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War and Peace in the Ancient World

Kurt A. Raaflaub (editor), (Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 385 pages, $39.95.

This volume is the first in a new series whose stated purpose is to “pursue important social, political, religious, economic, and intellectual issues through a wide range of ancient societies.” The thirteen cultures considered include both the chronologically ancient—from late Bronze Age China to pre-Islamic Iran to Greece and Rome—and societies that are structurally early, such as the Aztec Empire. However, nearly half of the twenty essays included focus on ancient Israel or the Greco-Roman world.

Each paper is concerned primarily with a single civilization, but the contributors, using different types of source material and adopting different approaches, consider many of the same questions: What motivated societies to go to war? What diplomatic measures were in place to avoid war or limit its impact? How were warriors reintegrated into the community? Kurt Raaflaub ties the entries together in his introduction by discussing some of the traits evidenced across different cultures.

Most readers are unlikely to read this book straight through, but will instead dip into the historical stream at points of interest. Some of the essays are more accessible to nonspecialists than others, though none is written primarily for laymen.

In “Making War and Making Peace in Early China,” Robin D.S. Yates writes about the systems of international relations employed in late Bronze Age China, including hostage exchanges and marriage alliances. Richard Salomon attempts to reconcile India’s reputation for peace with its bloody history (“Ancient India: Peace Within and War Without”). Benjamin R. Foster delineates different types of peace in Mesopotamia (“Water under the Straw: Peace in Mesopotamia”), and Richard H. Beal examines Hittite treaties in “Making, Preserving, and Breaking the Peace with the Hittite State.”

Lanny Bell writes about the hostilities between Egyptians and Hittites that culminated during the reign of Ramesses II (“Conflict and Reconciliation in the Ancient Middle East: The Clash of Egyptian and Hittite Chariots in Syria, and the World’s First Peace Treaty between ‘Superpowers’”). Josef Wiesehöfer writes about the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian dynasties from an Iranian rather than a Greco-Roman perspective (“From Achaemenid Imperial Order to Sasanian Diplomacy: War, Peace, and Reconciliation in Pre-Islamic Iran”).

Susan Niditch discusses the various attitudes to war expressed in the Hebrew Bible (“War and Reconciliation in the Traditions of Ancient Israel: Historical, Literary, and Ideological Considerations”). She also reflects on the fate of conquered soldiers, women as spoils of war, and the rituals attending the resumption of normal activity after war: “Significantly, both the warriors who have killed or touched a corpse and the captives who are to be integrated into the community must undergo a process of purification, as must any inanimate spoil that is to be brought into the camp.”

Thomas Krüger examines the biblical origins of the image referenced in his paper’s title, “‘They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares’: A Vision of Peace Through Justice and Its Background in the Hebrew Bible.”

In “‘Laughing for Joy’: War and Peace among the Greeks,” Lawrence A. Tritle explores the diplomatic measures that preceded the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and the question of that war’s inevitability. He also treats the transition from war to peace, which “was accomplished, for example, through ritualistic dance and, in Athens, the theater.”

David Konstan delves into the themes of violence and revenge in three Euripidean tragedies (“War and Reconciliation in Greek Literature”). He suggests, for example, that the story of Heracles killing his children in a fit of madness reflects the warrior’s difficult reintegration into domestic life.

In “War, Peace, and International Law in Ancient Greece,” Victor Alonso discusses, inter alia, the relationships that could obtain order between Greek states, and the development of the “common peace” in the fourth century.

Nathan Rosenstein considers the role fear played in determining how republican Rome treated conquered populations (“War and Peace, Fear and Reconciliation at Rome”). Carlin A. Barton reviews the connotations of pax in the Roman world (“The Price of Peace in Ancient Rome”): Peace could only result from an enemy’s absolute surrender to Rome.

Jeri Blair DeBrohun (“The Gates of War [and Peace]: Roman Literary Perspectives”) reviews several literary passages describing the Temple of Janus, whose doors were closed only when Rome was at peace. In “Early Christian Views on Violence, War, and Peace,” Louis J. Swift traces the development of Christian thought on the question of Christian participation in military service.

Fred M. Donner examines the Qur’an’s injunctions for the relations of believers with nonbelievers and one another (“Fight for God—But Do So with Kindness: Reflections on War, Peace, and Communal Identity in Early Islam”).

Ross Hassig (“Peace, Reconciliation, and Alliance in Aztec Mexico”) explains that peace in the Aztec world was something imposed on the conquered (cf. Barton). The Aztecs cemented their relationships with the vanquished through intermarriage, so that a web of familial relationships bound the cities of the empire in the next generation.

Catherine Julien teases from late sources—interviews conducted in Peru in the sixteenth century—information about Inca warfare conducted centuries earlier (“War and Peace in the Inca Heartland”). In the volume’s final essay, “The Long Peace Among Iroquois Nations,” Neta C. Crawford considers the formation and organization of the Iroquois League.


Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here