Conventional wisdom says that we shouldn't talk about sex, politics, or religion in mixed or unfamiliar company. It's pretty easy to understand why these subjects are taboo: discussing intimate sexual details with a group of acquiantances is rather unseemly and would likely be awkward for multiple people present (unless you're at a swingers' party -- then by all means, go for it); political conversations are ugly and people love elevating their blood pressure by screaming their opinions over one another (especially if there's alcohol involved); and as it relates to religion, people are very sensitive about the status of their immortal souls (or lack thereof) and will either get into arguments or become super passive aggressive and say things like "well, you're free to think what you want, but I know where I'm spending eternity."

What's funny about these subjects is that most people get some sort of enjoyment out of practicing them. Shouldn't it be awesome to sit around and talk about the great three-way you had the other night, or what you're doing to advance/defeat socially-liberal-but-financially-conservative principles, or how happy you are that you seem to be on-track to paradise? There actually are a lot of people who like discussing these things. In fact, there are some people who go out of their way to make you enjoy the same things and it's usually not through calm conversation. Out of that group of three, there's one subject that disproportionately stands out as causing the most, shall we say, vehement form of persuasion known to man -- war. Since with the possible exception of the Trojan War no (known) armed conflict has started over sex, let's examine politics and religion.

To a certain extent, all war is political or at least politicized. It's almost meaningless to try to separate the two concepts except from the standpoint of differentiating between wars started for avarice (e.g., a war for land or resources) and wars started over competing ideologies (e.g., the Cold War and its proxy conflicts), although even then there is of course quite a bit of overlap. Realistically, religion can even fall into the second category, but as a cause it is generally distinct as a phenomenon from purely ideological conflict. Likewise, a war between two states or two peoples with different religions is not necessarily a "religious conflict." For example, the Seven Years' War was not a war about or between Roman Catholicism (France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire on one side) and Protestantism (England and Prussia on the other), it was chiefly about commerce and territory. A religious war, then, is one that is started because of a spiritual imperative to do so. Whether this is a drive on the part of an attacker to convert one's enemies (as in the case of Charlemagne's campaigns against the Saxons) or because of some other divine mission (as in YHWH's various commands to his followers to annihilate other civilizations), these stated reasons will be the ones taken into consideration.

I'm going to describe for you some of my favorite (I guess that's the right word) religious wars from history. I'm not going to really talk about anything after the Middle Ages since these are pretty well-known to most people and frankly because I haven't done anywhere nearly as much research about them as I have older conflicts. I'm also going to talk mainly about Europe and the Middle East because I'm not as familiar with the religious histories of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the pre-Columbian American continents as I am with the other areas I described. With that in mind, let's examine some of these greatest hits.

  • Proto-Indo-European religion vs. indigenous European religion (approx. 2500 BC-1900 BC): This is kind of a hard one to describe since there are no written records of it having occurred, but it definitely happened. Europe has been inhabited by people for a very long time, but who these people were is not a settled matter. We have no idea what they may have called themselves and only a very vague idea of what their lives were like. Today, the only way that we are able to really differentiate these peoples is by examining subtle differences in what they buried in the ground, namely pottery...and themselves. Very ancient grave sites tell us from the positioning of bodies and the artifacts in said graves that they were likely not Indo-Europeans. What little we have been able to determine about the original religion of Europe has come from two sources: miscellaneous buried artifacts on the continent and the remains of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. One particular type of item that keeps appearing in this early part of the historical record is a totem that caricatures a very fat woman with huge breasts and ample birthing thighs. Given the extreme antiquity of some of these samples (some stretching back into the Paleolithic period to the tune of at least 30,000 years before the present), it's clear that this woman was extremely important. Considering the near universality of her presence in different parts of Europe, she was most likely an earth goddess of some sort and was probably at the head of the various pre-Indo-European pantheons. The latest clear examples of this type of figure are present in the Minoan ruins on Crete; the sculptures are more sophisticated and resemble an idealized young, beautiful woman rather than the crude, almost comically exaggerated carvings from the most historically remote periods. This has led some people to conclude that the pre-Indo-Europeans had a matrilineal society, although this is both unknown and unknowable, so it will have to suffice to stop our assumptions about gender relations with the high status of the mother goddess. There's also an association of unclear derivation with snakes and snake-handling, perhaps as a symbol of fertility given their rather phallic phenotype. Since the pre-Indo-Europeans didn't leave any known writings and we can't read the Minoan language, it's impossible to understand the serpent's significance to the old religion, but its relation to the new one will become clear.

    Regardless, as the historical record moves forward, we start finding cultural innovations spreading from the east across the continent. The evidence for these changes also comes chiefly from grave sites and reveals a huge shift in what these people believed. The great goddess and the snake stop appearing and are replaced by the sun, the wheel, the horse, and perhaps most significantly, the sword. These were the proto-Indo-Europeans. They likely came from what is now Russia as the oldest stereotypical grave formats of this sort are found there. The proto-Indo-Europeans were the first people known to have domesticated the horse and to have created the chariot. There are many reasons to tame a horse, but historically, there's only one reason to make a chariot -- war. These people spread across Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, bringing their language, technology, and religion with them everywhere they went. There is no ambiguity about gender among the proto-Indo-Europeans: they were patriarchical and their chief deities were male. It is theorized that the main god of the proto-Indo-Europeans was a figure called something like Dyeus-Phter, likely meaning "sky father." His name is obviously related to the Greek Zeus (fully Zeus Pater), Sanskrit Dyaus Pitar, Latin Jupiter (a shortened form of his original name, Iovus Pater) and Dispater, Germanic Tiwaz (later known as Tyr), Lithuanian Dievas, Avestan daevas, modern Spanish "dios," modern English "divine," and so on. Other common motifs are twins (Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux, etc.), bodies of dead gods creating rivers, and at least one major story involving a god or hero slaying a monstrous reptile, usually a snake. To these people, the snake was evil and needed to be destroyed. It is not hard to imagine how proto-Indo-Europeans would have felt about a group of people who revered the snake as possibly part of the procreative act or who worshipped a fat goddess over the sky and the sun.

    The proto-Indo-European excursions into Europe probably started with trade, then permanent migration, and finally war. It was probably not specifically or exclusively caused by a difference in religion, but it's hard to otherwise imagine their language and their faith so completely dominating a continent in such a relatively short period of time when compared to the very old and very established customs that had existed there since before the existence of metal tools and even sedentary agriculture. Much is made of the "Aryans" who subjugated ancient India and imposed the rigid caste system and Vedic religion on the land, but less time is spent on the same group who apparently did much the same thing to goddess worshippers of neolithic Europe. In Italy, Greece, and the British Isles, there are tantalizing historical clues as to who these original inhabitants were, whether they were Etruscans (who survived the longest of the pre-Indo-Europeans in Europe and who interestingly eventually modeled their non-IE pantheon on the PIE format), Pelasgians, or the Fir Bolg. They are basically acknowledged as the indigenous residents of their respective areas but they are in time subjugated, displaced, or destroyed by the presumably proto-Indo-European settlers coming to their areas. All we know for sure is that the arrival of the horse and the sky god marked the sudden and violent end of the mother and the snake.

  • The Hyksos Period in Egypt (approx. 1800-1550 BC): Ancient Egypt was always a religiously diverse land and it experienced several religious transitions throughout its history. Unsurprisingly, some of these transitions were more traumatic for the land than others. Nobody knows who the Hyksos were or where they really came from, but the prevailing theory is that they were Asiatic Semites. They seemed to have come to Egypt for commercial reasons in the 19th century BC, but after about a hundred years, they started conquering large portions of the land, eventually coming to control almost the entirety of Egypt by the mid 17th century. They did not practice the ancient Egyptian religion and the closest native cognate they could find to their chief god was Seth, whom the Hyksos rulers promoted over more traditional gods like Horus, Osiris, and Re. This was a very poor choice for the Hyksos. While almost nobody likes having their country conquered and ruled over by foreigners, even fewer people enjoy having their religion turned upside down by the same invaders. To the Egyptians, Seth was a strange figure with somewhat ominous associations. Seth was bregudgingly agreed to be something of a necessary evil, being both a god of victorious war but also the murderer of Osiris and the antagonist of Horus. Like the Greek Hades, he was acknowledged as important, but outright veneration was considered dangerous if not outright blasphemous. Imagine if during the Norman Conquest of England, William the Conqueror had abruptly changed the state religion to Satanism and you'll see why this was a problem.

    Whether knowingly or not, the Hyksos instantly made themselves the enemies of the Egyptian populace. They controlled all but a small enclave in the South of the country, part of what was paradoxically called Upper Egypt. The rival Upper Egyptian dynasties were anxious to reclaim the entire country and their mission became a crusade when Seth took Horus' place. By 1550 BC, the righteous fury of the pharaohs had toppled the Hyksos and reunited the land under indigenous control. Within 20 additional years, all remaining Hyksos in Egypt were either expelled or killed. After that, Seth inherited a few new titles: he became the god of storms, of chaos, and of foreigners. Needless to say, he was never made chief god of the pantheon again.

  • The Amarna Period in Egypt (approx. 1352-1300 BC): Things plugged along pretty nicely in Egypt after the final ouster of the Hyksos and the start of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Lands were conquered, the country was prosperous, and the gods were respected...that is until the ascension of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV. He was the son of Amenhotep III, one of the most powerful and most effective pharaohs of that period. At first, things went all right, until Amenhotep suddenly declared that there was but one god, the sun disc Aten, and that he was changing his name to Akhenaten, meaning "servant of Aten." There was only one person on the planet who could interact with or interpret the desires of Aten and that person was -- surprise! -- Akhenaten. With this act, Akhenaten severely curtailed the power of the Egyptian priesthood, which up to that point had existed as something of a state within a state. His "reforms" were not really accepted but since his court was filled with sycophants, his minions followed his lead and some of them even changed their names to incorporate the word "aten." His preoccupation with his new religion had disastrous consequences for Egypt as he neglected both the economy and foreign affairs, essentially bankrupting the country and opening its doors to all manner of enemies. In or around 1335, Akhenaten died. His manner of death is not specified and since his mummy has never been found (officially, anyway), it's hard to say what happened to him. Some people believe that he was assassinated at the instigation of a priestly conspiracy to restore the old gods to their place. He was succeeded by Smenkhkare, who was of unclear relation to his predecessor and who died after a year under similarly mysterious circumstances. His body has never been found either. Another mysterious female ruler named Neferneferuaten apparently succeeded Smenkhkare and reigned for two years, but her body has also never been located and we know nothing about her. She was at some point succeeded by Tutankhaten, Akhenaten's son, who was forced to change his name to Tutankhamun to appease the priesthood, indicating the issue was still not resolved almost five years after Akhenaten's death. Tutankhamun died after about nine or ten years from a leg infection of some sort and it is possible that this was caused by assassination attempt. Either way, he was succeeded by his grandfather and "adviser" Ay who also only reigned for a couple of years. To make a long story short, this group of rulers was detested to the extent that all references to their names were removed from the official historical record and Ay's successor Horemheb had all of them stricken from the list of kings. Horemheb had himself portrayed in the traditional style as giving obeisance to Egypt's traditional gods, ending the Atenist heresy once and for all.

  • God vs. the Amalekites (approx. 1200-687 BC, depending on what chronology you follow): Whether you believe in the literal truth of the Bible or not, there are a couple of interesting things about it. One is the insight it gives us into the way the ancient Hebrews felt about other cultures and another is the way the authors of the Old Testament put words in YHWH's mouth (or his heavenly equivalent). The Amalekites were a nomadic tribe of raiders who variously lived in and around Canaan and according to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, frequently attacked the Israelites. Apparently incensed by their impiety, God commanded Saul, king of the Israelites, to "attack the Amalekites and totally destroy {their} men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." (1 Sam. 15:2-3). Saul apparently failed to do this and was subsequently dethroned and replaced by David, who killed all but four hundred of them (1. Sam. 30:17). Fastforwarding about 300 years, and David's Kingdom has been partitioned into Israel and Judah, and the king of the latter is a man named Ahaz who has instituted polytheistic worship in the kingdom. He is succeeded by his son Hezekiah, who restored monotheism and apparently completed the destruction of the remaining Amalekites. Ironically, Hezekiah's son Manasseh would revert Judah to paganism.

  • Spiritual Opportunism in the Achaemenid Empire (approx. 550-450 BC): When Western people nowadays think about the wars between the ancient Greeks and Persians, certain cultural biases lead them to believe that the Greeks were as important to the heritage of the world then as they are now. In reality, at the time of the wars between the two cultures, Greece was a small area with a very limited civilizational impact. The Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, however, was huge. So huge, in fact, that it was the largest land empire ever. Today, Russia is physically the largest country in the world; the area under the control of Achaemenid Persia was even bigger than that. The ancient Persians were descended from the same proto-Indo-Europeans that conquered Europe and their religion was basically the same as the Vedic and Hittite faiths of the late Bronze Age. Around the early 10th century BC, however, a funny thing happened in Persia: a prophet named Zarathustra declared that the existing religion was false and restructured it along dualistic lines. He said that an entire class of gods, the daevas led by Ahriman, were responsible for all of the evil in the universe and that the yazatas led by Ahura Mazda were beings of good and light. The two factions were locked in inextricable conflict and although the yazatas were stronger and destined to be victorious over their foes, there was still a lot of work to be done in the meantime. Humanity was the central battleground for this celestial war where the daevas held something of an advantage because of the ease of corrupting men, although the yazatas were not about to take it lying down.

    Officially, the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians. Unlike other polytheists at the time, syncretism between different faiths was largely incompatible with the overall Zoroastrian Weltanschauung. Despite this exclusivity, however, that didn't stop Cyrus the Great from using other religious beliefs to his advantage in his aggressive expansion of the realm. After his victorious struggle with the king Nabonidus for control of Babylon, he created a piece of propaganda for his new subjects. In it, he declared that the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk, had divinely decreed his triumph against the "impious" Nabonidus. This blasphemy apparently stemmed from depictions of the dethroned monarch offering sacrifices to the moon god Sin, in contrast to the typical reliefs featuring the king worshipping Marduk. Some Babylonians were more than happy to embrace Cyrus' creative religious conversion, particularly the priestly class. Of course, when the largest empire in the history of the known world is beating down your door, it's rather difficult to deny them anything.

    Later on, the Achaemenid Emperors Darius the Great and Xerxes I remembered their Zoroastrian piety and couched their respective invasions of mainland Greece in religious terms, claiming that the light of Ahura Mazda guided their every step. Whether they really believed this to be true or not, it certainly provided a nice pretext for subjugating an area that had fomented rebellion among their subjects in Asia Minor. In 480 BC, Xerxes burned Athens to the ground and controlled much of the mainland, but over the course of the next three or four years, he was repeatedly decisively defeated in several engagements, forcing a permanent withdrawal of Persian forces from Greece. About 150 years later, when Alexander the Great invaded and conquered Persia, his men got obscenely drunk and burned down the capital Persepolis in what has been explained as an act of revenge. Specifically targeted were the archives containing the full Avesta, one of the holiest scriptures in Zoroastrianism; as a result, only fragments of this text survive to the modern day.

  • Rome vs. Christianity (64-306 AD): Religiously speaking, the ancient Romans were a fairly tolerant people. They adapted their Italo-Etruscan pantheon to conform more closely to the Greek one and were fascinated by the parallels between Gallic and Germanic gods and their own. Like the Greeks before them, they believed that religion as a concept originated in Egypt and had a healthy respect for the gods of the nation that built the pyramids almost two millennia before Rome was founded. They even had no problem with people worshipping the gods of the enemy Persian state, as the influence of Mithraism would exponentially increase to the point that it essentially became the de facto state religion in the third century. On the other hand, the Romans did not approve of certain practices that were considered subservise or injurious to the greater public good. For example, the Romans were not fond of the way deities like Dionysus and Aphrodite were venerated in drunken orgies or (untaxed) temple prostitution and these practices were periodically banned or otherwise suppressed at different times. The Emperor Claudius banned the practice of astrology because it ran afoul of augury, which he (and many others) felt was a more wholesome form of divination. More than anything, though, the Roman government had a problem with insufficient enthusiasm for the well-being of the state and its leaders.

    What set Judaism and Christianity apart from other minority religions in the Imperial period was their inherently exclusive natures. A Gaul could venerate Taranis, a Carthaginian could pray to Dagon, and an Egyptian could castrate himself in honor of his service to Isis, but they could also offer sacrifices to the official state gods of the Empire without endangering their souls. The Romans viewed this as a form of patriotism; by offering the sacrifice -- even a minor one -- this meant that you were doing your duty to protect the safety of the Senate and People of Rome and the health of the Emperor. There were basically only two classes of people who refused to offer the sacrifices: Jews and Christians. To do or say anything in the service of another deity is one of the most basic violations of monotheism and is regarded as a horrible blasphemy. At various times, Jewish communities were given special dispensations not to follow through with the sacrifices in exchange for higher taxes. Christians, by contrast, were not granted that reprieve.

    Christianity didn't really become a big deal in the Empire until the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. While its origins are obscure, the Emperor Nero felt pressured to assign blame for it to some group or other and this weird, obscure Jewish sect seemed like a natural fit. Christians were viewed as trouble-makers at the very best and downright evil at the worst; the concept of the eucharist offended the Romans to a high degree because they saw it as a form of cannibalism, which was considered both barbarous and sacrilegious. Tacitus reports that Nero had many Christians executed in the wake of the fire, although he doesn't really make it clear if they were condemned for starting the fire or for being Christians.

    As time went on, the Romans became increasingly more hostile to Christianity. The Emperor Domitian is supposed to have executed his own cousin for converting to Christianity. The first laws specifically created to stop the spread of Christianity -- rather than existing laws against subversive behaviors -- were authored by Marcus Aurelius. Starting in 250 and continuing almost unabated until 315, state-wide persecutions were enacted. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, Galerius, and especially Diocletian made the failure to renounce Christianity a crime punishable by death. Diocletian himself viewed Christianity as disruptive to the morale of the army and made great efforts to remove all Christians from the Roman military by requiring all soldiers to sacrifice and pray to the gods of Rome every day in the full public view of their superior officers. Any who failed to do so was subject to summary judgment. The persecutions did not stop until the ascension of Constantine I in 306, when he legalized the practice of Christianity throughout the Empire.

  • Rome vs. Paganism (380-700): Of course, Constantine is best remembered as the first Christian Emperor, but other religions were still perfectly legal. He may not have even really been the first, as his father Constantius Chlorus is sometimes said to have been a crypto-Christian and the short-lived third century Emperor Philip the Arab supposedly believed in the divinity of Jesus, but that's all rather academic. In 380, the Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the state religion and over the course of the next decade banned all pagan observances. He took things a step further and declared it a crime punishable by death to not enforce the law. All subsequent Emperors would reinforce this legal prohibition on pagan practices to varying degrees.

    After Theodosius completely removed the state funding for the old Roman religion, the main source of pagan opposition was the Roman Senate. Although the Senate had become increasingly marginalized since the beginning of the Imperial period, it was deemed little more than a nuissance by the start of the fifth century. The patrician class was still thoroughly paganized and as the Emperor evolved from a type of aristocratic military dictator to something more resembling a medieval monarch, their relevance to governance was greatly diminished as was the political necessity of acquiescing to their demands for religious tolerance; all subsequent requests for expanded rights for pagans were either denied or simply unanswered. It is interesting to note that laws still had to be passed as late as the seventh century (in the Byzantine successor state to the Roman Empire) banning this or that practice and making paganism a capitol offense. The late imperial period featured such anti-pagan campaigns as the army being sent to attack Alexandria and the burning of most of the ancient world's significant pagan texts (for example, the Sibylline Prophecies, of which only one copy existed in the world at the time of its destruction, as well as the destruction of the entire library of Alexandria in an unrelated incident).

  • Charlemagne vs. Everybody (768-814): I really don't even know where to start with this one. Charlemagne's name is a portmanteau of the French Charles le Magne, meaning Charles the Great. He attained this title presumably through his military exploits, which involved conquering essentially all of modern France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, as well as parts of Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Hungary, while exacting tribute from still others. While Charlemagne was of course desirous of land and power for their own sake, he got his start at the behest of a certain Pope Hadrian who feared an attack by the Lombards. From that point forward, he never really stopped campaigning.

    Charlemagne was also a devout Christian who felt a religious imperative to safeguard European Christendom from all the threats facing it, primarily Pagans, Muslims, and corrupt Byzantines. While the first two are pretty obvious enemies, his problem with Constantinople was that the patriarchs claimed primacy over the entirety of Orthodox Christianity, which he viewed as a transgression against the authority of the Papacy. In this way, he became what you might call a proto-Crusader. Charlemagne took up the holy struggle against the Cordoba Emirate in Spain and brought the northernmost part of the country under his sway for the glory of God. He also tangled with the Huns and the Slavs, demanding that they convert to Christianity. If they refused, their choice was simple: they could either leave or be killed. His most vexing enemies, however, were the Saxons.

    The Saxons were a tribe in northern central Germany. While he conquered Saxony fairly early in his reign (around 773), he was faced with several revolts by the native pagans who were not keen on his religious policies. When Charlemagne conquered a pagan territory, he of course required that they convert but also that they destroy their own heathen symbols and idols as a showing of good faith. In 780, after another rebellion, Charlemagne imposed a series of very harsh laws and penalties relating to the practice of anything other than his preferred form of Christianity. It was not enough to not be a pagan; one had to actively embrace the new faith and follow all sacraments to the letter. The punishment for noncompliance was death. In 782, further restrictions were placed on paganism, which sparked a backlash. Charlemagne by this time was uninterested in peaceful solutions, so he gathered over four thousand Saxons in a field and beheaded them in an episode that is known as the Massacre of Verden. This naturally stoked a wider rebellion and Charlemagne was forced to bring Saxony to heel again by ensuring the baptism of the warlord Wittekind. Another minor uprising occurred in 804, but it quickly lost steam when newly Christianized Saxons and Slavs formed the majority of the force deployed to put it down.

    It is worth noting that in 800, Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor. There is a common, only halfway joking medievalist analysis that says the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire, but Charlemagne seemed to relish the idea if he disliked the title (it is said that he preferred a more neutral "Emperor over the Empire of the Romans"). For obvious reasons, Charlemagne is not particularly revered by modern pagans.

  • Sicily (535-1194): The Italian island has been of key strategic importance to the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. In antiquity, it was settled and fought over variously by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the Vandals. By the sixth century, it was under the control of the Germanic Vandals who promoted the heresy known as Arianism, which denied the co-equal status of God the Father and Jesus the Son. Justinian I, the Byzantine Emperor, was intent on reuniting the ancient Roman Empire and felt that having a place as important as Sicily under the control of a group of heretical Goths was intolerable. He conquered the island and returned it to Roman authority in 535, reinstituting Orthodox policies. Greek replaced Latin as the main spoken language on the island and stayed that way until the Umayyad Muslims in North Africa began expanding into the Italian isles.

    Perhaps more than any other religion, Islam has consistently adopted the most aggressively expansionist posturing in its relationship with other cultures. Much is made of how tolerant Muslim rulers were of their non-Muslim subjects in occupied areas, but the message of the prophet was nevertheless spread at the point of a sword across the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Islamic conquest of Sicily was no exception to this. The Umayyad presence in Sicily began in the early part of the ninth century and continued until the island was completely conquered and formally incorporated as the Emirate of Sicily in 965. Control of the island shifted with the politics of the larger Muslim world in this period, but its status as an Islamic state stayed the same.

    As dhimmi, the non-Muslim inhabitants of Sicily were prohibited from, among other things, publicly professing Christianity, wearing clothes that might in comparison make Muslims look impoverished, to make loud sounds, or to bury their dead in anything other than fast, silent rituals. They were of course also required to pay the heavy poll tax. The denial of civil rights to citizens was a great passive aggressive way for Islamic leaders to encourage conversion to their religion, and in many instances, it worked. Muslim rule in Sicily entered its final phase in 1060 when Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer descended from Vikings, invaded Sicily and began the process of conquering the island in the name of the Latin rite. His brother Roger arrived in 1068 and by 1072, their conquest of the island was complete. While Robert returned to Italy to effect the ouster of the Byzantines from the mainland, Roger stayed in Sicily and ruled it as a count. Roger's second son of the same name would come to rule Sicily as a king after consolidating Norman possessions and established a syncretic blend of Greek, French, and Muslim culture that made Sicily one of the most tolerant, cosmopolitan states in Europe. Roger II continued to use the Muslim dating system and despite being a Roman Catholic, his administration was staffed largely by Greeks and Arabs. After his death in 1154, the Kingdom of Sicily fell into a period of decline thanks to a series of weak or young rulers until it was finally conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1194. Henry's wife was a woman named Constance, who just happened to be the daughter of Roger II.

  • The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1255): Everyone knows about the Crusades undertaken by Christians against Muslims in the Holy Land, but not a lot of people are aware of the Crusades that took place between Christians in the same time period. The Languedoc region in Southern France is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful parts of the country, but it has a very dark past. Although it has been under nominal French suzerainty for centuries, its culture and language (the name itself is a shortened form of langue d'oc, i.e., the term for the Occitan language) at one time were more similar to those found in Spain. One other key difference separated Languedoc from the rest of France (and indeed Spain): its religion. The people of Languedoc practiced a syncretic form of Christianity called Catharism (likely derived from the Greek katharoi, meaning "the pure") which interpreted the world in a dualistic fashion that was unacceptable to Orthodox Christians. Their beliefs were suspiciously Gnostic, featuring an emphasis on hidden or obscure knowledge and teaching that Christ was not a corporeal being since flesh is by definition corrupt. They apparently also denied the validity or desirability of baptism and the eucharist as well as the utility of the Catholic clergy. Well, needless to say, the Cathars weren't exactly loved by the church.

    The crusade against them began in earnest in 1209 when Pope Innocent III, regarded as one of the greatest of medieval popes, asked King Philip II Augustus of France to root out the heresy. Apparently a papal ambassador had excommunicated the count of Toulouse (the administrative capital of the region) Raimundo for allowing Catharism to flourish in his lands and this same ambassador was killed on his way back to Rome. It's doubtful that Raimundo ordered this, but Innocent used it as a pretext for a crusade against the Albigensians (so-called because of the ancient name for the area around Toulouse, Albi). Philip declined to participate directly and instead sent his vassal Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, to lead the crusade. Innocent also declared that the entire Languedoc region was up for grabs and that any nobleman participating in the attack could have his own lands in the area. de Montfort carried out the crusade ruthlessly, blinding and torturing those who did not die to break the morale of the Cathar resistance. In one incident, a knight asked how it would be possible to avoid killing Catholic civilians. Arnaud, the papal representative attached to the crusade, uttered the famous remark "kill them all; God will know His own."

    Although Innocent died in 1216 and de Montfort was killed in action in 1218, the official crusade ended successfully for the Church in 1229 following the intercession of Queen Blanche of France, regent of her young son, the King Louis IX. Raimundo's son of the same name was forced to come to terms with the Crown, signing a humiliating treaty that required him to return all of the Church's land, surrender his citizens known to be heretics, and to stipulate in his will that the county of Toulouse would revert to a personal property of the French crown if his eventual successor died without issue. Immediately after signing the declaration, Raimundo was scourged through the streets and thrown in a dungeon. An inquisition was set up in the region and unrepentant Cathars were burned at the stake; this included Cathars who had already died in the previous two decades of fighting. Pockets of resistance existed in Languedoc until 1244 when the last hold-out, the castle on Montségur, was destroyed after a long siege.

I could go on almost indefinitely about wars over religion or religious strife in general, but this already too-long write-up should suffice to bring to light some of the lesser-known conflicts (well, lesser known to general audiences). There is no didactic ending to this or a call for tolerance and understanding or even an angry screed against religion as an institution. There is, however, one theme that I was able to discern from my studies of religious conflict and that is the fact that with few exceptions, most forms of spiritual warfare are tied directly to revealed religions. With the exceptions of the proto-Indo-European religion and the Hyksos veneration of Seth, all of the conflicts I've written about (and I'd be tempted to extend this to essentially all religious conflicts in the Western and Near Eastern traditions) have as at least one participant, whether persecutor or victim, followers of a revealed (generally monotheistic) religion. I might be tempted some day to add more recent controversies to this list, but after a while, they all start to look the same.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten King of Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
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