Why Do We Want Ceasefires?

A 7th-Century Roman-Arab Conflict Shows the Power of Enduring Peace Treaties Over Temporary Truces

In Ancient Roman wars, historian Edward Watts writes, temporary truces accomplished little—what really worked to keep peace were meaningful treaties. A 13th-century drawing, featuring Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun sending an envoy to Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Why do we want a ceasefire?

This question is in the news as a result of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, but the question is actually ancient. It reminds me, a historian of ancient Rome, of the 7th-century emperor Justinian II, and of some very old but still relevant concerns about whether ceasefires are worth pursuing.

Romans and others in the ancient world distinguished between a peace treaty and a truce, what we now call a ceasefire. Truces paused fighting, often for a specified period of time and sometimes following concessions by one of the combatants. A truce did not, by itself, end a Roman war. Either side could begin fighting again once it expired.

Peace treaties, or often simply a “peace” in 7th-century Roman parlance, ended hostilities by establishing formal terms that both sides agreed to uphold and conditions that legally prevented war from being renewed without cause. When Rome made formal peace with an adversary, both Romans and their negotiating partners assumed the terms were binding.

In 562, the historian Menander the Guardsman wrote that a Roman envoy arrived to negotiate a peace treaty and began the meeting by saying simply: “The peace treaty will be made with the Romans. It is enough to say Romans because the name tells it all.” And, when the agreement was made, the Roman ruler sent “letters, called sacred in Latin,” agreeing to “adhere to the peace and its terms.”

This was not empty rhetoric. Over the preceding 1000 years, Romans had agreed that peace treaties could only be voided in unusual circumstances—unless, of course, the other side broke the treaty first.

By the early 680s—the time of the aforementioned Justinian II—Rome had been fighting the Arabs nearly non-stop for six decades. When their armies met, Rome usually lost. the Roman Empire, which in the 630s controlled the entire coast of the Eastern Mediterranean and much of coastal North Africa, had lost all of its territory south of the mountains of Asia Minor and east of central Libya. Rome also lacked the capacity to protect much of the land it still controlled. Arab naval raids and cross border attacks had depopulated Roman territory, causing tens of thousands of internally displaced Roman refugees to flee for safety in the cities of interior Asia Minor.

While it is vital to stop warring groups from killing each other, the manner in which the fighting stops matters a great deal.

The dynamic between the Roman and Arab empires changed in the 680s. Three events—a rare and successful Roman offensive; political upheaval in the caliphate that temporarily pitted Abd al-Malik’s faction, based in Damascus, against rivals in Arabia and Persia; and the armed resistance of the Mardaites (a Christian group in Syria and Lebanon)—led the Arabs to agree to a peace treaty with the Romans.

The agreement, formalized in 688 and 689, forced both sides to abandon their most optimistic war ambitions. Rome would not recover Syria or other lost lands in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabs would not seize the Roman capital of Constantinople. The treaty also required both sides to surrender some of the strategic assets that had helped them in the just-concluded conflict.

The Arab empire was larger and wealthier, so the caliph agreed to pay Rome the significant subsidy of 1,000 gold coins a day. The Romans agreed to allow the Mardaites to move from Arab to Roman territory so the Arabs no longer had to contend with a rebellion on their side of the frontier. The two empires also agreed to share the tax revenue collected from the island of Cyprus equally.

In essence, the treaty represented a win-win. In exchange for abandoning unrealistic war goals, the Romans became richer, the Arabs consolidated control of the Lebanese and Syrian highlands, and the revenue sharing in Cyprus gave both empires incentives to keep the peace going forward.

The peace between Rome and Abd al-Malik was also good for displaced people, who began to return to the no-man’s land along the frontier and the devastated coastal Roman cities that had been depopulated by the Roman-Arab fighting. At least 12,000 Mardaites took up residence in Roman territory emptied by violence. Justinian II also settled upwards of 30,000 Slavic captives on empty lands in Western Asia Minor and tried to arrange for Cypriot migrants to repopulate the city of Cyzicus, which had been devastated following its use by the Arabs as a base to assault Constantinople in the 670s.

In the year 692, Justinian II confronted the forces of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik on a battlefield close to the city of Sebastopolis, a location somewhere near the modern border between Turkey and Syria. Because of the ethical and practical differences between a peace treaty and a truce, however, Abd al-Malik’s generals reminded the Romans that they had a legal and sacred obligation to uphold the peace of 688-9 before the armies joined battle. Nicephorus, an early 9th-century patriarch of Constantinople, wrote that the Arabs approached the Roman army and announced “that they had upheld the pledges of [the] peace treaty but, if the Romans wished to break them, it would be God’s right to judge their guilt.”

When Roman commanders seemed unmoved by their words, the Arabs “affixed the written peace treaty to a tall standard [in place of a flag] and ordered it to be carried forward. They advanced against the Romans, who turned to flight.” Thousands of Slavic soldiers drawn from the people Justinian had settled in Asia Minor then defected. The battle ended with an overwhelming Arab victory.

Nicephorus tells the story in this way because he believed that Justinian broke both secular and sacred law when he treated Rome’s peace with the Arabs as if it were simply a truce. The Roman violation of the peace treaty endangered the fragile recovery and repopulation of borderland areas. It also forced many Romans to return to a battle they did not want to wage. Romans were willing to fight hard to defend their lands and families in wars of necessity or in response to Arab attacks. The flight and defections of Roman forces at Sebastopolis, however, show that Justinian’s troops were much less willing to participate in a war of aggression against those same Arabs.

The events that took place on this distant battlefield more than 1300 years ago should underline this forgotten truth: While it is vital to stop warring groups from killing each other, the manner in which the fighting stops matters a great deal.

Media, protestors, and governments around the world have responded to conflicts raging across Europe, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Asia by calling repeatedly for ceasefires. But ceasefires in our world are the same as truces in the Roman world. Unless peace negotiations immediately follow, they represent nothing more than a pause in fighting that combatants will use to re-organize, recuperate, re-arm, and resume fighting. If both sides do not treat them as the precursors to a peace agreement, ceasefires resolve nothing. In the worst cases, they simply ensure that even more people will die in conflicts that ceasefires ultimately prolong.

What most people calling for a ceasefire really want are enduring peace treaties that bind both parties in a relationship that makes a resumption of hostilities less likely—by forcing combatants to disavow unrealistic war aims, offsetting some of the strategic advantages each side enjoyed in the previous conflict, and establishing collaborations that benefit both sides.

As Justinian II learned, peace treaties create powerful forces within a society that oppose renewed warfare. This is what we need to resolve the endless conflicts consuming lives, property, and livelihoods across the world—genuine peace treaties, not temporary ceasefires.


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