Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Myth of Violent Past

Siniša Malešević

Riot police by Ivan Bandura via Flickr.

We tend to see our predecessors as violent brutes. From the ancient Roman torture of slaves, to the burning of heretics at the stake in Medieval Europe, to the Aztec sacrificial extractions of beating human hearts, we envisage our past as being excessively cruel. This widespread perception is grounded in the available documentary records which depict human history as a never ending procession of wars, violet uprisings, mass killings and incessant torture. For example, one of the earliest archaeological artefacts – the ancient Narmer Palette (31 century BCE)  – shows the Egyptian King Narmer wielding a huge mace over a kneeling prisoner. Nevertheless, such pervasive images of violence should not be taken at face value as their purpose was not to record the actual events but to invoke fear, reverence and obedience.

Why has organised violence increased throughout the course of human history?

By deliberately inflating the number of war casualties and displaying elaborate torture techniques, the ancients aimed to compensate for the lack of organisational and ideological capacity to fully control their territories and populations. Although violence was part of social and political life, its scale and scope were wildly exaggerated. With the onset of Renaissance humanism in 15th and 16th centuries and the Enlightenment in the 18th century, this ancient rhetorical obsession with violence was deployed to firmly establish the view that the pre-modern world (together with the European colonial possessions) was barbarous and inherently ferocious.

However when one moves away from this Enlightenment propaganda that still permeates much of our view of the past it becomes clearer that rather than dissipating, violence has largely expanded with social development. In my book The Rise of Organised Brutality: A Historical Sociology of Violence I aim to show how and why has organised violence increased throughout the course of human history. In contrast to highly popular neo-Darwinian accounts which see violence as a biological propensity I argue that violent action is largely determined by ever increasing organisational capacities, deeper ideological penetration and the ways in which these two link with the universal human tendency to seek emotional comfort and solidarity in very small groups. The best available archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that early humans shunned violent encounters and the violence proliferates with the development of state, military and other social organisations. The fact that the traditional rulers occasionally relied on excessive torture and merciless displays of aggression reflected their weakness; not strength, as they lacked organisational capacity to kill huge numbers of individuals.

In contrast, the modern social organisations possess vast coercive means, as well as the ideological legitimacy to obliterate huge number of people as witnessed in the wars or genocides of the 20th century. With the growing organisational capacity and state’s coercive and ideological penetration into society modern orders were able to reduce the levels of inter-personal violence (i.e. homicides). However, the same process has been used to mobilise millions of individuals for organised violence – from wars and genocides to revolutions and terrorism. With the ever growing organisational and ideological structures that are capable of tapping into the personalised networks of kinship and friendships, organised violence has continued to increase.

About The Author

Siniša Malešević

Siniša Malešević is a Professor of Sociology at University College Dublin. His books include Nation-States and Nationalisms: Organisation, Ideology and Solidarity (2013), The So...

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