Divide and rule

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Tradition attributes the origin of the motto to Philip II of Macedon: Greek: διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε diaírei kài basíleue, in Ancient Greek, meaning "divide and rule"

Divide and rule policy (Latin: divide et impera), or divide and conquer, in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power divisively. Historically, this strategy was used in many different ways by empires seeking to expand their territories. However, it has been hard to distinguish between the exploitation of pre-existing divisions by opponents, and the deliberate creation or strengthening of these divisions implied by "divide and rule".

The strategy, but not the phrase, applies in many ancient cases: the example of Aulus Gabinius exists, parting the Jewish nation into five conventions, reported by Flavius Josephus in Book I, 169–170 of The Jewish War (De bello Judaico).[1] Strabo also reports in Geographica, 8.7.3[2] that the Achaean League was gradually dissolved when it became part of the Roman province of Macedonia, as the Romans treated the various states differently, wishing to preserve some and to destroy others.[citation needed]

Elements of this technique involve:

  • creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects to prevent alliances that could challenge the sovereign and distributing forces that they overpower the other.
  • 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

Uses of the phrase[edit]

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 its rule. Niccolò Machiavelli identifies a similar application to military strategy, advising in Book VI of The Art of War (1521).[3] (L'arte della guerra):[4] a Captain should endeavor with every act to divide the forces of the enemy. Machiavelli advises that this act should 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.[citation needed] It was utilised by the Roman ruler Julius Caesar[citation needed] and the French emperor Napoleon (together with the maxim divide ut regnes).[citation needed]

The strategy of division and rule has been attributed to sovereigns, ranging from Louis XI of France to the House of Habsburg. Edward Coke denounces it in Chapter I of the Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England, 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.] 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,[5] which summarized the thesis of The Federalist#10:[6] "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).[7]

Immanuel Kant refers this tactic in the Appendix I of his Perpetual Peace when describing the traits of a political moralist.

In economics, the concept is also mentioned as a strategy for market segmentation to get the most out of the players in a competitive market.[8]

Foreign policy[edit]

Divide and rule can be used by states to weaken enemy military alliances. This usually happens when propaganda is disseminated within the enemy states in an attempt to raise doubts about the alliance. Once the alliance weakens or dissolves, a vacuum will allow the state to achieve military dominance.


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.[9]

The principle "divide et impera" is cited as a common in politics by Traiano Boccalini in La bilancia politica.[10]

Psychopathy in the workplace[edit]

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.[11]

Historical examples[edit]


Mongol Empire[edit]

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.[12]

Indian subcontinent[edit]

Indian historians, such as politician Shashi Tharoor, assert that the British Raj frequently used this tactic to consolidate their rule and prevent the emergence of the Indian independence movement, citing Lord Elphinstone who said that "Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours."[13] A Times Literary Supplement review by British historian Jon Wilson suggests that although this was broadly the case a more nuanced approach might be closer to the facts.[14] The classic nationalist position was expressed by the Indian jurist and supporter of Indian reunification Markandey Katju, who wrote in the Pakistani paper The Nation in 2013:[15]

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.[15]

On the other hand, the Hindutva movement, allied to recent Indian governments, stresses strongly Hindu-Muslim conflict going back centuries before the arrival of the British. Likewise, historian John Keay takes a contrary position regarding British policy, writing:

Stock accusations of a wider Machiavellian intent to 'divide and rule' and to 'stir up Hindu-Muslim animosity' assume some premonition of a later partition. They make little sense in the contemporary context. 'Divide and rule' as a governing precept supposes the pre-existence of an integrated entity. In an India politically united only by British rule – and not yet even by the opposition which it generated – such a thing did not exist. Division was a fact of life. As Maulana Muhammad Ali would later put it, 'we divide and you rule'. Without recognising, exploring and accommodating such division, British dominion in India would have been impossible to establish, let alone sustain. Provoking sectarian conflict, on the other hand, was rarely in British interest.[16]

Similarly, General S.K. Sinha, former Vice-Chief of Army Staff, writes that contrary to what the notion of divide and rule would predict, the Indian Army was effectively integrated:

The undivided army was a unique institution set up by the British in India... [A]ll combat units, except Gorkhas and Garhwalis, had a mixed combination of Muslims and non-Muslims. They fought wars together and lived as friendly comrades in peace, owing loyalty to their regiments. Political developments with the emergency of the Congress and the Muslim League did not affect them. The Indian Army was totally apolitical till June 3rd 1947... In fact, during the Partition holocaust and till that date, both Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers remained totally impartial in dealing with communal violence. After June 3, 1947 things started changing.[17]

Middle East[edit]

Some analysts assert that the United States is practicing the strategy in the 21st-century Middle East through their supposed escalation of the Sunni–Shia conflict. British journalist Nafeez Ahmed cited a 2008 RAND Corporation study for the U.S Armed Forces which recommended "divide and rule" as a possible strategy against the Muslim world in "the Long War".[18] British historian Christopher Davidson argues that the current crisis in Yemen is being "egged on" by the United States government, and could be part of a wider covert strategy to "spur fragmentation in Iran allies and allow Israel to be surrounded by weak states”.[19][failed verification]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

The Ottoman Empire often used a divide-and-rule strategy, pitting Armenians and Kurds against each other.[20]



United States[edit]

Harry G. Broadman opined in Forbes regarding President Donald Trump: "[a]s in his campaign, the President has been successfully—at least to date—pursuing a divide and conquer strategy domestically and internationally to try to achieve his goals. The result is an absence of a robust set of checks and balances to ensure that the best economic interests of the U.S. and the world will be served."[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book I, section 159". Perseus Project. Retrieved 27 August 2011.
  2. ^ "Strabo, Geography, Book 8, chapter 7, section 1". Perseus Project. Retrieved 27 August 2011.
  3. ^ Machiavelli, Niccolo (2003). Thomas, Steve (ed.). The Art of War. Vol. 6. The University of Adelaide Library. Archived from the original on 25 June 2007.
  4. ^ "Dell'arte della guerra: testo – IntraText CT". intratext.com.
  5. ^ "Constitutional Government: James Madison to Thomas Jefferson". Press-pubs.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 27 August 2011.
  6. ^ "The Federalist #10". constitution.org.
  7. ^ "Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace: Appendix I". Online Library of Liberty. Online Library of Liberty. Archived from the original on 18 December 2020. Retrieved 11 October 2021.
  8. ^ Webber, Harry (19 June 1998). Divide and Conquer: Target Your Customers Through Market Segmentation. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-17633-6.
  9. ^ Xypolia, Ilia (2016). "Divide et Impera: Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions of British Imperialism" (PDF). Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory. 44 (3): 221–231. doi:10.1080/03017605.2016.1199629. hdl:2164/9956. S2CID 148118309. p. 221.
  10. ^ 1 §136 and 2 §225
  11. ^ Boddy, C. R. Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers (2011)
  12. ^ Buell, Paul D. (1979). "Sino-Khitan Administration in Mongol Bukhara". Journal of Asian History. Harrassowitz Verlag. 13 (2): 137–8. JSTOR 41930343.
  13. ^ Tharoor, Shashi (2017). Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Hurst. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-84904-808-8.
  14. ^ Wilson, Jon, 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, 11 August 2017, pages 13-14.
  15. ^ a b Markandey Katju. "The truth about Pakistan". The Nation. Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  16. ^ History of India, John Keay, pp. 464, 2010
  17. ^ The Partition of Soldiers, General S.K. Sinha, The Asian Age, 2015, [1]
  18. ^ "The Pentagon plan to 'divide and rule' the Muslim world". Middle East Eye. Retrieved 29 June 2018.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Cheterian, Vicken (2016). "Denial of violence. Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians 1789–2009, Fatma Müge Göçek, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 656, US$78.00 (hardback), HC 978-0199334209". Nationalities Papers. 44 (4): 652–654. doi:10.1080/00905992.2016.1158006. S2CID 156252380. Yet, irony of history, instead of chasing the Armenians from the eastern provinces to make a new home for the Balkan Muslim refugees, they practically eliminated Armenians and consolidated an ethnic Kurdish presence in eastern Anatolia. Having lost the capacity to practice imperial policies of "divide and rule", today Turkey finds itself face-to-face with Kurdish nationalism.
  21. ^ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 8.46.2
  22. ^ "France: The Roman conquest". 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.
  23. ^ "Julius Caesar: The first triumvirate and the conquest of Gaul". 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.
  24. ^ Edmund Maurice, C. (11 December 2019). "The Revolutionary Movement of 1848-9 in Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany: With Some Examination of the Previous Thirty-three Years".
  25. ^ Magocsi, Paul Robert (18 June 2010). A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples, Second Edition. ISBN 9781442698796.
  26. ^ Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin (2011). Imperial Endgame: Britain's Dirty Wars and the End of Empire. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 285. ISBN 978-0-230-30038-5.
  27. ^ Jordan, Preston Lim (2018). The Evolution of British Counter-Insurgency during the Cyprus Revolt, 1955–1959. Springer. p. 58. ISBN 9783319916200.
  28. ^ "International Justice: The Case of Cyprus". Washington, D.C.: The HuffPost. 13 May 2016. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  29. ^ McGreevy, Ronan. "100 years ago today the partition of Ireland was made official". The Irish Times. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  30. ^ University, Stanford (8 March 2019). "Partition of 1947 continues to haunt India, Pakistan". Stanford News. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  31. ^ Harry G. Broadman (29 June 2018). "We All Should Worry About Trump's 'Divide And Conquer' Trade Policy". Forbes. Retrieved 27 May 2021.

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