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Roman Civil Wars


Definitions of civil war in ancient Rome hinge on the deeply ingrained concept of internal strife, often visualized through the legendary fracture between Romulus and Remus, Rome's mythic founders. This symbolic representation underscores the perennial theme of brother against brother, serving as a poignant reminder of Rome's cyclic nature of internal conflict. Not every instance of internal unrest earned the label of a civil war according to Roman observers. The distinguishing line that Roman historians drew between civil wars and other forms of rebellion, such as the insurrections led by Sertorius and Catiline, depended largely on the scale of the conflict, the involvement of key political figures, and whether the strife threatened the very fabric of Roman society.

The case of Sertorius, who led a resistance against the established Roman authority in Hispania, demonstrates the selective application of the term 'civil war.' Despite the extensive duration and the considerable forces involved, Sertorius's rebellion was framed more as a provincial uprising rather than a full-scale civil war, primarily due to its geographical confinement and the perceived legitimacy of the opposing sides. In contrast, the conflict between Marius and Sulla was unequivocally branded a civil war as it involved prominent political leaders clashing over control of the heart of Rome itself, underscoring the conflict as a pivotal struggle for the soul of the Republic.

The Roman Republic's iterative internal conflicts had expansive ramifications, influencing how contemporary and later Roman historians defined civil strife. Romans categorized conflicts strategically, recognizing that labeling a conflict as a civil war carried powerful implications for political legitimacy, memoria (the collective memory of Rome), and the annals of history itself. Political leaders, such as Julius Caesar, adeptly navigated the semantics surrounding civil unrest, framing their actions in terms that could either justify their undertakings or condemn their opponents. Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is a quintessential example of an act that was inevitably interpreted through the lens of civil strife, providing an illustrative case study on how specific conflicts came to be defined as civil wars.

Roman narratives concerning civil wars often grapple with reconciling the concept of fratricidal conflict with the idealized vision of Roman unity and virtue. The sorting of historical events into categories of 'civil war' and 'rebellion' uncovers underlying societal values and political agendas. The Roman tendency to glorify conflicts that projected the Republic (and later the Empire) against external enemies while minimizing or redefining internal strife reflects an enduring tension in Roman identity. This dissonance reveals much about the sociopolitical landscape of Rome — an empire perpetually on the precipice of internal fragmentation while outwardly projecting a facade of invulnerability.

Thus, the notion of civil war in ancient Rome embodied a deeply introspective commentary on Roman society, governance, and the eternal conflict between personal ambition and collective well-being. Whether viewed through the actions of historical figures venturing beyond the Rubicon or through the mythology surrounding Romulus and Remus, the Roman definition of civil war extends far beyond the battlefield to capture a complex web of ideology, power, and identity.

A classical statue depicting the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, as infants being suckled by a she-wolf


The portrayal of civil wars in ancient Rome spanned various mediums, from the epic poetry of Vergil to the historical accounts of Sallust, each adding layers of meaning and resonating differently with contemporary and successive audiences. The crux of the matter lay not merely in the recounting of events but in the nuanced interplay between memory, representation, and interpretation, a web of historical intertextuality that ensnared writers and audiences alike.

Epic poets such as Vergil, in his monumental work "Aeneid," engaged with the theme of civil war in a manner vastly different from historians. Vergil's Rome was one where divine will and human endeavor converged, framing conflicts like those between Caesar and Pompey in the sweeping, tragic terms of destiny and inevitability. The poet's lens provided a mytho-historical perspective that rendered the civil wars as essential painful steps towards the inevitable founding of Rome. Such narratives offered not just entertainment but a form of national catharsis, imbuing the bloody march through history with a veneer of grandeur and preordained purpose.

Contrarily, historians such as Julius Caesar in his "Commentaries" or Tacitus in his "Histories" wielded their pens with meticulous attention to detail, foregrounding the political machinations, personal rivalries, and moral quandaries that precipitated such internal strife. Their accounts, marked by an immediacy and engagement with the political implications of civil conflict, aimed less at mythmaking and more at a sober, if sometimes biased, recounting of events. Here, civil wars were depicted not as mythic confrontations but as historical ruptures that underscored failures in governance and civic virtue.

Greek writers observing Rome, such as Plutarch, brought an outsider's perspective to these intricately Roman phenomena. In his "Parallel Lives," Plutarch navigated the tumultuous stories of notable Romans through a moralistic lens, drawing parallels with Greek history and thereby gently reminding Roman audiences of the universal nature of political strife and human ambition. This comparative approach underlined not only the inevitability of civil conflicts in large polities but also their pivotal role in defining character and destiny.

Audiences played an indelible role in shaping the narratives around Roman civil wars. The Roman public, steeped in traditions of oratory and public debate, were not mere passive recipients but active participants who could sway the political landscape with their favor or disapproval. Monuments, like Augustus's Altar of Peace, spoke to a visual and public engagement with civil strife, proffering a narrative of resolution and concord that served both political ends and public morale.

The medium, therefore, significantly influenced these varied representations of civil war. Literary works allowed for exploration, reflection, and moralizing often absent from inscriptions or monuments, which, by virtue of their public and permanent nature, broadcasted messages of unity and divine justification with no room for ambiguity. The choice between verse, prose, or stone was thus not merely aesthetic but deeply political, each contributing in its way to the overarching narrative Rome told itself about its predisposition to internecine conflict.

In sum, the representations of Rome's civil conflicts were multifaceted and complex, serving divergent purposes across different genres and mediums. Whether to eulogize, rationalize, moralize, or politicize, the portrayal of these fratricidal engagements drew on Rome's rich tradition of storytelling and its public's engagement with history.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, an altar in Rome commissioned by the Roman Senate to honor the return of Augustus and symbolize the peace and prosperity brought by his reign


The Roman approach to cataloging and digesting the harsh reality of civil conflict reveals a society both introspective and innovative in crafting its narratives. In their attempts to reconcile the distressing frequency of fraternal strife, Romans often resorted to dissimulation, recasting episodes of civil war in alternative frames that emphasized unity over division, divine destiny over human failing, and foreign conquest over internal dissension.

One of the most compelling ways Romans accomplished this was through the extensive use of mythology and the creation of counter-myths like the concept of a golden age. By situating the civil wars within a grander scheme of mythological destiny, the Romans provided context and justification for internal strife. Civil wars were not merely about power struggles among the elite but part of a divine narrative that ultimately aimed at the refinement and glory of Rome. The reconfiguration allowed Romans to view civil wars as necessary evils—pains of growth rather than symptoms of decay.

Similarly, the notion of a golden age served as a powerful counter-myth, offering a vision of Rome purified from its penchant for self-destruction. This age, either recalled from a mythical past or prophesied for a utopian future, stood as a beacon of hope, diverting attention from the tumultuous present. It was a masterstroke of collective psychological redirection—a promise that regardless of current upheavals, Rome was destined for a period of peace, prosperity, and internal harmony, ordained by the gods themselves.

Aside from mythological reframing, another layer of dissociation came into play by presenting civil wars as if they were conflicts against external enemies—foreign wars by another name. Such a portrayal had the dual benefit of painting the Roman state in continuous opposition to barbarism and external threat, thereby obscuring the internal fault lines that precipitated civil wars. This narrative sleight of hand turned the attention of the populace outward, against a clear external adversary, rather than inward, where the lines between friend and foe blurred unsettlingly.

This framing found physical expression in the visual vocabulary of victory monuments and triumphal artifacts. Unlike the graphic depictions found in recounting conquests over foreign foes, commemorations of victories in civil wars were often veiled in symbolism that obscured their internecine nature. Triumphal arches, coins, and statues celebrated virtues like Courage, Victory, and Peace without overt reference to the civil conflict they emerged from. The visual medium thus became a key tool in the subtle process of disguising the nature of civil strife, casting victors not as successful factional leaders but as saviors of the Roman state, preservers of peace and Roman integrity.

In these multifaceted ways—through mythology, the invocation of a golden age, the projection of conflicts as foreign wars, and a selective visual vocabulary—Romans skillfully navigated the treacherous waters of their frequent civil strife. These dissimulations, creative as they were, underscored not only a desire to mask internal divisions but also a profound yearning for unity and continuity amid the ebb and flow of power and ambition that characterized much of Rome's storied history. By shrouding their civil wars in layers of alternative narrative and symbolism, Romans preserved the ideal of a cohesive state, even as they grappled with the recurring reality of internal conflict.

A grand Roman triumphal arch, intricately carved with scenes of military victories and topped with a bronze quadriga statue


The shadow that civil wars cast over the collective Roman psyche not only insinuated themselves into the very marrow of Roman identity but also colored how other cultures and societies perceived the might and ethos of Rome. The legacy of these internal conflicts deeply influenced the narratives of civil strife in later societies, revealing a complex, dualistic character at the heart of Roman civilization, oscillating between aspirations for unity and recurrent realities of division.

The repeated incidences of civil war in Rome raised a compelling contradiction in the Roman ethos; on one hand, there existed a vaunted ideal of concordia, the unity and cooperation among its citizens and institutions, foundational to the success and expansion of Rome. Yet, conspicuously juxtaposed was the undeniable predisposition towards internecine conflict, which beckoned an altogether different legacy — one marked by discordia. This inherent contradiction did not escape the notice of other ancient cultures, which both admired and admonished Rome's power and propensities. What emerged in the records of observers from Greece, Egypt, to the farther reaches of the known world was not merely an image of Roman grandeur but an empire perennially on the brink, a stark illustration of the potentialities and perils of unparalleled power.

Interestingly, the dual nature of Roman identity — as both a monument to unity and a testament to division — rendered Rome an enduring symbol in the annals of subsequent civilizations, especially during their times of internal conflict. The Roman experience provided both a mirror and a cautionary tale; societies grappling with their civil wars looked back upon Rome's history as a source of lessons on governance, justice, and social cohesion. Through the reflection of Rome's triumphs and tragedies, later cultures contemplated the dynamics of power, loyalty, and the often tumultuous path towards enduring statehood.

Moreover, Rome's civil wars offered a narrative template for successive epochs navigating the tempests of their internal dissensions. The motifs of betrayal, ambition, and ideological fervor which punctuated Rome's journey were repeatedly invoked in narratives spanning from the medieval to the modern periods. Through literature, history, and political discourse, Rome's civil strife was reincarnated in the varied contexts of different ages, echoing sentiments of rivalry and the quest for dominion that transcended temporal bounds.

This complex legacy, steeped in both admiration and admonition, also underscored the broader influence Rome wielded on notions of governance and civic virtue. The Roman competencies to assimilate diverse peoples under a singular imperial ambit while continually contending with the specter of civil discord offered a paradoxical model of statecraft — empire-building amidst self-inflicted fragmentation. It is within this very paradox that Rome revealed its enduring genius, etching into the collective memory of humanity a narrative of what it means to strive for unity whilst wrestling perpetually with the specter of division.

Ultimately, Rome's civil wars, and the broader Roman engagement with these internal cataclysms, remained emblematic not only of the indelible mark they left on Rome's own identity but also on the tapestry of human endeavor. Through the crucible of its conflicts, Rome bequeathed a narrative of resilience and reflection, a chronicle of an empire that, in its quest for concord amid the cacophony of its contentions, laid bare the perennial human condition — the ceaseless struggle between the pull for cohesive unity and the push toward dissonant division.

  1. Flower HI. Roman Republics. Princeton University Press; 2011.
  2. Lange CH, Vervaet FJ, eds. The Historiography of Late Republican Civil War. Brill; 2019.
  3. Armitage D. Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Yale University Press; 2017.
  4. Breed BW, Damon C, Rossi A, eds. Citizens of Discord: Rome and Its Civil Wars. Oxford University Press; 2010.
  5. Osgood J. Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE-20 CE. Cambridge University Press; 2018.
William Montgomery
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