From Rome to Rwanda: The Centuries-Long Effort to Define Civil War

A new book by Harvard historian David Armitage unearths two millennia of thinking about a most ignoble type of war.

Image of Romulus and Remus on a coin

If you live in a developed country, you are among those enjoying the “Long Peace,” a period marked by the absence of large scale interstate war since the end of 1945. It is the longest period of such calm in modern history. During this same time period, however, the world’s pockets of conflict have moved away from the frontiers and turned, instead, inward. 

“The Long Peace stands under a dark shadow—the shadow of civil war,” writes Harvard historian and Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate David Armitage, whose new book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas tracks the evolution of human understanding of civil war over two millennia.

“The 300 years between 1648 and 1945 constituted an era of war between states; the last sixty years appear to be an age of war within states,” he writes. Since 1989, the world has seen an average of twenty intrastate wars going on at any given time. Intrigued, Armitage sought out a definitive book on civil war, perhaps a counterpart to Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution from the 1960s. But he came up short. So, he embarked on the “less studied past” and decided to write a book himself. What he uncovered was 2000 years’ worth of philosophers, military leaders, lawyers, poets, and historians struggling mightily to understand exactly what is a civil war.

Somehow civil war evaded categorization. It was a calamity unto itself, unlike any other type of conflict. In the collective conscious it was thought to be the most heinous and vile kind of war.  Fighting an aggressive foreign power and defending your border can be seen as a noble goal, but waging a civil war is disgraceful, almost unspeakable, because it exposes a fissure inside a polity—a lack of control. 

“If war is said to be hell, then civil war is the worst possible form of that hell precisely because the enemies are intimate and familiar, and sometimes related,” says Armitage.

Civil wars often have common characteristics, he found. Wars within states tend to last four times longer than wars between them, and they tend to involve the world’s poorest countries.  And they recur. “The most likely legacy of a civil war is further civil war,” as economist Paul Collier puts it.
Armitage traces the roots of the concept of civil war back to Rome in the first century BCE. But Roman narratives of civil war would draw on the myth of the founding of Rome in the eighth century BCE, when Romulus killed his twin brother Remus to take control of the city and give it his name. This story of brother-on-brother carnage came to symbolize a unique type of conflict that would endure in human history. Rome’s long sequence of civil wars began in 88 BCE when a magistrate first turned his troops on the city of Rome, an act that unleashed a series of recurring internal strife that continued, by some accounts, for centuries as a curse the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire could not shake off.

For a century after, Roman narratives inspired the world’s great philosophers, statesmen, and poets—such as Horace, Augustine, Shakespeare, Hobbes, even Herman Melville—to invoke Rome as they wrestled to define the nature of the internal wars they faced in their own countries.

Quotation about civil war

Armitage gives special attention to a little-known Swiss legal scholar from the eighteenth century named Emer de Vattel, who thought deeply about the natural law of nations and wrote persuasively about conduct in international relations. Statesmen around the world drew from his writings, even Thomas Jefferson, who used Vattel’s reference to “free and independent states” in the Declaration of Independence.

Vattel offered a framework for determining if a conflict could be defined as a “civil war,” distinguishing it from a commotion, rebellion, or criminal act: 

When a party is formed in a state, who no longer obey the sovereign, and are possessed of sufficient strength to oppose him,— or, when, in a republic, the nation is divided into two opposite factions, and both sides take up arms—this is called civil war.

Radically, Vattel opened up the rationale for outside powers to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state, if both sides of an internal conflict could be deemed “legitimate belligerents.” (Indeed, it was akin to recognizing there were two states operating inside of one.) Today, as civil wars draw in players from other nations, the practice seems less outrageous.

In his book, Armitage lays out civil wars within three categories of distinction used by European thinkers at the end of the eighteenth century: successionist, secessionist, and supersessionist.

Successionist civil wars are fights to assume the monarchy or throne and seem to be plagued by recurrence as seen in Rome. Secessionist civil wars are when one group wants to break away from the main governing body, as in the American Revolution. (It was first called a civil war—until the British troops arrived en masse. Many decolonization uprisings in Africa and Asia in the next two centuries also fell into this category.) Finally supersessionist civil wars involve two parties, two separate bodies or two distinct societies, vying for control of a single territory, such as took place in the French Revolution.

In his book, Armitage traces the fascinating metamorphosis of conflict, from skirmish to uprising; war against invaders to war between states, to civil war, and finally to the reframing of civil war as revolution. The nineteenth century marked the golden age of revolutions that ushered in the modern era. The liberating wars of the French Revolution later inspired transformations in Mexico, China, Iran, and Cuba. To Armitage, a revolution by any other name is still a civil war at its origin: as he concludes in his book, “civil war was the genus of which revolution was only a species.”

To name something a civil war is fraught with both semantic and political fallout. It wasn’t until 1907 that the US Congress could give the American Civil War its name, such was the resistance to the stigma that accompanies the term. Thanks to the Geneva Convention, today the designation of civil war comes with real consequences because it triggers international aid and international law.

For example, the Syrian war began in late 2011, but it wasn’t until July 2012 that the International Committee of the Red Cross determined formally that it was a “noninternational armed conflict,” a technical term used by humanitarian lawyers to describe civil war (even aid agencies don’t want to use the term). But during that six- to nine-month gap, until information from the ground reached the outside world and triggered the provisions of the Geneva Convention, Armitage explains, some 17,000 people had already died.

In future conflicts, he believes the use of social and digital media will help to speed the flow of information from the ground, and at the same time it will draw other groups and nations into an internal conflict, as evidenced by the Syrian situation, which has been called an “internationalized civil war.”

On a more hopeful note, Armitage points to the recent resolutions of the long-running civil wars in Sri Lanka and Colombia as a positive trend toward the act of creating peace agreements between the warring parties that can be monitored by the international community or outside powers. Truth commission or amnesties are necessary to expunge the war crimes, which he believes would “fester and provide the tinder more outbreaks if left unexamined.”

“So maybe we're entering a moment in the early twenty-first century where we are as an international community...reaching some procedures and protocols for cauterizing the wounds of civil war and preventing their outbreaks again,” he speculates.

Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University and a Faculty Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. His book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, was published in February 2017 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 

Photo caption: One of the earliest accounts of brother-on-brother violence, the myth of Romulus and Remus tells the story of the founding of Rome in the eighth century BCE. After quarrelling with his twin brother, Remus, Romulus murders him and gives the city his own name. The long history and accounts of the Roman civil wars that followed became central to the classical tradition.

Photo credit: Brogi, Carlo (1850–1925), "Certosa di Pavia—Medallion at the base of the facade." The Latin inscription tells that these are Romulus and Remus. Catalogue #8226. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.