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Grotius on Moderation in Despoiling the Country of one’s Enemies (1625)

While the 30 Years War was ravaging Europe the Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) wrote The Rights of War and Peace (1625) which has become a foundation stone of modern thinking concerning the laws of war. In a chapter on “moderation in despoiling the country of one’s enemies” he reflects on the folly of destroying that which one had striven so hard to acquire by means of violence:

Thus Alexander the Great, as Justin relates it, hindered his Soldiers from wasting Asia, declaring to them, that they should spare their own, and not destroy those Things, which they came to possess…

They who do otherwise, may apply to themselves the Words of Jocasta to Polynices in Seneca’s Thebais: “You ruin your Country whilst you seek it; to make it yours / Its Being you destroy; it defeats your Claim / To level, thus in Arms, the ripen’d Harvest; / Is Fire and Sword, the Vengeance of an Enemy, / Applied to Spoil and Ravage what’s ones own? / No, our deadliest Foes we thus afflict”…

Philip dared not engage in a fair Field-fight, nor come to a pitch’d Battle, but flying away burned and plundered Cities; so that the Conquered rendered useless to the Conquerors what should have been the Recompence of Victory. But the old Kings of Macedon did not use to do so, they used to come to a fair Engagement, to spare Cities as much as possible, that they might have the more wealthy Dominion. For it is not a strange Conduct, to make War in such a Manner, that at the same Time, we dispute the Possession of a Thing, we leave nothing for ourselves but War.

III. 1. This will likewise happen, where the Possession is yet in Dispute, if there be great Hopes of a speedy Victory, of which those Lands and Fruits will be the Reward. Thus Alexander the Great, as Justin relates it, hindered his Soldiers from wasting Asia, declaring to them, that they should spare their own, and not destroy those Things, which they came to possess. Thus Quintius, when Philip overrun Thessaly, wasting it with Fire and Sword, exhorted his Soldiers (as Plutarch informs us) to march thro’ the Country, as if it were now entirely their own. Croesus advising Cyrus not to give up Lydia to be plundered by his Soldiers, tells him, You will not ruin my Cities, nor my Lands, they are no longer mine, they are now become yours, they will destroy what is yours.

2. They who do otherwise, may apply to themselves the Words of Jocasta to Polynices in Seneca’s Thebais.

Patriam petendo perdis: Ut fiat tua, / Vis esse nullam: Quin tuae causae nocet / Ipsum hoc, quod armis uris infestis solum / Segetesque adultas sternis, & totos fugam / Edis per agros: Nemo sic vastat sua. / Quae corripi igne, quae meti gladio jubes, / Aliena credis.

[You ruin your Country whilst you seek it; to make it yours / Its Being you destroy; it defeats your Claim / To level, thus in Arms, the ripen’d Harvest; / Is Fire and Sword, the Vengeance of an Enemy, / Applied to Spoil and Ravage what’s ones own? / No, our deadliest Foes we thus afflict.]

To the same Sense are the Words of Curtius, Whatsoever they did not waste, they owned to be their Enemies. Agreeable hereunto is that which Cicero, in his Letters to Atticus, says against the Design that Pompey had formed of taking his Country by Famine. Upon this Account Alexander the Isian blames Philip (in the 17th Book of Polybius) whose Words Livy has thus rendered: Philip dared not engage in a fair Field-fight, nor come to a pitch’d Battle, but flying away burned and plundered Cities; so that the Conquered rendered useless to the Conquerors what should have been the Recompence of Victory. But the old Kings of Macedon did not use to do so, they used to come to a fair Engagement, to spare Cities as much as possible, that they might have the more wealthy Dominion. For it is not a strange Conduct, to make War in such a Manner, that at the same Time, we dispute the Possession of a Thing, we leave nothing for ourselves but War.

About this Quotation:

The Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius believed that traditionally a conquering army had the right to claim possession of the territory they had conquered. However, he was mystified why, having gone to all the trouble of invading the enemy’s country, the invading troops would then wantonly go about destroying that which they now “possessed” as their own. To him, this was both irrational and inhumane. Grotius penned these words in an attempt, as he called his 12th chapter in volume 3, for “moderation in regard to the spoiling the country of our enemies” as around him swirled the battles of the 30th Years War in Euope (1618-1648). We have paired the stark etchings of Jacques Callot (1592-1635) on the conflict in his native Lorraine with suitable quotations from Grotius' work in our collection of Images of Liberty and Power.

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