War and Religion: Europe and the Mediterranean from the First through the Twenty-first Centuries

War and Religion: Europe and the Mediterranean from the First through the Twenty-first Centuries

by Arnaud Blin

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The resurgence of violent terrorist organizations claiming to act in the name of God has rekindled dramatic public debate about the connection between violence and religion and its history.
Offering a panoramic view of the tangled history of war and religion throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, War and Religion takes a hard look at the tumultuous history of war in its relationship to religion. Arnaud Blin examines how this relationship began through the concurrent emergence of the Mediterranean empires and the great monotheistic faiths. Moving through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and into the modern era, Blin concludes with why the link between violence and religion endures. For each time period, Blin shows how religion not only fueled a great number of conflicts but also defined the manner in which wars were conducted and fought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286634
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Arnaud Blin is a French-American historian and biographer. His works are widely translated, and he is the author, coauthor, or editor of many on the history of conflict, including The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS. Blin is a Research Associate with the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (Paris). He lives in upstate New York.


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The Rise of the Monotheistic Religions

It is the world religions which provoke the greatest historical crises. They know from the outset that they are world religions, and intend to be world religions.

— Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History

War and religion clearly predate the emergence of the Abrahamic faiths, but the history of wars in the name of religion only really started to take shape progressively during the first centuries of the first millennium, reaching a threshold in the seventh century with a clash of religions that lasted several hundred years. And while religious-political violence in the Middle East and the greater Mediterranean region involved four religions, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, the main enduring religious conflicts involved the latter two. Judaism, which lacked the universalistic message that characterized the other monotheistic religions and concerned a minority with little political power, was itself a marginal player in this game, even though Jewish minorities, particularly in the Christian West, became a recurrent target of religiously motivated political violence. Zoroastrianism, the state religion of Persia until the seventh century, was all but obliterated as a political force when the Sassanian monarchy was overrun by the Arab armies in 636–42 CE. At the center of it all, the Roman Empire, after quashing Jewish resistance in Judea in the first century, reinvented itself in the third century by adopting Christianity as its state religion. Later, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the long, exhausting struggle between the Christian Byzantines, heirs of the Romans, and the Zoroastrian Sassanians paved the way for the Muslim Arab armies of Muhammad, which crushed the former and obliterated the latter. Unlike the Sassanians, the Byzantines survived the Arab onslaught, however, and by doing so, provided western Europe with a protection that enabled it to rise from the ashes. Like the Byzantines before them, western Europeans reinvented themselves by creating a foundational myth based on the Christian faith and the legacy of the Roman Empire, a combination that gave rise to the notion of Christendom. By the end of the millennium, the stage was set for the clash of civilizations that would ensue in the first century of the second millennium.


For three essential reasons, Judaism holds a special place in the history of religion and violence. The first is theological: as a centerpiece of the Christian canon, the Old Testament, based on the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, places the plight of the Jewish people at the core of Christian teachings. The second reason, related to the first, centers on the ambiguous relationship between Christians and Jews, who form an integral part of the Christian religion despite having been the first to reject it, a position that for two thousand years now has generated some positive sentiments from Christians, as well as very negative ones. The third reason pertains to the peculiar makeup of Judaism, which ties a religion to a people, which has confined Jews to a precarious existence in what has, for the most part, been a very hostile environment. By dispossessing the Jews of their land, the Romans not only deprived them of part of their identity, but they also took away their geographical and political territory, reducing them, until 1948, to a scattered minority with few or no political and legal rights, except those obtained after 1789 as a consequence of the French Revolution (1790 for French Sephardic Jews; 1791 for all French Jews). This position placed the Jews on the receiving end of political violence, often as scapegoats, with little power to weigh on events, either great or small, other than through indirect channels. Still, against all these odds, individual Jews were often perceived as instigating wars, most notably when these wars involved both Christians and Muslims.

The event that determined for centuries to come the fate of the Jewish people was the war that pitted Rome against the Jews in Judea (which, as a Roman province, was much larger than the eponymous region and was subsequently reconfigured as Syria Palaestina by Emperor Hadrian in the second century). The Jewish Wars, as they were termed by the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, were, from the Roman perspective, a political conflict and, from the perspective of the Jews, a struggle to defend their land and their faith. The war was motivated by the logic of imperial hegemony, but, for the Jews, inasmuch as their homeland was considered a part of their religious identity, the defense of their people and their territory took on the character of a defensive holy war. As noted by Adrian Goldsworthy: "The Jews had a sense of identity which long predated the arrival of Alexander the Great, let alone the Roman Empire. Their faith bonded them and reinforced their sense of nationhood, while providing examples of miraculous victories over stronger enemies and escape from slavery. Jewish ritual made it harder for them to be absorbed into the Roman system."

The so-called Sicarii, who constituted themselves as the avant-garde of the liberation movement that logically developed with the escalating tensions, effectively became the first known movement to practice terrorism on a grand scale, introducing techniques that would become the staple of many a rebel group throughout history.

The history of the Jewish people is the story of a community seeking to survive successive waves of imperial domination while creating a unique identity that enabled it to uphold the principles it sought to establish for itself under extreme duress. In this sense, the Hebrew Scriptures constitute, among other things, an inquiry into political philosophy that raises the same questions later grappled with by many thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, the ancient Indian political strategist Kautilya (d. 283 BCE), Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. In essence, the quest of the Jewish people is similar to that of the political philosophers of the Enlightenment: the establishment of a social contract that upholds and guarantees the power of a legitimate authority whose purpose it is to ensure that each member of the group is equal before God or society. The glue that sealed this contract was the central idea that this people had a unique destiny mandated by God, and that this destiny was tied to a territory, the Promised Land.

The history of the Jews in the Alexandrian and Roman centuries is scarred by oppression, revolt, and suppression. There are striking similarities with the liberation movements that sprang up in the twentieth century during the period of decolonization, most of which combined a strong national identity with an equally robust ideological — usually Marxist-Leninist/Maoist — agenda. The reaction of the forces of occupation and the political techniques used to suppress the revolts at the time were analogous to those employed by the modern colonial powers, though these did not on the whole match the brutality of the Romans, who engaged in mass crucifixion. Despite the similarities, the confrontation between the Jews and their oppressors yielded opposite results, most probably because neither the Hellenistic monarchs nor Rome had to concede to a reluctant public opinion that might have had both the inclination and the power to question the brutality of the methods employed and thus restrain their use and effect. Be that as it may, the Jewish revolutionaries of the first century established strategies and tactics that prefigured those adopted by liberation movements throughout history. These strategies focused on gaining popular support, and they favored an indirect approach that combined guerrilla tactics in rural areas and terrorism in urban zones. Those who were at the receiving end, starting with the Roman authorities, did what governments have always done when faced with an insurgency: characterize the opponent as politically illegitimate, to be treated as a criminal rather than a military adversary. Then as now, the confrontation between rebel and oppressor was essentially a psychological conflict, each side pointing to the illegitimacy of the enemy's standing, objectives and actions.

The Jews initiated four significant revolts between the second century BCE and the second century CE, the last three against the Romans. The first rebellion, the Hasmonean Revolt against the Greek Seleucids, occurred in 167–60 BCE. The aptly named Great Revolt (66 CE–73 CE) was the most dramatic. It was to be followed several decades later by the Rebellion of the Diaspora, or Kitos War (115–77 CE), and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–36 CE). During this period of extraordinary turmoil, through the influence of the Pharisees, the orthodoxy that was to stamp Judaism for centuries emerged and the radical movement that was to become Christianity surfaced. Caught between the two responses, various movements and groups coexisted, including radical ones such as the Zealots and Sicarii. Both (early) Christianity and Judaic orthodoxy turned away from the violence advocated by radical groups such as the Zealots and the Sicarii (the term "Zealots" may in fact refer to two different movements — the Sicarii and an altogether separate group, perhaps based in the countryside, rather than being urban, that formed late in the war). Whatever the link, the Zealots/Sicarii made their mark early as urban guerrillas who made extensive usage of terror tactics, mostly in Jerusalem. Much like modern and contemporary terrorist groups, their strategy and tactics drew much criticism from other resistance movements. The Zealots/Sicarii and similar contemporary groups constitute the first known movements to have practiced bottom-up terror tactics on a grand scale.

The history of Jewish resistance to Rome is well known, owing to Flavius Josephus's detailed account of the clash, although the scarcity of other sources poses problems. Josephus himself was a Jew who sided with the Romans after fruitlessly leading a resistance movement. In his preface to the French edition of The Jewish War, the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet wrote a poignant and penetrating analysis of Josephus's choices and his legacy: Vidal-Naquet's explicit title, "Of the Good Use of Treason," underscores Josephus's role as a player in the history he was writing. In a question going to the very root of the subject of the present book, VidalNaquet asks, "Was the Jewish War a religious conflict?"

There is no denying that the Zealot/Sicarii movement was religious through and through. Its ideology, as formulated by Judas of Galilee (who came to be known with the Roman census around 6 CE) stated that Judea had but one ruler, God, and that He would only side with those willing to seize their own freedom. Purification of the faith was high among the Zealots' priorities, as with all such radical fundamentalist movements. God was portrayed as intrinsically bellicose, as the "man of war" described by Exodus (15: 3). During the six decades separating the census from the Revolt of 66, the Zealots restricted themselves to guerrilla, including urban guerrilla, warfare, which they organized from their base in Galilee.

The Jewish Revolt, or Great Revolt, started in the spring of 66 CE in the coastal town of Caesarea, a Greek city with a large Jewish population ruled by the Romans. As Josephus tells it, the rebellion was triggered by a small incident involving the Greek owner of a parcel adjacent to a synagogue who decided, to spite his neighbors, to construct a large unsightly building right next to the temple. The Roman governor, after accepting a large sum of money (eight talents) from the congregation in exchange for the promise to stop construction of the contentious building, left the city, taking the money with him, without ever fulfilling his contractual obligation. The very next day, to add insult to injury, a local man decided to sacrifice birds in front of the synagogue on the day of Shabbat. Angered by the repeated affronts and sacrilegious taunting, the Jewish community responded violently. Thus began the Great Revolt. And as Vidal-Naquet says, "There, in Caesarea, also began the Diaspora."

Decades of resentments dating back to Herod the Great fueled the outrage and its tremendous explosive charge. Herod the Great, whose name has survived through his portrayal in the New Testament as the perpetrator of the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2: 16–18), was a key player in Middle Eastern politics during a period of great upheaval for the Roman Republic. Herod was a practicing Jew. His father, Antipater, himself of powerful figure, had laid the ground work for an amicable relationship with Rome when he gave his support to Pompey when he invaded Judea. This earned Antipater Roman citizenship, which he transmitted to Herod. When Antipater was named procurator of Judea (47 BCE), he gave the governorship of Galilee to his son who, after being forced to flee the area, came back in full force with the backing Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, to become the uncontested king of Judea (37 BCE). The struggle for power from which Herod had emerged victorious had been a brutal affair for everyone, starting with the Judean populations caught in the midst of it.

Herod's main rival, Antigonus the Hasmonean, had garnered the support of the Parthians, Rome's major adversary, in the struggle for supremacy around the Mediterranean. That region, now called the Near East, was of premiere geopolitical importance in the context of the superpower rivalry that opposed an emerging Roman empire and a reemerging Persian empire, the Parthians having disposed of what was left of the Greek Seleucid Empire. This rivalry was the dominant political and military fact of Mediterranean international relations for centuries. The history of Jewish–Roman relations can only be understood in light of it, and Herod was instrumental in setting that relationship on a new course.

Herod would rule his kingdom with an iron fist for thirty-two years, thus providing a much needed source of stability in a time of turmoil, but all the while nourishing the deep popular resentment that would fuel the revolt against the Romans after his death. After divorcing his wife, he married a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne, thereby affirming his ties with the Jewish community. Much like Josephus, the historian who would tell his tale, Herod was a Jew who played into the enemy's hand. The Gospel of Matthew's account of his killing of children in Bethlehem because, as potential rivals to his throne, they threatened his legitimacy, suggests that his legitimacy as a Jewish king may have been questioned, though the episode has not been corroborated elsewhere.

From Herod on, the accumulation of resentments that eventually provoked the outrage over the Caesarea incident coalesced into a positive effort to regain freedom and dignity for the Jewish people, who formed a united front against the Romans until it was quashed by the brutal Roman counteroffensive under Nero's general Vespasian. Initially, the battle-hardened Zealots/Sicarii managed to take control of the Temple Mount and the citadel of Masada, and they successfully ambushed a Roman army at Beth-Horon, killing its commander, Gallusin. When the Romans, under the command of Vespasian's son, Titus (Vespasian had been proclaimed emperor in 69 CE), laid siege to Jerusalem, after having ravaged Galilee, dissensions occurred between radical and moderate factions in the city, which are the central issue of Josephus's history. After the seven-month stand at Masada that ended in 73 CE, the Romans obliterated what remained of the Zealot/Sicarii movement, tracking down all those who might claim direct filiation to King David, the Zealot's model king, or to Hezekiah, the Pharisee leader, executed in 47 BCE, who had started the dissident movement. One important consequence of the defeat was the redirecting of the religious nucleus of Judaism away from the high priest and the (destroyed) Temple and toward the decentralized regime revolving around rabbis, synagogues, and the Torah that became rabbinic Judaism. This radical shift was not unlike that of the Protestant Reformation, which would likewise steer away from Rome and the pope in favor of local ministers, congregational churches, and Bible study.

As described by Josephus, the Sicarii were the first religious group of note to accept violence, even extreme violence, as a means to achieve their ends, in their case to repel Roman imperialism. Others would follow: the redoubtable Hashashins, or Assassins (also known as the Nizarites), an offshoot of the Ismailis, the Indian Thugs or Thuggees (whose political objectives, if they had any, are unclear), and, in the Christian world, the combatant religious orders of the Knights Templar, Teutonic Knights, Hospitallers, and Knights of the Order of Saint James of the Sword (Order of Santiago), which benefited from the religious and political legitimacy granted them by the pope.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The Rise of the Monotheistic Religions
2. Christianity Becomes a State Religion
3. The Emergence of Islam
4. Toward a Clash of Civilizations
5. The Middle Eastern Crusades
6. The Crusading Spirit Lives On
7. From Holy War to All-Out Religious War
8. In the Name of God: Religious Warfare in Europe, 1524–1700
9. Religious Violence in a Secular World
Epilogue: Of Gods and Men

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