Warlords and Holy Men

I steal my title from a classic book on early Scottish history by Alfred P. Smyth. My defense in doing so is that the phrase does offer useful light on large stretches of Jewish history, particularly during the Second Temple era.

As I have posted on this period of Jewish history in recent months, especially as described by Josephus, I have often found myself using the term “warlord.” I have used the phrase for the Tobiad leader Hyrcanus, who around 190 BC operated from a mighty castle on the fringes of Arabia:

Hyrcanus determined not to return to Jerusalem any more, but seated himself beyond Jordan, and was at perpetual war with the Arabians, and slew many of them, and took many of them captives. He also erected a strong castle, and built it entirely of white stone to the very roof.

I have also applied the term to Hasmonean leaders like Alexander Jannaeus. The word can just be denigrating, suggesting a kind of bandit chief, but I think it is also useful in describing a persistent reality running through the history of Palestine in that era. To the best of my knowledge, and I stand to be corrected on this, the “warlord” model has not hitherto been applied in this Jewish context.

Just for convenience, I offer the Wikipedia definition:

A warlord is a person who has both military and civil control over a subnational area due to the presence of armed forces who are loyal to the warlord rather than to a central authority. … [In a modern context] Warlordism frequently appears in failed states, states in which central government and nationwide authorities have collapsed or exist merely formally without actual control over the state territory. They are usually defined by a high level of clientelism, low bureaucratic control, and a high motivation to prolong war for the maintenance of their economic system.

The best known cases of warlords are those of early twentieth century China, from whom in fact we take the name. When the state collapsed, they appropriated its functions, and ran their territories as independent fiefdoms. The suggestion is that warlords emerge when a state fails to fulfill its proper functions, so they are likely a temporary phenomenon before order is restored. Historians might well describe an era in which they exist as “anarchy.”

Historians, though, have a strong prejudice towards central authority. If you ever look at Indian history, it is divided between periods of strong centralized empires, like the early Mughals, and polycentric eras of great division and multiple statelets. Historians, both British imperial and Indian nationalist, extolled the centralized eras and the empire builders, who represent the values they would like for their own day, and they condemn the intervening eras of dissolution and anarchy. Empires, we are meant to think, are authentic and natural, while small states represent chaos and dangerous division. These are, though, clearly value judgments.

Also, “warlord” systems are very common in situations not characterized by failed states in anything like the modern sense. Early empires, for instance, often found it very difficult to exercise central control over all parts of the country, and deputed military authority to local magnates to keep the peace in turbulent regions on behalf of the regime. That was especially important in disputed border areas like Palestine, where Hyrcanus held this kind of office as a faithful follower of the Ptolemies. Such figures are less signs of a state collapse than of a state not yet having evolved to extend its power over the whole of its territory. However we sniff at a term like “private army,” the institution is neither unusual nor necessarily destructive. It is just an inevitable feature of government at certain levels of social organization.

Warlords, then, are not an anomaly, and sometimes, they are essential.

How we regard them in history depends very much on who is writing that history. A warlord who becomes a king has his record of illicit violence and plunder expunged from the record. One who remains a thorn in the flesh of an emerging state is recalled as a force of anarchy, tyranny and exploitation. Duration also matters. The first generation is a bandit, the second is a warlord, the third is a king, and the fourth is a King of Kings and God’s Regent on Earth. The first generation has his face on a wanted poster: the fourth has his image on horseback carved into a mountainside.

It is difficult not to see the story of the Biblical David in the “warlord” mold described here.

So frequent, in fact, are instances of warlords and “warlordism” in Jewish history in the two centuries or so before the Common Era that we really need to look back at earlier eras where such figures were not apparently in existence. Were they really not present, or are they not in the historical record, for whatever reason?

I particularly look at the third century BC, before the rise of the Tobiads. Was someone like Hyrcanus a novelty, or had the Ptolemies always used intermediaries like him, whose names we happen not to know? The late third and early second century was a tumultuous era quite different from the apparent stability we think we see in earlier decades. If we had fuller records for, say, the era 300-250 BC, would we see more warlords, battling against or alongside high priests? And yes, I am once again speculating.

We should probably place in the same category the later Antipater, who held Idumea for the Hasmonean dynasty. He is most famous as the father of Herod the Great, and the founder of the Herodian dynasty. A border warlord who displaces the dynasty and creates his own line: this story is so very familiar to historians of other era, in the ancient world, but also including the European Middle Ages, and many Asian societies.

Warlords, of course, can come in many shapes and sizes. Although this is not a scientific taxonomy, I recently read Edward A. McCord’s Military Force and Elite Power in the Formation of Modern China (Routledge, 2014). He offers several general topics and types, and supplies detailed case-studies of each. The major topic headings are, respectively, “Local military power and elite formation…. Predatory warlordism …. Local bullies and armed force entrepreneurs …. Residual warlordism under the Nationalist party-state ….. Military office and local elite power.”

Hmm, so when do local bullies shade into predatory warlords, and what difference does it make actually holding formal office under the legitimate state? How do we distinguish between “armed force entrepreneurs” and organized crime? Countries like Mexico contribute plenty of modern examples to that debate. So how might Hyrcanus fit onto those categories?

The phrase “warlords and holy men” can be read in different ways. In medieval Europe, for instance, the two categories coexisted, sometimes with a great deal of tension, and on other occasions, the one type served and supported the other. But there was no reason why a warlord should not be a holy man, and vice versa. Think of David. The same remarks apply with full force to the Second Temple era, when warlord families took over the Temple and High Priesthood in the cause of their dynasties.

So yes, I think that ”warlord” is potentially a really valuable category of historical analysis.


Aryeh Kasher, Jews, Idumaeans, and Ancient Arabs (Mohr Siebeck, 1988)

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