Disarming the People? Ancient Perspectives on Weapons Bans

I’m just getting back to work after maternity leave.  A piece of mine that was partly worked out here on the blog has finally been published.  You can read it here.  Far warning, my next speaking engagement is on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, so I’m on a bit of historiographical kick at the moment.


When he had said this and thereby filled all the common people with wonderful hopes, he established two institutions which are the worst of all human institutions and the prologues to every tyranny — a redistribution of the land and an abolition of debts. He promised that he would take upon himself the care of both these matters if he were appointed general with absolute power till the public tranquillity should be secured and they had established a democratic constitution. When the common people and the unprincipled rabble gladly accepted the proposal to pillage the goods of other men, Aristodemus conferred upon himself the supreme command, and proposed another measure by which he deceived them and deprived them all of their liberty. For pretending to suspect that the rich would raise disturbances and insurrections against the common people on account of the redistribution of the land and the abolition of debts, he said the only means he could think of to prevent a civil war and the slaughter of citizens and to guard against these miseries before they happened, was for all of them to bring the arms out of their houses and to consecrate them to the gods, in order that they might make use of them against foreign enemies who should attack them, whenever the necessity should arise, and not against one another, and that in the mean time they would be suitably placed in the keeping of the gods. When they agreed to this also, he disarmed all the Cumaeans that very day, and during the following days he searched their houses, where he put to death many worthy citizens, alleging that they had not produced all their arms for the gods. After this he strengthened his tyranny by three sorts of guards. The first consisted of the filthiest and the most unprincipled of the citizens, by whose aid he had overthrown the aristocracy; the second, of the most impious knaves, whom he himself had freed for having killed their masters; and the third, a mercenary force, consisting of the most average barbarians, who amounted to no fewer than two thousand and were far better soldiers than any of the rest. (DH 7.8.1-3)

This passage comes from Dionysius’ extended digression on the tyranny of Aristodemus at Cumae.  A common argument in favor of a broad interpretation of the US second amendment and the right to bear arms is to allow the people to defend themselves against tyrannical government.  You can read about this and how it have entered the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign here.  I found it interesting to find tyranny in antiquity characterized by a weapons confiscation followed by the imposition of a police force.  It made me wonder whether such weapons confiscations were in anyway a historiographical theme.  The only other one that pops immediately to mind is the order by the Roman consul to the Carthaginians to surrender all arms as the second condition of their surrender into the faith of the Romans (Polybius 36.6.5ff.).