De Re Militari, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus

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Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
De Re Militari, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus
Translation by John Clarke

“[War is] an art without which no other art can possibly exist.”

De Re Militari (literally, “On Military Matters” but often translated into English as “The Military Institutions of the Romans” or something similar) is a late Roman military treatise by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who lived in the 4th century A.D. This book (actually a set of three short treatises) came to my attention in my readings of medieval history. De Re Militari was during the later Middle Ages among the most popular books dealing with matters of warfare.

It would seem that this book’s medieval owners kept it mainly as a desk ornament. A comparison of the De Re Militari with medieval strategy and tactics reveals a gaping gulf between them. Of course, Vegetius’s prescriptions for recruitment, among quite a few other things, could not have been translated to a feudal context.

Vegetius’s work is addressed to the emperor (the identity of whom is debated among scholars). His aim is to briefly provide a corrective to Rome’s declining military strength. He frequently alludes to the failures of the Roman army, and he is ever ready to compare the successes of the ancient Romans to the disgraces of the modern ones. This assessment is valuable for understanding from at least one angle the decline of the Roman empire. Vegetius blames poor generalship, a neglect of military exercise, soft and inexperienced soldiers, and he even hints boldly at corruption within the military establishment. In short, he blames Rome’s current disasters on Romans themselves having forgotten what made them great. At one point he laments that so much of what made the Romans victorious in the past is now only able to be retrieved from books.

The treatise goes into some detail describing modes of recruitment, troop numbers, their equipment, encampment, provisions, espionage and much more. Only in the last section does he deal with actual engagement with enemy forces.

As well as a crucially important document on the arms, armour and makeup of the Roman armies, De Re Militari is still a valuable military work. These days Sun Tzu steals all the sunshine. Sun Tzu is excellent, but he’s extremely brief. Read Vegetius and you’ll find many of the same principles that Sun Tzu teaches, but Vegetius expands on them, describing how they might be carried out, with heavy infantry here, light infantry there, and cavalry over there. If you’ve read Sun Tzu, quite a bit of what Vegetius says will sound familiar. To give only one example, Vegetius says that a skilled general will avoid battle, attempting instead to bring about the destruction of the enemy by other means.

Vegetius says of his work that it is compiled from historical authors. I haven’t read any ancient authors on warfare, so I’ll just take his word for it. The treatise ends with a list of general maxims, apparently collected from ancient sources, as well as the author’s own knowledge and experience. A few of these maxims are included below.

“It is the nature of war that what is beneficial to you is detrimental to the enemy and what is of service to him always hurts you. It is therefore a maxim never to do, or to omit doing, anything as a consequence of his actions, but to consult invariably your own interest only. And you depart from this interest whenever you imitate such measures as he pursues for his benefit. For the same reason it would be wrong for him to follow such steps as you take for your advantage.”

“It is much better to overcome the enemy by famine, surprise or terror than by general actions, for in the latter instance fortune has often a greater share than valour. Those designs are best which the enemy are entirely ignorant of till the moment of execution. Opportunity in war is often more to be depended on than courage.”

“Valour is superior to numbers.”

“Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.”

“Troops are not to be led to battle unless confident of success.”

“He who rashly pursues a flying enemy with troops in disorder, seems inclined to resign that victory which he had before obtained.”

“An army unsupplied with grain and other provisions will be vanquished without striking a blow.”

“Consult with many on proper measures to be taken, but communicate the plans that you intend to put into execution to few, and those only of the most assured fidelity; or rather trust no one but yourself.”

“To distress the enemy more by famine than the sword is a mark of consummate skill.”
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