Remembering Civil War: Roman Visions

“Forgetting is the best defense against civil war.” So thought the Roman orator and historian Titus Labienus.1 We might now call this, in the language of popular psychology, repression: an attempt to suppress painful memories through an effort of willful amnesia. But because repression is often linked to trauma, it can take much energy to push such memories deep into the unconscious, and it cannot be done indefinitely. Even those Romans who tried hardest not to speak of civil war found themselves reliving it in their writings and speeches. And their contemporaries and successors could hardly avoid addressing it in terms derived from Roman experience itself.

For many Romans, civil war remained the war that dared not speak its name. The words bellum civile had to be weighed carefully and spoken sparingly, if ever at all, because of the harsh memories of major conflicts. The clearest example of such reluctance may be that of the civil warrior and historian Julius Caesar. Caesar narrated his power struggle with Pompey in a work now known simply as The Civil War. Part campaign history, part autobiography, and part self-justification, the work carried on directly from his seven books of similar purpose respecting the conquest of Gaul, usually known as The Gallic War. The opening of the succeeding unfinished, indeed abandoned, history is lost, but one thing seems certain: Caesar himself did not call it “the Civil War.” This title, which appeared only in later manuscripts, would have been for the author an unusual, even unthinkable, choice. In fact, Caesar did all he could to avoid using the phrase in his text. In its three surviving books, bellum civile appears only twice: once in an otherwise corrupt passage where Caesar places it in the mouths of some nervous and possibly deluded soldiers in his army describing their greatest fear; and once when he himself uses it, casually and only in retrospect, to describe his struggle with Pompey.2

Caesar and Pompey had made an expedient alliance in 60 B.C.E. against their common enemies in the Senate, an alliance strengthened in 59 B.C.E., when Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Their political arrangement also included a third man, Marcus Crassus, and for that reason became known as the first triumvirate (that is, the rule of three men, or viri). The same year that Caesar and Pompey were united by marriage, Caesar assumed the republic’s highest political positions as one of the two annual consuls who directed the commonwealth and headed its armies. While in office, he engineered a five-year military command in Cisalpine Gaul, close to Rome, in part to ensure immunity from prosecution by the Senate for acts that he had undertaken as consul. In 56 B.C.E., Pompey and Crassus also secured similar five-year commands and then passed legislation extending Caesar’s position until 50 B.C.E.

By the time that moment arrived, both Julia and Crassus were dead, and the supporters of Caesar were maneuvering on his behalf at Rome, while those of Pompey were doing likewise. The crisis came to a head when the Senate voted that both Caesar and Pompey should give up their commands. Neither did. After the reigning consul, Lentulus, overruled the tribunes of the people, Antony and Cassius, who had the power to maintain Caesar in his post, the Senate declared a state of emergency to “see to it the Republic suffers no harm.” That prompted Caesar to march on Rome. He made every effort to deny that his actions and those of his army constituted an offensive move against his fellow Romans. Like any Roman commander, he insisted on the justice of his cause and explained it as a purely defensive maneuver. The true offenders, he insisted, were a powerful minority in the Senate who had plotted to deprive him of consulship in violation of the Roman constitution:

I did not leave my province with harmful intent but to defend myself from the insults of my enemies, to restore the tribunes—who have been expelled from Rome in connection with this business—to their proper dignity, and to liberate myself and the Roman people from oppression by a small faction.3

The step Caesar referred to here—“leav[ing] my province”—was the act that would become one of Rome’s greatest bequests to the later repertoire of civil war. This was the moment in January 49 B.C.E. when Caesar took his army across the river that marked the frontier between the province of Gaul, where he held authority as a military commander, and Rome itself, from which such military power was firmly debarred. The name of the narrow river went down in history: the Rubicon. “Crossing the Rubicon” thus came to speak of any political decision that was fraught, swift, and irreversible.4

Breaching the strict separation between military and civilian command, the act brought the zone of war, so carefully controlled outside the boundaries of Rome, within the peaceful sphere of the commonwealth. The keepers of Rome’s memory, its historians and poets, would tell various versions of the event. Plutarch and Appian report that Caesar sent a small force ahead into Ariminum, the present-day resort of Rimini, ten miles south of the Rubicon, to infiltrate the town. He then excused himself from dinner before inconspicuously taking a carriage there along with a small group of attendants. Deep in thought, Caesar at nightfall hesitated at the river before airing his doubts to his companions. “If I refrain from this crossing, my friends, it will be the beginning of misfortune for me,” Appian portrays Caesar as saying, “but if I cross, it will be the beginning for all mankind.” In a burst of emotion, he quickly crossed the river, speaking the proverbial words of a bold and calculating gambler: “Let the die be cast!”5

The historian Suetonius adds to the scene an enthralling and mysterious pipe-playing woman who snatches a trumpet from one of Caesar’s men and, leaping across the river, summons the army from the other bank. Lucan also places a woman at the scene, a grief-stricken, disheveled embodiment of Rome herself, who terrifies the general with her warning: “If lawfully you come, / If as citizens, this far only is allowed.” But in Lucan, Caesar takes the plunge with full knowledge of the enormity of his action: “Here I abandon peace and desecrated law; / Fortune, it is you I follow. Farewell to treaties from now on; / I have relied on them for long enough; now war must be our referee.”6 Later artists would have to choose whether or not to add the curious piper or the distraught figure of Rome to their depictions of the scene.7 Caesar himself has none of it.

In Caesar’s third-person version of events, the general and his legion simply materialize in Ariminum, as if by magic. There is no mention of the crossing or any indication of anguished discussion, nothing to suggest that Caesar viewed the transit as pivotal for Rome or his own fortunes. There are no ominous attendants, indeed no other characters in the drama apart from Caesar himself. All he writes of the incident is this: “Apprised of the soldiers’ goodwill he set out with the thirteenth legion for Ariminum, where he met the tribunes who had taken refuge with him.”8 In the eyes of the Senate, and in the judgment of most of posterity, Caesar had “declared civil war and defied the anathemas pronounced against generals who crossed the Rubicon in arms: they were damned to the infernal gods.” So thought his great admirer Napoleon Bonaparte as he dictated notes on Caesar’s histories during his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1819.9

When it came to the matter of civil war, Caesar was the original master of denial. His great opponent, the lawyer, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, was not quite as repressed about it. Cicero has three claims to fame for the purposes of our history. First, he was the earliest writer known to have used the term, although for a long time he uttered it almost as rarely as Caesar himself: between 66 and 49 B.C.E., only twice in his voluminous writings and speeches.10 Second, he showed how fluid the boundaries were between Roman conceptions of civil war and the understanding of other forms of organized armed threat. And third, he provides evidence that the Romans saw their own internal struggles as quite distinct from those of the Greeks they so admired.

Cicero first uttered the words “civil war” in a speech delivered in 66 B.C.E. He gave it on just the spot in the Forum where, twenty-three years later, his head and hands would be displayed on the Rostra after his execution. In the speech, he defends a proposal to offer the command of the war against Rome’s most dangerous enemy in Asia Minor, Mithridates, king of Pontus, to the general Gnaeus Pompeius, or Pompey the Younger, better known to later generations simply as Pompey, Caesar’s major adversary. After pointing out how nothing less than Rome’s glory and honor and the future of its empire are at stake in this just war, Cicero asks his listeners to imagine the kind of great commander needed to lead Rome to victory, a man with military experience, ability, authority, and luck. Who better, who more possessed of these qualities than Pompey, the precocious young general who had taken his first major command at the age of eighteen? He had fought every new enemy, in every conceivable theater of war, the Romans had faced over the next two decades:

What type of war can there be in which the fortune of the state has not made use of him? Civil, African, Transalpine, Spanish (a war involving both citizens and exceptionally warlike tribes), slave, and naval wars, wars and enemies different in character and locality, wars not only undertaken by this one man but also completed by him—all these demonstrate that there is no aspect of military experience which can escape the knowledge of this man.11

For vanquishing rebels in North Africa, Spain, and Gaul, as well as two other military triumphs, one while still in his twenties, Pompey had earned the nickname Magnus, “the Great,” after his hero, Alexander the Great. He also easily crushed the remnants of Spartacus’s slave rebellion in Sicily, swept pirates from the Mediterranean in a stunning three-month campaign, and had successfully battled the forces of Gnaeus Papirius Carbo in Sicily in 82 B.C.E. and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in Etruria in 77 B.C.E.12 Except for the wars against slaves and pirates, all of these exploits were conducted in whole or in part against fellow citizens. “Civil” wars were part of Rome’s recent history, and they were already difficult to distinguish from wars against other external enemies.

Cicero’s mention of “civil” war in his defense of Pompey shows that the term was already in general currency. He was, then, clearly not the first to deploy it, even if his use is still the earliest recorded. His listing of Pompey’s wars also implies a hierarchy of enemies and challenges; most opprobrious of all were the pirates and slaves, but the hardest to defeat were Roman citizens. Thus, Cicero would have left his audience in no doubt that victory in the “civil” wars of the 80s B.C.E. stood first among Pompey’s achievements, even if those wars became immediately unmentionable. Cicero was speaking, after all, as a partisan of Pompey’s; that is the sense in which his audience would surely have taken his tendentious mention of civil war as something on a par with the defeat of Rome’s external enemies and internal threats. And so, no sooner had civil war been invented than it was reinvented: first, as an almost inconceivable horror, but soon as a more slippery concept, capable of being turned into something, if not valuable or honorable per se, then at least an occasion when valor and military prowess might be shown.

This was tricky; civil wars were “wars which would bring no triumphs,” as Lucan put it and as most Roman commentators agreed.13 Roman ritual triumphs were the reward for victory in a just war against a foreign enemy—or so the convention ran. A victorious army proclaimed its general an imperator; he then requested the Senate’s permission for various rituals of thanksgiving; in due course, a formal triumph was often granted. “No man,” wrote the historian Valerius Maximus in the first century C.E., “though he might have accomplished great things eminently useful to the commonwealth in a civil war, was given the title of imperator on that account, nor were any thanksgivings decreed, nor did such a one triumph either in ovation or with chariot, for such victories have ever been accounted grievous, though necessary, as won by domestic not foreign blood.”14Pompey, however, did receive triumphs for victories in Africa and Spain “that were in reality civil wars,” and Caesar later celebrated a string of triumphs over his enemies—citizens and foreigners alike—in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa, and then over Pompey’s sons, in clear violation of the taboo against triumphs in civil wars.15 When, finally, Octavian came to power as the emperor Augustus following his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., he too celebrated a triumph—but only after representing his victory as having been won over both foreign and citizen enemies. The boundaries between different types of wars remained porous and debatable; the logic of victor’s justice could determine the definition, but only by suppressing the “civil” element in many of the wars of the late republic.16

The Romans believed their experience of civil war was anomalous when set against Greek history and their own city’s beginnings. It took a peculiar kind of inverted pride to see the internal violence of the republic as an innovation over the less structured, less visibly warlike commotions of the Greeks. Cicero certainly acknowledged this. Shortly before Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.E., the senator composed a work of advice for his only son, Marcus, then leaving Rome for further education in Athens. This work, known better as On Duties (43 B.C.E.), was in part a veiled argument for tyrannicide; in it, Cicero points out the difference between Greek and Roman conceptions of internal division. He quotes Socrates in Plato’s Republic on the need to follow the common good and warns Marcus against the division of the Roman republic into factions of democrats and aristocrats. Cicero then notes that while the Greeks had indeed known great discords, the divisions in Rome were nonetheless different in scale, in form, and in name. The Romans had suffered not just seditions—the kinds of turmoil the Greeks would have called stasis—but something much worse and quite new: “accursed civil wars” (pestifera bella civilia). Any serious and courageous citizen would avoid and condemn civil war.17 Nonetheless, Rome might be seen to have invented it.


Rome’s orators, poets, and historians struggled to make sense of their commonwealth’s descent into formal armed contention. They chewed over the question of blame for the civil wars, looking for signs of decay in Rome’s moral health. They were particularly transfixed by the idea that civil war should repeat itself after periods of apparent calm. Finally, what they bequeathed to later readers was a vision of history structured around an ethically challenging, appallingly recurrent phenomenon that was, nonetheless, the paradoxical mark of civility, even (to take a much later term for it) of civilization itself. In all these ways, Romans became memory keepers of civil war, for their own people and for the ages to come.

Remembering civil war was always a risky business, as Titus Labienus implied when he counseled oblivio (forgetting). With remembrance came the danger of inflaming passions and reigniting civil war. We can see this most poignantly in one of the first Roman attempts at a history of civil war. This was by a companion of Caesar’s, Gaius Asinius Pollio. In the estimation of the orator Quintilian, Pollio was the original “man for all seasons”; a writer, a politician, and a patron of poets (among them Horace and Virgil), he also founded Rome’s first public library. His authority for writing about civil war came from his having fought with Caesar in 49 B.C.E. Indeed, he had been at Caesar’s side as the general stood agonizing on the banks of the Rubicon and then took the plunge with him. Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.E., Pollio had been crowned with the consulship, and he won a military triumph in 39 or 38 B.C.E. Soon after, when he retired from public life, Pollio, like many other Roman politicians in retreat, turned to literature as a form of politics by other means. We learn the subject of his major work from the ode his client Horace addressed to him on the subject:

The civil disturbance which began in the consulship of Metellus

and the causes of the war, its evils and the ways of it,

the play of Fortune, the fatal friendships

of the great, and armour

smeared with still unexpiated blood—

themes fraught with the hazard of the dice—

all these you treat, and tread on fire

smouldering under ashes.18

As a supporter of Caesar’s, working in the shadow of his murder, Pollio would no doubt have thought his general’s death still unavenged (hence Horace’s “armour / smeared with unexpiated blood”). His history would therefore have been somewhat an exercise in rehabilitation. As Caesar had known, however, when crossing the Rubicon, everything depends upon a gambler’s throw; or, in those words widely attributed to him, “the die is cast” (iacta alea est). By recalling Caesar’s aphorism, Horace artfully conflates Caesar’s decision with Pollio’s perilous undertaking (“themes fraught with the hazard of the dice”). For the greatest danger lay in keeping the flame of memory alive. Even if intended as simply a memorial pyre, it might grow into something much more destructive because of the smoking volcano always liable to erupt. The potential for a new explosion of civil conflict was ever present. To treat the history of civil war was always to tread on fire.

Civil war erupted repeatedly over more than a century of Roman history from the 80s B.C.E. to the 60s C.E. and beyond. Sulla’s first civil war against Marius in 88–87 B.C.E. led to a second series of contentions between them in 82–81 B.C.E. Two decades later, impoverished veterans of Sulla’s wars supported the senator Catiline’s conspiracy to take control of the city in 63 B.C.E. Cicero was one of the intended victims of that putsch, but he was alerted to the danger and led the political and oratorical charge to defeat this enemy of the republic. Almost twenty years later still, Caesar started a civil war that inaugurated a cycle of intermittent armed violence that engulfed first Rome, then the Italian peninsula, and ultimately much of the Mediterranean world as far as Egypt. In this cycle, the followers and descendants of Caesar and Pompey continued to fight out their differences in a series of wars that would culminate with the victory of Octavian over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. With Octavian’s elevation to the emperorship as Augustus in 27 B.C.E., one sequence of civil wars had ended. The seeds for another were laid in the dynamics of succession to imperial authority.

The elevation of Octavian brought the temporary respite from conflict hymned as the “Augustan” age of peace and stability. But the decades after his death in 14 C.E. witnessed a boom in writing about civil war and, in turn, a recurrence of civil war itself. Those who opposed the imperial monarchy looked back nostalgically to the republic as an era when the common good (the res publica) had been maintained before corruption had set in. For others, however, the years before Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus were fading by the day. “Even among the old men most had been born in the time of the civil wars: who was left who had seen a republic?” lamented the historian Tacitus in his Annals, writing of those alive at the end of Augustus’s reign; by this account, tyranny was a continuation of civil war by other means.19 The following decades, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, witnessed more accounts of civil war than at any other moment in Roman history. Tacitus’s is one of the few to survive; most went the way of Pollio’s, including works by Seneca the Elder and those by the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus, who had been charged with treason in 25 C.E. for allegedly inciting civil war just by writing about the earlier conflicts.20

There was another flare of remembrance during the reign of Nero, when Lucan wrote his epic poem, The Civil War (60–65 C.E.), on the struggles between Caesar and Pompey. It was an ambivalent poem, written under the emperor’s patronage yet palpably nostalgic for the world before emperors, when the Roman republic had been vibrant, if battered by civil contention. Lucan looked back to civil conflicts a century earlier, envisaging a cosmos attuned to the political and military discords of the human world, with the heavens trembling in sympathy with the earth’s calamity.21

Lucan’s imagistic powers, republican leanings, and vivid re-creations of intimate violence ensured that he would be among the most widely read and admired of all Roman poets for almost fifteen hundred years, from the fourth to the early nineteenth century.22 A translation of The Civil Warwas made in Middle Irish in the twelfth century.23 By the thirteenth, a manuscript of it had reached Iceland, where, combined with extracts from Sallust’s Jugurtha and his Catiline, a prose synopsis formed the Rómverja Saga, an Icelandic history of Rome told through its tumults, conspiracies, and civil wars.24 Dante in the early fourteenth century regarded him as “that great poet Lucan”; to Geoffrey Chaucer, later in the fourteenth, he was “the grete poete, daun Lucan.”25 And to Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), the Dutch scholar, theorist of rights, and scholarly editor of The Civil War,Lucan was nothing less than the “freedom-loving poet.”26 His popularity rose and fell with the incidence of civil warfare in Europe. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as we will see, he proved a crucial resource for understanding conflicts, both historical and contemporaneous, and while his fame declined in the nineteenth century, he would find new readers in the late twentieth.

Among Lucan’s fellow writers under the emperor Nero was the politician, poet, and bon vivant Titus Petronius Arbiter (ca. 27–66 C.E.), author of The Satyricon. This notorious poem portrays a fictional dinner party at which the equally fictional poet Eumolpus recites a poem on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Eumolpus calls civil war a truly “great theme,” perhaps as momentous as the Aeneid, which Virgil had called his own “greater work.”27

Both Lucan and Petronius committed suicide under Nero. When the emperor himself was dead, too, in 69 C.E., the fires of civil war stirred back to life in the “Year of the Four Emperors” (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian). These wars over imperial succession would not be the last Roman civil wars—which, by some accounts, lasted into the fourth century C.E.—but they would bring to a climax the historical narratives of Rome as a commonwealth peculiarly prone to that kind of discord. That pattern became clear in retrospect. “Should I not have deduced the decline of the [Roman] Empire from the civil Wars, that ensued after the fall of Nero or even from the tyranny which succeeded the reign of Augustus?” the historian Edward Gibbon (1737–94) asked himself in the 1780s, after completing his famous account of Rome’s decline and fall. “Alas! I should.”28

Far from consigning civil war to oblivion, the Romans and their successors had repeatedly recalled it. It thus became as inescapable as it was unspeakable until, it seemed, they could talk of almost nothing else for centuries because civil war would never disappear. “These sufferings await, again to be endured,” laments a character in Lucan’s Civil War: “This will be the sequence / of the warfare, this will be the outcome fixed for civil strife.”29 There would be no end of making books about the Roman civil wars. Lucan’s poem was followed four decades later by Tacitus’s account of the Year of the Four Emperors in his Histories (ca. 109 C.E.). The Greek-speaking historian Plutarch composed a series of parallel lives of Greek and Roman figures, and among his Roman exemplars were the Gracchi and the successive civil warriors Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, and Antony (ca. 100–25 C.E.). Also in these years, another historian writing in Greek, Appian, composed the surviving books of his Roman History, titled The Civil Wars (ca. 145–65 C.E.). These attempted a comprehensive history, aiming to encompass all Rome’s civil wars from Sulla to Octavian.

Less detailed than all of these, but even more wide-ranging, was Florus’s popular Epitome of Roman History (ca. 117–38 C.E. or ca. 161–69 C.E.), which painted the seven centuries after Romulus as an unending run of different kinds of wars: foreign, servile, social, and civil. Though considering only the foreign ones were just, Florus deliberately blurs the boundaries between the other kinds of wars, noting, for example, that the Social War was in fact a civil war, because the allies who had been united with the Romans “in raising a rebellion within the bounds of Italy, committed as great a crime as citizens who rebel within a city.” Moreover, after describing the Servile Wars as the most disgraceful of all, he ties the wars of Sulla and Marius to them in turpitude, as representing Rome’s ultimate misfortunes, when citizens fought against citizens in the Forum as if they were gladiators—“men of the worst class”—in the arena. And to crown this confusion of categories, Florus traces the spread of the struggle between Caesar and Pompey outward from Rome, to Italy, and then the empire.30

Over the course of the almost five centuries to follow, roughly from Caesar to Augustine, Roman historians intrepidly struggled to understand their civilization’s greatest curse.31 They wrestled with the question of causes. What had sparked each of Rome’s civil wars? Was there some fundamental flaw in the Roman republic that gave rise to them? They worried about the reasons for so many civil wars. Was there some deeper logic at work? And they tried to draw meaning from their tribulations. Was there an ideal form of the commonwealth that was immune to civil war? Or did some underlying structure of Roman civilization itself ensure that the scourge would always return? These questions would decisively shape The City of God (413–26 C.E.) by Augustine, the North African historian and bishop of Hippo; he remains among the greatest of the Roman histories of civil war. But first let us return to some of his predecessors.

Contemporary Romans’ answers to those great questions generated some vivid and unsettling lessons that would be repeated and learned for centuries afterward. Civil wars came not singly but in battalions. They left wounds that would not heal, heirs who demanded vengeance, divisions that would split first the city of Rome and then the entire Roman Empire of the Mediterranean and beyond. As Tacitus puts it at the start of his account of the bitter disputes of the first century C.E., “The history on which I am entering is full of disasters, terrible with battles, torn by seditions, savage even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time.”32 Thus while civil wars were fought for control of the city itself, they could not easily be distinguished from foreign wars, their spillover reaching throughout the Roman world and later drawing in actors from across the empire.

The wider the grant of Roman citizenship, the broader the scope of civil war. As Florus argues, “The rage of Caesar and Pompey, like a flood or a fire, overran the city, Italy, tribes, nations and finally the whole empire, so much so that it cannot rightly be called a civil war, nor even a social or an external war, but it was a war with something of all of these—and yet worse than war.”33 Florus here echoes the opening lines of Lucan’s Civil War, the classic summary of Roman anxieties about the subject:

Of wars across Emathian plains, worse than civil wars,

and of legality conferred on crime we sing, and of a mighty people

attacking its own guts with victorious sword-hand,

of kin facing kin, and, once the pact of tyranny was broken,

of conflict waged with all the forces of the shaken world

for universal guilt, and of standards ranged in enmity against

standards, of eagles matched and javelins threatening javelins.

What madness was this, O citizens?34

If these wars between Caesar and Pompey are “worse than civil,” it is because they were fought between two men who had been bound by marriage pact; in that sense, they were familial wars (“kin facing kin”), not merely between citizens.35 The result is a phrase that would echo in later history: a “warr without an Enemie,” as the English parliamentary general Sir William Waller called the turbulence of his own commonwealth in 1643. As a conflict among kin and compatriots, such a war was agonizingly fraught because it was being fought for political authority, and with it the right to define the membership of the commonwealth itself.36 But understood this way, as a test of values, civil war was a necessary and natural struggle, as unavoidable as it was terrible.

Civil wars were indeed wars, with the full panoply of insignia and weapons, just like the first war identified as civil—Sulla’s war—with its conspicuous drums and trumpets, and now they engulfed the whole of the Roman Mediterranean: the “Emathian plains” lie in northern Greece and were the location of the decisive Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C.E., from which Lucan’s poem derives its alternative name, the Pharsalia. If the physical frontiers lacked fixity, the conceptual ones were even more fluid. The bounds of the various kinds of wars that Cicero and others had attempted to discriminate became blurred, as if by virtue of the very effort, making it only more difficult to cordon off civil wars from other forms of conflict. Like some implacable natural force, civil war no longer respected the boundaries of the commonwealth, growing much more destructive as it revealed its potential to be universal in scope. And so it was precisely this nature, which made it so imperative to understand civil war, that also made it so hard to describe and to define.


The most fundamental problem all Rome’s historians of civil war faced was exactly where to begin their narrative. Even Caesar did not begin his history with the crossing of the Rubicon; other poets and historians reached further back in search of the origins of their commonwealth’s internal troubles. Horace’s poem to Pollio neatly illustrates the difficulty of explaining the fact of recurrence; it refers to “the consulship of Metellus,” even though eleven men named Metellus had been consul between roughly 140 and 60 B.C.E. Horace could have been referring to the one who held office in 60 B.C.E., when the alliance of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus first formed, according to most Roman historians. Yet he might have meant another Metellus who held office in 123 B.C.E., the year Gaius Gracchus was tribune of the people, two years before his murder and decapitation by an angry mob. Now, if Horace meant the first Metellus, then he implies that Pollio’s history began only two decades before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. If he meant the second, however, then Pollio had taken a much longer perspective on the troubles that split Rome and set its citizens at each other’s throats.37 The entire ethical history of Rome could hang on such choices.

A short-term explanation implied that civil war was accidental and unlikely to recur. The longer view would weave conflict into the very fabric of Roman history and imply deep-seated causes, perhaps even moral culpability for the descent into destructive violence. For some the problem was present at the very foundation of the city, with Romulus’s murder of his brother, when, as Augustine would argue, “the city as a whole committed the crime which as a whole it overlooked.”38 Writing probably in the late 30s B.C.E., in the brief but uneasy period of peace brokered by the triumvirate in 39 B.C.E., Horace had asked his fellow Romans why they were thinking of drawing swords that had only just been sheathed, and why they should be so insane as to shed blood without conquering other peoples, like the Carthaginians or the Britons, choosing rather to perish by their own hands? There could be only one explanation—the primal sin of fratricide that had cursed the city ever after:

Why this mad rush to join a wicked war? Your swords were sheathed. Why do you draw them now?

…It is harsh Fate that drives

the Romans, and the crime of fratricide

since Remus’s blameless lifeblood poured upon the ground—

a curse to generations yet unborn.39

By the time Horace wrote this poem, after two generations of civil war, Romulus’s murder of his brother had become an established allegory of the political and social division between plebs and patricians, “with the permanent possibility of conflict between them.”40 It read back into Rome’s origins its internal struggles—the Conflict of the Orders, the divisions under the Gracchi, and the civil wars. This bloody genealogy also cast a shadow over the future, as Horace himself would confirm a little over a year later with another poetic lament at the breakdown of relations between the triumvirate and Pompey’s son Sextus Pompey: “A second generation is ground down by civil wars, / and Rome is falling, ruined by the might of Rome.” It seemed once again as if “this city we, this doomed and godless generation, shall destroy.”41 The only way to escape Rome’s original curse, Horace went on, would be to avoid Rome itself. Fleeing, not forgetting, might in fact be the only remedy for the curse of civil war.

But what if the roots of Rome’s dissensions were not buried quite so deep in the city’s early history? In his account of Catiline’s conspiracy of 63–62 B.C.E., Sallust also attributes the great turn in the city’s fortunes to a moral failing but one that is the unintended consequence of Roman success. The defeat of Rome’s enemy Carthage in 146 B.C.E. had ushered in corruption on the coattails of victory. Before that time, Sallust thought, “citizens fought with citizens,” but they had contended only for the honor that came with virtue. After the triumphs of the Punic War, however, “Fortune began to be cruel and confounded everything” by nurturing greed and ambition. Sulla had been able to conquer Rome by buying the loyalty of his army with the luxurious spoils of campaigns in Asia. By this understanding, civil war and corruption went hand in hand, sapping Rome’s moral strength until Catiline tried to follow in Sulla’s footsteps by aiming to overthrow the republic with the help of debased soldiers who “longed for civil war.”42 Elsewhere in his histories, Sallust reaffirmed this narrative; Rome’s earliest dissension arose from flawed human nature and its desires for freedom, glory, and power, but it was only after the fall of Carthage that such evils flourished to the point of driving plebeians and patricians into open conflict: “The way was clear for pursuing rivalries, [and] there arose a great many riots, insurrections, and in the end, civil wars.”43

Most Roman historians saw a different wellspring of social strife: the reform program of the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, in the first century B.C.E. From their tutor, the Stoic philosopher Blossius of Cumae, the Gracchi had apparently learned a Greek-influenced vocabulary for dividing Roman politics into factions of “aristocrats” and “democrats,” with the result that later students of Rome would see this cleavage as the basis of the city’s fatal susceptibility to civil war. Cicero, Velleius Paterculus, Appian, and Florus would all take the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C.E. as Rome’s first fatal rift, while Varro would settle on the death of the younger brother in 121 B.C.E. as the crux, saying it was Gaius who had “made the citizen body two-headed—the origin of the civil discords.”44 These troubles among the tribunes of the people, Tacitus writes in his Histories, were “trial runs for civil war.”45 And, as Cicero notes, it was the division between those who supported the aristocracy (optimi) and those who took the side of the people (populares) that sowed the seeds of treachery and discord into the Roman republic.46 These explanations are not incompatible, of course; strung together, they could tell a compelling story, encouraging a later historian like Augustine in his own account of Rome’s fatal flaws.

In fact, the various analyses of civil wars in the Roman historical canon did not so much compete as accumulate. The myth of Romulus and Remus explains the most fundamental cause of the city’s propensity toward conflict. Sallust’s moralistic assault on the luxury and corruption that followed the defeat of Carthage suggests the preconditions. The recollections of Cicero and others of divisions under the Gracchi prefigure the splits that would later result in outright factions and deeper divisions within the body politic, ultimately leading Romans to take up arms against fellow citizens.

This is how a sequence turned into a cycle. Explanations turned into justifications. And events settled into a narrative stretching deep into Rome’s past—to its very beginnings—projecting a shadow onto its future, to rise up again at moments of political strain. In this mode, Tacitus describes the anxieties of the common people after the murder of Galba during the Year of the Four Emperors: “They recalled the memory of civil wars and how many times the city had been captured, of the devastation of Italy, the plundering of provinces, of [the Battles of] Pharsalus, Philippi, Perusia and Mutina, names famous for public disaster.”47 That cycle of civil wars would be played out again and again: indirectly, as in a poem like Statius’s Thebaid (92 C.E.), which narrates the primal, fratricidal competition at Thebes between the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, with the Roman civil wars of the first century C.E. as backdrop;48 and also directly in those who, like Tacitus and Florus, structure Roman history around the experience of civil war—to say nothing of later accounts of civil wars across time, well into the eighteenth century, until the American and French Revolutions.

By far the most comprehensive narrative depicting a Roman propensity to civil war was the Christian version authoritatively retailed by Augustine in The City of God. He would write his theological and historical masterwork in the wake of the barbarian invasion of Rome in 410 C.E., composing its twenty-two books from 413 to 426 C.E. Among its many purposes is to explain why Rome had fallen. Christianity’s opponents claimed that the new religion had been the cause: if only the pagan gods could have been appeased, the city could have fought off its attackers. To rebut the charge that Christianity had sapped Rome and left it vulnerable to the Goths, Augustine argues that the empire’s moral debility and susceptibility to division existed long before the birth of Jesus; he ascribes it to precisely that sequence of events adduced by his predecessors among Rome’s historians of civil war. But there is an evident paradox here. Had Rome not been a vehicle of salvation, carrying the gospel across the known world, wherever its empire? Might there, then, be a divine purpose behind the sack of the city, just as with its earlier success? Augustine follows his predecessors in tracing the city’s moral history back to its very founding and through its interminable subsequent episodes of turbulence and self-destruction to its collapse. How could the rage of barbarians or the conquest of foreigners compare with the horrors of citizens killing citizens?

Augustine had the benefit of a thorough education in Roman literature and a period teaching rhetoric in Milan, the empire’s cultural capital in his youth. He was steeped in the works of Cicero, Sallust, and Virgil and knew many of the books of Livy’s comprehensive history of Rome that are now lost.49 This erudition enabled him to compile a comprehensive history of Rome’s internal disturbances from Romulus and Remus—whose fratricide “showed the extent to which the earthly city is divided against itself”—all the way to his own times. If he could show that its moral decay preceded by a very long while the birth of Jesus, then Christianity could hardly be the cause of its decline and fall. Sallust provides just the evidence Augustine needs “in his History, where he shows how the bad morals which came forth from prosperity [after the defeat of Carthage] led at last to civil wars.” From the Gracchi to Sulla, Rome’s seditions “proceeded even to civil wars,” without the city’s gods doing anything to prevent them; indeed, the gods themselves were sometimes seen to incite the citizens against one another and give them an excuse for their contentions. The Romans erected a temple to the goddess Concord, Augustine noted ironically, “but Concord abandoned them, while Discord cruelly led them even into civil wars.”50

Augustine’s account of pagan Rome was a catalog of “those evils which were more infernal because internal,” a series of “civil, or rather uncivilized, discords.” “How much Roman blood was shed, and how much of Italy was destroyed and devastated,” he laments, “by the Social War, Servile War and Civil Wars!” Here he follows Florus in telling Roman history as a succession of wars, each building on the moral instability of its predecessor to shake the foundations of the commonwealth again. The intervals between open fighting were no less bloody than the battles themselves as, after Sulla’s first victory, “peace vied with war in cruelty, and conquered.” The first civil wars, of Marius and Sulla, led inexorably to all Rome’s other internal wars until the advent of Augustus, the civil warrior (according to Augustine) in whose reign Jesus was born: “But those wars began long before the advent of Christ, and a chain of causes linked one crime to another.”51

While in the middle of writing The City of God, Augustine encouraged Paulus Orosius, a Spanish priest who had migrated to North Africa, to undertake his own history “against the pagans” in response to the barbarian sack of Rome. Orosius’s Seven Books of History Against the Pagans(417–18 C.E.) was truly universal, spanning the more than 5,618 years since the creation of the world down to the author’s own time. The priest sets Rome’s catalog of civil wars into the much longer story of the crimes, wars, and natural disasters humanity had suffered since the beginning of recorded time,52 even as he traces Rome’s civil wars in sequence, much as his predecessors (and sources) among the earlier Roman historians had done. He sees the crime of “parricide,” of murders within families, as a recurring symptom of civil war, at least from the time of the Persians, who “fought a civil war, or rather a war more than civil”—there was that line from Lucan again!—after the death of their king Darius II led to a succession battle between his sons, Artaxerxes and Cyrus. Orosius follows the conventional chronology of Rome’s civil wars, beginning with Sulla, but sees the cycle as continuing even down to his own times. Here he parts company with Augustine, who holds that these worst of wars were fought only among pagans, not between pagans and Christians. Orosius answers those who claimed there were no such contemporary “civil” wars by arguing “that it would indeed be more accurate to call them wars against allies, but it will be to our advantage”—that is, to the benefit of Christians—“if they are called civil wars.” Why? Because they were just wars, fought for the praiseworthy cause of Christian victory and ameliorated by Christian forgiveness: “Who can doubt that the so-called civil wars of today are fought with more mildness and mercy, or indeed suppressed rather than fought?”53

Augustine, for one, doubted it. He never mentions Orosius by name and seems to have been disappointed by his follower’s history, which was constructed around the optimistic idea that the Roman Empire was and would remain the vehicle divine providence had chosen to spread Christianity.54As he brought his own City of God to completion, Augustine maintained a firm separation between pagans and Christians—that is, between those who inhabited the Earthly City (symbolized by Rome) and the believers of the Heavenly City. As Augustine reminds his readers, the Romans had ceaselessly found reason to fight each other, with ever more destructive effects for the entire Roman world: “The very breadth of the Empire has produced wars of a worse kind: that is, social and civil wars. By these, the human race is made even more miserable, either by warfare itself, waged for the sake of eventual peace, or by the constant fear that conflict will begin again.” The contrast with that other city, the City of God, a civitas whose citizens were never at war with one another, could hardly have been greater.55


Rome’s canon of civil wars, from Caesar to Augustine, generated three enduring—and enduringly influential—narratives. The first was what might be called the republican story; sympathetic to the supposedly selfless civic values of the Roman republic, it portrayed the endless repetition of civil wars as springing from the very roots of Rome itself. By this account of Roman history, to be “civilized” at all was to be prone to civil war; to suffer only one civil war seemed impossible, because others would inevitably follow so long as Roman civilization itself lasted. Then there was an imperial narrative that followed much the same trajectory but reached a very different conclusion. Civil war was a persistent disease of the body politic, and it had only one cure: the restoration of monarchy or the exaltation of an emperor. This was a story that culminated in the creation of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar. “In this way,” wrote the Greek-speaking historian Appian, “the Roman polity survived all kinds of civil disturbance to reach unity and monarchy,” “an evident demonstration,” agreed his late sixteenth-century English translator, “that peoples rule must give place, and Princes power prevayle.”56 Finally, there was a Christian narrative, in which civil war was the besetting sin of a city or commonwealth dedicated to the things of this world rather than to the glory of God. This worldliness was the source of its self-destruction and ensured it could not ultimately be a fit vehicle for salvation. All these narratives would be applied to later sequences of political and military disturbance throughout Europe and its empires until well into the eighteenth century.

Later generations would ratify by adoption the Roman orators’, poets’, and historians’ conception of what civil war looked like, how it was fought, and what its consequences would be. Readers of these classical texts would understand their own internal power struggles in terms inherited from the Romans. They would learn the meaning of civil war from the Latin they read in school and at university, ensuring the inherited view formed their thinking from the earliest opportunity. They would write poems inspired by Lucan and compile histories of their own dissensions under the spell of Sallust, Tacitus, and the other Roman chroniclers of civil strife. And major political thinkers in the seventeenth century—among them, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke—would use Roman language to debate sovereignty and treason, rebellion and revolution. These efforts would put traditional conceptions of civil war to the test for the first time, but only by carrying on a dialogue with ancient forebears. So long as Rome’s poets and historians were remembered, forgetting could not be a feasible defense against civil war.

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