Cicero on Just War
“The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Acquians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage [in the 3rd Punic War] and Numantia [in Spain, 134 BC] to the ground.”For Cicero, the nature of the enemy determines the means to bring about a lasting peace. A barbarian enemy is fought to the death. The Roman viewpoint was accepted as normal until the last few decades. For example, George Washington fought the British, which he deemed civilized, in a completely different manner than the Iroquois who sided with the Crown. Washington deployed a “scorched earth” policy to fight the Iroquois.
It would be wrong to assume that Cicero slavishly defends Roman policies. For example:
“I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile.”Rome was created by a process of conquest and assimilation. The result was a strong union that withstood conquests by the most formidable enemies. In the second Punic War, Hannibal hoped to win the support of disgruntled Roman subjects but only a few joined the Carthaginian cause. The vast majority fought for Rome.
“Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.”
Cicero understands the discipline required for a powerful military and the need to subject the military to the rule of law:
“So extremely scrupulous was the observance of the laws in regard to the conduct of war. There is extant, too, a letter of the elder Marcus Cato to his son Marcus, in which he writes that he has heard that the youth has been discharged by the consul, when he was serving in Macedonia in the war with Perseus. He warns him, therefore, to be careful not to go into battle; for, he says, the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe.”This excess might suggest that Cicero sees honor as purely deontological. He is clearly not a Kantian, however; earlier he writes:
“Again, if under stress of circumstance individuals have made any promise to the enemy, they are bound to keep their word even then. For instance, in the First Punic War, when Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, he was sent to Rome on parole to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; he came and, in the first place, it was he that made the motion in the Sen ate that the prisoners should not be restored; and in the second place, when his relatives and friends would have kept him back, he chose to return to a death by torture rather than prove false to his promise, though given to an enemy.”
“Promises are, therefore, not to be kept, if the keeping of them is to prove harmful to those to whom you have made them; and, if the fulfilment of a promise should do more harm to you than good to him to whom you have made it, it is no violation of moral duty to give the greater good precedence over the lesser good. For example, if you have made an appointment with anyone to appear as his advocate in court, and if in the meantime your son should fall dangerously ill, it would be no breach of your moral duty to fail in what you agreed to do; nay, rather, he to whom your promise was given would have a false conception of duty if he should complain that he had been deserted in time of need”The apparent contradiction is resolved if we understand the need for communication, honesty, and the adherence to treaties in pursuit of a secure and just peace. For Cicero, a committed soldier does what is required to bring the war to a proper end. War demands the utmost character and is the ultimate embodiment of virtus.
When fighting a deadly enemy, war is about one thing: survival.
“But when a war is fought out for supremacy and when glory is the object of war, it must still not fail to start from the same motives which I said a moment ago were the only righteous grounds for going to war. But those wars which have glory for their end must be carried on with less bitterness. For we contend, for example, with a fellow-citizen in one way, if he is a personal enemy, in another, if he is a rival: with the rival it is a struggle for office and position, with the enemy for life and honour. So with the Celtiberians and the Cimbrians we fought as with deadly enemies, not to determine which should be supreme, but which should survive; but with the Latins, Sabines, Samnites, Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus we fought for supremacy. The Carthaginians violated treaties; Hannibal was cruel; the others were more merciful.”By the way, whatever happened to Carthage?