Peace in the Ancient World
Peace in the Ancient World
Abhorring War, Yearning for Peace : The Quest for Peace in the Ancient World 1
Kurt A. Raaflaub
The dramatic date of the Chinese film Hero ( Ying xiong ) is the end of the Warring State Period (403-221 BCE ), in which seven kingdoms fought ruthlessly for supremacy, causing massive slaughter and suffering for the population. 2 In the film, the king of Qin, determined to conquer all of China, has defeated most of his enemies. Over the years, however, he has been the target of many assassins. Three of these are still alive, Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Sky. To anyone who defeats these three, the king promises great rewards: power, riches, and a private audience with himself. For ten years no one comes close to claiming the prize. Then an enigmatic person, Nameless, appears in the palace, bearing the legendary weapons of the slain assassins. His story is extraordinary: for ten years he has studied the arts of the sword, before defeating the mighty Sky in a furious fight and destroying the famed duo of Snow and Broken Sword, using a weapon far more devastating than his sword-their love for each other.
The king, however, replies with a different story: of a conspiracy between the four, in which Nameless' victories were faked to enable him to come close to the king and kill him. Nameless indeed has a chance to achieve his goal. The king, exposed to his sword, tells him of his true aspiration: to conquer the warring states in order to overcome war and violence once and for all, to create a unified empire, and to establish lasting peace. Overcome by this vision, Nameless draws back his sword and walks out of the great hall-to die willingly under the arrows of the king's bowmen.
This is a powerful and beautiful film. Its message is exciting. It raises both hope and doubts: was there really an ancient ruler who pursued a true vision of peace-even if it could be realized only at the price of war and violence? Not unexpectedly, hopes prove illusionary. The film is based on a historical episode: the attempt of Jing Ke to assassinate the king of Qin in 227 BCE. But the film clearly does not intend merely to reconstruct history. The question of how to interpret it has raised intense debates; one interpretation sees it as an allegory for Mao Zedong and communism's unification of the world through global conquest, another, fueled by the Chinese government's approval, as advocating stability and security over human rights and liberty-although the film's director, Zhang Yimou, insisted that he did not pursue any political purpose. An any rate, the first emperor-he who displayed his army in a now world-famous terracotta replica near his necropolis-was no visionary of peace. Later Chinese historians did not even celebrate him as one of the greatest conquerors of all time, but rather castigated him as a cruel, arbitrary, impetuous, suspicious, and superstitious megalomaniac. 3
Experts on war in the ancient world are numerous, those on peace harder to find; the bibliographies differ accordingly. 4 The topic this chapter addresses is huge. My purpose is twofold: on the one hand, to offer a broad survey over the quest for peace in the ancient world and to stimulate discussion; 5 on the other hand, to argue, at least in a preliminary way, for a thesis that will be tested in the subsequent chapters of this volume. To lay the ground for this thesis, I begin by presenting five brief case studies.
Five Cases and a Thesis
The first case is perhaps unexpected in this volume. It concerns a society that is not usually considered "ancient," although it is certainly "early" and has roots that go back to ancient times. What I have in mind is the "Iroquois League," founded by five (later six) Native American Nations in the north-east of today's United Stat