Civil Wars: a history in ideas

Co-presented with the Laureate Research Program in International History and Nation Empire Globe at the University of Sydney

5 June, 2017

We think we know civil war when we see it. Yet ideas of what it is, and what it isn’t, have a long and contested history, from its fraught origins in republican Rome to debates in early modern Europe to our present day. Defining the term is acutely political, for ideas about what makes a war “civil” often depend on whether one is a ruler or a rebel, victor or vanquished, sufferer or outsider. Calling a conflict a civil war can shape its outcome by determining whether outside powers choose to get involved or stand aside: from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq, pivotal decisions have depended on such shifts of perspective.

The age of civil war in the West may be over, but elsewhere in the last two decades it has exploded–from the Balkans to Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and Sri Lanka, and most recently Syria. And the language of civil war has burgeoned as democratic politics has become more violently fought.

Professor David Armitage teaches intellectual history and international history at Harvard University. In his most recent book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, he offers a unique perspective on the roots and dynamics of civil war, and on its shaping force in our conflict-ridden world.

For Sydney Ideas, he joins panel of historians, lawyers and philosophers to grapple with this seemingly interminable problem.


  • Professor David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History, Harvard University
  • Associate Professor Maartje Abbenhuis, History, University of Auckland
  • Dr Eleanor Cowan, Lecturer in Roman History, University of Sydney
  • Professor Andrew Fitzmaurice, Professor of History, University of Sydney
  • Professor Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) University of Sydney
  • Professor Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law, Sydney Law School