Home > Uncategorized > Quintilian: War, the antithesis of justice

Quintilian: War, the antithesis of justice


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace


From Institutio Oratoria
Translated by H.E. Butler

The opening of the Thebans’ plea presents no difficulty and is likely to win the approval of the judges, since they are seeking to recover by right what was taken from them by force. But out of this point arises a violent controversy as to the right of war, since the Thessalians urge that kingdoms and peoples and the frontiers of nations and cities depend upon these rights. To meet this argument it is necessary to discover in what respect this case differs from others which are concerned with property that has fallen into the hands of the victor: the difficulty moreover lies not so much in the proof as in the way it should be put forward. We may begin by stating that the rights of war do not hold good in any matter which can be brought before a court of justice, and that what is taken by force of arms can only be retained by force of arms, and consequently, wherever the rights of war hold good, there is no room for the functions of a judge, while on the contrary where the functions of the judge come into play, the rights of war cease to have any force. The reason why it is necessary to discover this principle is to enable us to bring the following argument into play: that prisoners of war are free on returning to their native land just because the gains of war cannot be retained except by the exercise of the same violence by which they were acquired.

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