From Afghanistan to Yemen, civil war is now humanity's most destructive, most widespread, and most characteristic form of collective organized violence. Yet civil war is not just a contemporary problem but one with a two-thousand-year history. This lecture places our current discontents in long-range historical perspective, from the invention of civil war in republican Rome to current conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Deciding when, and whether, to call a war ‘civil’ has been fraught across this great sweep of history. The lecture asks why civil war has been so contentious for so long, and what the history of struggles over its meaning can tell us about some of our most fundamental political and ethical values today.
Professor David Armitage, FAHA, is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University. A prize-winning teacher and writer, he has lectured on six continents and has held research fellowships and visiting positions in Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the United States. The author or editor of sixteen books, David’s most recent major publication is Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017). In 2006, the National Maritime Museum, London, awarded him the Caird Medal for ‘conspicuously important work ... that involves communicating with the public’. In 2008 Harvard named him a Walter Channing Cabot Fellow for ‘achievements and scholarly eminence in the fields of literature, history or art’. In 2015, he received Cambridge University's highest degree, the LittD, for ‘distinction by some original contribution to the advancement of science or of learning’.