“Divide et Impera”: A History of “Divide and Rule”
The use of this technique is meant to empower the sovereign to control subjects who collectively might be able to oppose his rule.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Divide and rule (from Latin divide et impera), or divide and conquer, in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.
“divide et impera” is cited as a common principle in politics by Traiano Boccalini in La bilancia politica The use of this technique is meant to empower the sovereign to control subjects, populations, or factions of different interests, who collectively might be able to oppose his rule. Machiavelli identifies a similar application to military strategy, advising in Book VI of The Art of War (L’arte della guerra): a Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy. Machiavelli advises this act be achieved either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.
The maxim divide et impera has been attributed to Philip II of Macedon. It was utilised by the Roman ruler Caesar and the French emperor Napoleon (together with the maxim divide ut regnes)
The strategy, but not the phrase, applies in many ancient cases: the example of Gabinius exists, parting the Jewish nation into five conventions, reported by Flavius Josephus in Book I, 169-170 of The Wars of the Jews (De bello Judaico). Strabo also reports in Geography, 8.7.3 that the Achaean League was gradually dissolved under the Roman possession of the whole of Macedonia, owing to their not dealing with the several states in the same way, but wishing to preserve some and to destroy others.
The strategy of division and rule has been attributed to sovereigns, ranging from Louis XI to the Habsburgs. Edward Coke denounces it in Chapter I of the Fourth Part of the Institutes, reporting that when it was demanded by the Lords and Commons what might be a principal motive for them to have good success in Parliament, it was answered: “Eritis insuperabiles, si fueritis inseparabiles. Explosum est illud diverbium: Divide, & impera, cum radix & vertex imperii in obedientium consensu rata sunt.” [You would be invincible if you were inseparable. This proverb, Divide and rule, has been rejected, since the root and the summit of authority are confirmed by the consent of the subjects.] On the other hand, in a minor variation, Sir Francis Bacon wrote the phrase “separa et impera” in a letter to James I of 15 February 1615. James Madison made this recommendation in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of 24 October 1787, which summarized the thesis of The Federalist #10: “Divide et impera, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain (some) qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.” In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch by Immanuel Kant (1795), Appendix one, Divide et impera is the third of three political maxims, the others being Fac et excusa (Act now, and make excuses later) and Si fecisti, nega (If you commit a crime, deny it).
Elements of this technique involve:
- creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects to prevent alliances that could challenge the sovereign
- aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate with the sovereign
- fostering distrust and enmity between local rulers
- encouraging meaningless expenditures that reduce the capability for political and military spending
Historically, this strategy was used in many different ways by empires seeking to expand their territories.
Immanuel Kant was an advocate of this tactic, noting that “the problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils” so long as they possess an appropriate constitution which pits opposing factions against each other with a system of checks and balances.
The concept is also mentioned as a strategy for market action in economics to get the most out of the players in a competitive market.
Narcissism, Politics, and Psychopathy
A primary strategy the narcissist uses to assert control, particularly within his/her family, is to create divisions among individuals. This weakens and isolates them, making it easier for the narcissist to manipulate and dominate. Some are favoured, others are scapegoated. Such dynamics can play out in a workplace setting.
In politics, the concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people to prevent a rebellion against the elites or the people implementing the strategy. The goal is either to pit the lower classes against themselves to prevent a revolution, or to provide a desired solution to the growing discord that strengthens the power of the elites. It was heavily used by British Empire in India and elsewhere.
Clive R. Boddy found that “divide and conquer” was a common strategy by corporate psychopaths used as a smokescreen to help consolidate and advance their grip on power in the corporate hierarchy.
The divide and conquer strategy was used by foreign countries in parts of Africa during the colonial and post-colonial period.
- Germany and Belgium ruled Rwanda and Burundi in a colonial capacity. Germany used the strategy of divide and conquer by placing members of the already dominant Tutsi minority in positions of power. When Belgium took over colonial rule in 1916, the Tutsi and Hutu groups were rearranged according to race instead of occupation. Belgium defined “Tutsi” as anyone with more than ten cows or a long nose, while “Hutu” meant someone with fewer than ten cows and a broad nose. The socioeconomic divide between Tutsis and Hutus continued after independence and was a major factor in the Rwandan Genocide.
- During British rule of Nigeria from 1900 to 1960, different regions were frequently reclassified for administrative purposes. The conflict between the Igbo and Hausa made it easier for the British to consolidate their power in the region.
While the Mongols imported Central Asian Muslims to serve as administrators in China, the Mongols also sent Han Chinese and Khitans from China to serve as administrators over the Muslim population in Bukhara in Central Asia, using foreigners to curtail the power of the local peoples of both lands. Pakistan and India were also divided by this policy.
The strategy of “Divide and Rule” was employed by most imperial powers in Indian subcontinent. The British and French backed various Indian states in conflicts between each other, both as a means of undermining each other’s influence and consolidating their authority. The Durand line divided Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan, the homeland of the Pashtuns.
Further, it is argued that the British used the strategy to destroy the harmony between various religions and use it for their benefits; a Times Literary Supplement review suggests that although this was broadly the case a more nuanced approach might be closer to the facts. In the same vein, Kashmiri Indian politician Markandey Katju wrote in The Nation:
It was Emperor Akbar who laid the foundation on which the Indian nation is still standing, his policy being continued by Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues who gave India a secular constitution. Up to 1857, there were no communal problems in India; all communal riots and animosity began after 1857. No doubt even before 1857, there were differences between Hindus and Muslims, the Hindus going to temples and the Muslims going to mosques, but there was no animosity. In fact, the Hindus and Muslims used to help each other; Hindus used to participate in Eid celebrations, and Muslims in Holi and Diwali. The Muslim rulers like the Mughals, Nawab of Awadh and Murshidabad, Tipu Sultan, etc were totally secular; they organised Ramlilas, participated in Holi, Diwali, etc. Ghalib’s affectionate letters to his Hindu friends like Munshi Shiv Naraln Aram, Har Gopal Tofta, etc attest to the affection between Hindus and Muslims at that time. In 1857, the ‘Great Mutiny’ broke out in which the Hindus and Muslims jointly fought against the British. This shocked the British government so much that after suppressing the Mutiny, they decided to start the policy of divide and rule (see online “History in the Service of Imperialism” by B.N. Pande). All communal riots began after 1857, artificially engineered by the British authorities. The British collector would secretly call the Hindu Pandit, pay him money, and tell him to speak against Muslims, and similarly he would secretly call the Maulvi, pay him money, and tell him to speak against Hindus. This communal poison was injected into our body politic year after year and decade after decade.
- The Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved the Middle East, is an example of a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.
- Some analysts assert that the US is practicing the strategy in the 21st century middle east through escalation of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Nafeez Ahmed cites a 2008 RAND Corporation study for the American military which recommended “divide and rule” as a possible strategy against the Muslim world in “the Long War.”  Dr. Christopher Davidson argues that the current crisis in Yemen is being “egged on” by the US, and could be part of a wider covert strategy to “spur fragmentation in Iran allies and allow Israel to be surrounded by weak states”.
- Romans entered Macedonia from the south and defeated King Perseus of Macedon in the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. Macedonia was then divided into four republics that were heavily restricted from relations with one another and other Hellenic states. A ruthless purge occurred, with allegedly anti-Roman citizens being denounced by their compatriots and deported in large numbers.
- During the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar was able to use a divide and rule strategy to easily defeat the militarily strong Gauls. By the time the Gauls united under Vercingetorix, it was already too late for them.
- Following the October revolution, the Bolsheviks engaged at various times in alliances with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, some anarchists, and various non-Russian ethnic nationalist groups, against the White movement, Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, and other anarchist and ethnic nationalist groups. This was done to establish the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the Bolshevik party) as the sole legal party in the Soviet Union. Similar shifting alliances were played out amongst various dissident factions within the CPSU, such as the Workers Opposition and Left Communists, with Joseph Stalin and his supporters gaining absolute power within the party by the mid-1920s.
- Alliances with various parties played a role in the Nazi Machtergreifung and Gleichschaltung, the seizure and consolidation of total power by the National Socialist German Workers Party. The Enabling Act, which banned the Communist and Social Democratic parties, was supported by the Nazis’ coalition partner, the German National People’s Party, as well as by the Centre Party. Several months later, all political parties in Germany were banned except for the NSDAP.
- The British Empire urged the Britons in British Cyprus to stir up the Turkish minority in order to neutralize agitation from the Greeks The British colonial policy of “divide and rule” cultivated intentionally animosity between the Greek majority and the Turkish minority (18% of the population) in the island that remains divided till today. A similar theme played out in Sri Lanka, where the British placed Sri Lankan Tamils (a local minority) in positions of power over the majority Sinhalese. This contributed to ethnic tension and ultimately violence, most notably on Black July.
- 1 §136 and 2 §225
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- Hall J It’s You and Me Baby: Narcissist Head Games The Narcissist Family Files 27 Mar 2017
- Ilia Xypolia. ‘Divide et Impera: Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions of British Imperialism’. Critique: journal of socialist theory, vol 44, no. 3, pp. 221-231, 2016. P. 221.
- Boddy, C. R. Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers (2011)
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- Shashi Tharoor – Inglorious Empire What the British Did to India
- Jon Wilson, 2016, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the chaos of empire, cited in a review of Tharoor’s work by Elizabeth Buettner in “Debt of Honour: why the European impact on India must be fully acknowledged”, Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 2017, pages 13-14.
- Markandey Katju. “The truth about Pakistan”. The Nation. Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
- Pernin, Christopher G.; et al. (2008). “Unfolding the Future of the Long War” (PDF). US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capability Integration Center – via RAND Arroyo.
- “The Pentagon plan to ‘divide and rule’ the Muslim world”. Middle East Eye. Retrieved 29 June 2018.
- “France: The Roman conquest”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 6 April 2015. Because of chronic internal rivalries, Gallic resistance was easily broken, though Vercingetorix’s Great Rebellion of 52 bce had notable successes.
- “Julius Caesar: The first triumvirate and the conquest of Gaul”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 15 February 2015. Indeed, the Gallic cavalry was probably superior to the Roman, horseman for horseman. Rome’s military superiority lay in its mastery of strategy, tactics, discipline, and military engineering. In Gaul, Rome also had the advantage of being able to deal separately with dozens of relatively small, independent, and uncooperative states. Caesar conquered these piecemeal, and the concerted attempt made by a number of them in 52 bce to shake off the Roman yoke came too late.
- Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin (2011). Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 285.
- Jordan, Preston Lim (2018). The Evolution of British Counter-Insurgency during the Cyprus Revolt, 1955–1959. Springer. p. 58.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 03.25.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.