What Was the Attitude of the Ancients Toward War?

How did the peoples of the ancient world regard war? Did they glory in it, or did they consider it a necessary evil. Did everyone in those days agree that “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?”
A bit of research would indicate that the attitude, at least of the educated ancients, was ambivalent to war, and that they thought of it as a necessary evil.
Aristotle said: “We make war so that we may live in peace.”
Herodotus said: “In peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons.”
Plato said: “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that people may require a leader.”
Sophocles said “War never takes a wicked man by chance, the good man always.”
Cicero said: “Infinite money is the sinew of war.” And “The only excuse for war is that we may live in peace unharmed.” And “Laws are silent in time of war.”
Thucydides said: “Wars spring from unseen and generally insignificant causes, the first outbreak being often but an explosion of anger.”
“Seneca the Younger said: “We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.”
In Carthage, at the start of the Second Punic War, there was a party, led by Hanno the Great, that opposed it. According to Livy, Hanno said:
“It is against Carthage that Hannibal is now moving his vineae and towers,” he said. “It is Carthage that he is shaking with his battering rams. The ruins of Saguntum (Oh that I may prove a false prophet!) will fall on our heads and the war commenced against the Saguntines must be continued against the Romans. Shall we therefore deliver up Hannibal? In what relates to him I am aware that my authority is of little weight on account of my enmity with his father. But I rejoice that Hamilcar perished, for this reason, that had he lived we should have now been engaged in a war with the Romans; and this youth, as the fury and firebrand of this war I hate and detest!”

According to Livy, even Hannibal, that grand master of war, had his regrets. In his depiction of the famous meeting between Scipio and Hannibal on the eve of the battle of Zama, he quotes Hannibal as saying “Indeed it would have been better if we Carthaginians had been content with our empire in Africa and you Romans with yours in Italy. Even to you Romans Sicily and Sardinia were never worth the cost of so many fleets, so many armies and so many distinguished generals. But the past is more easily censured than retrieved.
“For me, who a little while ago you saw advancing my standards to the walls of Rome, after pitching my camp between the Anio and your city, you now behold here, bereft of two brothers, men of consummate bravery, and most renowned generals, standing before the walls of my native city, which is all but besieged, and deprecating in behalf of my own city, those severities with which I terrified yours.”
It would be safe to say that the ancient Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians were warlike. On the other hand, I think it would be a grave mistake to believe that, as individuals, the ancients were uniformly in agreement that war was glorious and that peace was something to be deplored.


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  3. Thank you. If you look in my archives I have many such articles. And you may want to read my books if interested in Roman History-they are fiction but follow the actual history closely. The Death of Carthage, In the Wake of Hannibal, and The Last Carthaginian. They are available on Amazon and Kindle.

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