Unpacking Civil Wars: A Proposal in Terminology

A bust of Gaius Julius Caesar, Rome’s most famous civil warrior

I recently had the mixed pleasure of reading David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (reviewed last week here on Concerning History). While I enjoyed certain, ironically more modern, sections, I was endlessly frustrated by Armitage’s refusal to provide a definition of civil war, even a personal one to refine his own material. His assertion that civil war somehow ‘began’ with the Romans only makes sense in terms of the idea of some kind of conflict different and more terrible than others; countless civil wars are attested to in antiquity before Rome’s own. At first, I resisted any kind of specific definition. If war is what happens when two powers find themselves unable to attain their goals through compromise and resort to force (my own paraphrase of the famous line from Clausewitz), then a civil war is when the same happens within a state. The more I reflected and silently argued, however, the more I realized there may indeed be a way to further classify the term.

Defining civil war at all may be a Quixotic endeavor. In modern parlance, ‘civil war’ can be used to refer to any internal conflict among any group, whether formal nation or ethnic identity. A common usage I’ve come across in my own field is the reminder that so-and-so struggle for independence from colonial rule ‘wasn’t just a rebellion but a civil war.’ There is also the problem of subjectivity. Armitage himself notes that politicians and historians have a tendency to brand successful uprisings ‘revolutions;’ their unsuccessful counterparts become ‘civil wars.’ Finally, there are the functional geopolitical definitions required for considerations of modern diplomacy, relying on a minimum number of deaths and strength of insurgents before a conflict can become ‘civil war’ and open to foreign intervention.

What follows is my own proposed definition of civil war. To engage in such an attempt, however, requires defining a number of other related terms for clarity and precision. In this effort, I have dispensed with any kind of value judgement or reliance on the outcome of a conflict. Neither have I included any quantitative criteria; I do not intend for these definitions to be used in a real international setting (and frankly, the ones imposed by the United Nations or US Army seem patently ridiculous as such). Rather, I hope the following can serve as useful signposts for historical inquiry into this complicated terrain.


Revolution – A term surrounded by nearly as much confusion as civil war, revolution is in fact the easiest of these to define. A revolution is any rising against the authority of the state in an attempt to implement a different kind of government for that state, and that rising need not be violent (though it often is). The American Revolution implemented a republic in place of constitutional monarchy; the French Revolution did the same with absolute monarchy. The American Civil War cannot be considered a revolution, as the Confederacy was basically copy-pasting the United States Constitution with a few edits to protect slavery, while England’s Glorious Revolution could count if you charitably say that Parliament was officially confirming constitutional monarchy. A revolution is not dependent on success; the European revolutions of 1848 certainly tried to implement change, even if they were crushed.

Civil War – Civil war comes from the Latin cives, for citizen, and, as Armitage explains, was coined to refer to near-unthinkable organized armed conflict between the community of Roman citizens (so quit it with all the ‘civil war is far from civil’ adages). While it would be ridiculous to confine official civil wars to only those polities with a developed sense of citizenship or analogous political community, this formed the launching point for my own definition. Civil War is organized armed conflict that occurs when the mechanisms of how a political body is supposed to govern fail. This results in multiple parties simultaneously claiming sovereignty (not necessarily wrongly) within one state. This actually falls very close to my original concept of civil war. In certain cases, if one of those factions institutes a new style of government upon their victory, a civil war can also be a revolution. The Roman Republican civil wars were the result of the state’s rules being unable to restrain the power and ambition of certain individuals. The English Civil War sprung from Charles II’s determination to illegally rule without Parliament, and the institution of the Commonwealth of England makes it a revolution as well. The American Civil War was caused by the refusal of the Southern states to honor a free and fair election. This leaves somewhat of a grey zone for wars of succession, like those that wracked the later Roman Empire with regularity. If monarchy/hereditary absolutism as a system is supposed to flow smoothly down the ruler’s bloodline, then a break in that succession or an attempt to supplant it could be considered civil war. If not, ‘wars of succession’ would warrant their own category in this list. I’m inclined toward the former (as you can see from wars of succession not having a place on this list).

Rebellion/Revolt – The final terms in this list, rebellions and revolts are probably the most nebulous terms here, but we can now define them in opposition to what has come before. Rebellions and revolts (and for me, they are interchangeable) are any violent uprisings against the government of a state that do not seek to change that government nor are rooted in the fundamental breakdown of that government. These risings are most likely the result of systemic oppression; peasant revolts and rebellions of conquered peoples are two of the more common examples of this category.


So there you have it. My own lexicon of internecine conflict, as it were. Hopefully it can serve to lend a machete to the topic’s intellectual thicket. Certainly, it should cause some debate, as any historical classification worth its salt should do. I welcome any comments you might have, and maybe together, we can even refine what I’ve written here to take into account what I have invariably overlooked in my own musings.

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