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Insurgency and its Application in the Ancient World

Lee L. Brice

“Insurgency and its Application in the Ancient World”

Given the level of attention in media and policy an observer might be forgiven for thinking insurgency and counterinsurgency are new developments. A cursory examination of ancient military history suggests, however, that as in the twentieth century, insurgencies were a problem that plagued various complex political entities such as Assyria, Persia, Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Rome. Because of the intense modern interest, ancient Mediterranean history has felt the pull of studies into insurgency and its most common manifestation – asymmetric conflict (Smith 2007; Powers 2013; Anson 2015). While this interest has done much to stimulate work on conflict, much of it has been excessively influenced by recent conflicts and counter-insurgency theory (COIN). As a result, these studies often fall short or get hung on modernism. Two key recent problems with analyzing insurgencies revolve around the vocabulary - inconsistent modern application of the term and the ancient practice of calling all insurgents bandits.

This paper seeks to reassess prevailing treatments of insurgency in the Greco-Roman world. I will do so by providing historical context for understanding and employing this term and demonstrate the usefulness of “insurgency” as a specific concept for analyzing certain kinds of conflict. The first part of the paper will treat the language of insurgency, both the concept and the label. The second part of the paper will consider a case studiy that demonstrates the importance of this approach. The ultimate goal is to offer a path toward consistently assessing ancient conflicts and the ways rulers responded to them.

That “insurgency” has not been used more often in modern studies of ancient conflict is not surprising given its modern flavor. Although we must be careful to avoid anachronism in using terms like “insurgency” when describing ancient phenomena, a careful examination of key terms reveals that we can use this term appropriately. The earliest use of “insurgency” in its modern sense is from the nineteenth-century but this usage is based on the much older word “insurgent” which comes from the Latin root, insurgere (Geggie 2013). So far so good, but this ancient origin does not make “insurgency” automatically applicable to ancient conflicts. The commonly recognized definition of insurgency is a revolt or rebellious movement, to which modern authorities add, “intended to overturn or eliminate a constituted government or authority by subversion and military force,” (NATO 2010). This definition is understood to exclude recognized belligerents involved in a conflict such as the Hellenic and Delian Leagues against Persia in the Persian wars or Mithridates against Rome in the first century BC. There is nothing in the definition that precludes its application to the ancient world.

Another, and no less important aspect of the language of insurgency is the way it was characterized in the ancient world. Regardless of how they responded to insurgencies, authorities typically use the language of de-politicization (banditry, criminality, troubles) when they need to refer to it in our sources. Documents as separated in time and location as from Neo-Assyria (parrisu), Ptolemaic Egypt (tarache), and first and fourth-century AD Imperial Rome (lestai, latrocinio respectively) use language that muddies attempts to perceive insurgency. Using the modern concept of insurgency can help us distinguish between types of conflict and cut through some of the official language in our sources.

The paper will close with a case study focused on first century AD Roman Empire that demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of applying insurgency-studies to ancient conflicts. This paper is useful not just because more consistent treatments of insurgency are so important to sorting out conflict and its language, but also because insurgency seems to have been a common historical behavior.

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New Studies in Asymmetric Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World

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