Ancient Warfare Manuals

by Abigail Pfeiffer on January 25, 2011

On Roman Military Matters

Flavius Vegetius Renatus

On Roman Military Matters

Little is known about the life of Publius Flavius Vegetius, despite the fact that his military manual, On Roman Military Matters, was used by military leaders for several centuries, and is still read today. Knowing more about Vegetius as a person would help historians to understand why he wrote the manual. The manual is broken up into three parts: Book One is “The Selection and Training of New Levies,” Book Two is “The Organization of the Legion”, and Book Three is “Dispositions for Action.” He dedicates each section to the Emperor Valentinian as it is “…an old custom for authors to offer to their Princes the fruits of their studies…” The recommendations in the manual were collected from “the instructions and observations of our old historians of military affairs, or those who wrote expressly concerning them.” Since he wrote this work in the 5th century, and using observations of older historians, then we can conclude that this manual is a good military representation of the early Roman Empire.  While his manual was used for centuries after it was written, attesting to its usefulness, it is not without its flaws.

Book One is “The Selection and Training of New Levies” and Vegetius goes into detail about the qualities that make the best soldiers, as well as exercise, arms, and discipline. Vegetius credits the success of the Roman army to their discipline: “We find that the Romans owed the conquest of the world to no other cause than continual military training, exact observance of discipline in their camps and unwearied cultivation of the other arts of war.” He notes that their superior discipline helped make up for their lack of numbers and strength in comparison to their enemies. Discipline included constant drilling and “training them to every maneuver that might happen in the line and in action.” Vegetius contends that a soldier with knowledge of his profession and confidence in his training will have the most courage. To build the military, Vegetius gives directions about the proper selection of recruits, and where the best soldiers live. He states that the best soldiers for infantry are peasants because “no one, I imagine, can doubt that peasants are the most fit to carry arms for they from their infancy have been exposed to all kinds of weather and have been brought up to the hardest labor.” He believes that their simple upbringing and lack of “the sweets of life” make them less afraid of death.  This could be considered a generalization though, as there could have been cases of soldiers in the infantry who came from higher class backgrounds. Or were all the upper class soldiers automatically put in leadership positions?  Vegetius goes into specific detail about the physical traits for the soldiers: “The young soldier, therefore, ought to have a lively eye, should carry  his head erect, his chest should be broad, his shoulders muscular and brawny, his fingers long, his arms strong, his waist small, his shape easy, his legs and feet rather nervous than fleshy.” They preferred tall soldiers, but he noted that if having to choose between tall and strong, they would rather have a strong soldier than a tall soldier. Based on the detail that he went into on physical characteristics, we know that the Roman army put much importance on the strength and physical fitness of their soldiers. Having an army that is physically fit demonstrates the discipline that they ingrained in their soldiers. He goes on in Book One to detail exercises and drills, as well as the protocol for entrenching camp, concluding that “there being no part of discipline so necessary and useful as this.” More engineering detail in the actual building of the encampments would have been useful.  He gives directions on how to build camp when there is no danger from the enemy as well as when there is a threat from the enemy. He explains that if the enemy is a threat to the camp then a twelve foot ditch must be built around camp. But what should the soldiers do with the dirt? Couldn’t the mounds of dirt prove to be useful in some sort of defense? He doesn’t go into too much more detail about what to do after digging the trench.  Since encampments are certainly an important part of a military’s defense, then much more detail would demonstrate that importance. The book is based on ancient sources and he noted that “this valuable art is now entirely lost, for it is long since any of our camps have been fortified either with trenches or palisades. By this neglect our forces have been often surprised by day and night by the enemy’s cavalry and suffered severe losses.” If the art of building defenses around an encampment was lost then it would have been useful for Vegetius to go into much more detail for the good of the current and future military forces.

Book Two is “The Organization of the Legion” and details the difference between legions and auxiliaries, the decay of legions, the officers, the cavalry, the tribune, order of battle, records, deposits, promotion in the legion, and machines and tools of the legion. Vegetius did not express confidence in the auxiliaries because they came from different parts of the Empire. He felt that little could be expected from them since “each nation has its own peculiar discipline, customs and manner of fighting.” Vegetius ultimately believed that with the proper training and discipline these troops could be successful enough to be used in combat. This is a very egocentric view for Vegetius to take, assuming that because some soldiers come from different lands they cannot be the same caliber as the legions. But that can be understood especially since this book was written for the Emperor and Vegetius would want to demonstrate the superiority of the Romans above other peoples. The decay of the legion is a concern of Vegetius’ and he uses the success of the ancients to demonstrate the severity of the decline. “Care is no longer taken to replace the soldiers, who after serving their full time, have received their discharges. The vacancies continually happening by sickness, discharges, desertion, and various other casualties, if not supplied every year or even every month, must in time disable the most numerous army.” He appeals to the vanity of the Emperor in an attempt to improve the military: “The expense of keeping up good or bad troops is the same, but it depends wholly on You, most August Emperor, to recover the excellent discipline of the ancients and to correct the abuses of later times.”

Book Three is “Dispositions for Action” and is the most useful part of the book, in a combat sense, since he gives directions for actual combat situations. There are different formations given, as well as directions about provisions, preserving the health of the army, preventing mutiny, marching, passing of rivers, plan of operations, managing raw troops, tactics and what do in case of defeat. In this sense, Vegetius seems to have a realistic approach. He understands that there will be cases of defeat and victory can be recovered. “If while one part of your army is victorious the other should be defeated, you are by no means to despair, since even in the extremity the constancy and resolution of a general may recover a complete victory.” Vegetius writes that “An army may be drawn up for a general engagement in seven different formations.” A problem here would be that these seven formations are based off of the ancients and their battles, so perhaps there could have been formations from Vegetius’ time that would have useful as well. What is most interesting about this part of the book, is his section on General Maxims. These are small snippets of advice that stand on their own, but are useful nonetheless. An example is “An army unsupplied with grain and other necessary provisions will be vanquished without striking a blow.”

Overall “On Roman Military Matters” is a beneficial guide for some universal military tactics and strategy. For all the positives that this manual provides, there are some negatives. Vegetius wrote that he compiled this manual with the work of the ancients. The problem is that he apparently did not cite his sources, so modern historians do not know the validity of his sources. Also, since he stated that he wrote and dedicated this work for the Emperor, we do not know if he was writing it to solely please the Emperor or if he was truly trying to improve the army of his time. If he was writing specifically for the military then perhaps he would have gone into more engineering detail especially in the parts about the crossing of rivers and the building of encampments. Another question that this manual brings up is why did he write this book in the first place? It is very difficult to deduce the exact reasons he wrote this book. Was there information about his life that existed but was destroyed when the Roman Empire split into East and West? Was he trying to bring the army back to its former glory? Was he trying to demonstrate to the current army the error of their ways? Those questions are very difficult to answer, especially with the lack of evidence of the life of Vegetius.

Works Cited

Renatus, Flavius Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters. St. Petersburg: Red and Black  Publishers, 1767.


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