The name Justus Lipsius is not one on most people’s lips. It is not even one on most philosopher’s lips, nor on military historian’s. I doubt if there are many wargamers who have heard the name, either. As I hope to demonstrate, this is a bit of a shame, and he could probably be usefully more widely known.
As a quick Google search will show you, Lipsius was born in the Low Country in 1547 and died in 1606, having spent his life as a humanist scholar in various institutions, both Catholic and Protestant. Aside from being caught up in the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Dutch Revolt, his main claim to fame is the revival of Stoicism as a viable intellectual approach to the problems of his own day. He also had some influence on the way in which we think about ourselves, which had a knock on effect on the state and how it works.
Of course, Lipsius did not work alone. There was a good deal of intellectual and theological ferment at the time. By the 1590’s, the Dutch (along with other states) had a real problem. The nature of the war against Spain was such that cities needed permanent garrisons and, as these cities were also the paymasters, they needed to get along, more or less, with the civic authorities. This, however, was not the way of life of the usual sorts of mercenaries and adventurers (and, for that matter, the young gentlemen for who a bit of military service was the completion of their education).
The intellectual movement of humanism, and the Renaissance generally, had brought the works of the classical world back into circulation. The Roman army held particular fascination for some humanists, and it was only a matter of time before they started to propose Roman methods for the armed forces. The first writer, apparently, to suggest something specific, at least to Dutch ears, was William Lodewijk, who proposed volley tactics based on Roman methods of javelin throwing.
The use of Roman tactics, however, required a bit of a change in military training. Before this, such training had consisted of individual weapon training, and perhaps the ability to march in assorted directions. What, perhaps, was somewhat lacking was exacting training of the soldiers as a unit. The counter-march method of discharging muskets in the general direction of the enemy required a higher discipline than was generally seen and, along with the issues around fixed garrisons started to demand some degree of standardisation.
This standardisation focussed around weaponry and ammunition, where the Dutch rapidly became suppliers to the world, and also in drills for the troops. Thus we get, for example, the drill books, most notably of Jacob de Gheyn. I am sure you know the one I mean, or at least its illustrations of musket and pike drill. It turns up in all sorts of seventeenth century texts.
Lipsius was a leading scholar in the middle of all this, translating Seneca. His own work draws heavily on Seneca and the Stoics, as well as Tacitus. Lipsius, for example, argued that the Stoics, and Seneca in particular, were practically Christians. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. It has been quite seriously suggested that Seneca and St Paul met when the latter was incarcerated in Rome, and letters between them have been circulated (although they were forgeries, of course). Nevertheless, the Stoics were part of the intellectual Hellenic background against which Seneca and St Paul moved, and some bits of Stoic style thinking have been detected in Acts and some of the letters.
The Stoic doctrine of self-discipline, however, is the most interesting from this point of view. Lipsius argued, via Seneca, that steadfastness is the vital personal quality or virtue required in an age where everything is chaos. This requires the disciplining of the self to treat whatever happens outside the soul as irrelevant, the energy of the self being directed to maintaining peace and tranquillity. The parallels between this and some of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are reasonably striking.
These cross-currents, therefore, came together in the changes we do see in the Dutch military system in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Discipline was increased, along with more regular payment of troops. There were changes in tactics, although their efficacy could be disputed. However, the reforms were adopted quite widely over the next fifty years or so, as the influence of them spread via Germany to Sweden, although it should be noted that the Spanish troops in the southern Low Countries also had to adapt to similar conditions, and found similar solutions.
So what is the point of all this, and why write about it on a wargaming blog?
Firstly, I think it is important to note that, while Lipsius was not a soldier, his writings did have influence on how soldiers thought about their craft, and also on how rulers considered their state and what it should do. Thus soldiers started to become employees of the state, rather than employees of a mercenary captain who was hired by the state.
Secondly, it starts me wondering about how troops behaved before the sort of discipline described above had these classical underpinnings. While Roman soldiers may well have been bred as Stoics, the intervening thousand years or so was not a hotbed of intellectual activity (although not as intellectually arid as might be thought).
Now, I am sure that the reforms did not happen overnight, and did not spring from nowhere, but I have written before about our toy soldiers being the perfect Stoic warriors, putting themselves on the line time after time, no complaining, no widows and orphans making claims, and so on. I suspect that many of our sets of rules are written in the same vein. This is how we expect troops to behave and react, stoically.
Now this may very well be true, but what happens to our rules and wargames if it is not? We like to speak of units, even when the only unit might be a lance of mixed cavalry and infantry, who may have marched, camped and even trained together, but in battle was split up into single arms units. What if these people were trained, not in Stoic virtues, but in either chivalry or some sort of hierarchical obedience? And what happens if that hierarchy is disrupted?
I am not saying that our rules, our views of medieval battle and armies are necessarily wrong, but maybe we have been looking at them through Stoic glasses.