Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern

26 July 2009


Revolution brutalizes at least as often as it liberates.

Revolution brutalizes at least as often as it liberates.

Our celebration of the birthday of Simón Bolívar day before yesterday, and our observation yesterday that revisionary democracy is inherently revolutionary, puts us in mind of revolution. I can’t say anything systematic about revolution in the space of a post in this forum, but I will make a few remarks nevertheless, however unsystematic.

Thucydides and Corcyra

Everything that you need to know about politics can by found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It stands among the greatest of the great books. There is a particularly moving chapter in Thucydides on the Revolution in Corcyra, where, as Thucydides explains, “Corcyra gave the first example of most of the crimes alluded to; of the reprisals exacted by the governed who had never experienced equitable treatment or indeed aught but insolence from their rulers — when their hour came; of the iniquitous resolves of those who desired to get rid of their accustomed poverty, and ardently coveted their neighbours’ goods; and lastly, of the savage and pitiless excesses into which men who had begun the struggle, not in a class but in a party spirit, were hurried by their ungovernable passions.” Thucydides continued:

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

Corcyra, for Thucydides, was the place at which the brutality of civil war first expressed itself in its unconditional form, but the escalation there provided the template for the rest of the Greek city-states, many of which did follow the model of Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides in a Byzantine Fresco

Thucydides in a Byzantine fresco

Another sentence reveals Thucydides brilliance and this methodological naturalism: “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.”

Peasant Rebellions

In the title of this post I referred to revolutions ancient, medieval, and modern, but I am going to fudge a little on medieval revolutions and instead focus of late medieval/early modern revolutions. There are, to be sure, important and intellectually interesting revolutions in the medieval period, despite the overwhelming bias toward stability built into medieval feudal society. For example, the “Guild Revolution” in Ghent in 1302 would be well worth consideration, as would Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in England in 1381, but I will pass over these for the meantime.

Peasants: the condition of the greater part of Western humanity for the greater part of our history.

Peasants: the condition of the greater part of Western humanity for the greater part of our history.

Also, for convenience I will here rely on secondary sources. In lecture 23 of Govind Sreennivasan’s Teaching Company course Europe and the Wars of Religion (1500-1700) he outlines the typical features of a peasant rebellion: triggered by the arrival of tax collectors or soldiers to be quartered, the locals gathered at the village inn, assaulted the property and the persons who triggered the event (who would be humiliated but not killed), after dissipating their fury against elite officialdom, the “rebellion” usual ended in “carnivalesque” celebration and a drunken stupor. Sreenivasan emphasizes the near-ritualistic character of these peasant revolts.


While the Sreenivasan is primarily concerned with the early modern period, and more specifically the Reformation and the religions wars that followed the Reformation, the condition of early modern peasants and medieval peasants would have been indistinguishable to the modern eye. Modernization, urbanization, and industrialization had not yet transformed the life of the mass of European peasants. Indeed, another Teaching Company course on Neolithic Europe (by Jeremy Adams) traces the condition of the European peasant continuously back into prehistory.

Peasant rebellions were part of the texture of medieval society, and in Sreenivasan’s account they changed little in the political lives of the people, even if the disruption they caused resulted in some de facto relief in taxation. The exceptions were the handful of great medieval rebellions, such as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion mentioned above, which we can assume were triggered by circumstances similar to those recounted above, but which also happened to coincide with short term causes and long term causes that magnified the triggering event into something unprecedented. Even these events changed little, as unprecedented peasant rebellions brought an unprecedented response from the elite classes, so that the larger rebellions were crushed with perhaps a greater degree of brutality than those rebellions that merely ended in drunkenness and dissipation.

Bolívar’s Final Revolutionary Testament

The modern period offers an embarras de richesse of revolutions. There is the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, and even the recent “color” revolutions in the central Asian states. But from this rich banquet of revolutions, we will consider the words of the serial revolutionary Simón Bolívar, whose birthday we celebrated a couple of days ago. Bolívar presided over a series of revolutions in South America that ultimately resulted in the end of Spanish political power and the expulsion of Spain from the continent.

Simón Bolívar, 24 July 1783 to 17 December 1830

Simón Bolívar, 24 July 1783 to 17 December 1830

While the revolutions in South America must be considered “successful” in at least one respect, i.e., the end of Spanish political domination, they left Bolívar with second thoughts. In a famous letter of 09 November 1830 written at Barranquilla to General Juan Jose Flores (and not long before his death), Bolívar expressed his bitter disappointment of the outcome of the many revolutions and independence struggles over which he had presided in Spanish America:

“I was in command for twenty years, and from them drew only a few certain conclusions: 1) America is ungovernable for us; 2) he who serves a revolution plows the sea; 3) the only thing that one can do in Spanish America is emigrate; 4) this country will inevitably fall into the hands of a rampaging mob and later into the hands of almost imperceptibly petty tyrants of all colors and races; 5) devoured by crime and destroyed by ferocity, the Europeans will not deign to conquer us; 6) if it were possible for part of the world to return to primordial chaos, this would be the final epoch of America.”

And in his original Spanish:

“1º) La América es ingobernable para nosotros. 2º) El que sirve una revolución ara en el mar. 3º) La única cosa que se puede hacer en América es emigrar. 4º) Este país caerá infaliblemente en manos de la multitud desenfrenada, para después pasar a tiranuelos casi imperceptibles, de todos colores y razas. 5º) devorados por todos los crímenes y extinguidos por la ferocidad, los europeos no se dignarán conquistarnos. 6º) Si fuera posible que una parte del mundo volviera al caos primitivo, éste sería el último periodo de la América.”

Lest we suggest that this was merely a cri de coeur of the dying Liberator, the letter is an admirably lucid document, even if bereft of hope, and in it Bolívar formulates the basic principle of inductive reasoning and offers this as his principle from which he derived these sad propositions: “Use the past to predict the future.”

Plowing the sea is a lot like pushing a stone up a hill only to have it inevitably roll down again for all eternity.

Plowing the sea is a lot like pushing a stone up a hill only to have it inevitably roll down again for all eternity.

The second item above, “He who serves a revolution plows the sea”, has come to be widely quoted. It is a despairing pronouncement for a revolutionary, and Bolívar was a revolutionary if he was anything. Like Thomas Paine, who made himself instrumental in both the American and French revolutions, Bolívar was what we might call a professional revolutionary. And the final statement of this professional revolutionary was that revolution is pointless, a Sisyphean task, and for us (after Camus), that means that revolution is absurd.

Revolutionary Fervor

In antiquity, Thucydides saw revolution as leading to escalation, radicalization, and eventually the brutalization of the entire Hellenic world. There is a sense in which we can say that the Peloponnesian War is the end of the innocence for classical antiquity as World War One proved to be the end of innocence for the modern age, which, up to that point, had been cultivating a belief in progress. The belief in progress, it has often been observed, is characteristic of the modern era. The ancient Greeks perhaps did not believe in progress, but they did preside over unique institutions in the ancient world, and they were conscious of their political uniqueness. Much of this uniqueness was brought to an end by the Peloponnesian War, after which Greece was at the mercy of conquering Macedonian and Roman armies.

In medieval peasant revolutions, we have seen that revolution was a social mechanism for relieving the pressures suffered by the lowest and least represented (and most numerous) social class. Here Revolution was like a Bacchanalian revel in which the peasants first vented their frustrations upon outsiders in their midst (for the local character of life was central to the peasant, and outsiders were almost invariably to be distrusted), and then employed their temporarily won freedom to drown their miseries in alcohol until regular troops arrived to put down the disorder. Yet there was a measure of brutalization present here as well, for the larger peasant rebellions inspired disproportionate force to be brought to bear in putting down such rebellions. The harshness of medieval life was harsher still in the aftermath of failed peasant uprisings.

For Bolívar in the modern age, revolution was a lifework and ultimately an apparently pointless lifework. To foment revolution is as pointless as to plow the sea. Bolívar and the men he inspired to revolution were “successful” in their aim, but their success left a bitter aftertaste. South America in the wake of its revolutions was not quite Hellas in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, but the high hopes of the modern era for a genuinely new social order to be inaugurated by the revolution were correspondingly disappointing to a similarly high degree.

Each of these reactions represents a certain kind of revolutionary fervor, but not what we usually understand by that term, which is employed to convey the sense of excitement that is felt in times of revolutionary change, and even in the “August Madness” of the beginning of the First World War. No, the revolutionary fervor we have discovered is radicalization, indulgence, and disappointment, all experienced as fervidly as the initial feelings that no doubt drove the revolution in its nascent stages.

Revolution thus appears by turns as permanently damaging to the social fabric, as a temporary deviation that allows for the maintenance of the social fabric, and as a fruitless exercise in which nothing has been gained, and the changes that have been effected bear little or no resemblance to the intended outcome. This has been the experience of revolution through most of Western history.

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2 Responses to “Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern”

  1. Marina said


    I am interested in the concept of revolution (in relationship with current events in Iran).
    I looked at your post and could not find any definition.
    Would you agree that revolution is a popular uprising, which brings somebody new to power by force, rather than by a normal, legitimate way?

    I was googling “revolution brings tyranny”, and you site came up on the top of the list.

  2. Kevin Mongo-Hampshire said

    Hi Marina,

    I can’t answer for the author of this piece, but I’m interested in your question. Here in New Hampshire, where the American Revolution began,* I think that perhaps 10% of the population was in support actively—which means it wasn’t altogether popular. Our state constitution contains Article X, the duty to revolt when government becomes oppressive and it becomes necessary to abolish it and start over!

    *check the Wiki on the Assault on Fort William and Mary, December, 1774 for details.

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