“War! . . . . / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing,” says the famous song—but archaeology, history, and biology show that war in fact has been good for something. Surprising as it sounds, war has made humanity safer and richer. In War! What Is It Good For?, the renowned historian and archaeologist Ian Morris tells the gruesome, gripping story of fifteen thousand years of war, going beyond the battles and brutality to reveal what war has really done to and for the world.
1: THE WASTELAND? WAR AND PEACE IN ANCIENT ROME
The Battle at the Edge of the World
For the first time in memory, the tribes had made peace—Vacomagi with Taexali, Decantae with Lugi, and Caereni with Carnonacae—and every man who could hold a sword was streaming toward the Graupian Mountain. This, the chiefs agreed, was the way the Romans would come. And here, where the highlands dropped down toward the cold North Sea, the Caledonians would make a stand that would live in song forever.
We will never know what praise the long-haired Celtic bards heaped on the heroes who fought that day; all their epics are long forgotten. Only a single account of what happened now survives, written by Tacitus, one of the greatest of ancient Rome’s historians. Tacitus did not follow the army to the Graupian Mountain, but he did marry the general’s daughter, and when we put his description of the fighting together with archaeologists’ finds and other Roman writings, we get two things—not only a pretty good idea of what happened when the armies clashed nearly two thousand years ago, but also a stark statement of the problem that this book tries to solve.
“Men of the North!”
Calgacus was shouting at the top of his lungs, trying to be heard over the chanting of war bands, the braying of copper horns, and the clattering of chariots in the valley below. In front of him were thirty thousand jostling, disorderly men, more than anyone had ever seen in these northern wilds. He raised his arms for quiet but got none.
“Men! Listen to me!” For a moment, the din got even louder as men started chanting Calgacus’s name, but then it dipped slightly, in respect for the great warrior, the fiercest of the dozens of Caledonian chieftains.
“Men of the North! This is the dawn of freedom for Britain! We’re going to fight, all of us in it together. It’s a day for heroes—and even if you’re a coward, fighting’s going to be the safest thing now!” For a moment, the pale sun broke through the leaden northern sky, and cheering interrupted Calgacus again. He threw back his head and roared defiance.
“Listen to me! We live at the end of the world. We’re the last free men on earth. There’s no one else behind us—there’s nothing there except rocks and waves, and even those are full of Romans. There’s no escaping them. They’ve robbed the world, and now that they’ve stolen everything on land, they’re even looting the sea. If they think you’ve got money, they attack you out of greed; if they think you’ve got nothing, they attack you out of arrogance. They’ve robbed the whole of the East and the whole of the West, but they’re still not satisfied. They’re the only people on earth who want to rob rich and poor alike. They call stealing, killing, and rape by the lying name of government! They make a wasteland and call it peace!”
A groundswell of hoarse shouting, stamping feet, and swords clashing on shields swallowed the rest of Calgacus’s words. Without anyone giving orders, the war bands started moving forward. Some were in groups of a hundred or more behind a chief, while other men charged forward on their own, dancing with excitement. Calgacus pulled on a chain-mail shirt and ran after his men. The battle was on.
* * *
Half a mile away, the Romans were waiting. For six summers, their general Agricola had been looking for a fight, pushing farther and farther north, burning the Britons’ homes and crops to goad them into taking a stand. And now, in A.D. 83, as autumn closed in, he had finally got what he wanted: a battle. His men were outnumbered, far from their forts, and at the limits of their supply lines, but it was a battle all the same. He was delighted.
Agricola had drawn his men up in two lines, running straight as rulers without regard for the dips and folds of the land. Out in front were the auxiliaries, fighting for the money (which was good), the hope of plunder (which was better), and the promise of Roman citizenship after twenty-five years of service. On this campaign, most were Germans, hired along the banks of the Rhine. Some were on horseback, covering the wings, but most were on foot. These were no broadsword-swinging tribesmen: standing almost shoulder to shoulder, they carried javelins and short stabbing swords, sweating under thirty-pound loads of chain mail, iron helmets, and shields.
In the second line were the even more heavily armed elite citizen legionaries, the best soldiers in the world. Sending away his horse, Agricola took a place with the standard-bearers in front of them.
Just as Agricola had expected, the fight did not take long. The Caledonians surged into the valley, running as close to the Romans as they dared before throwing their spears and scrambling back to safety. Agricola’s men were falling here and there, wounded in their unarmored thighs or sometimes killed outright, but the general waited. Only when he judged that enough of the enemy had crowded into the valley to make maneuver difficult did he order the auxiliaries forward.
Some of the Caledonians turned and ran right away. Others stood, trying to find room to swing their two-handed broadswords in huge arcs that smashed through armor, flesh, and bone, chopping men in two. But the auxiliaries steadily came on, rank upon rank in heavy metal armor, pushing in too near for the scattered highlanders to use their unwieldy weapons. Intimately close, Romans smashed iron-rimmed shields into noses and teeth, drove their short swords through ribs and throats, and trampled their victims in the wet grass. Eruptions of blood clotted thickly on their chain mail and visors, but they kept moving, leaving those in the rear to finish off the dazed and injured.
No plan survives contact with the enemy, the saying goes, and as the Roman auxiliaries pushed uphill, the orderly ranks that had so far made them unstoppable began breaking up. Exhausted, soaked now in sweat as much as blood, they slowed and then stopped. In twos and threes, Caledonian swordsmen turned and stood their ground among boulders and trees. For minutes that felt as long as hours, they shouted abuse at the Romans and threw stones and any remaining spears; then, as their line grew firmer, the bravest edged closer to the invaders. More and more fighters came running back down the slopes, emboldened, and spilled around the Romans’ flanks. The auxiliaries’ advance ground to a halt. As they felt the tide turning, Caledonian cavalry on mud-spattered ponies came pushing behind the Germans, spearing them in their legs and hemming them in so tightly that they could not fight back.
Across the valley, Agricola still had not moved, but now he gave a signal, and a trumpet blew a new command. His auxiliary cavalry jingled and clattered forward. Neatly, as if on a parade ground, their deep column unfolded into a wide line. The trumpet blew again, and the men lowered their spears. A third time it blew, and the riders kicked their horses into a gallop. Gripping the horses’ bellies with their knees (this was five centuries before the coming of stirrups), they leaned into the wind, blood pounding and the thunder of hooves filling their world as they shrieked out their rage.
Here and there knots of Caledonians turned to fight as Roman riders fell on them from behind. There was frantic stabbing, spear against spear, as the Romans rushed past. In a few places, horses crashed straight into each other, spilling riders and steeds to the ground in screaming tumbles of broken legs and backs. But for the most part, the northerners fled, unreasoning panic blacking out every thought but escape. And as the men around them melted away, the fury drained out of those few who had kept their ground. Throwing down their weapons, they ran too.
An army becomes a mob in moments. There were still enough Caledonians to smother the Romans, but with all order gone, hope departed too. Through gorse and stream, across the slopes of the Graupian Mountain, Roman riders speared everything that moved and trampled anything that did not. When trees provided cover, Caledonians would cluster in their shadow, hoping to wait out the Roman storm, but the Roman riders, methodical in the midst of chaos, dismounted, flushed the enemy back into the open, and then resumed the chase.
The Romans kept killing till night fell. By their best guess, they butchered about 10,000 Caledonians. Calgacus was probably among them, since his name never crops up in our sources again. Agricola, by contrast, had not a scratch on him. Just 360 Roman auxiliaries had died, and not even one legionary.
In the darkness, the historian Tacitus tells us, “the Britons scattered, men and women wailing together, carrying off their wounded or calling to survivors. Some fled their homes, and in a frenzy, even set fire to them. Others chose hiding places, only to abandon them straightaway. At one moment they started forming plans, only to stop and break up their conference. Sometimes the sight of their loved ones broke their hearts; more often it goaded them to fury. We found clear signs that some of them had even laid hands on their wives and children in pity—of a kind.”
By the time the sun came up, Tacitus continues, “an awful silence had settled everywhere. The hills were deserted, houses were smoking in the distance, and our scouts met no one.” Calgacus had been right: Rome had made a wasteland and called it peace.
Winter was coming. With his enemies broken and his army stretched thin, Agricola left the Caledonians to their suffering and led his troops back toward their bases.
The farther south they marched, deeper into territory Rome had held for decades, the less it looked like a wasteland. There were no burned-out ruins, no starving refugees; rather, the Romans saw well-tended fields, bustling towns, and merchants eager to sell to them. Prosperous farmers were drinking Italian wine from fine imported cups, and Britain’s formerly wild warlords had exchanged their hillforts for luxurious villas. They sported togas over their tattoos and sent their sons to learn Latin.
Here was a paradox that might have troubled Calgacus, had he been alive to see it. To most people on the Roman side of the frontier, though, the explanation for why the Roman Empire was not a wasteland was obvious. The orator Marcus Tullius Cicero put it best a century and a half earlier, in a letter to his brother Quintus, who was then governing the wealthy Greek province of Asia (roughly the western quarter of modern Turkey). This was an excellent posting, but Quintus had temper problems, and the provincials under him had been complaining.
After a few pages of stern elder-sibling advice, Marcus’s tone changed. The fault, he concluded, was not all on Quintus’s side. The Greeks needed to face facts. “Let Asia think on this,” he pointed out. “Were she not under our government, there’s no calamity of foreign war and civil strife that she’d escape. And since there’s no way to provide government without taxes, Asia should be happy to purchase perpetual peace at the price of a few of her products.”
Calgacus or Cicero; wasteland or wonderland? These two competing views of the consequences of war, formulated so sharply two thousand years ago, will dominate this book.
In an ideal world, we could settle the debate by just running the numbers. If violent deaths fell and prosperity rose after the Roman conquests, we could conclude that Cicero was right; war was good for something. If the results came out the other way, then obviously Calgacus understood his age better, and war made only wastelands. We could then rerun the test on later periods of history in Chapters 2–5, coming to an overall conclusion about what—if anything—war has been good for.
But reality is rarely that convenient. I mentioned in the introduction that building databases of deaths in battle has grown into a minor academic industry, but few reliable statistics go back past A.D. 1500, even in Europe. Only one kind of evidence—the physical remains of our bodies, which often carry telltale traces of lethal violence—has the potential to span every period, going back to the origins of humanity itself. One day we can expect to have reliable statistics from this source, but right now the problem is that not many scholars have made large-scale studies of this complicated, technically challenging material, and even when they have, the picture remains rather unclear.
One study (published in 2012) of skulls in collections at Tel Aviv University, for instance, found precious few differences in levels of violence across the last six thousand years. A 2013 analysis of skeletons from Peru, however, found spikes in violence in periods when bigger states were being formed (roughly 400 B.C.–A.D. 100 and A.D. 1000–1400)—which is roughly consistent with this book’s arguments. Until we have far more of this evidence, all we will be able to do for periods before A.D. 1500 (and in some parts of the world, even into our own century) is bundle together all kinds of evidence, including archaeology, literary anecdotes, and anthropological comparisons, with—once in a while—some actual numbers.
This is a messy business, made even messier by the sheer scale of the Roman Empire. By Calgacus’s day it sprawled across an area half the size of the continental United States and contained about sixty million people. Roughly forty million (Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Egyptians) lived in the complex, urban societies of its eastern half, with another twenty million (Celts and Germans) in the simpler rural and tribal societies of the west.
We have already heard Cicero’s views on the violence of Greek Asia before the Roman conquest, and other writers made the barbarians (as Romans dismissively called them) of the west sound even worse. Fights, raids, and battles were everyday activities, the Romans said, and every village was fortified. While a Roman gentleman might feel underdressed without his toga, a German felt naked without his shield and spear. The barbarians, Romans insisted, worshipped severed heads, which they liked to hang outside their front doors (suitably treated with cedar oil to stop them from smelling). They sacrificed humans to their angry gods, and sometimes even burned them alive inside wickerwork statues. Tacitus was blunt: “Germans have no taste for peace.”
Small wonder, then, that Cicero and his peers thought Rome was doing its neighbors a favor by conquering them. And it is equally unsurprising, some historians suggest, that when modern classical scholarship took shape in the eighteenth century, most of its towering intellects agreed with the Romans. Europeans liked to think that they too were doing the world a favor by conquering it, and so the Romans’ arguments struck them as eminently reasonable.
On the heels of Europe’s retreat from empire in the later twentieth century, however, classicists began wondering about the Romans’ gory picture of the people they conquered. Ancient imperialists, some scholars suggested, might have been just as eager as the modern version to paint their victims as uncivilized, corrupt, and in general need of conquest. Cicero wanted to justify exploiting Greeks; Caesar, to make attacking Gaul (roughly modern France) look necessary; and Tacitus, to glorify his father-in-law, Agricola.
Taking Caesar’s word that the Gauls needed conquering might be as unwise as simply swallowing whole Rudyard Kipling’s now-notorious claim (which I will come back to in Chapter 4) that governing new-caught, sullen peoples was the white man’s burden. Fortunately, though, we do not have to take the Romans’ word for anything, because plenty of other voices survive too.
In the eastern Mediterranean, literate upper-class Greeks wrote their own accounts, sometimes fawning on the Roman conquerors, sometimes fiercely anti-imperialist. The surprising thing, though, is that they all present much the same grim picture of a preconquest world full of failed states, vicious pirates and bandits, and spiraling wars, uprisings, and rebellions.
Take, for instance, an inscription carved on the base of a statue set up in honor of the otherwise unknown Philip of Pergamum in 58 B.C. (Pergamum was in the province of Asia, and 58 B.C. was just one year after Quintus Cicero’s stint as governor of Asia ended; Quintus and Philip would almost certainly have known each other.) Among various good deeds, it tells us, Philip had written a history, intended as “a narrative of recent events—for all sorts of sufferings and constant mutual slaughter have gone on in our days in Asia and Europe, in the tribes of Libya, and in the cities of the islanders.” Philip apparently agreed with the brothers Cicero that without the Roman presence, Asia would be a bad neighborhood.
In the West, few among the conquered could write, and virtually none of their thoughts survive for us to read, but archaeology suggests that here too the Romans knew what they were talking about. Many—perhaps most—people really did live in walled and ditched forts before the Roman conquest, and while excavations cannot show whether men habitually carried arms, mourners certainly regularly buried their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons with weapons (and sometimes with shields, breastplates, and even complete chariots too). The way they wanted their menfolk remembered was as warriors.
Most spectacularly, Celtic and Germanic gods really did like human sacrifice. Millions of visitors to London’s British Museum have seen the most famous example, a disturbingly well-preserved two-thousand-year-old corpse pulled from a bog in Cheshire in 1984 (and immediately nicknamed Pete Marsh). One day in March or April, a decade or two before the Romans arrived in Britain, this lost soul was stunned by two blows to the head, stabbed in the chest, garroted, and, just to be sure, drowned in a bog. Analysis of his waterlogged gut produced mistletoe, which is how we know what month he died in (the year is harder to fix). Mistletoe was the sacred plant of the Druids, who—according to Tacitus and Caesar—specialized in human sacrifice, which encourages many archaeologists to think that Pete Marsh was the victim of some homicidal ritual.
Altogether, several dozen bog bodies that look as if they were sacrificed (as well as sites where people worshipped skulls) have been dug up, and in 2009 archaeologists found an astonishing two hundred corpses in a bog at Alken Enge in Denmark. Many had been hacked to pieces, and their bones were mixed with axes, spears, swords, and shields. Opinions differ on whether they were slaughtered in a battle or sacrificed after one.
Of course, we might be misinterpreting these finds. Burying weapons with the dead and sacrificing humans in bogs need not mean that war was everywhere; the excavated remains might actually mean that violence had been banished into rituals. And walls and ditches might not have been for defense at all; perhaps they were just status symbols, like the ghastly mock castles that Victorian gentlefolk liked to build on their country estates.
But none of this is very convincing. The reason that people poured thousands of hours into digging ditches and building walls was clearly that their lives depended on it. At the most fully excavated fort, Danebury in southern England, the great wooden gates and parts of the village were burned down twice, and after the second conflagration, around 100 B.C., about a hundred bodies—many bearing telltale wounds from metal weapons—were dumped in pits.
Nor was Danebury unique. Grisly new finds keep turning up. In 2011, British archaeologists reported on a massacre site at Fin Cop in Derbyshire, where nine bodies (one of them a pregnant woman) were found in a short stretch of ditch, buried at the same time around 400 B.C. under the fort’s collapsed wall. The excavators speculate that dozens—perhaps hundreds—more victims remain to be found.
Cicero was surely right that the pre-Roman world was a rough place, but Calgacus would probably not have disputed this. His point was that conquest by Rome was even worse.
No one really knows how many people were killed in Rome’s wars of expansion, which began in Italy in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., spreading to the western Mediterranean in the third century, the east in the second, and northwest Europe in the first. The Romans did not really keep count, but the total might have surpassed five million. Even more might have been dragged off into slavery. Calgacus’s claim calls for serious scrutiny.
The level of violence varied, depending on Rome’s internal politics and the amount of resistance offered. In extreme cases, Roman armies would devastate enemy territory so thoroughly that no one lived there for decades after, as happened to an Italian tribe called the Senones in 283 B.C. The Greek historian Polybius, himself taken to Rome as a captive after being on the losing side in a war, says that by the end of Rome’s third-century-B.C. wars with Carthage it became normal practice “to exterminate every form of life they encountered, sparing none … so when cities are taken by the Romans you may often see not only the corpses of human beings but also dogs cut in half, and also the dismembered limbs of other animals.”
Those who submitted without too much fighting got off more lightly, but the Romans reserved their real rage for people who surrendered but then changed their minds. This happened quite often. After overrunning most of Gaul with relatively little killing in 58–56 B.C., for instance, Julius Caesar had to spend the next half-dozen years putting down revolts. Ancient authors claim that he ended up killing one million out of the three million Gallic men of fighting age and selling another million as slaves.
The worst offenders (in Roman eyes) were the Jews. According to Josephus, a Jewish general who defected to Rome early in the great Jewish revolt of A.D. 66–73, the Romans not only burned the temple in Jerusalem and stole its sacred treasures but also killed more than a million Jews and enslaved another hundred thousand. And that was just for starters: when the Jews rose up again in A.D. 132, the Romans really turned nasty. They “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils,” one Jewish source claimed—exaggeration, certainly, but another half million died. The province of Judea was renamed Palestina, after its ancient Philistine occupants, and the surviving Jews—banned from Jerusalem except for one day each year—scattered into exile across Europe and the Middle East.
What Cicero had in mind when he took the opposite view from Calgacus was what happened after the conquests. From his vantage point in Rome’s ruling class, Cicero could see that after the legions moved on and the fires of revolt were quenched in blood, peace descended. Warrior graves and bloodthirsty gods faded away. The walls of ancient cities—no longer worth spending money on—decayed and fell down, and new cities, which were sprouting up everywhere, simply did without fortifications.
Cicero would probably have accepted Calgacus’s point that Rome regularly made wastelands. Despite his enthusiasm for Rome’s civilizing mission, Cicero knew as well as anyone that conquest was an ugly business, for the conquerors as well as their victims. Successful war generated unprecedented plunder, and between the 80s and the 30s B.C. Rome’s political institutions repeatedly collapsed in civil wars over the spoils. There were years when no merchant in his right mind would travel the highways of Italy without armed guards. For months at a stretch, mobs had the run of the streets of Rome, forcing elected consuls to cower in their (fortified) mansions, terrified to step outside.
First-century-B.C. Roman aristocrats were as touchy as anyone, constantly ready to avenge any slight with violence (not for nothing did Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Rome). Cicero made his name by prosecuting a string of the worst villains before a general’s henchmen sent him to an early grave. His head and hands were hacked off and nailed up in the Forum as a warning to others to think carefully before speaking or writing against the mighty.
One of Cicero’s many enemies, Marcus Licinius Crassus, reputedly said around this time that “no one should count himself rich unless he can afford his own army,” but in the 30s B.C. one such man—Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian—showed where this logic led. Fighting his way free from the roiling mass of aristocrats, Octavian made himself Rome’s first emperor. Cleverly, he defused resistance by insisting he was just a regular guy, albeit the richest such guy in the world, and also the guy who happened to be in complete control of the world’s greatest army.
The only honor Octavian would accept was a new name, Augustus, literally “Most August One.” Most aristocrats, however, immediately understood what was going on. “The readier men were to be slaves,” Tacitus said, “the higher they were raised by wealth and promotion, so that, heads turned by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangers of the past.” Noblemen stopped talking like Crassus; recognizing that only Augustus could now use lethal violence, they found quieter ways to work out their differences. Leviathan defanged the aristocracy.
In his book The Civilizing Process, which I mentioned in the introduction, Norbert Elias suggested that Europe became less violent after about A.D. 1500 because its turbulent aristocrats gave up on killing as a way to solve their disputes. Elias touched on Rome several times in the course of his argument but seems not to have realized that the Romans had anticipated the early-modern European pacification by a millennium and a half. Rich Romans remade themselves as men of peace and gloried in what they called the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” of the first two centuries A.D.
The whole empire seems to have breathed a collective sigh of relief. “The ox roams the fields in safety,” the poet Horace rejoiced. “Ceres [the goddess of agriculture] and kind Prosperity nourish the land; across a pacified sea fly sailors.” Educated authors showed a rare unanimity about the wonders of the age. Rome “has provided us with a great peace,” gushed the slave turned Stoic philosopher Epictetus. “There are no longer any wars or battles or great bandits or pirates; at any time we can travel and journey from sunrise to sunset.”
It would be easy to pile up examples of such fizzy prose—so easy, in fact, that when Edward Gibbon sat down in the 1770s to write the first properly modern history of Rome, he concluded that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus” (that is, A.D. 96–180).
Gibbon said this despite knowing that the Roman Empire remained a rough place. The first two centuries A.D. were the golden age of gladiators, when huge crowds flocked to watch men murder each other (the Colosseum alone seated fifty thousand), and the violence was not always confined to the arena. In A.D. 59, for instance, the people of Pompeii put on a big gladiatorial show, and sports fans from Nuceria, a few miles down the road, came to see the fun. “During an exchange of abuse, typical of these rowdy country towns,” the urbane Tacitus tells us, “insults led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn.” This might have struck wild Caledonians as perfectly reasonable, but what came next would not. Instead of exacting bloody revenge, the Nucerians complained to the emperor. Committees met and reports were filed; Pompeii’s festival organizers were exiled, and the city was banned from holding gladiatorial shows for ten years (no small punishment, as it turned out, because Mount Vesuvius erupted and wiped Pompeii off the map another ten years after that). And there the matter ended.
When Bosnia erupted into ethnic violence in the 1990s, one Croat observed that before the breakup of Yugoslavia, “we [had] lived in peace and harmony because every hundred meters we had a policeman to make sure we loved each other very much.” Yet first-century Pompeii had no such police force to impose peace; indeed, there was nothing like a modern police force anywhere in the world till London got one in 1828. So why did the killing stop?
The explanation seems to be that Rome’s rulers succeeded in sending a message that only the government had the right to get violent. If Pompeians had carried on killing Nucerians in A.D. 59, more memos would have moved up the chain to the emperor, who had thirty legions to deal with people who gave him trouble by fighting without permission and killing potential taxpayers. But the paradoxical logic of violence was at work: because everyone knew that the emperor could (and, if pressed, would) send in the legions, he hardly ever had to do so.
I mentioned in the introduction that Hobbes liked to distinguish between “commonwealth by acquisition,” or using force to compel people to be peaceful, and “commonwealth by institution,” or using trust to get them to follow rules. In reality, however, the two go together. The Pompeians laid down their swords in A.D. 59 because centuries of war had built such a great Leviathan that they could trust it to overawe its subjects. The empire, Gibbon pointed out, had replaced war with law. In the first two centuries A.D., using force to settle disagreements became, if not completely unthinkable, then at least highly inadvisable.
Government and laws bring their own problems, of course. “Formerly we suffered from crimes,” Tacitus had one of his characters joke. “Now we suffer from laws.” A government strong enough to stamp out wrongdoing, the empire’s subjects learned, was also a government strong enough to do even greater wrong.
Some Roman officials exploited this to the full, but—as usual in Roman history—the worst crimes date to the first century B.C., when central government was at its weakest. Gaius Verres, who governed Sicily between 73 and 71 B.C., joked that he needed three years in the post—the first to steal enough to get rich, the second to steal enough to hire good lawyers, and the third to steal enough to bribe a judge and jury. Verres proceeded to do all three, beating, jailing, and even crucifying those who would not pay him.
All, though, for naught. Marcus Cicero made his name prosecuting Verres, who only escaped conviction by fleeing into exile. Over the next two centuries, prosecuting corrupt officials became the standard way for young lawyers in a hurry to get ahead, and even though villains with friends in high places regularly got off, new laws steadily narrowed the scope for using violent extortion.
The empire that Rome’s wars created was no utopia, but the tone of the mass of surviving writings (by Romans and provincials alike) does suggest that it made its subjects safer than they would have been without it. And it also, apparently, made them richer. With pirates and bandits suppressed, trade boomed. To move its armies and fleets around, the government built state-of-the-art roads and harbors, which merchants used too. In return, Rome taxed the traders and spent most of the money it raised on the armed forces.
The army was concentrated in frontier provinces, few of which were fertile enough to feed so many men who did not work on the farm (by the first century A.D., about 350,000 of them). The army therefore spent much of its money buying food that had been shipped by merchants from the empire’s more productive Mediterranean provinces to its less productive frontier ones. This generated more profits for the traders, which the government could tax, generating more money to spend on the army, creating more profits still, and so on, in a virtuous circle.
The flows of taxes and trade tied the Mediterranean economy together as never before. Each region could produce whatever it made cheapest and best, selling its goods wherever they fetched high prices. Markets and coinage spread into every nook and cranny of the empire.
Thanks to bigger markets, bigger ships became profitable; thanks to bigger ships, transport costs fell. And as they did, more and more people could afford to flock to the great cities, where the government spent most of the money that did not go to the army. In the first two centuries A.D., a million people lived in Rome—far more than had ever lived in one place before—and Antioch and Alexandria boasted perhaps half as many each.
These cities were the wonders of the world, seething, stinking, and raucous, but full of pomp, ceremony, and gleaming marble—all of which required more people, more food, and more bricks, iron nails, pots, and wine, which meant more taxes, more trade, and more growth.
Little by little, this frenetic activity increased the quantity of goods in circulation. By the best estimates, per capita consumption typically rose about 50 percent in the first two centuries after incorporation into the empire. The process disproportionately favored the already rich, who grew even richer, but every class of objects that archaeologists can count—house sizes, animal bones from feasts, coins, the height of skeletons—suggests that tens of millions of ordinary people profited too.
“Who does not now recognize,” the Roman geographer Pliny (most famous for getting himself killed by standing too close to Mount Vesuvius when it erupted) asked just four years before the battle at the Graupian Mountain, “that thanks to the majesty of the Roman Empire, communications have been opened between all parts of the world? Or that standards of living have made great strides? Or that all this is owed to trade, and the common enjoyment of the blessings of peace?” The Roman Empire was no wasteland.
To Gibbon, the explanation for the empire’s joy was obvious. Rome had been blessed with good rulers, who felt themselves “over-paid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors.”
The a-few-good-men theory has a certain appeal, above all its simplicity. If what made Rome such a success story really was just a run of great leaders, we would not need to reach the unpleasant conclusion that war was good for something in ancient times. It might simply be that an organization that has good enough bosses can survive pretty much anything. Perhaps the ancient world got safer and richer in spite of its wars, not because of them.
But the Gibbon thesis also has weaknesses. The first is that there were limits on how much ancient emperors could actually do. Rome certainly did have energetic rulers who rose before dawn and worked deep into the night answering letters, hearing lawsuits, and making decisions. But to get results, they had to work with layer upon layer of bureaucrats, lawyers, and scholars, all of whom had their own agendas. Even the most dynamic emperors—and men like Augustus were very dynamic indeed—struggled to produce change.
A second problem is that for every Augustus, the empire also had a Caligula or a Nero, men whose exquisite delight came more from fiddling while Rome burned, having sex with siblings, and appointing horses as consuls than from beholding the general happiness. According to the people who wrote the histories—that is, the bureaucrats, lawyers, and scholars—Rome had bad emperors more often than good in the first century A.D. (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian all got bad press and between them reigned for fifty-six years). Yet these hundred years probably saw peace and prosperity advance faster than ever before.
On balance, it does not look as if wise shepherds can take the credit for making the mass of ordinary mortals safer and richer. Most of the time, Rome’s ruling elites pursued nothing more enlightened than their own self-interest. Yet in pursuing it, they found themselves wandering down paths that did leave most people better-off.
The Augustuses of this world become rulers by defeating their rivals and keep on ruling because they have more force at their disposal than anyone else. That force, however, has to be paid for. A ruler could just plunder his subjects to pay his troops (the wasteland model), but eventually there will be nothing left to steal. And in any case, as Rome’s worst governors regularly learned, the wretched of the earth will probably revolt long before reaching the point at which everything has been stolen from them.
In the long run, governments only survive if their rulers learn when to stop stealing, and even learn when to give a little back. The economist Mancur Olson made the point nicely by comparing rulers with bandits. Your typical bandit, said Olson, is a rover. He comes into a community, steals everything not nailed down, and rides out again. He doesn’t care how much damage he does; the only important thing is to steal as much as possible and then move on.
Rulers steal from their people too, Olson recognized, but the big difference between Leviathan and the rape-and-pillage kind of bandit is that rulers are stationary bandits. Instead of stealing everything and hightailing it, they stick around. Not only is it in their interest to avoid the mistake of squeezing every last drop from the community; it is also in their interest to do whatever they can to promote their subjects’ prosperity so there will be more for the rulers to take later.
It is normally worth a ruler’s while to spend some money to keep other potential bandits out, since anything a roving bandit steals is something the ruler cannot tax. It makes sense too to suppress violence within the community—murdered subjects cannot serve in the army or pay taxes, and fields laid waste in feuds between villages produce no crops. Even spending royal or aristocratic revenues on roads, harbors, and welfare can start to seem sensible, if the investments yield even bigger payoffs within a tolerable length of time.
Leviathan is a racket, but it may still be the best game in town. Rulers in effect use force to keep the peace and then charge their subjects for the service. The more efficiently the rulers do this, the more profits they reap. Over the generations, competitive pressures nudged the business of Roman government toward more efficient solutions. Allowing tax collectors to steal so much that their victims could not pay the next year’s taxes was bad for business, so Rome stamped it out; letting potentially productive city dwellers starve was even worse, so Rome built harbors and even gave out food for free. Self-interest had the welcome side effect of making the empire’s subjects safer and richer. The paradox of war was hard at work. Men who mastered violence carved out kingdoms, but to run them, they had to turn into managers.
As so often, Julius Caesar was the classic case. “Veni, vidi, vici,” he famously wrote; “I came, I saw, I conquered.” But he might have done better to say, “Veni, vidi, vici, administravi”; after coming, seeing, and conquering, he administered, and did it magnificently. Among his many reforms was the invention of the Julian calendar, still in use two thousand years later. July is named after him.
Ancient emperors were not Keynesian economists, sitting around calculating whether a sestertius spent now on keeping the peace would yield two sesterces in taxes down the road. Many of them, though, were hard and clever men who not only grasped the principles of the deal between Leviathan and its subjects but also saw the value of letting everyone know that they understood. One of the oldest surviving political texts in the world, dating back to the 2360s B.C., makes just this point. In it, King Uru’inimgina (also known as Urukagina; reigned ca. 2380–2360 B.C.) of Lagash, in the south of what is now Iraq, proclaimed that he had “freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure. He established freedom. The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful: it was for them that Uru’inimgina made his covenant with [the god] Ningirsu.” Augustus could not have put it better.
Uru’inimgina is a shadowy figure, almost lost in the mists of time, but he clearly understood the value of investing in this message. In another parallel with doing business, a nontrivial portion of the art of government is really about confidence. People who suspect that their rulers are mad, corrupt, and/or idiots are likely to resist their demands, while if the management seems skilled, fair, and perhaps even loved by the gods, the attractions of plotting against it decline.
That said, the law of averages meant that the ancient world necessarily got its share of mad, corrupt, and/or incompetent rulers. The real heroes of the story—the men who actually made Leviathan work—were the bureaucrats, lawyers, and hangers-on. Pen pushers and bean counters often made it difficult for Augustus to get much done, but, more to the point, they also made it difficult for Caligula to get much done.
The surviving sources are full of stories of emperors’ rages against obstructionist senators and the highly educated slaves who managed much of the court’s business. On the whole, these episodes ended badly for the underlings. But in the background of these colorful accounts we can also make out thousands of men who lived less glamorous lives. On tombstones set up everywhere from Britain to Syria, men recounted with pride the offices they had held and honors they had won as they served on committees, collected taxes, and worked their way up the lower rungs of the bureaucratic ladder.
“I, even I,” boasted one North African who had started out working in the fields, “was enrolled among the city senators, and chosen by them to sit in the house of that body … I have passed through years distinguished by the merits of my career—years that an evil tongue has never hurt with accusation … Thus have I deserved to die as I lived, honestly.”
There is no shortage of evidence that the empire’s middle managers could be just as self-interested as their rulers, lining their pockets and promoting their relatives whenever the opportunity arose. But neither are we short of signs that plenty more really were earnest, industrious, and diligent. They made sure that aqueducts got built, roads were maintained, and the mail was delivered. They kept the Pax Romana going.
Catastrophic blunders could happen, and Rome went through phases of lurching from crisis to crisis. But in the long run, the pressures at work were inexorable. Warriors conquered small states, which forced them to turn into managers. Good management made states more efficient, safer, and richer, and the resulting efficient, safe, and rich states gave managers the tools they needed to compete with rival states. This, though, forced the managers to turn back into warriors who could put their rivals out of business—violently.
Can We All Get Along?
In April 1992, a jury in Simi Valley, just outside Los Angeles, reached a surprising decision. They had watched a videotape showing police landing fifty-six baton blows and six kicks on Rodney King during his arrest after a high-speed car chase. They had heard from doctors that King had suffered a facial fracture and broken ankle. They had listened while nurses reported that the police officers who brought King to the hospital had joked about his beating. And then they acquitted three of the defendants and failed to reach a verdict on the fourth.
That evening, riots broke out in Los Angeles and in the next few days spread across the United States. Fifty-three people were killed, more than two thousand were injured, and a billion dollars’ worth of property was destroyed. On the third day of violence, King went on television and asked one of the most famous questions of the decade: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible?”
It is a good question, which people must have asked in ancient times too. Instead of working their way toward peace through the violent, wasteland-making process of war, could they not have just sat down together, agreed to create larger organizations, drawn up rules, handed over taxes to fund enforcement, and got along?
Apparently not. “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” Winston Churchill once said, but in all the archives of ancient history it is hard to find a single convincing case of people agreeing to come together in a larger society without being compelled to do so by violence, actual or feared.
Take the case of Philip of Pergamum, whose account of how war, piracy, and banditry had ruined the Greek world in the first century B.C. I mentioned a few pages ago. “With my pious hand I delivered this [history] to the Greeks,” he explained, “so that … by observing the sufferings of others, they may live their lives in the right way.” The Greeks, however, were unimpressed and went on killing each other. When they did stop, it was not because of Philip’s jaw-jaw; it was because of Roman war-war.
In 67 B.C., the Roman senate sent Gnaeus Pompey (known, with some cause, as “the Great”) to crush the pirates who infested Greek waters. As usual, they did this not out of benevolence but out of self-interest. The raids had gotten so bad that in 77 B.C. one band had kidnapped the young Julius Caesar (who joked with his captors that when he was ransomed, he would come back and crucify them, which, of course, he did). By the early 60s B.C., other bands were even raiding Italy’s harbors.
The Greek cities had completely failed to suppress the violence, but Pompey brought Roman organization and a surprisingly modern approach to bear. In 2006, bloodied by reverses in Iraq, the U.S. Army adopted a new counterinsurgency doctrine known as “clear, hold, and build.” Instead of focusing on killing or capturing troublemakers, soldiers switched to sweeping them out of an area, securing it, and reconstructing it, before moving methodically on to the next area. By 2009, violent deaths had fallen more than 80 percent. Pompey figured out the same strategy two thousand years earlier. He divided the Mediterranean into thirteen sectors and in a single summer worked through them one by one, clearing, holding, and building. Instead of crucifying the twenty thousand ex-freebooters he rounded up, Pompey imposed peace on them. “Wild animals,” his biographer wrote, “often lose their fierceness and savagery when subjected to a gentler existence; so Pompey decided to move the pirates from the sea to the land and give them a taste of civilized life by making them used to living in cities and farming the soil.”
The sea secured, Pompey turned to the land. In five spectacular campaigns he led Roman armies through the cities of Syria to the mountain fastnesses of the Caucasus and the borders of Egypt, crushing foreign kings, rebellious generals, and riotous Jews as he went. Again, he cleared, held, and built, drawing up law codes, installing Roman garrisons, and overhauling finances. Cracking down on corruption and extortion, he simultaneously lowered taxes and raised Roman revenues. Peace reigned; several Greek cities, Athens among them, announced that Pompey was a god in human form.
Pompey resorted to violence not because Romans lacked the skills for jaw-jaw—the city was bursting with orators like Cicero—but because he, like a lot of other Romans, saw that jaw-jaw worked best when it followed war-war. Tacitus, for instance, tells us that after spending his first summer in Britain (A.D. 77) terrorizing the natives—“people living in isolation and ignorance, and therefore prone to fight,” Tacitus called them—Agricola devoted the winter to “getting them used to a life of peace and quiet by providing amenities. He gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares, and good houses.”
The Britons liked it. “The result,” says Tacitus, “was that instead of loathing the Latin language they became eager to speak it effectively. In the same way, our national dress came into favor and the toga was everywhere to be seen.” The political scientist Joseph Nye has called such an approach “soft power,” by which he means using “intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture, and the perceived legitimacy of policies” to win people over, as opposed to the coercive “hard power” of war and economics.
Tacitus understood the lure of the soft side. “The population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets,” he observed. “The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.” But he also knew that softness only worked in the wake of hard power—or, as Americans would put it in Vietnam nineteen centuries later, “Grab ’em by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow.” The Romans in Britain accomplished this much better than the Americans in Vietnam, winning hearts and minds because they had already robbed the Britons of their freedom to fight back. When Agricola came up against Britons who still had this freedom, like Calgacus, there was no talk of togas.
Archaeology largely confirms this. Roman goods, especially wine (transported in highly distinctive containers), were wildly popular far beyond the empire’s frontiers. According to hearsay, Gallic chiefs would willingly sell a man into slavery in exchange for a large jar of wine, and Roman writers unanimously agreed that barbarians near the frontiers, who had gotten used to soft Roman ways, fought less fiercely than far-off barbarians, who remained as savage as ever.
The most seductive softness of all was intellectual, and in the first few centuries A.D. the Romans perfected a string of compelling systems of thought. The most successful were Stoicism and Christianity. Neither started out as a form of imperial soft power; in each case, in fact, the founding fathers of the faith were critics of the status quo, penniless Greek philosophers and a Jewish carpenter speaking truth to power from the social and geographical margins. But as the generations passed, the hard, clever men who ran the empire did what such men always do. They subverted the counterculture. Instead of fighting it, they brought its best and brightest young men into the establishment. They picked and chose among its ideas, rewarding former radicals who said things the ruling class liked while ignoring those who didn’t. Little by little, they turned the critiques of empire into justifications for it. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” Jesus urged good Christians, “for,” Saint Paul added, “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
Stoicism and Christianity assured the empire’s subjects that unauthorized violence was wicked, which was good news for Leviathan, and the empire then vigorously exported these intellectual systems to its neighbors. Yet for all the contagiousness of the new ideas, they did not by themselves persuade anyone to join the empire. Only war or the fear of war could do that. Soft power worked its magic later, binding the conquered together and giving the empire a degree of unity.
As so often, it is the apparent exceptions to the war-first principle that prove the rule. The little city-states of ancient Greece, for example, had lots of reasons to forget their differences and come together in a larger community. Within each city, Greeks generally pacified themselves very well: by 500 B.C., men no longer went about their daily business armed, and around 430 one upper-class Athenian even complained that he could no longer go around punching slaves on the street (it was, in fact, illegal). When cities were at peace, their rates of violent death must have been among the lowest in the ancient world. Most, though, went to war roughly two years in every three. According to Plato, “What most men call ‘peace’ is just a fiction, and in reality every city is fighting an undeclared war against every other.”
No surprise, then, that dozens of squabbling Greek city-states agreed to surrender much of their sovereignty to Athens in 477 B.C. But they did not choose this course out of love of peace or even admiration for Athens; they did it because they were frightened that the Persian Empire, which had tried to conquer Greece in 480, would gobble them up if they stood alone. And when, in the 440s, the Persian tide receded, several of the cities thought better of their submission to Athens and decided to go it alone—only for the Athenians to use force to prevent them.
In the third and second centuries B.C., a new wave of city-state amalgamations swept Greece. This time, groups of cities bundled themselves into koina (literally “communities,” but usually translated as “federal leagues”), setting up representative governments and merging their arrangements for security and finance. Once again, though, their prime motive was fear of wars they could not win by themselves—initially against the mighty Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great and then against the encroaching Romans.
The most peculiar stories may be those of Ptolemy VIII (nicknamed Fatso) and Attalus III, kings of Egypt and Pergamum, respectively. Ptolemy had been kicked out of Egypt by his brother (also named Ptolemy) in 163 B.C., and in 155 B.C. the dispossessed Ptolemy drew up a will leaving his new kingdom of Cyrene to the Roman people if he died without heirs. Attalus, though, went further; he actually did die without heirs in 133 B.C., whereupon his subjects discovered—to their astonishment—that they too had been bequeathed to the Roman Empire.
We do not know how the Romans felt about Ptolemy’s will, since the overweight monarch in fact lasted another four decades and, after seducing his own stepdaughter, left rather a lot of heirs. We do know, though, that the Romans were as surprised as the Pergamenes by Attalus’s bequest, and with self-interest strongly to the fore, competing factions in the senate fell into heated arguments over whether Attalus actually had the right to give his city to them.
Ptolemy and Attalus did what they did not because they loved Rome but because they feared it less than they feared war. Lacking heirs, both men dreaded civil war. The brothers Ptolemy had already tried fratricide and gone to war even before Fatso drew up his will, and Attalus’s position was worse still. A pretender to the throne, claiming to be Attalus’s half brother, was stirring up revolt among the poor (and might have begun a civil war even before Attalus died), and four neighboring kings were waiting in the wings to dismember Pergamum. No wonder a bloodless Roman takeover looked good to both kings.
This was the classical world’s answer to Rodney King: No, we can’t all get along. The only force strong enough to persuade people to give up the right to kill and impoverish each other was violence—or the fear that violence was imminent.
To understand why that was so, though, we must turn to another part of the world entirely.
In a jungle clearing on a South Sea island, a boy named Simon is arguing with a dead pig’s head on a stick.
“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” says the head.
Simon does not reply. His tongue is swollen with thirst. A pulse is beating in his skull. One of his fits is coming on.
Down on the beach, his chums are dancing and singing. When these schoolboys first found themselves marooned on the island, all was fun and games: they swam, blew on conch shells, and slept under the stars. But almost imperceptibly, their little society unraveled. A shadow crept across their fellowship, haunting the forest like an evil beast.
Until today, that is. Today, a troop of teenage hunters impaled a screaming sow as she nursed her young. Whooping with excitement, the boys smeared each other with blood and planned a feast. But first, their leader recognized, there was something they had to do. He hacked the grinning head off the carcass and skewered it on the sharpened stick that they had used to kill the pig. “This head is for the beast,” he shouted into the forest. “It’s a gift.”
And with that, the boys all set off running, dragging the flesh toward the beach—all except Simon, who crouches alone in the dappled, unreal light of the clearing.
“You knew, didn’t you?” asks the pig’s head. “I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
Simon knows. His body arches and stiffens; the seizure is upon him. He falls, forward, forward, toward the pig’s expanding mouth. Blood is darkening between the teeth, buzzing with flies, and there is blackness within, a blackness that spreads. Simon knows: the Beast cannot be killed. The Beast is us.
So says William Golding in his unforgettable novel Lord of the Flies. Cast away in the Pacific, far from schools and rules, a few dozen boys learn the dark truth: humans are compulsive killers, our psyches hardwired for violence. The Beast is us, and only a fragile crust of civilization keeps it in check. Given the slightest chance, the Beast will break loose. That, Golding tells us, is the reason why it’s no go. Why Calgacus and Agricola fought, not talked.
Or is it? Another South Sea island, perhaps not so far from Golding’s, seems to tell a different story. Like the novelist Golding, the young would-be anthropologist Margaret Mead suspected that in this simpler setting, where balmy breezes blew and palm fronds kissed the waves, she would see the crooked timber of humanity stripped of its veneer of civilization. But unlike Golding, who never actually visited the Pacific (although he was about to be posted there in charge of a landing craft when World War II ended), she decamped from New York City to Samoa in 1925.
“As the dawn begins to fall,” Mead wrote in her anthropological classic Coming of Age in Samoa, “lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees or in the shadow of beached canoes, that the light may find each sleeper in his appointed place.”
Pigs’ heads hold no terrors on Samoa. “As the sun rises higher in the sky, the shadows deepen under thatched roofs … Families who will cook today are hard at work; the taro, yams and bananas have already been brought from inland; the children are scuttling back and forth, fetching sea water, or leaves to stuff the pig.” The families gather in the evening to share their feast in peace and contentment. “Sometimes sleep will not descend upon the village until long past midnight; then at last there is only the mellow thunder of the reef and the whisper of lovers, as the village rests till dawn …
“Samoa,” Mead concluded, “is a place where no one plays for very high stakes, no one pays very heavy prices, no one suffers for his convictions or fights to the death for special ends.” On Samoa, the Beast is not close at all.
Golding and Mead both saw violence as a sickness, but they disagreed on its diagnosis. As Golding saw things, violence was a genetic condition, inherited from our forebears. Civilization was the only medication, but even civilization could only suppress the symptoms, not cure the disease. Mead drew the opposite conclusion. For her, the South Seas showed that violence was just a contagion, and civilization was its source, not its cure. Calgacus and Agricola fought two thousand years ago because their warlike cultures made them do it, and people carried on fighting in the twentieth century because warlike cultures were still making them do it.
In 1940, as France fell to Hitler, bombs rained down on London, and trenches filled up with murdered Polish Jews, Mead found a new metaphor. “Warfare,” she argued, “is just an invention.” Certainly, she conceded, war is “an invention known to the majority of human societies,” but even so, “if we despair over the way in which war seems such an ingrained habit of most of the human race, we can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention.”
Mead was not the only champion of this view, but she rapidly became the most influential. By 1969, when she retired from her position at the American Museum of Natural History, she was the most famous social scientist in the world and had proved, to the satisfaction of millions of readers, that humans’ natural state was one of peace. Swayed by the consensus, anthropologist after anthropologist came back from the field reporting that their people were peaceful too (anthropologists have a habit of calling the group among whom they do fieldwork “my people”). This was the age of “War,” love-ins, and peace protesters promising to levitate the Pentagon; it was only to be expected that Rousseau would seem at long last to have won his bitter, centuries-old debate with Hobbes.
This was what Napoleon Chagnon thought, at any rate, when he swapped graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the rain-forest borderlands of Brazil and Venezuela in 1964. He fully expected the Yanomami people, whose marriage patterns he planned to study, to live up to what he called “the image of ‘primitive man’ that I had conjured up in my mind before doing fieldwork, a kind of ‘Rousseauian’ view.” But the Yanomami had other ideas.
“The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamö was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage [in the defensive perimeter] into the village clearing,” Chagnon wrote. Slimy with sweat, his hands and face swollen from bug bites, Chagnon looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!… [S]trands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses … My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth hit me and I almost got sick …
We had arrived just after a serious fight. Seven women had been abducted the day before by a neighboring group, and the local men and their guests had just that morning recovered five of them in a brutal club fight … I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there.
But he stayed and in more than twenty-five visits over the next thirty years learned that Yanomamiland was not Margaret Mead’s Samoa. He witnessed, he said, “a good many incidents that expressed individual vindictiveness on the one hand and collective bellicosity on the other … from the ordinary incidents of wife beating and chest pounding to dueling† and organized raids … with the intention of ambushing and killing men from enemy villages.”
Armed with statistics going back decades, Chagnon discovered that roughly a quarter of Yanomami men died violently, and two men out of every five took part in at least one homicide during their lives. Worse still, he concluded that violence paid. On average, men who killed fathered three times as many children as men who did not kill. The Beast was alive and kicking in the Orinoco headwaters.
Unlike Hobbes and Rousseau, Chagnon was never driven into exile (in fact, he spent much of his career teaching in Santa Barbara, one of the cushiest berths a professor could ask for), but his academic enemies certainly made their best efforts. The first challenges focused on how he had collected his data, largely because Chagnon was much more forthcoming than most anthropologists about the difficulties of doing fieldwork. As soon as he arrived in the village of Bisaasi-teri, he confessed, he had run into trouble: he found that most Yanomami considered speaking another man’s name out loud to be deeply disrespectful (disrespectful enough to justify violence), which made his planned study of family trees distinctly tricky. Chagnon, undeterred, kept pushing. Offended by his rudeness, people got back at him by making up names, the sillier the better. To everyone’s amusement, the foolish foreigner kept writing them down.
Five months passed before Chagnon learned the truth, when, on a visit to another village, he let slip a name he had been given in Bisaasi-teri. “A stunned silence followed,” he says, “and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called ‘asshole’ and a daughter called ‘fart breath.’”
It is always a good idea to have a Plan B when doing fieldwork, and now, his strategy in tatters, Chagnon unveiled his. Yanomami might refuse to name their own kin, but they would happily rattle off the names of their personal enemies’ kin. Chagnon found that a little bribery or blackmail would usually elicit the facts he needed.
Plan B worked, but it was hardly an uplifting example of how to interact with other cultures. In fact, in 2002 the Executive Committee of the American Anthropological Association formally approved a report censuring Chagnon for his fieldwork methods—a first—only to rescind its approval (another first) after a referendum in 2005. Feelings were running high. If Chagnon could treat “his” people so dishonestly, some anthropologists asked, should scholars accept anything he said? Several who had worked in Yanomamiland simply refused to believe him, insisting that the Yanomami were not violent at all; Chagnon, they said, had falsified data to get attention.
And then things got really nasty. Some critics accused Chagnon of complicity in Brazilian plots to split Yanomamiland into tiny reservations so that gold miners could intimidate the tribes and exploit the resources more easily. In 2012, Venezuelan activists accused miners of murdering eighty Yanomami, but government inspectors found no bodies. One critic even claimed that Chagnon had helped spread a measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomami.
It has been an unsavory episode in the history of scholarship, but what goes around comes around. As the attacks on Chagnon and his Lord of the Flies vision intensified, Margaret Mead and the Coming of Age thesis started getting the same treatment. In 1983, Derek Freeman, an anthropologist from New Zealand who had been working on Samoa since 1940, published a book charging that Mead had completely misunderstood the place.
Freeman learned from Mead’s unpublished papers that far from “speaking their language, eating their food, sitting barefoot and cross-legged upon the pebbly floor,” as she had described herself, she had actually picked up only the shakiest smattering of the local tongue, had stayed on Samoa just a few months, had misled people about who she was, had lived in a bungalow with an American pharmacist and his family, and had dined with the admiral of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. As a result of her colonialist lifestyle, Freeman concluded, Mead failed to notice what police records from 1920s Samoa make clear: that the island had higher rates of violent death than the United States (no small thing in the age of Al Capone).
Worse still, in an interview in 1987, Fa’apua’a Fa’amu (by then a great-grandmother, but back in 1926 one of Mead’s main informants) confessed that she and her girlfriend Fofoa had found Mead just as comical as the Yanomami would find Chagnon, but with one big difference: Mead never realized that people were pulling her leg. Embarrassed by Mead’s obsession with sex, Fa’amu said, “we just fibbed and fibbed to her.” Coming of Age in Samoa rested on teenagers’ tall tales about their sexploits.
By the 1990s, with mutual recriminations coming thick and fast, it was tempting to conclude that anthropology really had made no progress since Hobbes and Rousseau. Things got so bad that some anthropologists actually began celebrating their field’s apparent inability to produce results. Fieldwork, a new generation of scholars proclaimed, is not really a method of data collection at all; it is more a kind of artistic performance, weaving creative fictions. Those who expect it to establish “the facts” are missing the point.
Fortunately, these claims are just plain wrong. Quietly, often unnoticed amid all the mudslinging and name-calling, hundreds of anthropologists have spent decades steadily getting on with the real work, slowly assembling an impressive database on violence in small-scale societies. Bringing together studies made everywhere from Africa to the Arctic, this patient work has produced the key discovery that rates of violent death in small-scale societies are usually shockingly high.
In the twentieth century, the industrialized world fought two world wars and carried out multiple genocides. Thanks to all the databases compiled since Richardson’s Statistics of Deadly Quarrels (mentioned in the introduction), we can now say with some confidence that of the roughly 10 billion people who lived in these hundred years, somewhere between 100 million and 200 million met violent ends in wars, feuds, and homicides—roughly 1–2 percent of the total. In the small-scale societies that anthropologists and archaeologists were able to study, however, the proportion of people dying violently seemed to be on average between 10 and 20 percent—ten times as high.
This does not mean that the Yanomami and the Samoans were like nineteenth-century stereotypes of savages, randomly killing and maiming from dusk to dawn. Anthropologists have also found that even the fiercest cultures have elaborate networks of kinship, gift exchange, and feasting, which they use to find peaceful solutions to most conflicts. But the hard fact remains that blood is their argument appallingly often. In 2008, the biologist and geographer Jared Diamond, traveling around highland New Guinea doing fieldwork, was astonished to hear his driver—“a happy, enthusiastic, sociable person,” says Diamond—casually chatting about his part in a three-year cycle of killings that claimed thirty lives. (Diamond was even more astonished when his former driver sued him for $10 million over the story. The case was eventually dismissed.)
The reason it took anthropologists so long to notice that “their” people regularly acted like extras from Lord of the Flies was simple: anthropologists rarely spent long enough looking. Take the case of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (nowadays best known for her book The Hidden Life of Dogs), who spent her late teens with her anthropologist parents among San hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert. She wrote a sensitive account of San life, which she called The Harmless People—even though in the 1950s San were killing one another faster than the residents of inner-city Detroit would do at the high point of the crack cocaine epidemic.
Thomas chose the title The Harmless People not because she was unobservant but because the numbers worked against her. If the rate of violent death in a particular hunter-gatherer society ran at 10 percent, that would mean that a band of a dozen people would have roughly one murder every quarter of a century. Few anthropologists have the funding—or fortitude—to spend twenty-five months in the field, let alone twenty-five years. It takes repeated revisits, ideally incorporating multiple communities (like Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomami), to reveal that an awful lot of people are meeting grisly ends.
The evidence for high levels of violence is unambiguous, but making sense of it is more complicated. If, as the Coming of Age theory says, war is a contagion of civilization, it might well be that the high rates of violence among the San were a disease they had caught from westerners. This idea inspired the classic 1980 comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, but some of Chagnon’s critics took it in a much nastier direction, blaming him personally for infecting the Yanomami with war (as well as measles) by trading them steel axes for information.
The obvious way to settle the question is to look back in time, to see whether wars were common in small-scale societies before they came into contact with more complex societies (the Lord of the Flies view) or whether wars began only after contact had begun (the Coming of Age view). But when we do this, we run into a chicken-and-egg problem: most small-scale societies had no written records until they came into contact with more complex ones.
Samoa, Margaret Mead’s stomping ground, is a case in point. The earliest detailed account of the islands is by John Williams, a British missionary, and almost the first thing he saw on arriving in 1830 was the village of A’ana in flames. A “disastrous war,” Williams wrote, “continued with unabated fury for nearly nine months in which many of our people fell victims so that the dead & wounded were brought over every day.” It created a wasteland: “All the districts in AAna [Williams’s spelling] are depopulated & in sailing along the beautiful coast for ten or twelve miles not a habitation is to be seen.”
Just in case A’ana did not convince Williams that the Samoans were tough men, their chiefs showed him the preserved heads of men killed by their ancestors and regaled him with stories of the wars and massacres of the past. One village put a rock in a basket for each battle it fought: Williams counted 197.
But there is one difficulty. Williams was the first European to write much about Samoa, but he was not the first European to go there. The Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen had arrived in 1722, and others had followed over the next hundred years. For all we know, every single head, rock, and story that Williams encountered had accumulated since 1722 and was the fruit of contagion by civilization.
Archaeology, however, suggests otherwise. The interior of Samoa is packed with prehistoric hillforts. Some must have been built since 1722, but carbon 14 dating shows that others are between six hundred and a thousand years old. Samoans had been building forts, and probably waging war, long before Europeans showed up. Samoan traditions describe great wars against invaders from Tonga, apparently around eight hundred years ago, providing a plausible context for the fort-building, and the wooden clubs and war canoes still in use when Europeans arrived seem to have descended from Tongan prototypes of this era, suggesting a continuous tradition of using deadly force.
Even on Samoa, the Coming of Age theory seems not to work very well, but there are always multiple ways to interpret archaeological finds. Archaeology is a young field, and as recently as the 1950s there were still very few graduate programs training future professionals. The people who dug up the past tended to drift into it from other walks of life, and a remarkable number were former military men. Many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, tended to see war and destruction almost everywhere they dug. But in the 1960s and ’70s, a new generation of men and women colonized the field, educated in university departments of anthropology and archaeology, and often steeped in the Coming of Age view of prehistory. They—equally unsurprisingly—tended to see war and destruction almost nowhere.
It can be painful for the middle-aged to look back on the follies of their youth. As a graduate student in the 1980s (probably the glory days of Coming of Age–ism), I dug for several summers at Koukounaries, an extraordinary prehistoric Greek site on the fairy-tale-beautiful island of Paros. On our first visit to the site, the director explained that it had been destroyed by violent attack around 1125 B.C. Its fortifications had been cast down and its buildings burned. The defenders had piled slingstones by the walls, and the skeletons of several donkeys—caught in the final disaster—had been excavated in the narrow alleys on the acropolis. But I (and, I hasten to add, my graduate student peers) flatly refused to believe that any of this was evidence of war, and once we had ruled out war as impossible, whatever explanations remained—no matter how improbable—had to be true.
It was this kind of thinking that led so many archaeologists to insist, in the face of equally overwhelming evidence, that the pre-Roman hillforts of western Europe mentioned earlier in this chapter were ceremonial centers, status symbols, and basically anything except military bases. But like the anthropologists, archaeologists began realizing in the 1990s that the evidence just could not be shoehorned into a Coming of Age pattern anymore.
New scientific methods played a part in this shift. When hikers found the celebrated Ice Man in the Italian Alps in 1991—a deep-frozen corpse dating around 3300 B.C.—archaeologists initially assumed that he had died in a snowstorm. In 2001, scanning technology revealed an arrowhead embedded in his left armpit, but even then some archaeologists hypothesized an elaborate funeral involving his dead body being carried up into the mountains. But in 2008, new immunohistochemical methods showed that the Ice Man had been attacked at least twice. The first assault gave him a deep wound in his right hand; in the second, a couple of days later, he was hit in the back with a blunt object and shot with the arrow, which severed an artery. In 2012, a nanoscanning atomic force microscope found intact red blood cells that proved he had bled to death within hours of being hit by the arrow.
We would not know any of this were the Ice Man not so spectacularly preserved, but systematic study of large samples of skeletons can produce equally nasty and brutish results. Sometime around A.D. 1325, for instance, at least 486 people were slaughtered and their bodies tossed into a ditch at Crow Creek in South Dakota. A good 90 percent—and possibly all—of the dead had been scalped. Eyes had been gouged out, tongues sliced off, teeth shattered, and throats cut. Some were beheaded. For a few, this was not even the first time they had been scalped or shot: their bones bore the telltale marks of older, partially healed wounds.
Excavations began at Crow Creek in 1978, and since then evidence for Native American massacres has come thick and fast. The most recent example (as I write) is at Sacred Ridge in Colorado, where a village was burned down around A.D. 800 and at least thirty-five men, women, and children were tortured and killed. Their enemies used blunt weapons—clubs, or perhaps just rocks—to smash their feet and faces to pulp. The killers scalped everyone, cutting off ears and hacking some corpses into dozens of pieces. Like the Romans described by Polybius a thousand years earlier, they even killed the village dogs.
In fact, not much about Crow Creek, Sacred Ridge, or Samoa would have surprised the Romans. Cicero and Tacitus, like Hobbes and Golding, knew perfectly well that the Beast was close, close, close, and that only an even more terrifying beast—Leviathan—could cage it.
Getting to Rome
In his book The Origins of Political Order, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama asks a penetrating question: How do we get to Denmark?
Fukuyama asks this not because he doesn’t know how to buy a plane ticket but because for social scientists Denmark has come to stand in as (in Fukuyama’s words) “a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption. Everyone would like to figure out how to transform Somalia, Haiti, Nigeria, Iraq, or Afghanistan into ‘Denmark.’”
If there had been political scientists two thousand years ago, they would have asked instead how to get to Rome. The Roman Empire was not very democratic, but it certainly was peaceful and, by the standards of the day, stable, prosperous, and inclusive (corruption is a little harder to judge). The alternative to getting to Rome was to live in societies with more than a passing similarity to modern-day Somalia, Haiti, Nigeria, Iraq, or Afghanistan—but more dangerous.
I have suggested in this chapter that the explanation of how the Romans got to Rome is very much a paradox. On the one hand, Leviathan was what suppressed violence, and suppressing violence was what being Roman (or now Danish) was all about; but on the other, violence was what made Leviathan possible in the first place. All in all, war seems to be good for something. And yet … not all roads led to Rome. In the Mediterranean Basin, war proved to be the path to peace and prosperity, but in many other places it did not. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of incessant fighting around the shores of the Baltic, in the deserts of Australia, and in the forests of central Africa, but none of these regions produced its own Roman Empire.
Why not? Why did the Beast not turn into a stationary bandit everywhere? War, it would seem, is only sometimes good for something. We need to know what makes the difference.
Ian Morris is the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and Professor in History at Stanford University and the author of the critically acclaimed Why the West Rules—for Now. He has published ten scholarly books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.
Copyright © 2014 by Ian Morris