The Shifting Boundaries of Violence
Alte Geschichte
Grenzen der Gewalt


The Shifting Boundaries of Violence: Four Cultural Models for Going to War in Greek and Roman Antiquity

Referent/in: Jon Lendon, Charlottesville/Heidelberg


Not only is the definition of “violence” a cultural product, but singular to each culture as well is the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate violence; in some cultures legitimate violence may not be understood as “violence” at all. Even those whose violence is illegitimate will usually try to convince others that they are practicing what their society considers legitimate violence, sometimes with odd results in the eye of a distant observer. Thus, not only did the Classical Greeks in fact often go to war for revenge, but they preferred to be thought to go to war for revenge; that is to say, they tended to conceal what we would consider better motives (like defense of their borders) under a motive we find repellent. To us, the Greeks seem to be reveling in their own vengefulness, and making the worst case they can for their wars. But they were merely following a different cultural model of violence than we do: the purpose of this paper is to identify ancient cultural models for violence in relations between states, and, insofar as possible, to investigate their origins.
To the ancient Greeks revenge was the motive highest ranked in legitimacy when it came to making war; that is why Thucydides felt he must find his way beneath the mere aitiai and diaphorai (“charges” and “points of disagreement”) that divided the Athenians and the Peloponnesians, to the alethestatē prophasis (“truest cause”) of the Peloponnesian War: it was because Greeks naturally preferred to talk in terms of revenge for hybris (which is how the aitiai and diaphorai were understood) rather than more powerful underlying causes like Thucydides’ fear of power, which therefore remained aphanestatēn logōi (“unmentioned in discussion”). But why? The Iliad, depicting the Trojan War as war of revenge, must be the key here: Homer was the source of many Greek cultural models, and the way things were done in Homer was very often for later Greeks the “right” way to do things. The singular power of that cultural model over Greece may, moreover, help to explain why revenge as a motive for war, although never absent among the Romans, plays a smaller role in Roman culture.
The Romans of the Republic, at least, seem to have considered protection of their allies the motive for war with the greatest legitimacy, and tended to conceal other motives (greed, simple aggression) behind these, even when the claim of defense was a singularly weak one (scholars believing this story the Romans told about themselves was the origin of long-prevalent the “defensive imperialism” thesis about Roman expansion under the Republic). How did the Romans come to stress protection of allies? As with so many things about early Rome, all we can do is guess. But did this cultural model arise in the close-knit primeval community of the Latins, which was held together not by synoecism (as might have happened in Greece) but by alliances?
We can be more certain about the origins of a third way of thinking about going to war in antiquity. Under the Roman empire, adding to native Roman defensive-mindedness and imported Greek revenge-mindedness, we find a third motive struggling for supreme legitimacy: cost-benefit analysis.  The Roman empire, it was argued especially by Greek imperial authors who lived under it, should regulate its conquests on the basis of collecting areas that paid; and so for example Britain (to the perennial delight of non-British classicists) was to be excluded. Why this accounting approach, and why especially among Greek imperial authors? It seems to reflect a Hellenistic cataloguing mentality visible in contemporary geography and ethnography, and especially evident in Strabo, who was one of those who applied cost-benefit analysis to the empire.
Finally, especially prominent from the second century AD to the fourth, was the idea that all places in the world were in some sense ranked in terms of honor, honor derived from their history and physical splendor, and that the most legitimate reason for war was to accumulate, and defend, places which ranked highest in honor. The natural result of this way of thinking was to direct Roman imperialism east—against what the emperor Julian, when urged to fight the Goths, insisted was a “better” enemy—where most of the locations regarded as desirable by this criterion that the Romans did not already possess were located, and not into the nameless wastes of the north. This cultural model, I would argue, gained its preponderant influence from the methods of comparing places taught in school during the study of oratory, the subject to which nearly all Roman-period formal education was directed.
Historians will argue whether the actual motives for war in antiquity changed much from the fifth century BC through the fourth century AD. Those of a Thucydidean, Realist, bent, may doubt it. But to the cultural historian it is attractive to suppose that not only talk, but action, was driven, at least in part, by these cultural models, and therefore that, as the cultural models shifted, the reasons for war shifted as well, over the course of antiquity.