Early Modern Crossroads


Uncivil Civil Wars: The Seventeenth Century

Roman accounts of civil war were central to the classical tradition handed down through educational institutions in Europe and the Americas, equipping later generations with a vocabulary and a set of narratives they could apply to their own troubles, if not always availing much reassurance. As Thomas Hobbes remarked in 1642, just after the onset of England’s first civil war, “The famous deeds and sayings of the Greeks and Romans have been commended to History not by Reason but by their grandeur and often by that very wolf-like element which men deplore in each other; for the stream of History carries down through the centuries the memory of men’s varied characters as well as of their public actions.”1 Hobbes had begun his publishing career in 1629 with his translation of Thucydides; in 1670, close to the end of his life in 1679, he produced a history of England’s civil wars inspired in part by Roman models. Although deeply skeptical of the political effects of classical learning—for example, he thought Greek and Roman republican ideas to be one of the root causes of England’s troubles—Hobbes was, like his contemporaries, as we shall see, deeply indebted to the Roman canon of civil war.

That canon would not—could not—be forgotten. Rome’s writers, from Cicero and Caesar to Lucan and Augustine, continued to be read and imitated as long as they were taught and published. After the revival of classical learning that we call the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, pupils, almost invariably boys, learned poetry and rhetoric from Latin textbooks. They crowned their studies with history and philosophy by reading the works of Caesar, Sallust, Tacitus, and Cicero. The same texts were not always in continuous use, but many of the works Augustine had studied in North Africa in the fourth century C.E. would have been familiar to the young William Shakespeare (1564–1616) at his grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon over a thousand years later.2 And the reputations of Roman writers on civil war closely tracked the prevalence of internal conflict in Europe. Between 1450 and 1700, editions of these historians greatly outpaced printings of their Greek predecessors, so that five of the top ten best sellers of classical historians were histories of civil war. Sallust’s histories were the two most frequently reprinted texts, with Caesar, Tacitus, and Florus not far behind.3

Though he is forgotten now, Florus became a mainstay of school and university curricula, shaping views of Roman history among generations of young scholars, some destined to reflect critically on the Roman experience.4 Hobbes would have read Florus’s Epitome as a schoolboy and later used it as a textbook when he tutored the young aristocrats William Cavendish II in 1608 and William Cavendish III in the 1630s; significantly, he called Behemoth, his history of England’s upheavals in the mid-seventeenth century, an “Epitome” of the English Civil Wars.5 When the first professorship of history was created at Oxford in 1622, the incumbent’s main task was to lecture on Florus. (The first to hold the chair, Degory Wheare, was perhaps excessively zealous; after eight years and 154 lectures, he still had not progressed past the historian’s first book.)6 In 1636, according to Oxford’s new statutes, all undergraduates had to attend lectures on Florus twice a week; this is the curriculum John Locke would have followed as a student at Oxford in the 1650s.7 Editions of Florus continued to appear almost annually until his stock fell at the end of the eighteenth century, along with that of his fellow epitomist the fourth-century historian Eutropius, whose Roman history Adam Smith, for one, studied at school in Scotland in the 1730s.8

Roman histories of civil war shaped perceptions of conflict well beyond Europe, too. There was, for example, plentiful evidence that a sequence of civil wars was being played out in recognizably Roman colors in the Americas after the Spanish conquest. In the 1530s and early 1540s, conquistadors in Peru, led by Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, fast friends who had turned into bitter enemies, fought a series of wars for the spoils of conquest, ensnaring families and followers. In the following decades, the Spanish historians Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Agustín de Zárate, and Pedro Cieza de León narrated the struggles of the Pizarros and the Almagros, their Spanish armies and indigenous allies, in terms drawn from Sallust, Plutarch, Livy, and Lucan. Oviedo alluded to Lucan in describing “this war, worse than civil war, and no less hellish,” while Cieza de Léon mordantly noted that “the wars that are most feared and that are fought with the greatest cruelty are civil wars.”9 And writing a few decades later, in the early seventeenth century, the indigenous historian the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega likewise described “the civil wars that took place between the Pizarros and Almagros” in the second volume of his chronicle of Peruvian history.10 Europeans had evidently exported civil war to a wider world as a distinguishing mark of their civilization even if they generally did not use the term to describe the contentions of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Nevertheless, to be civilized was to be capable of—but also fatally susceptible to—civil war.

The Roman sequence of civil wars was the inspiration for some of the most creative political thought and literature in late medieval and early modern Europe. In his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517), Niccolò Machiavelli anatomized Rome’s tumults in search of lessons for his own times. Michel de Montaigne viewed the French civil wars of the late sixteenth century from a defensive distance: “Civill warres have this one thing worse than other warres, to cause every one of us to make a watch-tower of his owne house.”11 France’s turmoils also lent topical bite to Christopher Marlowe’s play The Massacre at Paris (ca. 1592). The theme of civil war is central to Shakespeare’s entire body of work, in the Roman plays from Julius Caesar (1599) to Antony and Cleopatra (1606–7) as well as in his English histories, including King John, but especially in the three Henry VI plays and Richard II.12 But the most popular English tragedy in the seventeenth century was not any of Shakespeare’s—not Hamlet, not King Lear, not Macbeth—but instead Ben Jonson’s Catiline (1611), based on Sallust’s account of Catiline’s conspiracy.13

Lucan’s poem on the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey provided a particularly flexible template for framing the later civil wars. For example, in the 1590s the English poet Samuel Daniel (1562–1619) composed a history in verse of the fifteenth-century battles for the English Crown known as the Wars of the Roses, The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595). Shakespeare certainly fell under the spell of Lucan as he drew on Daniel’s poem to write Richard II (Daniel in turn would plunder Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays for a revised version of his poem in 1609).14

Daniel took the shape of his narrative along with many details from Lucan to tell what he called “our last” (meaning latest) “Civile Warres of England.” The opening lines of the poem would have been a clear signal to his classically educated readers of his debt to the Roman model:

I sing the civil warrs, tumultuous broyles,

And bloudy factions of a mighty land:

Whose people hauty, proud with forain spoyles,

Upon themselves, turne back their conquering hand:

Whilst Kin their Kin, brother the brother foyles,

Like Ensignes all against like Ensignes band:

Bowes against bowes, the Crowne against the crowne,

whil’st all pretending right, all right throwen downe.15

Lucan’s javelins (pila) become English bows, and imperial eagles are now the contested “crownes.” The armies of Lancaster and York otherwise replay the pathologies of Caesar and Pompey’s expansive yet self-destructive polity as immortalized by Lucan.

In early modern England, at least, Lucan was the “central poet of the republican imagination,” the one who most inspired those skeptical of monarchy as the best constitution for a commonwealth and, later, those who would support Parliament against the Crown in the British civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century.16 In the fifty years before the outbreak of those wars, the poets Christopher Marlowe (1564–93), Arthur Gorges (d. 1625), and Thomas May (ca. 1596–1650) all translated at least parts of Lucan’s Civil War.17 May extended his version beyond the truncated, ten-book version Lucan had left to include the rest of Julius Caesar’s life, shortly before writing the first history of England’s troubles amid what he, echoing Lucan, called “a War indeed…much more then civill.”18 It has even been plausibly argued that at least one reason why the republican John Milton (1608–74) originally cast his Paradise Lost in ten books—rather than in twelve, after Virgil’s Aeneid—was as a tribute to Lucan.19 These works can all be seen as part of an accumulating body of “the poetry of civil war…with its own characteristic and recurrent figures of speech, images, and themes.”20

Yet Lucan was not simply the property of those who were critical of, or even hostile to, the political form of a monarchy, as Milton was. Among defenders of the rule of kings in seventeenth-century Britain, Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653) placed on the title page of his Patriarcha (1680) lines from Lucan as a warning against the dangers of unfettered liberty, and two years later the first authorized edition of Hobbes’s Behemoth adapted the Roman poet’s opening lines for that title page.21 In the eighteenth century, Lucan returned as a republican symbol when Jean-Jacques Rousseau quoted him in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) and on the title page of his essay on perpetual peace (1761).22 And there were further appropriations during the French Revolution, when the swords of the Garde Nationale allegedly carried a motto from Lucan’s poem.23 The Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley would be among his last major admirers in the nineteenth century. Thereafter, not until after World War II would interest in the poet decisively rebound. Nevertheless, the vicissitude of interest in Lucan has tracked the currency of Roman ideas of civil war for some eighteen hundred years.

Historians have hotly debated whether books made revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but there is little doubt that civil wars made books.24 The conceptions of history found in Lucan and his early modern imitators view the present as the product of past struggles and the future as likely to emerge from a similar progression of “bloody factions” and “tumultuous Broyles”:

Intestine strife, is fearefull moste of all,

This, makes the Sonne, to cut his fathers throate,

This, parteth frendes, this brothers makes to bralle,

This robbes the good, and setts the theeves a floate,

This, Rome did feele, this, Germanie did taste,

And often times, this noble Lande did waste.25

This tendency to look back to earlier civil wars and to project their consequences forward would grow more pronounced during the course of the seventeenth century in Britain. By the 1630s, the history of Europe in general, and of England in particular, appeared to be founded on the primal contentions of the Romans, distinguished as it was by an accelerating and compounding series of internal conflicts. Rome’s historians and poets kept alive the memory of the wars of Sulla and Marius, Pompey and Caesar, but more recent history, across northern Europe especially, also sustained the memory of those earlier moments. In the 1640s and 1650s, an avalanche of writings, many in translation, about past civil wars, in Rome, but also in France, England, and Spain, were published to help Britons make sense of their own troubles.

Early modern Europeans saw their own internal troubles as the culmination of a cycle of similar wars that had played out across Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire and which seemed to follow the pattern of Rome’s civil wars.26 England alone had been through the Barons’ Wars of the thirteenth century, the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century and then the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Italy had had its civil wars in the fifteenth century, followed by the French Wars of Religion and the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Monarchy in the late sixteenth century, the latter a conflict that Hugo Grotius thought “might not improperly be called Sociall, or a warre of Confederates…nor wanteth Reason why it may not be termed a Civil War,” according to his account, published posthumously in 1657.27

After the British constitutional crisis of 1640–41 broke out into armed arrays across England, the strife was often seen in light of the Dutch and French civil wars and as the continuation of English strife in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. To take one prominent example, John Corbet, historian of the English city of Gloucester, declared the stakes in 1645 to be even higher than in those prior disputes:

The Action of these times transcends the Barons Warres, and those tedious discords betweene the Houses of York and Lancaster, in as much as it is undertaken upon higher Principles and carried on to a nobler end, and effects more universall.28

Histories of civil war proliferated. The Earl of Monmouth translated the Italian Giovanni Francesco Biondi’s History of the Civill Warres of England (1641), on the Wars of the Roses. Enrico Davila’s Tacitean Historie of the Civill Warres of France—the subject of an acerbic anonymous commentary by the U.S. vice president John Adams later in the eighteenth century—appeared for the first time in English in 1647.29 The Royalist poet Richard Fanshawe accompanied his 1648 translation of Guarini’s Il pastor fido with “a short Discourse of the Long Civill Warres of Rome” dedicated to Charles, the Prince of Wales, in which he affirmed the Roman distinctions between social war, servile war (which he called “a Mutiny”), and conspiracies, like that of Catiline, in favor of those conflicts that were “properly Civill warres.30 In 1650, Sir Robert Stapylton published a translation of Famiano Strada’s “history of the Low-Countrey Warres” (De bello Belgico), and in 1652 an English version appeared of Sandoval’s history of the Spanish civil wars of the early sixteenth century, accompanied by the commendation that no one would find the French Wars of Religion strange who had read of England’s Barons’ Wars—or, presumably, find England’s troubles odd who had learned of Spain’s a century earlier.31

All these works affirmed the place of England’s “civill uncivill warres” within larger historical patterns.32 Charles I is alleged to have remarked of his opponents, after reading Davila, that “the Truth is, their Swords had already transcribed it in English Blood, before [the translator’s] pen had done it in English Inke.”33 The sheer variety of publications—classical and modern; English and continental European—shows how far the range of available historical models extended beyond republican Rome or the Barons’ Wars of medieval England.34


Discussions of civil war in early modern Europe might have begun with poetry and history, as the humanist education of most participants in the mid-century crisis would lead one to expect, but over the course of the seventeenth century the subject fell increasingly into the domain of law and civil science—or what we would now call political and legal philosophy. Here, too, Roman conceptions set the terms of debate. In 1604, for example, drawing on Roman legal thought, Hugo Grotius argued that war in itself was neither just nor unjust. It was not a normative term at all but a descriptive one, signifying only “armed execution against an armed adversary.” It was the nature of the cause that determined whether it was just: if prosecuted merely to injure, it was by definition unjust, or against right; if to execute a right, it could be justified. Grotius then divided wars into two kinds: public, if waged by the will of the state, and private, if by some other.35 There his definition of public war stood in his original formulation, but at some point he added a further qualification: “Public war may be either ‘civil’ (when waged against a part of the same state) or ‘foreign’ (when waged against other states). What is known as a ‘war of allies’ is a form of foreign war.”36

Private wars could, likewise, be civil or foreign, Grotius added in another postscript, but he did not develop the implications of civil war that lacked public authority on at least one side. He was clearer on the more immediate question of whether booty might be seized: it could be taken as justly in a civil war as in any other legitimate kind. Here he was answering his opponents, notably the sixteenth-century Spanish legal writer Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca (1512–69), who had argued that prizes could not properly be taken in civil wars. This was to bar plunder in all wars among Christians, because, the Spaniard argued, every such war was a civil war. Grotius was incredulous: “Who will acquiesce in [the] assumption that the wars of Christians are civil wars, as if to say, forsooth, that the whole of Christendom constitutes a single state?”37 Similar arguments about the extent of the commonwealth or community—whether Christian, European, regional, or global—within which a war might be called “civil” would recur later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as we shall see. Nonetheless, for Grotius, whether a war was civil or foreign, or fought among Christians or against non-Christians, was irrelevant to the legitimacy of prize taking; that depended solely on whether the war was just or unjust.

When Grotius got around to writing his most extensive and enduring answer to these questions in his major work The Rights of War and Peace (1625), civil war was not a major category. His crucial distinctions are among three kinds of wars:

The most general and most necessary Division of War is this, that one War is private, another publick, and another mixed; that is a publick War, which is made on each Side by the Authority of the Civil Power. Private War is that which is made between private Persons, without Publick Authority. Mixed War is that which is made on one Side by publick Authority, and on the other by mere private Persons.38

So firmly is Grotius set against private war and its cost of engaging a “Country in dangerous Troubles and bloody Wars” that he counsels the wisdom of Plutarch and Cicero, even when one is faced with a usurper: “A Civil War is worse than the necessity of submitting to an unlawful Government…Any Peace is preferable to a Civil War.”39 Conservative sentiments like these would later earn Grotius the contempt of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw him as little more than a defender of tyranny and slavery.40

Grotius had dedicated his whole book to arguing that war could be just, on the Roman grounds of self-defense in a just cause. He left unanswered the knottier problem whether a civil war, either private or mixed, could be justified on both sides at the same time: For how could each side claim self-defense, when one or the other had to have begun the hostilities? For those who came after Grotius, the answer to that question turned on establishing which party could legitimately be held to be the public authority and hence which could be held to be upholding legal authority against private insurrection.

In thinking about these matters in the language of natural law, Grotius’s most rigorous successor (and critic) was the English humanist, historian, and student of civil science Thomas Hobbes. The very purpose of civil philosophy, according to Hobbes, was, in the bluntest terms, to prevent “confusion and Civill war; for the avoiding whereof, all Civill Government was ordained” (Leviathan, 1651).41 Merely parsing the rights of war and peace in the abstract, as Hobbes believed Grotius had done, was not enough; it was essential to know why wars happened. Hobbes would locate the reason in a want of understanding. As he notes in De Corpore (1655), “All such calamities as may be avoided by human industry, arise from war, but chiefly from civil war; for from this proceed slaughter, solitude, and the want of all things…The cause, therefore, of civil war is, that men know not the causes neither of war nor peace, there being but few in the world…that have learned the rules of civil life sufficiently.” Because “from want of moral science, proceed civil wars,” Hobbes took it upon himself to teach his fellow citizens the philosophy that might save them from these supreme calamities.42

For Hobbes, the defining task for any properly constituted internal authority is to secure peace for all its citizens. In his first major political work, De Cive, he defines peace negatively, as the absence of war, and war as “that time in which the will to contend by force is made sufficiently known by words or actions.”43 Apart from war between states, Hobbes isolates two further forms: civil war and the competition between individuals in the state of nature. Civil war could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created. What existed before then, in “the condition of men outside civil society (the condition one may call the state of nature) is no other than a war of all men against all men [bellum omnium contra omnes]; and in that war all men have a right to all things.”44 As a struggle between disorganized individuals, who might make contingent agreements with allies (socii) this was possibly a social war, but certainly not a civil one. There would be no drums, no trumpets, and no standards, because no armies and no generals, and of course no formally armed citizens, or cives—none of the elements, definitive or decorative, of a civil society. Hobbes’s famous war of all against all was not a civil war at all.

According to Hobbes, civil war arises when the public authority itself had become divided. As he explained to his former pupil William Cavendish, 3rd Earl of Devonshire in 1645, “Experience teaches…that the dispute for [precedence] betwene the spirituall and civill power, has of late more then any other thing in the world, bene the cause of ciuill warres, in all places of Christendome.45 That might have been correct at the time (and it would be central to Hobbes’s account of the motivation for creating a unitary sovereign later in his Leviathan), but it was only one contingency of a more fundamental phenomenon. In De Cive, Hobbes writes that the “sovereign power in a commonwealth…always exists and is exercised, except in times of sedition and civil war; at those times the one sovereign power becomes two”—or, in Florus’s formulation of what had happened under the Gracchi, which Hobbes would have recalled, a two-headed commonwealth is created out of one. Faction, of whatever kind, would be the most likely origin of such division, especially when “they try to get by arms what they could not get by eloquence and intrigue; and a civil war is born.” A faction was actually “like a commonwealth within the commonwealth [civitas in civitate].” Any prince who allowed faction within his commonwealth was thus “as good as admitting an enemy within the walls.”46 The inevitable consequence would be a war in which citizens became enemies of citizens: hence, in the idiomatic Roman sense of the term, a true civil war.

By the time Hobbes published a second and more widely distributed edition of De Cive in 1647, England had been long immersed in what he called “his country’s present calamity.”47 The pivotal moment in that crisis came when King Charles I was charged by his prosecutors in January 1649.48 His capital crime would be treason. As one historian has recently noted, however, “What constituted treason and therefore merited punishment was a matter of partisan judgement” when both Charles and Parliament claimed to represent the sovereign authority.49 Indeed, to put an anointed monarch on trial, it was necessary to redefine the location of sovereignty, and hence the object of treason as Parliament rather than the Crown.50 With that reversal of perspective, it became possible to conceive of the king as waging war against the English people, a war that was, by definition, civil because directed within the commonwealth and against its citizens.

Parliament passed its “Ordinance Erecting a High Court of Justice for the King’s Trial” on January 6, 1649. The two major “high and treasonable Offences” with which Charles was charged were, first, that he “had a wicked Design totally to subvert the Ancient and Fundamental Laws and Liberties of this Nation, and…to introduce an Arbitrary and Tyrannical Government” and, second, “that besides all evil ways and means to bring this Design to pass, he hath prosecuted it with Fire and Sword, Levied and maintained a cruel War in the Land, against the Parliament and Kingdom,whereby the Country hath been miserably wasted, the Publick Treasure Exhausted, Trade decayed, thousands of People murdered, and infinite other mischiefs committed.”51 Arbitrary government was the end, “cruel war” the means. But against what law would this have been an offense worthy of trial and even execution?

Before January 1649, it had been impossible for the Crown to declare war on its own subjects; it could act defensively against rebels, but war against its own people was legally inconceivable. Even before it had declared itself to be the locus of sovereignty, then, the House of Commons had to rewrite the law of treason. The Rump Parliament announced itself to be “the supreme power in this nation” on January 4, 1649, but already on January 1 it had asserted “that by the fundamental Laws of this Kingdom, it is treason in the King of England, for the Time being, to levy War against the Parliament and Kingdom of England.52 In so doing, they crucially altered what had been English law since the fourteenth century, which had included among its list of offenses the crime of “levying war” against the king. That definition of treason was of Roman origin, derived from the Digest of Roman law, where it was described in part as waging war without the command of the emperor.53 Thus, whichever body had the legitimate authority to levy war was, by definition, the sovereign.

It was in the aftermath of this debate that Thomas Hobbes elaborated his own general theory of sovereignty in Leviathan. Though agnostic on the question of whether the sovereign should be a single person or an assembly, he left no room for the possibility of resistance against sovereignty, however constituted. For Hobbes, its constitution was the alternative not to civil war but to the condition of war outside civil society:

It is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known…So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.54

The sovereign power is instituted precisely to secure peace and prevent war. Any division of sovereignty would lead to confusion and contention as to the “common Power”; it was therefore essential to maintain the indivisibility of the sovereign’s rights, including “the Right of making Warre, and Peace with other Nations, and Common-wealths.” “For,” he argued, “unlesse this division precede, division into opposite Armies can never happen. If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these Powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided, and fallen into this Civill Warre.” He argued in chapter 18 of Leviathan against vain objections that one might suffer under a tyrant or popular government: “The estate of Man can never be without some incommodity or other; and that the greatest, that in any forme of Government can possibly happen to the people in generall, is scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civill Warre.”55 Such a condition marked the dissolution of sovereignty and the return to the pre-civil state of nature where life could be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In this sense, civil war was for Hobbes strictly an oxymoron, though bound he was by the contemporary parlance for describing a time without consensus about who, or what, constituted the common power over the people.

Hobbes had been born in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, and lived an extraordinarily long life, which spanned almost all of England’s seventeenth-century troubles, just long enough for him to contribute to the Exclusion Controversy, which aimed to remove the Catholic James, Duke of York, from the succession to the English throne, before his death in 1679.56 He would, however, have had to have lived a full century to have witnessed the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 and to have read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government written in the wake of the Exclusion Controversy but subsequently revised and only published in 1689 “to establish the Throne of our Great Restorer, Our present King William…And to justifie to the World, the People of England.57 Locke had been a pupil at Westminster School when Charles I was executed nearby in Whitehall.58 He became an attentive student of the history of civil wars, from those of Rome’s long experience to the ones his father took part in on the side of Parliament in the 1640s. Over the course of his life, Locke would own the Inca Garcilaso’s history of the civil wars in Peru, the Tacitean histories of Davila and Strada, and many accounts of the Dutch Revolt, as well as several copies of Florus, Lucan, and Caesar’s commentaries, among other works on civil war.59 Yet his account in the Two Treatises of tyranny and the legitimate response to it echoes the charges made against the allegedly malevolent monarch at his trial.

Locke denied that the state of nature was a state of war, which he defined as “not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate setled Design upon another Mans life,” and hence quite different, in conscious intent and precise direction, from Hobbes’s abiding condition of insecurity amid the passions of others.60 There is no reason to believe that Locke was responding specifically to Hobbes; his sole reference to “Civil Wars” shows how far his political theory is from those of both Hobbes and Grotius. Yet as if replying to the passage from Grotius quoted earlier, Locke argued, “But if they, who say it [the right of resistance to a tyrant] lays a foundation for Rebellion, mean that it may occasion Civil Wars, or Intestine Broils, to tell the People they are absolved from Obedience…and that therefore this Doctrine is not to be allow’d, being so destructive to the Peace of the World. They may as well say upon the same ground, that honest Men may not oppose Robbers or Pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.” Humans enter civil society in order to escape the state of nature; the greatest threat to their security once in the commonwealth, however, is not their own passions, or even foreign enemies, but the illegitimate use of force by their rulers, which it is indeed proper to resist: for these rules, “so destroying the Authority, which the People did, and no Body else can set up, and introducing a Power, which the People hath not authoriz’d, they actually introduce a state of War, which is that of Force without Authority…and so they putting themselves into a state of War with those, who made them the Protectors and Guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, Rebellantes Rebels.”61 The immediate object of concern here was Charles’s son James, Duke of York; during the Exclusion Crisis, Locke, like many contemporaries, feared a reversion to Stuart absolutism and with it a return to the cycle of civil wars that had begun in 1641. At the same time, we can also see him entering into the long-running discussion of the meaning and nature of civil war that had drawn in Grotius and Hobbes earlier in the seventeenth century.

Locke understood civil war as being what Grotius might have called a “mixed” war, having “publick Authority” on one side, but that authority would be on the side of the people, not the ruler. It was, thus, a species of war that could never be just on both sides. In this sense, even more radically than Hobbes, Locke repudiates the Roman tradition of civil war as taking place within the civitas, between armed groups of fellow citizens. For Locke, civil war entailed the extinction of the commonwealth, the collapse of civil society—an exit from civility itself—until just authority could be restored. Locke clearly thought such a restoration had taken place in 1688 with what he called “our delivery from popery and slavery from the arrival of the Prince of Orange”—that is, James II’s brother-in-law William of Orange, who came to the throne with his wife, Mary, in the political maneuver known for its alleged bloodlessness as the Glorious Revolution.62

Would Locke have judged the Glorious Revolution to be seventeenth-century Britain’s last civil war, or even a civil war at all? It seems highly unlikely. It was relatively brief, was rapidly resolved, and did not recur, unlike the civil wars of republican Rome or medieval and early modern Europe. More recent historians have seen the Glorious Revolution as the English, or British, Civil War that never was: “There was indeed no civil war in 1688; no battle, that is to say, very little bloodshed, and no general relapse into a condition of epidemic armed violence such as had obtained in England between 1642 and 1646.” If the events constituted a “Fourth” English Civil War, after the three others conventionally counted between 1641 and 1649, then it was “over before it started” in the closing months of 1688.63 The Glorious Revolution might then have been the English, or British, civil war to end all civil wars: a factional struggle in which both sides had armies but claimed no territory and engaged in no military conflicts (at least, on English soil). Instead, they bloodlessly arranged for the transmission of authority from one faction to another: a “civil” process, perhaps, but hardly a war.

A bleaker view of the inevitability of civil war came from Locke’s contemporary the aristocratic English republican thinker Algernon Sidney (1623–83). Sidney, like Hobbes and Locke, had been actively engaged in the Exclusion Controversy, but he turned from the theory of political resistance to its practice and was executed in 1683 for his role in a plot against the life of the king. He might have seen such conspiracy as unavoidable, indeed even preferable to the greater conflicts that kingly regimes produced by their very nature. “All monarchies are subject to be afflicted with civil wars,” he wrote in his posthumously published Discourses Concerning Government (1698). “But commonwealths are less troubled with those distempers.” Indeed, as the title of his chapter on the subject put it, “Popular Governments are less subject to Civil Disorders than Monarchies; manage them more ably, and more easily recover out of them.” He argued that this was in large part because non-monarchical regimes did not suffer from the same destructive disputes over inheritance and the succession as monarchies.64

Sidney showed this distinction by a detailed breakdown of all the violent disturbances across history: in Israel under its kings, in the Persian monarchy, in Rome, France, Spain, and Britain. For example, the succession caused “many Revolutions” in France, where, as in Rome, “the end of one Civil War has bin the beginning of another.” As if the pages of evidence from the Mediterranean and northern Europe were not enough to convince his readers, Sidney concluded with a litany of the civil wars that had ravaged England since the Norman Conquest. “The Miseries of England on the like occasions,” he wrote, “surpass all.” From the contested succession after the death of William the Conqueror to the troubles of the Tudors, English history appeared to have been an almost continuous time of troubles for five centuries.65

Sidney’s history was clearly indebted to the Roman historians and their imitators. As he had noted in his earlier Court Maxims (1664–65) regarding the ferocity of wars over the royal succession, “Of this truth England, France, and Flanders give undeniable testimony; each of which has lost more blood than was shed in all the cruel wars of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, and all the others that happened in Rome from the expulsion of the kings to the establishment of the caesars.” What more than all these histories could be needed to demonstrate that it was monarchy that bred war, and republicanism that brought peace, in the ancient world as in the modern? The Augustan argument that commonwealths, or “free states,” “wearied with civil dissensions, have sought monarchy as their port of rest” was as dangerous as it was absurd: “We may as well conclude death better than life because all men doing what they can to preserve life do yet end in death. That free states by divisions fall often into monarchy only shows monarchy to be a state as death unto life.”66

Sidney clarified the Roman meaning of civil war by discriminating it from the other kinds of wars the Romans had faced: the name of “Civil Wars,” he thought, was “most absurdly applied to the servile and gladiatorian Wars; for the Gladiators were Slaves also, and Civil Wars can be made only by those who are Members of the Civil Society, which Slaves are not. Those that made the bellum Sociale [Social War], were Freemen, but not Citizens; and the War they made could not be called Civil.”67 Sidney was disputing his predecessors and contemporaries who used Roman history to argue that republican government led straight to anarchy and instability. He argued instead that “all Monarchies are subject to be afflicted with Civil Wars…But Commonwealths are less troubled with those distempers.”68

The Roman republic—the period when neither kings nor emperors ruled the Roman people—was the best illustration of that correlation. In particular, Sidney was refuting the staunch monarchist Sir Robert Filmer regarding “the Imperfection of Popular Government” in his Patriarcha of the late 1620s. Filmer portrayed Rome’s “Democratie” as turbulent and short-lived: a mere 480 years, from the expulsion of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, to the rise of Julius Caesar. Conflict between the nobility and the people led to seditions that then spawned a destructive sequence of “civil” wars: “The Social War was plainly Civil; the Wars of the Slaves, and the other of the Fencers; the Civil Wars of Marius and Sylla, of Cataline, of Caesar and Pompey the Triumvirate, of Augustus, Lepidus and Antonius: All these shed an Ocean of Blood within Italy and the Streets of Rome.” Contradicting those, like Florus, who saw Rome’s greatest achievement—the expansion of its empire—as the fruit of “Democratical Government,” Filmer argued, “Even at those times, when the Roman Victories abroad, did amaze the World, then the Tragical Slaughters of Citizens at home, deserved Commiseration from their vanquished Enemies.” These wars continued even while Rome expanded as its citizens turned their conquering arms upon themselves, until the “Civil Contentions at last settled the Government again into a Monarchy.”69

To prove the necessity of monarchy and the instability of republican government, Filmer had turned the republican narrative of civil war on its head in the service of an Augustan account of the benefits of monarchy for securing peace. Sidney’s rebuttal of Filmer was equally polemical. He argued, as Sallust had, that the spoils of empire were like an infection that ravaged the body politic: “ ’Twas hard, if not impossible, to preserve a Civil equality, when the Spoils of the greatest Kingdoms were brought to adorn the Houses of private men.”70 It was not adherence to a republican constitution that had caused Rome’s seditions and ultimately its civil wars; it was straying from that constitution. And it was not citizens without monarchs who caused war, but a hostile band of other enemies. Nonetheless, his terms, and not Filmer’s, would have been recognized by Roman thinkers as an accurate description of the enemies they faced during many of the wars of the republic. “Civil Wars can be made only by those who are Members of the Civil Society”: this was an idiomatically Roman understanding of this form of conflict.


If the Roman writers on civil war had taught anything, it was that the cycles of civil war, once begun, were likely to continue unbroken. “ ’Tis in vain to seek a Government in all points free from a possibility of Civil Wars, Tumults, and Seditions,” Sidney warned. “That is a Blessing denied to this life, and reserved to compleat the Felicity of the next.”71 It seemed that, as heirs to Rome, the European nations that gradually emerged could not shake off Roman habits of organized violence or Roman ways of understanding them. Civil war was one of the distinguishing marks of civilization, for there could be no civilization without civitates, that is, cities or states, and it was the natural fate of these to be riven by civil strife. The French jurist and political thinker the baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) captured the dilemma in his 1734 reflections on the grandeur and decline of the Roman Empire: “Whilst Rome was conquering the world, a hidden war was carrying on within its walls: these fires were like those of volcanos, which break out the instant they are fed by some combustible substance.”72 That would be one unforgettable lesson of Rome’s history of civil war until the late eighteenth century and even beyond.

Beginning in that period, a new narrative gradually emerged in Europe, also comprising a succession of political upheavals and likewise linking past and future, yet now in a way ripe with utopian possibilities. In this vision of history, a sequence of revolutions rather than a series of civil wars would form the central story not of congenital strife but of modern emancipation, starting with the American and French Revolutions and developing throughout history. The creation of this narrative would entail its own act of forgetting. The nascent category of revolution was designed, in part, to repress memories of civil war and to replace them with something more constructive, more hopeful, and more forward-looking. As the early nineteenth-century French philosopher Théodore Jouffroy (1796–1842) argued in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, “The civil wars of Europe are over.”73 That revolutionary hope could be sustained only by overlooking both the similarities between civil war and revolution and the considerable overlap in the concepts used to understand them. But the Roman conception of civil war would not go quietly; the age of revolutions was also to be an age of civil wars.

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