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Understanding violence

How the past can help explain the present

Following the assault of the Capitol Building in Washington DC last week, comparisons with past events have been made that are generally facile and fruitless. Instead, we should seek to explain how violence worked in the past to understand and change the present.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Last week, January 6th, the United States’ Capitol Building in Washington DC was briefly overrun by a violent mob of terrorists, who had been egged on by the deranged white supremacist who has occupied the White House for the past four years. The president, with the help of his craven cronies and the complicit right-wing media, has spent the past four years fuelling the rage of a particularly volatile segment of American society.

To understand what happened, we need to understand how violence functions in society. Sociologists distinguish between three different forms of violence (Galtung 2013). The most obvious form is direct violence, in which one party deliberately inflicts physical harm upon another. We saw this last week when several people were hurt and, in a number of cases including one member of the Capitol Police, killed during the seditious riots in Washington.

Why did these people turn violent? I wrote earlier that the president had been egging them on. But this is simplistic. If I were to tell you, out of the blue, to go out and hurt someone, you are unlikely to listen to me. But the situation is different if there is some context or some perceived justification – however misguided it may seem – for the violence that I ask you to perpetrate. That justification is provided by what sociologist Johan Galtung refers to as “cultural violence”.

Cultural violence refers to those elements of a culture that are used to legitimize violence. What the president and his accomplices have done over the course of at least four years (if not longer if one considers the trajectory of the American Republican Party since at least 2009, when the Tea Party movement came into being), was to foster a climate that paved the way for eruptions of direct violence aimed at the president’s perceived enemies.


Cultural violence is not used only to justify direct violence, but also what Galtung refers to as structural violence (see also Weigert 2010). Structural violence – also referred to as indirect or institutionalized violence – refers to the harming of human beings due to systemic injustices. In this concept, there is no single “actor” that inflicts direct, physical harm on someone else; it is much more insidious.

Examples of structural violence include the disparities in wealth that may cause the poor to live shorter, harsher lives compared to the rich. Structural violence is, in other words, a form of social injustice. The recent Black Lives Matters protests are just one attempt to change the structural violence aimed at Black people that is woven into the very fabric of many modern societies.

What we witnessed last week was a moment in which the mob who felt threatened by changes to the structural violence that has so far largely benefited them, believed themselves justified by the parameters of the cultural violence that the president and his accomplices had established, to inflict direct violence upon the people and physical structures that form the heart of the American political system. And make no mistake about it: they will continue to fear any changes that may upset the status quo.

The events from last Wednesday have drawn historical comparisons, most especially to Caesar crossing the Rubicon. This was fuelled by the hashtag #CrossTheRubicon, as explained in this BBC News article. The hashtag was trending on Twitter, with its proponents suggesting that the president mobilize the military to “restore the Republic”. But this ignores the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon to destroy the Roman Republic and establish an autocracy. Of course, the people who used the hashtag didn’t want to restore anything: all they wanted was to overturn the results of a democratic election.

Others, both on Twitter and elsewhere, have tried to compare the Capitol Building riot with other events, such as the crisis at the end of the Roman Republic or indeed the fall of Rome, in which the United States is apparently regarded as the modern equivalent of either the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire. The president himself has been compared to the Roman emperor Nero, but instead of playing the fiddle while his city burnt, he was watching the events unfold on television.

However, comparing modern events and people to specific events and figures of the distant past is an exercise that is doomed to failure. La Repubblica is probably more justified in comparing the events in Washington with Mussolini’s fascist march on Rome, which happened relatively recently, in October of 1922, but even then it’s obviously not an exact match.

Modern events cannot be usefully compared to specific events in another place and time – such comparisons ultimately tend to be superficial. There are simply too many variables to take into account. For example, any comparison drawn with ancient Rome ignores the fact that the socio-economic structures of the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire were entirely different from modern ones, let alone that Rome in the first century BC was very different from what existed in the fifth century AD.

The old canard that “history repeats itself” is almost next to useless as a workable framework for actually understanding why sometimes certain processes are perceived to be familiar. The past can provide insights, but not by making superficial comparisons and suggesting that because two things kind of look alike, they are therefore the same. We need to dig deeper, to focus on structures and processes.


Examining the past can provide insights, not by making direct comparisons, but by seeking to explain why something happened, or why something functioned in a particular way in the past. This is one of the reasons why violence played – and continues to play – a central role in my own research. My PhD dissertation focused on warfare in Early Greece, from the Late Bronze Age to the end of the Persian Wars.

The direct goal of my PhD research was to gain an understanding of the role played in Early Greece by warfare – in the broadest sense, that is: direct, structural, and cultural forms of violence (although I hadn’t yet adopted this tripartite sociological terminology). I picked Greece because I love the country and its rich history, and also because it was remote: a place removed from my own contemporary existence in both time and space. This distance helps one to examine something from the outside (an etic perspective), even if the ultimate goal is to understand it from within (an emic perspective).

An indirect goal of my research was that I wanted to understand why people would resort to violence. Why not simply talk things out? Humans are capable of speech and reason, so why would anyone resort to inflicting physical harm on anyone else? In a podcast interview I did not too long after completing my research I first answered that question by way of a joke: “People are stupid.” But the real answer is, of course, not that straightforward. (Which is not to deny that many people are indeed stupid.)

Cultural violence plays a central role in making direct violence seem justified. In my PhD thesis, I pointed out how violence was integral to Early Greek society. In figurative art that depicts human beings, hunting and warfare are common themes. Even when only animals are involved they often feature predators (e.g. lions) or prey animals (e.g. deer) or a combination of the two.

Archaeologically, some members of Early Greek society were accompanied with the accoutrements of war (e.g. swords, spears, armour) when they were laid to rest in graves, and a great number of weapons and armour were dedicated at the major sanctuaries, most notably Olympia. In texts, violence also plays an important role, and my work here was heavily influenced by that of Hans van Wees, whose 1992 PhD thesis had the telling title Status Warriors: War, Violence and Society in Homer and History.

In Early Greece, structural violence ensured that only a minority of the population – a wealthy elite – was able to govern the rest of the population. This elite fostered an image of themselves as powerful warriors – of “strong men” who would fight to defend the community against aggressors (direct violence). Their status was commonly accepted thanks to the cultural violence that permeated Early Greek society, reinforced by, for example, stories of the Trojan War in which powerful leaders fight courageously against the enemy.


Then as now, cultural violence has a distinctly dark side. Cultural violence was used in Early Greece to justify disparities between social classes with regards to power and – by extension – wealth. It was used to justify why there were masters and slaves, rich people and poor people, people with a say in politics and those without. Cultural violence was used to repress women, and one of the most despicable aspects of Early Greek violence is that women captured in war could be raped and enslaved.

Understanding how violence functioned and even flourished in the past can help us better understand how pervasive violence continues to be in our modern world. Words matter. Not just the words that are Tweeted out by an American president, but also the idea that political leaders need to be “strong”, and especially: to project strength in speech and manner. The president of the United States is, after all, the Commander in Chief of the US military, and often referred to even outside of a clear military context as the “commander-in-chief”, a term that must certainly have appealed to the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, “lord of men”.

Warlike expressions also permeate everyday conversations, such as the deplorable usage that regards people suffering from disease as engaged in a “battle” against it: when someone dies from cancer, they haven’t “lost the battle”. They were “actees”, that is, acted upon; they didn’t decide to peep their head out of the foxhole at an inopportune time. However, using such warlike language ensures that violence remains central to our everyday life, and to be honest: we could do with some more peace and love.

Rather than make facile comparisons between current events and particular events that happened in the (distant) past, we should look more broadly at the systemic injustices of the past and ask ourselves how these are different from the injustice we see today, and how can we do better? In other words, we need to use our knowledge of the past to improve the present and lay the groundwork for a better future.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • George Fink (ed.), Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster (2010).
  • Johan Galtung, “Violence, peace and peace research”, Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969), pp. 167-191.
  • Johan Galtung, “Cultural violence”, Journal of Peace Research 27 (1990), pp. 291-305.
  • Johan Galtung, “Violence: direct, structural, and cultural”, in: Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer, Johan Galtung: Pioneer of Peace Research (2013), pp.35-40.
  • Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (2nd edition, 2012).
  • Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009).
  • Annick T.R. Wibben and Jennifer Turpin, “Women and war”, in: Fink 2010, pp. 358-370.
  • Kathleen M. Weigert, “Structural violence”, in: Fink 2010, pp. 126-133.

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