Revolutionary Review: Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

Book Review

Armitage, David. Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. New York: Knopf, 2017. 349 pp.

Reviewed by Bryan Banks

In his Reflections on Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, the Irish Whig and political theorist, argued that the hazardous politics of 1789 would fissure the French regime into two warring states, which would lead the French down the dark path to Terror. Historians often read Reflections for its prophetic insight into the revolutionary condition and for its counter-revolutionary sentiment, indicative of the culture wars sparked by the French Revolution around Europe. Yet, perhaps, we should also read Burke for his “modern” use of the idea of civil war. The conflation of civil war and revolution in Burke’s Reflections signaled an important moment in the scripting of modern “civil war” and “revolution” rhetoric. Burke knowingly drew on over a thousand years of intellectual tradition, which imagined this intra-state, internecine conflict as essentially destructive, divisive, and damning. Revolutions, on the other hand, were increasingly imagined as driven by ideals, which justify rapturous change. For Burke, one of the first steps to denouncing the French Revolution was to rebrand it a civil war.

Book cover of Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage.

In his recent book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, David Armitage places Burke in a long genealogy of the titular idea. Burke was a politician, whose use of ideas like civil war and revolution often reflected his own political goals. But as Armitage makes clear, the idea of civil war was not cast anew in the 1790s, but had a long lineage extending back to Ancient Rome. By using the concept, Burke was leaning on over a thousand years of intellectual history.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas exemplifies a recent move in intellectual history to trace ideas over millennia.[1]  Armitage’s history in ideas borrows significantly from the Cambridge School of intellectual history, even if it seems to run counter to it. Whereas, Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and other members of the Cambridge School allowed context to narrow their temporal scope, Armitage’s transtemporal history in ideas recognizes that concepts are informed both by their contemporary context and by their intellectual traditions. Roots of words and of ideas shape their later use. What is needed then, is to find a balance between context and tradition in intellectual history. Armitage has called his methodology “serial contextualism.” Context acts as an antidote to the teleological. And the longue durée allows us to address big, conceptual problems, which might be too large to examine through a more micro-historical lens. Instead of a taut, and therefore overly simplistic chain of ideas, Armitage explores the myriad conceptions of civil war from its inception.

The book is divided into three parts, each containing two chapters. The first part, “Roads from Rome,” examines the earliest iterations of the idea of “civil war,” which Armitage argues helped shape several competing narratives. Three canonical conceptions of bellum civile emerged from the Roman period. First, civil war could be understood as inherent to the very logic of the Roman republic. Republicanism, replete with its purportedly civic values and laden with notions of Roman civilization, would perpetuate civil war as long as the republican tradition persisted. Second, the “imperial narrative,” as Armitage calls it, emphasized the persistent, disease-like quality of civil war in the body politic, which could only be cured by a single powerful ruler – a Caesar.(88) And lastly, Armitage teases out the Christian narrative of civil war, which emphasized the worldliness and sinfulness of civil war, a necessary photo negative to the positive image of the peaceful afterlife.

The second part of the book, “Early Modern Crossroads,” strings some of the common Roman narratives into the early modern period. Armitage pays particularly close attention to the nuances between Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke – all three steeped their arguments on sovereignty, power, treason, rebellion, and finally, revolution in the Roman tradition. This last concept brings Armitage’s history in ideas to its crossroads. The two conceptual clusters, “civil war” and “revolution,” drifted apart from one another. Wrapped up in Enlightenment discourses of legitimate force and perpetual peace, eighteenth-century philosophers, lawyers, statesmen, and then revolutionaries repackaged rebellion, mutiny, insurrection, and civil wars as revolution. Successful civil wars became revolutions. Failed civil wars remained civil wars. Armitage concludes his second section by arguing that civil war is a genus of which revolution is a species.

The third part of the book, “Paths to the Present” navigates readers through the U.S. Civil War (or as my eighth grade Georgia history teacher once referred to it, the “War of Northern Aggression”) and into the twentieth century. Armitage argues that this period witnessed attempts to reduce the severity of civil war by attempting to categorize it in legal  and academic terms. Social scientists during the Cold War also tried to conceptualize the study of civil war. Armitage concludes the book by resisting the urge to set a new standard definition of civil war; instead, he encourages us to reflect on the variations of meaning behind the use of such a concept. Words are weapons and defining conflicts as civil wars is a serious act. As Armitage notes, “our own age is plainly no piping time of peace.”(4) This volume is both a product of its time and a timely read.

Whatever shortcomings Armitage’s transtemporal frame might introduce (e.g. the loss of “deep” context or the blurring of historical periods), he more than makes up for with astute observations. One such insight Armitage makes relates specifically to the Age of Revolutions. Despite the divergence he traces between conceptions of civil war and revolution, Armitage notes that the “age of revolutions was also to be an age of civil wars.”(120) From R.R. Palmer to the present, historians have been searching for a unifying factor or a modus operandi for the revolutionary period. Democracy. Liberty. Equality. Perhaps, one unifying factor is the extremity of violence used across the period justified by these enlightened ideas. The Age of Revolutions, let us not forget, was a period which saw the construction and demolition of states. It was a period that cast its principles in universalist terms and conceived of total, universal warfare.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is incredibly well-written and compact. Published with deckled edges by Knopf in the United States, Armitage covers thousands of years of history in 247 pages of text (excluding endnotes, bibliography, and the index). History enthusiasts will find it informative and enjoyable. It is also equally suited for sparking discussion in college classrooms and graduate seminars. 

Bryan Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He is a religious and intellectual historian of France with an interest in Atlantic and World History. You can email him at or tweet him @Bryan_A_Banks.


[1] For other works (just to name a few) that trace the genealogies of ideas over the longue durée, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989); Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Grove Press, 2006); Peter Garnsey, Thinking about Property: From Antiquity to the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Darrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

Title Image: Jean-François Hue, L’incendie de Granville par les Vendéens, 1800.

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