignored, lawlessness reigning in their place. Oaths were broken. Fraud, dishonesty, and revenge prevailed, and all manner of crimes became causes for pride, not shame. “The received value of names imposed for signification of things, was changed to arbitrary”: foolhardiness became courage; modesty, cowardice; and wisdom, laziness. Truly, this was a world turned upside down. “Thus was wickednesse on foot in every kind, throughout all Greece, by the occasion of their sedition,” as Hobbes’s translation has it.25

In his treatment of stasis, Thucydides consistently distinguishes the war between Sparta and Athens from the strife within Corcyra. His account would be so influential on later theorists of civil war in part because he demonstrated how the strains of external warfare could encourage internal division, but his survey of the causes that connected them never identified the two forms of violence with each other. War, or polemos, was the activity of cities and their rulers, leading armies or navies against their enemies. Faction, or stasis, took place within the polis between sharply divided groups without such formal military arrays and often wielding little more than what came to hand, such as the roof tiles hurled by women against the oligarchs early in the seditions of Corcyra.26 The parties were wrestling for control of the city, as they would later in Rome, but in the Greek cases questions of legitimacy did not arise.

In Thucydides’s account, what matters is the larger moral breakdown of the polis itself. There could be no question of arguing a just cause when all justice is shattered and stable moral criteria no longer applied. Nor is the scale of violence remotely that of the armies later assembled in the Roman civil wars, in which whole legions were deployed, with control of not just a city but whole provinces at stake. The sheer scale of Rome’s conflicts and the areas over which they were fought would have been unimaginably vast to the Greeks. It was, in fact, only when conflict overflowed the bounds of the city that it became civil war—a war among citizens that engulfed the city but could not be contained by it. Nothing on that level, or of that kind, afflicted the Greeks in the times chronicled by Thucydides.27

Moreover, in the Greek setting, the parties did not consider each other formal enemies. But nor did they see each other within the categories of citizenship that defined Roman conceptions of civil violence. “Many writers call the Peloponnesian war…the great civil war of Greece,” noted the English essayist Thomas De Quincey in 1844. “ ‘Civil’!—it might have been such, had the Grecian states had a central organ which claimed a common obedience.”28 Without that political unity, then, there could be no common citizenship, either legal or political. And without such a conception of citizenship, there could be no “war” between citizens—no civil war. As Thucydides’s most recent and most authoritative English translator wisely remarks, “The usual translation of stasis as ‘civil war’ seems anachronistic and inappropriate to the scale of these conflicts.”29 For all these reasons, and despite any imputed resemblance, stasis for the Greeks was simply not equivalent to the Romans’ bellum civile.

Every conception of civil war is paradoxical in its own way. The Greek paradox was different from the one the Romans would face. Assuming the ethnic or even genetic unity of the people divided, Thucydides paints stasis as an affliction common to all Greeks and destined to sunder all their communities in ways that “shall be ever as long as humane nature is the same.”30 To conceive of faction this way has at least the redeeming feature of implying a community sufficiently well integrated to confront the challenge. It was understood to be unified fundamentally, before politics, and beyond law, because all its members were descended from the same ancestors. Belonging to the city was thus a hereditary matter, not an acquired status, and so divisions did not need to be defined legally and politically, as they would be at Rome.31 In this way, the Greeks could conceive of a war within the household, or the polis, if understood as an agglomeration of households; this was what they called a domestic war (oikeois polemos).32 What they could not conceive of was a war within the polis understood metaphysically; that would have been like being at war with oneself.

The Romans were well aware that their own internal dissensions were different—horrifyingly so—from those suffered by the Greeks. The Greeks never spoke of a political war, a politikos polemos; it was almost literally inconceivable in Greek. The Romans alone would bear the guilt of inventing civil war and of learning how to tell its stories and determining what its history meant.


Instead of looking back to the strife of Greece for answers to their questions about internal conflict, Romans could also turn to the early history of their own commonwealth. Every kind of political violence studded that history: murders and assassinations, tumults and seditions, conspiracies and uprisings—every kind, that is, except for civil war.33 Most of these earlier disturbances took place within the citizen body, but none of them had risen to the level of outright war.34 This absence reinforced the argument that civil war was not only something peculiar to Rome but something altogether new in history.

Roman mythology told how Rome itself had been born from an act of murder. In fact, fratricide would become the central metaphor of the unnatural dissension at the heart of civil war. The legend told how Rome’s founders, the brothers Romulus and Remus, had quarreled over where to settle their new city and then about how to create a new line of kings to rule over it. Because they were twins, neither could yield regal precedence to the other. In the most common version, as relayed by Livy, the historian of early Rome, Romulus killed Remus for mocking his brother’s claims and “thus became sole sovereign and gave his name to the city so founded”: Rome, from Romulus.35 “Rome’s first walls were drenched with a brother’s blood,” the poet Lucan noted in his epic poem of the wars between Caesar and Pompey, The Civil War (De bello civili).36 The truth of the story is typical of myth, but its appearance in later Roman narratives of civil war is “hugely revealing of big Roman concerns” about the problem and the primordial terms in which its horror was considered.37

Among Roman historians and poets, the expulsion of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, at the turn of the fifth century B.C.E., had seemingly provided some atonement for the shame of its very founding. That overthrow, achieved without violence, allowed the bloodstained city to be founded anew as a republic (res publica), literally the people’s business or the common wealth shared in by all its citizens.38 Rome now had the chance to become what Livy called “a free nation in peace and war,” a political community that showed “greater obedience to the commands of law than those of men.” Citizens were only truly free when they lived in a free commonwealth: their liberty depended on that of the res publica itself.39

Free and law-bound the Roman republic might have been in theory, but the reality was far from peaceful or untroubled. From the fifth through the third century B.C.E., for instance, those of humble birth, plebeians, had battled for political recognition with those of more ancient lineage, the patricians, in a series of struggles later known as the Conflict of the Orders.40 It is from this period that the modern world has inherited some of its key designations of social and class conflict: the word “class” (classis) itself; “patrician”; “plebeian”; and “proletariat,” that is, those who contribute to the commonwealth by bearing children, or proles. All these were terms of art in Roman life long before they entered other languages, not least through the writings of Karl Marx (1818–83), that keen nineteenth-century connoisseur of civil conflict, who was a student of classical history in general and of Roman political turmoil in particular.41

Roman aristocrats controlled street gangs and could conjure private militias from among their dependents and clients. Gruesome killings punctuated the last century of the republic, beginning with the death of Tiberius Gracchus, a populist tribune of the people. In 133 B.C.E., a politically inflamed mob killed three hundred of Gracchus’s supporters and threw his body ignominiously into the river Tiber: “This is said to have been the first time since the revolution against the monarchy that civil strife in Rome ended in bloodshed and the loss of citizens’ lives,” the historian Plutarch lamented in the early second century C.E. It might have been the first time, but it would hardly be the last. In 121 B.C.E., Tiberius’s younger brother, the tribune Gaius Gracchus, was killed, decapitated, and his skull filled with molten lead before his headless corpse was also pitched into the river.42

All these murders were “civil” acts because they took place within the citizen body, but none of them could be designated as “war.” Only in hindsight did Rome’s historians regard such incidents as the symptoms of full-blown civil wars and harbingers of such notorious acts of bloodletting as the assassination of Julius Caesar a century later, in 44 B.C.E., and the execution of Cicero a year after that. Here is the Greek-speaking historian Appian (ca. 95–ca. 165) looking back over more than five centuries of Roman history from the second century C.E.

At Rome, the common people and senate were frequently at odds with each other over the passing of laws and the cancellation of debts or the distribution of land, or during elections, but there was never any outbreak of civil violence…No sword was ever brought into the assembly, and no Roman was ever killed by a Roman, until Tiberius Gracchus, while holding the office of tribune and in the act of proposing legislation, became the first man to die in civil unrest.

This was civil unrest—in Appian’s Greek, the word was, of course, stasis, but, again, it was not yet civil war.43

Looking back with the critical distance afforded by both the passage of time and his writing in Greek, Appian could see just what distinguished Rome’s contentions in the first century B.C.E. from the dissensions of the Greeks, on the one hand, and the primal violence in Rome’s early centuries, on the other. To begin with, swords had been drawn in public; that marked the crossing of one threshold, a breach of the peace among citizens. But this was still an interpersonal threat, individual menacing individual. It did not involve collective action, nor did it upset the delicate balance that Roman law had achieved between the spheres of civil life and military discipline. Appian argued that civil war would be the result of ambition and injustice sapping the republic until still greater conflict divided Rome: “Open revolts took place against the republic and large armies were led with violence against their native land…If one side took possession of Rome first, the other nominally made war against their adversaries but in fact against their homeland: they attacked it as if it were an enemy city.” This was not a recurrence of some timeless enmity. It was something frighteningly new and unprecedentedly disturbing: a war by the people against the people, and hence (finally) a civil war.44

By definition, anything that took place within the bounds of the commonwealth was “civil” because it took place among citizens. The Latin word civilis seems to have first appeared in the second century B.C.E., becoming a highly charged term of art in Roman legal and political vocabulary. The term bellum civile might even have been patterned after the term ius civile, or “civil law,” which governed relations between members of the same political community or commonwealth, a set of norms different from the “law of peoples” (ius gentium) governing relations among foreigners or between Romans and outsiders. Romans had pursued their wars only against these literally hostile enemies—hostes—who populated the world beyond the Roman republic.45 The forms of authority held by a magistrate inside Rome and by a general outside it were likewise supposed to be entirely distinct; to breach the separation between them by bringing military command within the city and treating its citizens as if they were enemies was to commit the ultimate form of treason and sacrilege against the republic. The enormity of that crime helps to explain why Romans were so hesitant about giving civil war a name and why they remained so reluctant to use it long after its invention.46

A civil war was a struggle against intimate enemies: indeed, against those who should never have been thought of as enemies at all. Citizens enjoyed the protection of the civil law and were the only people eligible for the offices and honors afforded by the republic, even if not all citizens could grasp all those prizes, as the Conflict of the Orders had shown. They were also responsible for defending the commonwealth militarily by serving in its legions.47 Civil rights, or the rights of citizens, were legally and politically defined, and their corresponding duty was to defend Rome against its enemies. Civil war overturned all these certainties. It was nothing less than the transformation of the republic from a zone of amity to an arena of enmity, an incursion of hostility within the very pale of civility itself. What caused this disturbing new idea of civil war to enter the Roman political lexicon? The answer, in short, was a set of new threats to Rome itself.


By general agreement, Rome’s sequence of civil wars began when the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on the city at the head of an army in 88 B.C.E. Sulla thereby violated the ultimate taboo for any Roman magistrate or military commander. His consulship—the highest political office in Rome—had been in part a reward for his victory against Rome’s allies in the Social War. The members of the Italian confederation headed by Rome had demanded equality, especially the rights of Roman citizens. Rome had refused. In 90 B.C.E., the frustrated allies rebelled to secure their independence, eventually to be repressed by a two-year campaign. By that time, however, citizenship had been granted grudgingly to most of the allies, but in such a way that their votes would count for little in the Roman assemblies. When the tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus introduced a bill into the Senate extending the franchise in 88 B.C.E., the new consul, Sulla, having returned from mopping-up operations against the allies, declared the legislation illegal. Enraged, Sulpicius turned to another Roman commander in the field, Gaius Marius, who was a rival of Sulla’s. This set in train the explosive events that would lead to Sulla’s march on Rome. In return for Marius’s support, Sulpicius promised him a rich plum, the command of Rome’s armies against the Persian king Mithridates, a post that offered ample opportunity for plunder as well as for glory and a triumph. Because the command had already been promised to Sulla, a collision between two of Rome’s greatest generals became inevitable.48

Sulla, that pioneer in the history of civil war, was reluctant and hesitated to turn his troops upon Rome itself. When he and his fellow consul attempted to block Sulpicius’s bill, violence flared in the city streets; Sulpicius was rumored to have three thousand swordsmen at his command. After a confrontation that turned violent, Sulla escaped, finding himself briefly in Marius’s house, where he might have negotiated with his rival before withdrawing from Rome for his own safety. In his absence, Sulpicius passed his laws without opposition and revealed his previously secret plan to transfer command of the forces against Mithridates to Marius.

Facing political as well as personal ruin if he accepted these moves, Sulla turned to his troops for support, describing the wrongs that had been done to him. He seems to have had no plan to march against Sulpicius or Marius, but his loyal soldiers urged him on. His officers, meanwhile, were horrified and would desert him. The entrails examined by his soothsayer boded well. Then a goddess appeared to Sulla in a dream, handing him a thunderbolt, and told him to strike his enemies. Emboldened by these auspicious omens, and his regulars’ goodwill, Sulla set off leading the first army to march on Rome in its history. It would be the first of many.

The Senate met Sulla’s approach with embassies; indeed, they could do little else, having no organized force to confront his. When three sets of senatorial envoys questioned his intent, Sulla answered that he had come to free the fatherland from tyrants, implying that he was engaged in a defensive operation and hence one that could be construed as just. Julius Caesar would make much the same claim, forty years later, when he turned his army against Rome upon crossing the river Rubicon.49

When Sulla’s army came within five miles of Rome, the Senate made one last effort to halt his progress. Sulla promised to relent but sent a contingent ahead nonetheless. When his men entered the city, they met fierce civilian resistance, amid a hail of stones and roof tiles, until Sulla arrived to take charge. Sulpicius and Marius tried to array their followers against him, but Sulla marched through the Forum and took the Capitol. When asked the next day to explain himself, he replied again that he was using his authority as consul to defend the commonwealth against its enemies. He soon formally declared Sulpicius, Marius (who had already fled to Africa), and ten of their closest supporters to be public enemies (hostes publici) and hence outlaws. Only Sulpicius was captured and executed. Otherwise, Sulla’s reverse coup was bloodless, because both sides strove to prevent collisions between soldiers and citizens within the city.

Tidy though Sulla’s action might have been, it clearly marked a turning point in Rome’s fortunes. The immediate effects were hardly calamitous. Only Sulla’s later actions as dictator—an office invested with emergency powers for a limited time, which he extended—would make clear that his initial moves had marked the beginning of a cycle of civil violence, one that would not end until the creation of the empire with the elevation of Augustus as emperor in 27 B.C.E.

Sulla had not intended anything remotely resembling a military takeover of the republic. To be sure, he had brought an army into the city and formally treated Roman rivals like external enemies, both for the very first time in Roman history. And the army did remain in the city, quiescent but no doubt intimidating, while he rolled back Sulpicius’s legislative program. But as soon as he had done so, he sent his troops away, leaving Rome to its two newly elected consuls, Gnaeus Octavius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Soon, however, the consuls clashed over the matter of how to treat the recently enfranchised Italians. Their respective supporters came to blows, and then violence rapidly escalated when Octavius had some of the new citizens killed and Cinna left Rome to drum up support for a military solution to his political problems.

It was the second time a citizen was branded as an enemy of Rome when the Senate declared Cinna a hostis. Maneuvering himself into an alliance with Marius, he returned with an army and surrounded Rome. As on the first occasion when the city had come under direct military threat, envoys were sent; and again a consul and commander returned to power with an army at his back. This time, however, Sulla would be declared a public enemy and pitted against Marius, who would join Cinna as consul the following year.

And so the stage was set for the next great confrontation—what would be seen as the second of Rome’s civil wars—between the two bitter rivals. In late 85 B.C.E., Sulla wrote to the Senate from Greece recalling his victories on behalf of Rome and vowing revenge on his enemies. This was no empty threat. He had refused to recognize the earlier declaration of him as a public enemy, and believing himself to be rightfully in command of the army he had been leading against King Mithridates, he was, as his opponents knew, planning to lead his forces back against Rome.

After abortive negotiations with the Senate, in the spring of 83 B.C.E. Sulla made his advance and was soon joined by Crassus and by Pompey, who would in due course earn his first precocious triumph at the age of twenty-four for his campaigns in Africa during the civil war. Over the course of the following year, Sulla and his men gradually made their way toward Rome, and by the time he reached the city, all his enemies had left. He followed his occupation with a series of proscriptions that led to the execution and dispossession of prominent opponents and debarment from office of their descendants. As for Sulla, he returned to the position of dictator.

Ever after, in Rome and among Rome’s heirs, Sulla would be the very embodiment of the bold military leader who claims emergency powers to pursue his own agenda, an image that would attach to later leaders in arms from Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell eighteen centuries later. But he should also be credited with giving human form to civil war and defining its features for generations of Romans. As Appian forcefully notes, when Marius and Sulpicius had confronted Sulla on his way to the Forum, “there took place a struggle between political enemies which was the first conducted in Rome not under the guise of civil dissension, but nakedly as a war, complete with trumpets and military standards…In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as if it were a hostile power.”50 That moment marked the arrival of civil war as an event, not just as an idea.

Appian’s considered view of what made Sulla’s move so momentous would shape later understandings of just what was warlike about civil war. He begins his account with a typically Greek analysis of a commonwealth bitterly divided between plebeians and patricians over such matters as laws, debts, the distribution of land, and the conduct of elections. Despite this acrimony, however, the two sides, as Appian explains, never came to blows, and even their most violent clashes could not be compared with the moment when the renegade general Coriolanus had allied with Rome’s enemies and turned against the city in 491 B.C.E., for example.

For Appian, as for most other Roman commentators, it is the possession of arms and the adoption of the rules of war that distinguishes civil war from other internal disturbances. Only when “the faction leaders struggled against each other with great armies in military fashion for the prize of their native land” under Sulla and Marius could civil war be said to have begun in earnest.51 Trumpets and standards were the visible signs, conventional warfare the means, and political control of the commonwealth was the end. All told, these were the peculiar marks of civil war as opposed to mere tumult, dissension, or sedition.

The Romans introduced two elements of civil war that would create a family resemblance among later conceptions. The first was the idea that the war takes place within the boundaries of a single political community. In the Roman case, this community was ever expanding, from the city of Rome itself, to the Italian peninsula, and then outward into the Mediterranean basin as Roman citizenship itself encompassed more and more peoples. That expansion of the limits of the community as defined by civil war would recur in later centuries, reaching its greatest extent in our own generation with the notion of a “global civil war,” as we will discover later. The Romans also knew that there should be at least two contending parties in a civil war, one with a legitimate claim of authority over that community. These elements would be transmitted through the very language of civil war as well as in the several civil war narratives that the Roman historians, whether in Latin or in Greek, spun to explain and understand their commonwealth’s serial calamities.

Civil war came to define the history of Roman civilization, whether as a curse the commonwealth could not shake off or as a purgative for the republic’s popular ills, allowing the restoration of monarchy. Rome’s heirs in the Latin West would then perceive their own internal troubles with the help of the repertoire of examples and images drawn from the Roman corpus of writing on the subject. Columns and capitols, amphitheaters and aqueducts, laws and Latin, would not be the only legacies of Rome to the world; among the most enduring, and the most unsettling, was the category of civil war itself. Indeed, for more than a millennium and a half, civil war was viewed through Rome-tinted spectacles.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!