Saturday 7 September 2013

Wargamer’s Texts I: De Re Militari – Part 1

One thing is clear, even at this stage: I have probably bitten off far more than I can chew here. This does not necessarily make the idea a bad one, or the attempt to do something sensible about the subject on the blog impossible, but the texts are dense and lengthy. So even reading De Re Militari is going to have to be broken up into parts.

One of the interesting things about reading De Re Militari is that, having read a fair number of secondary sources already, I can identify, at least in part, where some of the statements, claims and confident assertions that they make come from.  I hope that this confidence is not mis-placed.

For example, Vegetius makes the claim that soldiers even armoured soldiers, are more often ‘annoyed by round stones from the sling’ than by archery. This I already knew, and it had passed through my mind when writing Polemos: SPQR, where armoured troops get a bonus against ranged weapons except slings. Vegetius then advises that all troops be trained in the use of a sling, and that slings are of great service in sieges. Again, I have seen this elsewhere, and it does seem to originate in De Re Militari.

And so to the text itself. It is addressed to the Emperor Valentinian, in somewhat sycophantic terms. Vegetius does not (dare not?) presume that the Emperor needs instruction in the arts of war, but the work is designed to be an encouragement to others towards establishing the Roman Empire along the lines of the way it was done by the ancients.

This, it seems to me, is an important point about much ancient writing: it is backwards looking. Even innovations are presented as being ancient. For example, Tacitus is disparaging about second century Rome. It has gone soft. The ancients were tougher, less self-indulgent, more virtuous, than the current Roman. Even barbarians, the Germans, for example, of even women barbarians, such as Boudica (or however you spell her name this year) were the equal of the Romans in rhetoric, nobility of character and determination, even if they lost, as the Iceni did.

For Vegetius, then, the cause of the success of the Romans in the past was their discipline, training and organisation. This is what is missing (or, in deference to the Emperor, what needs to be encouraged) in current armies:
“A handful of men inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.”

Of course, this is a historical truism. One could, I suspect, derive the same point of view from Herodotus and his description of the Persian invasions of Greece. Herodotus regarded the Persians as being hordes, while the Greeks were the few, the heroic warriors, “inured to war”, who could defy the world.

Vegetius then discusses in some detail how to recruit and train good soldiers. They should be at puberty  (which was, I imagine, rather later than it currently is in the west, anyway), they should be as tall as possible (although strength is more important) and so on. Their soundness should be assessed and their trade investigated. Those with occupations properly belonging to women are to be excluded. They should ideally be of noble family and honourable, as they are then less likely to run away.

I suspect that Vegetius’ regime for training varies relatively little from today’s armed forces: they march a given distance in a given time. They take exercise, learning to leap and swim, and they have weapons training.

There is also a system of punishment for soldiers not performing. The ‘backward’ soldiers are to be put on barley rations. This does not sound too serious to us, but wheat bread was the food of the elite. Barley was coarser and harder to digest, as well as being harder to grind. I suspect that being given barley rations was a bit like being made to peel potatoes today.

Vegetius makes some interesting claims about armour, starting with the argument that negligence and sloth has caused troops to dislike it, and slack discipline has led to its being discarded. This has, in turn, leads to defeat by the arrows of the Goths (he has already argued that armour is good protections against arrows). Armour, then, must be restored and the troops exercised in it, as the legions of old used to do.

The entrenching of camps is also described. Although I have never read De Re Militari before, it is familiar from all those secondary sources. Which does raise the question: how reliable is Vegetius? For example, different sizes of the fortification of camps in different circumstances are described. A ‘slight’ ditch is nine feet wide and seven deep. Is this not rather substantial to most people? I am not aware of anyone seriously comparing the archaeology of Roman camps with these descriptions, which is a shame, as it would uphold, or otherwise, the veracity of the document.

Anyway, Vegetius also describes ‘evolution’, that is drills. Forming a rank and then doubling it, and doubling again and so on. A variety of formations are mentioned, and the point made that these are of great utility in action.

Finally, in another hearkening back to the glory days of old, Vegetius demands thrice monthly marches fort both horse and foot, over all sorts of terrain. These might even be described as military exercises; sometimes troops are to behave as if in pursuit, sometimes in retreat and so on. Again, I suspect this is not dissimilar to armies today.

So, there you are, the first part of De Re Militari. Two things in particular strike me. Firstly the extensive use made today of Vegetius when describing earlier Roman armies. Vagetius was writing in the fourth century (probably around 380 AD) two hundred years of so after the glory days he refers to. This is a bit like a modern author extolling the virtues of the armies of the Napoleonic era. It may be that Vegetius’ claims are untrue, as well. A text cannot be read in isolation.

Secondly, relatedly, is Vegetius’ constant hearkening back to the glory days of the Empire, where the legions conquered all. This seems to be a constant theme of military writers down the ages, to look back to an age when all the current problems were solved.

But we all tend to do that a bit, at least, don’t we?


  1. An interesting digest - I've only read the sections on swordplay myself.

    1. Thank you; always worth reading the whole thing, though.

  2. You are very right about texts not being read in isolation.

    One of my concerns about past texts is that since I do not read Latin or Greek etc, I am forced to rely on translations, often done by non-military writers who sometimes fail to grasp the difference in English between technical aspects of say spear, pike, javelin and lance for example when translating lancia or hasta.

    re ditch, there have been studies & digs but I've never really read into them. Some work in Scotland has rshow the ditch to normally be V shaped which substantially reduces the amount of earth to be moved.

    A pity Polybius Tactica did not survive, only his histories but even that is enough to make one wonder how much Vegitius cribbed from him.

    1. Yes, some of the Penguin Classics are annoying in that manner, insisting on translating pila as javelin and cohort as company, legion as regiment and so on. Much more confusing, even for the general reader, than sticking to the original terms, I think.

      Tune tune next week for Vegetius cribbing from Polybius; I think he took a lot from him on the legion, and I got confused thereafter. I'm hoping someone out there will be able to untangle me.