Saturday 5 October 2013

Texts for Wargamers I: De Re Militari Part 3

I confess to trying to delay the day of writing this post. Mostly, it is because while I have read the third part of De Re Militari, I did not sit down and write about it immediately, and hence have forgotten the detail. However, in the third part, Vegetius starts writing about armies and battles.

Immediately, this is a bit interesting. So far, a lot has been said about recruits, soldiers and units and their organisation. Now an army is being discussed. It seems to me that many wargame rules do not manage this sort of distinction very often. I have written before about the idea of emergence, and it is what Vegetius seems to be writing about.

Consider some older wargame rules. I do not want to pick on any specific rules, but some of the older ones start off with the capability of the individual solider. They then work their way up to a unit, with various caveats about how units move more slowly than the individual. Very often, the rules stop there. An army is nothing but the accumulation of a number of units. It has no particular identity over and above that.

I think that this may lap over into our wargames as well. As I recall, many of my early wargames were, effectively, battles of units. This unit may perform heroically, that might run away. There was some sort of acknowledgement of the fact that, for example, seeing another unit scarper had a dampening effect on the units around it. But there was no real engagement with the army as a whole.

An yet, historically, armies do have individual characteristics. For example, after the battle of Cropredy Bridge, Waller’s army disintegrated. The battle, to quote, I think, Clarendon ‘brake the heart of his army’. How could that be, unless the army as a whole could be treated as a whole?

Anyway, Vegetius prefers smaller, disciplined armies to larger ones. This is partly because he believes that disciplined troops can overcome numbers, and partly because smaller forces are easier to keep in supply. The bitter comment of a Thirty Years war commander sums this up: “Small armies lose, large armies starve.”

Vegetius spends a fair number of paragraphs describing how to keep the army in supply and preventing discontent in the ranks. Keep them fed and occupied, seems to be the message.

The question of movement is then discussed. This raises interesting questions about mapping. I have read some rather contradictory things about Roman maps. To start with, I have seen it confidently asserted that the Romans did not do maps. The closest they had were the itineraries, which simply listed the distances between the towns, forts, mansios and other items on a given route.  Of course, an army could use these for some sort of planning of movement, but they naturally peter out in the frontier territory.

On the other hand I have recently read confident assertions that military surveyors existed and would have done useful work in mapping routes, topographical features likely to be useful or awkward to the armies, and so on. Vegetius  says that an army commander should have an exact description “of the country that is the seat of war.” Well, yes, of course. That does sound very much like a map.

Various things in the campaign and pre-battle are then discussed, such as making encampments, determining the ‘sentiment’ of the troops before an action, and dealing with raw and undisciplined troops. This latter sounds like something of an admission that, despite the claims made earlier in the pieces about discipline and smaller numbers of troops, very often the later Romans landed up with ill-disciplined troops.

Quite a bit follows about how to deploy, which is ‘obvious’, or at least would be regarded as pre-modern obvious deployment. For example, if you have more cavalry, deploy on open ground; if not, use rough ground, and so on.  Force to space rations are discussed, although not named as such; troops should be deployed in deeper units if the ground is narrow. Cavalry should flank the infantry, heaviest nearest the foot. There should be a reserve.

The general should be on the right, between the infantry and cavalry, and he should be able to manoeuver his troops as required. There is a bit about not letting your left to get surrounded, while the right is less frequently in danger. The right, of course, is the most honourable side (hence the presence of the general). How many wargame rules establish that the best troops should go on the right? I cannot think of any…

Anyway, Vegetius then discusses seven different formations for the army, including an oblong square, oblique (refusing the left flank), refusing the right, which is ‘not so good’. Others are advancing both wings, , advancing both wings with the gap covered by light foot and archers, advancing just the right wing (presumably the best troops) to outflank the enemy left, and securing one flank on terrain.

Vegetius also comments that facilitating flight of the enemy is a good idea, discusses how to retreat and how to deal with chariots and elephants. He then leaves us with some general maxims, which reiterate some of the previous points.

So, a quick canter through De Re Militari. What have I learnt?

Firstly, that a fair bit of Vegetius’ writing have passed, consciously or not, into current historiography and, either hence or directly, into wargame rules. On the whole I have no problem with this, except to observe that Vegetius was not a general, strictly speaking, and his observations on earlier armies may be a little suspect, or at least, from my reading of him, viewed through rose coloured spectacles.

Secondly, that the issues and problems he discuss are not specific to his times, they do apply more widely, as we see repeatedly in history. Armies need to be fed, trained and disciplined before they can achieve anything.

Finally, Vegetius influence may not be as wide as we might like to think. While he was the main military writer of the medieval period, that does not seem to mean that his maxims were followed. I have seen it suggested that his main legacy to medieval warfare was the idea that war could be conducted in a rational manner. After all, we do not see many legions in the thirteenth century…


  1. Fascinating as usual.
    The thing about maps - strikes me that the itineraries would be perfectly adequate when using an established road network, but how did they know where to plant the roads in the first place without mapping the area? Could it be that, once an area was settled, they no longer needed maps?

    There always seems to be a strong feeling of nostalgia in Roman writers, doesn't there? They all seem to be longing for a lost golden age when life, the army, politics, etc was more honest, efficient and civilised and everything was generally better than 'now'.

    1. I think that a lot of Roman culture was based around a golden age, when men were men, women were women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centurii were...

      Well, you get the idea.

      I'm currently reading Mattingley's 'Imperial Possession' where he does suggest that the military surveyed captured land and divided it up, and that some sort of record was kept for tax purposes. Additionally, law disputes could be about ownership of land, so some sort of map, diagram or sketch of the disputed place must have been available.

      The thing that strikes me about Roman roads, however, is that they simply knew where they wanted to go and went there, ignoring all boundaries, etc. That, it seems to me, is pretty aggressive stuff, a symbol of the might of Rome in itself, saying 'This is Rome. We don't give a stuff,' and if you did you risked a gladius in the guts.

  2. Is there any evidence at all that Vegetius significantly influenced any military commander? That a commander did something specifc differently to his predecessors and that something can be directly attributed to Vegetius?


    1. I can't answer with specifics (too late in the evening to look for references!) but Vegetius is referred to a lot in works on the 18th century. For example, the notion of the "golden bridge" to allow an enemy to retreat thus acheiving your territorial objective without the risk of further action.
      When regular armies were not trained to fight in extended order or use much initiative, and with poorly articulated army structures, sometimes it was better not to pursue too hotly. Victorious armies could be just as disorganised after a battle as the loser's.
      So this part at least of Vegetius probably made sense to commanders and thiinkers in the 18th C.

    2. I'm not aware of any specific influence, but the idea that war could be planned, approached rationally and outcomes planned for was influential. My verdict of Vegetius is "much read but little used", although we have to be careful; he was part of the discourse of war in medieval times, so influence may well have been indirect.

      How is that for not answering?

    3. I'm just curious as to how we should think of Vegetius, whose directly attributable influence seems to be almost nil, as compared with Clausewitz, whose theories have influenced actual strategies and doctrine.

      Indirect influence is always problematic, unless we can discern an obvious change which is inexplicable by other means I suppose.

      The golden bridge is a good idea and has echoes in military thought even today - however, I can't ever remember someone attributing those ideas as derived from Vegetius (although this may clearly be ignorance on my part rather than a fair reflection of his influence).

    4. I suspect that the problem is that Vegetius' work is both too specific (tied to late Roman practice and looking back to earlier Romans), and too general for us to spot any direct influence. After all, armies need to be fed, trained and so on.

      However, we do know that he was widely read in the medieval period, so the question is not whether Vegetius had influence, but how it was manifested.But I can't think of any specifics, either.

      The suggestion is, therefore, that Vegetius formed part of Lynn's 'military discourse' of the medieval period, rather than had a specific influence, as a field guide to battles.

  3. The point being 'knew where they wanted to go'.

    True, they were pretty aggressive about where they went - no compulsory purchase orders for these boys - but it's the non-human obstacles they needed to have mapped.

    1. I'm not sure but I am beginning to suspect that the Romans usually had a pretty good idea of where they were going most of the time. I would guess that merchants, diplomats and patrols to make sure that everyone was friendly beyond the imperial boundaries picked up much of the necessary topography. I don't think Roman armies moved in a vacuum.

      I think there was some sort of Roman concept that the world was owned by Romans, and so frontiers didn't really apply to them. But there is an interesting discussion of maps in Susan Mattern's 'Rome and the enemy', although at a strategic level.

  4. I'll confess that this is the first time that I've heard it suggesting, even in jest that Vegetius' survey of republican army organization was an important part of the book. In an age before printing when books were rare and expensive I suspect commanders like Henry II, Richard Lionheart, various of Charlemagne's commanders carried it with them in the field for guidance on campaign not for the pictures or the historical trivia or for advice on re-organizing armies which would usually have required powers beyond their own to accomplish anyway. It would have been for the advice on how to conduct a campaign and how and when to offer or not offer battle and so on. The formations shown are of course not parade ground ones but rather plans for battle, refused flanks, attack en echelon, oblique order, even double envelopment ala Hannibal. No doubt if dozens of other texts had been available Vegetius would have been in less demand.

    re discipline, a read of Caesar quickly leads to the conclusion that even at the height of their power the Roman soldier was apt to get over excited, get into trouble then panic if not kept in hand by his officers.

    1. I think that the problem is that it is rather hard to find specific aspects of Vegetius' thought which are applicable to medieval warfare, rather than the various generalisations about supply and battles. I'm not even sure I can think of a battle where the formations are consciously adopted.

      So my suggestion is that Vegetius' work was part of the discourse of the times, not used as an actual military manual, however much we as wargamers or amateur military historians may like to think it was. I read a review of Allmand's recent book on the medieval reception of Vegetius, and his view (as filtered through the reviewer, admittedly) was that the direct impact of Vegetius was limited.

      The book itself is way out of my price bracket, though.

    2. It would be nice if we had a memoir saying "yup got that move from Vegetius". Really hard to measure the effect on decision to stand here or attack there or where to place latrines or how scouts were used, there just isn't the detail. I still find it hard to believe that for about 1,000 years generals read the book and brought it on campaign (and there is evidence of that apparently,) because it was trendy. esp since for the first 700 of these we are talking hand copied manuscripts.

      Allmand's book does sound interesting. The snippets viewable on google books suggest some important practical and philisophical influences. Must add to my mental, 'keep an eye out for' list and check the library.

      Since the book remained well thought of at least into the 18thC (my copy was by the US army during WWII who thought it still relevant), it would be interesting to try (somehow) to find evidence of what was thought important since by that date there were all sorts of printed manuals to choose from.