09.04.02, De Souza and France, eds., War and Peace

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Josh Levithan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.002


De Souza, Philip and John France (eds.). War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xi, 247. ISBN: 978-0-521-81703-5.

Reviewed by:
Josh Levithan
Kenyon College

This wide-ranging collection consists of ten essays which inquire into the meanings and mechanics of peacemaking. There is particular interest here in the processes of diplomacy and in the crafting of treaties, and these subjects are approached from different angles and in a variety of ancient and medieval contexts. While there is little interplay between the chapters, and nothing so rash as a grand theory of peacemaking is attempted, there is much to be discovered here for the military, diplomatic, or political historian of any era (or indeed, for any knowledgeable and interested reader). Problems of translation both cultural and linguistic keep comparisons at bay, and the very diversity of the subject matter--common treaties, bilateral negotiations, private truces, diplomatic exchanges, imperial propaganda, unwritten conventions--speaks to the viability of the subject as well as the necessity of a piecemeal approach, with due attention to cultural specificity. One common theme, sounded first in the introduction and indeed rather prominent throughout the book, is that of diplomatic pragmatism. The rare reader who absorbs these ten chapters in sequence might do well to ponder whether it is simply the case that subordinating principle or cultural preference to the demands of political expediency is common to Western military and political history, or whether this might only seem to be so often the case, given the connections between both long term success and pragmatic adaptability and between victory and control over the historical record. Perhaps the inflexible diplomats and uncompromising warriors of yesteryear were legion but were outcompeted--in history and in the historical record--by the pragmatists.

Deriving initially from a 2000 conference at the University of London, the ten papers are edited to a uniformly high standard (only a handful of typographical errors slip through) and are provided with a collective bibliography and index. The consistently informative footnotes will of course be of great use to non-specialists or those dipping their toes in new waters. Before proceeding to a discussion of the ten individual chapters, it should be noted that the editors' introduction provides somewhat more succinct summaries than those that are to be found below, and that, at the time of writing, this introduction can be found at both Amazon and Google.

The first of the ten essays--which are arranged, after an introductory chapter, in the best chronological order--is P.J. Rhodes' examination of the making and breaking of treaties in classical Greece. The chapter involves a very difficult analysis--Rhodes must read between the lines of the Greek historians in order to study the contents and impact of long-vanished treaties--that sheds some important light on the relevance of treaties to the Greeks, even if hard and fast conclusions are impossible. Rhodes assembles a great mass of historical detail by picking over the detail-rich terrain of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Diodorus Siculus, and then carefully positions these details so as to elucidate the contents of the absent treaties. The effect is something like a learnèd séance, an impressive example of close reading one source to make up for the absence of another. But the level of detail and the necessarily oblique approach to the actual treaties renders this chapter rather difficult for non-specialists in classical Greek political history to find any broader relevance. I do suspect, though, that it will be of great interest to specialists. Rhodes demonstrates that the Greeks could be practical with respect to sworn treaties, showing that both sides used the Peace of Nicias as an excuse for carrying on petty provocations without lapsing into open war. Nevertheless, he remarks that "we should not be too cynical: the keeping of agreements mattered," despite "a large grey area" regarding oath-breaking (11). Rhodes is circumspect, a stance which fits well the flexibility of the Greeks--short of actual invasion, it is difficult to tell when the Greeks considered treaties to be broken rather than bent, battered, or bulged into some new form. Another problem facing the historian--not only of Greek treaties but of Roman and medieval pacts as well, as we will see below--is the stubborn unwillingness of the ancients to use words precisely. Not only is the "autonomy" granted by some treaties very hard to define, but it is uncertain which of the different sorts of communities in Laconia and Boeotia can even be described as a polis. Add to this several basic cultural assumptions (naturally left unmentioned by the historians) that we do not securely understand--for example the question of which communities were described as "Greek," a word much used in the treaties--and the fact that the Greeks soon (as Rhodes argues) moved from a nave disregard for precise language to the intentional exploitation of diplomatic ambiguity, and we have not only a present historiographic problem but a past diplomatic one. The "fatal lack of definition" (22) in the earlier "common" treaties (i.e. among all of the Greeks) is, Rhodes argues, strongly implied by the more precise language and reference to further doctrines in the renewal of that peace after the battle of Leuctra. Nevertheless, throughout the 4th century the Greeks continued to deliberately put ambiguous language into their peace treaties, referring to "what belongs to us by right" (echein ta heauton) rather than specifying what this might be. Rhodes responsibly concludes with an air of bemused resignation, noting that "in the Greek world, as in our world, diplomacy is a minefield" (27).

Eduard Rung's contribution, entitled "War, peace and diplomacy in Graeco-Persian relations from the sixth to the fourth century BC," strives to place political and diplomatic history in its cultural context. The chapter is a very useful survey of the diplomatic history of the period, including both a chronological survey of Greco- Persian relations and a fleshing-out of this history with some of the cultural practices attaching to diplomatic exchanges, such as the nature of embassies and the travel routes available to them. Personalities and personal connections were of surprising relevance to this diplomacy, as Greek and Persian families established significant social ties that influenced future foreign affairs. Cyrus the Younger, for instance, went so far as to send an embassy to Sparta (in 405) to request the election of a family friend as Spartan admiral. Perhaps surprising to most readers will be the frequency of informal diplomatic envoys from Persia to the Greek poleis. Rung notes as well that Greek political heavyweights tended to become envoys, probably because successful generals and influential politicians were more influential. This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but the obvious is amplified by the cultural emphases of these ancient societies--a man with the scent of political power or the glorious glow of recent victory about him commanded respect, even acquiescence, due to a clout more personal than political.

Rung offers a somewhat curious interpretation of the Peace of Callias of 448, arguing at first that it "was not an epoch-making event...as is commonly supposed" (31). Yet his analysis seems to make the treaty out to be rather important: it signifies "the final collapse of Persian imperial ambitions to rule over the Greek World" (32) and is credited with establishing a balance of power in the Aegean and encouraging future Greco-Persian diplomacy, since the Persian violations are ascribed to local satraps and not central Persian policy. Perhaps the issue is merely one of language, of emphasis. It can be difficult, however, to tell when Rung is staking out new ground. He takes no position in one debate (36), but concedes that an important point in his argument on the Peace of Callias--that Sparta and the Hellenic league were not party to the agreement--had been previously noted by "some scholars," of which he mentions five in a footnote, which includes citations to important books by Kagan and Hornblower. Regardless of the novelty of this interpretation--which this reviewer cannot assess with any certainty--there is much interesting information to be found here on a fascinating and ever- changing diplomatic relationship.

J.W. Rich's chapter, "Treaties, allies and the Roman conquest of Italy," is the first to offer a precise argument that both reinterprets a specific scholarly stance and has significant ramifications in a larger historical space. It is somewhat ironic and possibly significant that this precision and reinterpretation involves the denial of certain treaties' existence rather than an argument for their relevance. In any case, Rich has detected an unwarranted assumption in the foundational 19th century scholarship of early Roman treaties, namely that all Italian communities allied with Rome (with the exception of Roman colonies) were constrained in these alliances by formal treaties. It is a scholarly feat of note to successfully undermine the century-and-a-half-old edifice of confident but unexamined citation that rests on such a foundation, and to bring the whole thing crashing down--and Rich even tentatively suggests a path over the rubble and into the breach. (Rich acknowledges the work of a sole fellow-travelling skeptic, Kathryn Lomas, who, in examining the Greek cities of Southern Italy, takes a "more circumspect" view of the issue, and presumably focuses on the Greek foundations, rather than considering the peninsula as a whole.) Two problems confront any work in this sub-field. First, "the fluidity of the Romans' terminology" (the Greek and Old English sources discussed in chapters two and ten present similar obstacles), and, second, the general lack of reliable historical fact. A speech of Cicero's (composed centuries after the period in question) and the fragmentary text of Livy (later still than Cicero but working from lost sources relatively close to the events) must stand in for contemporary information, supplementing the very fragmentary record of actual treaties. Rich skillfully pieces together scattered bits of information culled from numerous sources, creating the best sort of topical survey, which samples quickly from a wide range of dishes but is nevertheless nourishing.

Rich's careful analysis calls into question the "orthodox doctrine" of treaties-for-all by showing the weakness of the evidence--both generic and specific--and by demonstrating the existence of alternative arrangements, the discounting of which had played into the continued acceptance of this doctrine. (William Harris' Rome in Etruria and Umbria is cited here as a prominent example of the "no alternative mechanism" argument for the maintenance of the "orthodox doctrine.") In addition to the formal treaty (foedus--but Rich rightly cautions against the assumption that the Romans used words as precise technical terms) we read of the surrender (deditio) and the individual pledge (sponsio) by which communities became subject to Rome. The treatment of peoples who entered into alliance with Rome (usually after defeat or surrender) varied widely and was subject to the peculiarities of circumstance and the preferences of the Roman commander on the scene, situations which will surprise neither students of Rome's institutions nor the readers of this volume's other essays. The 19th century historian liked rules, schemes, charts, and definitions, and while much of the 20th century followed suit, recent work increasingly tacks away from this sort of routinization. Specifically, Rich's research indicates that, rather than being granted treaties, many Italian communities may have had their laws restored to them with the provision that they do the bidding of Rome, which very often meant the provision of troops in future wars. The arguments can become rather recondite. For instance, does Rich make a necessary assumption when he argues that since the "obscure" Formula Togatorum was a "general enactment by the Roman government" its requisitions of troops from allies cannot have been based on the absent-but-until-now-taken-for-granted treaties? Given the scanty hints as to what the Formula actually covered (on which see P.A. Brunt, Italian Manpower, 545-8) it seems at least possible that, if these treaties existed, a general law could have included a mechanism that correlated requisitions with the existing treaties rather than overwriting their terms. But this is a very small quibble.

Rich moves toward conclusion with a formal discussion of the implications of his idea. The most significant is the likely collapse of a neighboring assumption, namely that Rome's later habit of subjecting overseas conquests to the status of "treaty-less ally" represents a significant break with the habits of the Italian conquest. It now seems more like a natural evolution from that earlier period. Rich closes with the polite hope that his narrowly-focused chapter "made a contribution to the study of the wider themes with which this volume engages." On one level it certainly does, although it seems justifiable to ask whether, on a deeper level, the handful of concepts which make up the volume's unifying theme do not crumble away under the pressure of the philological and cultural effort that must be brought to bear if we are to treat Viking oaths, Roman treaties, and Byzantine rhetoric synoptically. Nonetheless, this chapter is an original and important contribution to the study of Roman peacemaking and expansion.

Philip de Souza's contribution examines the self-representation of early Roman emperors as warriors and peace-makers, and the senatorial response to this aspect of Imperial performance and propaganda. Beginning with the Republican background, de Souza follows his subject through Augustus and his successors and into the 2nd century. This essay is by far the most text-based in the volume, and the extensive citation (in both Latin and English) of the sources from which de Souza constructs his argument--Cicero, Livy, and Horace, among many others--makes this chapter both highly useful to Roman historians and accessible to non-specialists. Reading more like an essay in the history of ideas than a piece of cultural history (although de Souza makes use of all of the resources available to the historian, including visual art and some numismatic and epigraphic evidence), this tour through literary representations of imperial power as the power to make peace is a valuable contribution to the burgeoning literature on Roman imperial ideology and propaganda. Augustus, de Souza demonstrates, established the primary interpretation of Roman peacemaking as something stemming from military success: "the princeps was a peacemaker because he was an imperator" (85). Although even peaceful conquests could be represented as military victory, the need for the emperor to demonstrate the power to conquer does necessitate a careful reconsideration of the ancient received wisdom that intentional Roman military expansion ceased, or should have ceased, with Augustus. De Souza argues that Augustus and his successors needed to find an excuse to put the army into action in order to justify its great expense. Add to this "the Romans' traditional preference for leaders who were successful commanders" and there was great incentive for active war-making. The counterbalancing survey of the potential disincentives to conquest--made on a case-by- case basis amongst the Julio-Claudian emperors--will be familiar to students of the period, but enjoyable reading to expert and novice alike. What could be more fun than reading of imperial quirks in the disapproving accounts of snarky senators? While there may not be a lot of new ground broken in areas such as the political views of Tacitus, the activities of certain emperors, or Roman elites' ideologies of peace, this chapter is very good history--the spotlight is focused on a particular issue, and the discussion of this issue is thorough, wide-ranging, and very interesting. (De Souza acknowledges the importance of Greg Woolf's 1993 essay "Roman Peace). De Souza argues convincingly for a fundamental shift in attitude in the later second century (where his narrative concludes, except for a few words on Diocletian and Constantine), by which time the senatorial elites had come to see further conquest as justifiable only if profitable. Frustratingly, this important development can only be glimpsed just as the historical clarity of the high empire slides out of focus. The later sources are both more biased and less factually reliable, while in the same period the senatorial elites become provincialized (one could just as easily write "cosmopolitan," but in any case, as de Souza notes, it is difficult to separate the increasingly anti- imperialist views of the senate from its increasingly non-Italian membership) and Rome's military supremacy is seriously challenged. In the end, each Roman emperor was judged--and can still be assessed--in terms of his success in seeming to be both a guarantor of peace and a potent (potential) conqueror.

A.D. Lee writes on "Treaty-making in Late Antiquity," largely by comparing the different Roman diplomatic approaches to Persia and to the Northern peoples. Arguing for "renewed importance" in Late Antiquity for both diplomacy and warfare, Lee surveys the copious material on diplomatic history in the late historians, some of whom exist only in fragments. Much of this interesting history will be completely unfamiliar even to the reader well-versed in Thucydides and Tacitus, but while there is much here on diplomacy, there is little discussion of the treaties themselves. One exception, and the centerpiece of Lee's analysis, is the Roman-Persian treaty of 561-2, which is preserved in great detail by the historian Menander. Lee suggests that circumstantial evidence supports the assumption that this treaty was fairly typical of Roman-Persian encounters, in which high officials (but neither shah nor emperor) met near the border and carefully prepared a bilingual text. This may well be, but there is little to compare it to: there are no secure references to any written treaties with the Northern peoples--a less than surprising fact, considering that these tribes were essentially illiterate--and the histories offer only spotty coverage of the issue. Lee is swimming upstream, then, in the effort to evoke significant comparisons and contrasts. While this chapter--especially the sections which draw on Menander--provides a good survey of Roman diplomatic habits with regards to both Persia and Rome's European foes, its conclusions are rather slight: Roman treaty-making had features that were distinctive to the particular relationship as well as more general features, hence Roman diplomacy is marked by "adaptability and pragmatism," which must have contributed to Eastern Roman survival.

Michael Whitby's chapter on good faith in Byzantine diplomacy opens with a fascinating incident in 555 (related by the historian Agathias) in which the emperor Justinian tried and punished Romans who had conspired against an allied king. Whitby takes issue with R.C. Blockley's idea (East Roman Foreign Policy, 151 ff.) that diplomacy may in this period have begun to substitute for war rather than merely being appended to it. Instead, Whitby argues that any talk of peace existed within a larger structure of events that always expected conflict, no matter what role diplomacy might play. The significance of this distinction is in the role of trust: Whitby concurs with the general sense that trust and good faith were very important in the long and relatively stable adjacency of Rome and Persia, but only as a matter of appearances. While Romans would think little of lying to Northern barbarians, Persians were betrayed only more carefully, and while disingenuousness was par for the course even in the East, it was important to maintain a plausible trustworthiness in the eyes of the border peoples, whose loyalties might shift. There follows an enjoyable survey of the not-quite-empty Byzantine-Persian diplomatic rhetoric, in which "each side was playing to an international gallery" (129), as well as a quick sketch of the "deceitful Persian" as a stock character in Roman historians. Whitby also offers a new and convincing reading of Menander 6.1 (this is the same section of Menander discussed in Lee's chapter, above, although here the speeches of the diplomats, rather than the treaty language, are at issue). Blockley saw the Persian envoy, who bore the rather Lovecraftian name of Yazdgusnasp, as coming off better than the Roman negotiator, a pompous windbag. Instead, Whitby sees Yazdgusnasp as "being accorded plausible arguments, whose specious appeal is undercut by the specific language used as much as by the context" (133). The correction seems warranted, and serves to nudge Menander back into line with other Roman historians in generally presenting Persian ambassadors in a negative light. Some fascinating details follow, including two accounts of diplomatic acts literally being made into symbols: we see not only the text of a treaty but, in another case, the salt upon which a treaty oath was sworn being carried as standards before the armies of aggrieved parties. The chapter closes with the reminder that the exceptional punishment of the conspirators by Justinian should be seen in the larger context not as impressively just but as an unusual tour de force of propaganda, an act that broadcast the good faith which must be widely accepted in order for the complex reality of long-term, careful, occasionally craven diplomacy to be carried on.

Catherine Holmes contributes a chapter on "Treaties between Byzantium and the Islamic world." These treaties were necessarily temporary, since Islamic law was held to forbid permanent treaties between Islamic polities and infidel groups which would not submit to Muslim protection. Holmes studies the use of the temporary truce as both as a canny tactical position in a longer campaign of expansion and as a defensive measure at times when the Islamic states were under pressure, with an emphasis on the latter. The focus is on one specific situation, which happens to bear some similarities to the Roman- Persian interactions surveyed in the previous two chapters: truce making in 10th and early 11th century Northern Syria and Mesopotamia, when two long-standing opponents engaged diplomatically with an eye to the long term in the shifting conditions of a border zone. As far as I am able to tell, Holmes seems to be deeply involved with the debates current in this particular subfield, pursuing small-scale but new and rigorous arguments. Specifically, Holmes argues that the Byzantines were not as rigid in dealing with those who were not Chalcedonian Christians as is usually assumed. She focuses on a well-preserved 969 treaty between Byzantium and Aleppo, and notes a trend toward Byzantine expansion by means of lenient truces which left local officials in control of "captured" places that often were neither really captured nor garrisoned. This is tempered, however, by an 11th century trend toward replacing these local officials with men from the Byzantine heartland. Holmes positions this finding as a Southern extension of Jonathan Shepard's argument that Byzantine authority on the mid-10th century Eastern frontier was only extended by indirect means, before shifting to more direct conquest. This seems to be an important contribution, but the responsibly agnostic ending--the treaties which provide so much of her evidence, Holmes points out, are only snapshots, and the situation was very fluid--if it is read as the conclusion to the seventh of ten essays on treaties, may provoke a certain sense of historiographic ennui.

John France offers a look at siege conventions in the Middle Ages. The open embrace of the hazy and imprecise--these are conventions rather than laws or treaties--gives this chapter a different flavor from the others. This is closer to the realities of war in its cultural contexts than to the (inherently hopeful) rule-writing of diplomacy: here we are not struggling to recover lost specifics but are instead gathering in various pieces of evidence in order to rebuild a sense of broadly-held but ever-shifting expectations. The informal rules surrounding siege warfare can be complex--Roman siege warfare, the particular hobby-horse of this reviewer, involved conventions that recognized several distinct stages of a siege--but the basic "rules" were understood by all. The threat of extreme violence functioned as a mechanism that reduced the overall potential for bloodshed. France explains that "the form such minimization took was essentially pragmatic and based on the premise that the earlier a surrender took place, the better the terms" (160). The besieger threatened, before committing to the great cost of a serious siege assault, while the besieged calculated their chances of ultimate success against the increasing penalties that would come with capitulation. If this process of intimidation and mediation failed, if the defenders resisted until the end, there was something like a "total" outcome: defeat for the besiegers or the storming and sacking of the target, with no expectation of mercy. France provides an excellent survey of the topic, illustrating the different directions in which this one rule was bent. Exceptional gallantry--predicated of course on shared military values--might win defenders undue leniency; civil wars and rebellions (in the eye of the besieger, of course) involved harsher terms and a greater likelihood of massacre; ideological, i.e. religious, differences frequently meant greater violence. But no rule was hard and fixed: military necessity could trump adherence to the conventions, and siege warfare between Christians and Muslims was therefore not always as destructive as intra-Christian conflict. Bloodiest of all was the combination of religion and revolt, where "heresy" threatened a religion from within, although even during the Albigensian crusade terms could sometimes be obtained. Turning to the external crusades, France argues persuasively that there is scant evidence for the idea that the siege warfare of the crusaders evolved from brutality toward mercy, that "there was no simple change in crusader attitudes. The pattern here is actually one of general adherence to common practice, for surrender was accepted and massacre was the result of obdurate and protracted resistance" (168).

Richard Abel's chapter on "Paying the Danegeld" discusses the ever- dicey question of whether to appease or to fight, in particular the decisions made by Aethelred "the Unready" and Alfred the Great when facing Viking incursions. The driving idea here is that peace was not defined as the general absence of war or violence (as was often the case in the ancient world and is normative in the modern) but rather as a circumscribed, contractual state. The Old English and Scandinavian terms refer to whether a party is protected by a certain treaty, and do not consider any general state of peace. To be outside of a particular "peace" is not to be in open war, but instead to be without any guarantee of safety: deals are deals, that is, but one man's armed merchant is another man's Viking raider. This system doesn't work well when a territorial king, such as the two English kings under scrutiny here, faces a Viking here, less an army than a band of war bands, with various interests and intentions. One problem these truces is that they need to be bought, a problem that is complicated by the fact that Vikings were generally untroubled by oath-breaking and would not respect an agreement if they were convinced that there was more profit to be had in resuming their raids. Another problem was that fighting--Alfred's choice--earned respect, while buying peace led to contempt, and contempt led to future raids. This was the sad case with Aethelred. Abel demonstrates that Alfred's truce was a more permanent solution because he followed it by baptizing and befriending his erstwhile foe Guthrum, completing his devikingification by molding him into the ruler of a settled buffer state. Since there are no surviving accounts of the treaties of the intervening century, Abel compares Alfred to Aethelred, whose treaty failed to clearly delineate borders or attempt any similar making-over of his enemies. Abel then turns from a survey of the situation up to this point toward new analysis, a thinking-through of the events that surrounded Aethelred's three successive treaties with Viking leaders. In the end, though, poor Aethelred is largely the victim of bad luck as well as his eponymous bad advice. His truce with Olaf Tryggvason lasted because Olaf had good reasons to go back to Norway, but more payments to other Vikings followed, and eventual disaster. The unsurprising conclusion is that territorial kings looking for lasting treaties cannot succeed when they are making limited, contractual truces with "pirate bands led by pirate chieftains."

Esther Pascua's chapter examines 12th century treaties in order "to show that peace assemblies were scenarios where royal power was displayed and kings co-operated in the attempt to control the nobility" (193). Taking an avowedly anthropological stance, Pascua follows Marcel Mauss in her reading of peace assemblies as occasions for display and social interaction as much as political negotiation. This overtly theoretical positioning, though, is much less prominent in the bulk of the chapter, which involves a brisk and very readable survey of the different forms of aid and alliance specified by 12th century treaties (sometimes rather technical, but rendered mostly comprehensible by Pascua). This survey demonstrates the centralization of political/diplomatic power, toward the end of the century and into the 13th, in the hands of the emerging monarchies, which can be seen in the increasingly formalized language (i.e. including the details of feudal relationships) of the treaties themselves. This chapter is a departure from others in the book both because it involves an intensive use of documentary evidence (this is due, certainly, to the better evidence--Pascua notes the "remarkable increase in documents" during the twelfth century) and in that it takes as it largest context the surrounding social "ceremonial" rather than diplomatic or military history. Yet the social context seems to exert only a weak influence on the core of the matter--the power politics of treaty-making--both in the 12th century and in the chapter. Given the number of surviving treaties (judging merely from the number discussed here by Pascua) it seems not inappropriate to wonder if a quantifiable analysis of the treaties might have lent more support to the argument. The authors of several earlier chapters, condemned to work with few secure facts, would certainly relish the opportunity to tally the contents of so many treaties. Of Pascua's two main arguments, the first, that treaties were used by kings to increase the power of kings as opposed to the nobility, is certainly acceptable but perhaps less than surprising, and it loses some of its potential impact since the scenarios for display mentioned in the first formulation of the argument are not much elaborated in the body of the paper. The second, that evolving treaty practices enabled the kings to avoid making individual pacts with members of the nobility, instead forcing them to join royal "blocks," seems to this non-expert reader to be an interesting and potentially significant contribution to the field. This argument seems to be most securely rooted in the texts of the treaty themselves, and provides good evidence for the ways in which the forms of a peace treaty can change the shape of subsequent political history.

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Josh Levithan

Kenyon College