The History of the Culture of War
War and the Culture of War at the Dawn of History:
Ancient Indus Civilizations
5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


We know something of the culture of war in the ancient civilizations of the Indus valley from the hymns of the Rigveda which apparently were composed orally beginning as early as 1400 BC. As described in the chapter on The Post-Indus Cultures in Volume II of the UNESCO history:

"The king was pre-eminently the war lord and the Rigveda gives some idea of the mode of warfare. The king and his nobles fought from chariots and the common people on foot. As in later days, we hear of martial music and banners in connection with battle. The principle weapon was the bow and arrow. The arrows were tipped with points of metal or poisoned horn. Other weapons were lances, spears, axes, swords and sling stones. The king was assisted by two assemblies called sabha and samita. Great importance was attached not only to concord between the king and the Assembly but also to a spirit of harmony among the members of the Assembly. A hymn of the Rigveda invokes such a unity: 'Assemble, speak together, let your minds be all of one Accord.'

The royal authority was to some extent curbed by the power and prestige of the priest (purohita) who accompanied the king to battle and helped him with prayers and spells."

The culture of war must identify an enemy and that is specifically described in the Rigveda:

"The despicable enemies who dare deny Indra's supremacy are referred to as dasa or dasyu. They have a black complexion, flat noses and they are indifferent to the gods. They do not perform the Aryan sacrifices and probably worship the phallus. But they are wealthy with great stores of gold and live in fortified strongholds."

It is not clear from this if the dasa or dasyu were themselves enslaved but in any case, slavery was practiced at the time according to other verses in the Rigveda.

A religious renunciation of the culture of war by an emperor, relatively unique in history, occurred in the Maurya Empire of the Indian sub-continent in the Third Century B.C. The emperor Ashoka renounced his earlier military exploits and adopted the non-violence of the Buddhist religion for his kingdom. Quoting from Volume III of the UNESCO History of Humanity:

"After witnessing massacres during a campaign in Kalinga (present Orissa), Asoka gradually became an enthusiastic supporter of Buddhism. The king subsequently had a great number of rocks and pillars inscribed with his messages of peace and tolerance, which were the basis of his ideology described as Dhamma. This term, the Prakrit equivalent of Sanskrit Dharma, variously translated as Virtue, Sacred Duty and Social Order, was used for Asoka's ideology, actually a system of social responsibilities including loyalty towards elders, concern for the sick and respect for Brahmanas and Samanas as well as many other duties."

The UNESCO history also provides details of an earlier, less highly-developed civilization in the Indus Valley that apparently did not have a culture of war. It has been called the Harappan civilization, named after one of its large cities that has been excavated. According to available evidence, this civilization did not have warfare, nor did it develop a state structure like most of the others mentioned above. Yet it was a complex civilization, as described by Thomas J. Thompson (2006) in An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History:

"The people of this civilization used writing, at least for limited purposes (the Harappan writing system, available only in short inscriptions, is as yet undeciphered), made extraordinarily widespread use of metal tools (Shaffer 1982, 46-47), and inhabited a number of commercial cities that achieved considerable scale (the five largest had peak populations in the tens of thousands) and remarkable levels of urban amenity (virtually every house had a bath connected to a municipal drainage system). The similar layouts and similar public buildings of Harappan cities strongly suggest that no one of them served as a capital."

According to Thompson, "Harappan remains indicate that neither war nor threats of war played an important part in intercity relations." There were no memorials to military campaigns, little in the way of weaponry and no defensive armor despite the use of metal tools, and walls that did not seem to be designed for military defense but only to charge fees for access to the city. Thompson notes that "of course, it is conceivable that Harappan military science, including logistics and planning, simply did not evolve over a period of seven hundred years to the point that setting a large city to siege was a practical option, but, if so, that fact in itself would be significant."

Although its cities were quite large and there was extensive agriculture, commerce and trade, we don't know much about other aspects of the Harappan civilization since its writing has not been deciphered and it left little in the way of artwork or public monuments. The writing consists largely of seals attached to bundles of trade goods.

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?