The De Re Militari of Vegetius: A Classical Text in the Middle Ages: Christopher Allmand Considers the Long-Lasting Impact of the Great Study of Military Tactics and Organisation

By Allmand, Christopher | History Today, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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The De Re Militari of Vegetius: A Classical Text in the Middle Ages: Christopher Allmand Considers the Long-Lasting Impact of the Great Study of Military Tactics and Organisation


Allmand, Christopher, History Today


THE DE RE MILITARI (also referred to as the Epitoma Rei Militaris) of the late-fourth-century writer, Flavius Vegetius Renatus, is today not as widely known or appreciated as it deserves to be. Probably written as a call for military reform in the dying years of the Roman empire, it is in no real sense the work of an original thinker. Yet the De Re Militari, respected as an example of practical Roman culture, greatly influenced the medieval world. It was frequently read, and its proposals eagerly studied, by men of many backgrounds in the Middle Ages. Even in quite recent times it has been used in the education of soldiers at military academies. Today, 226 manuscripts of the Latin text (a large number for a classical text) survive, while translations into several European languages considerably increase that figure.

In Vegetius' view, an army generally owed its successes to the twin processes of good selection and sound training. The choice of suitable recruits was a task of weighty responsibility. As the first book states:

   ... the strength of the realm and the
   foundation of the Roman empire
   depend on the initial examination of
   the levy. Let it not be thought an
   unimportant duty, nor one which may
   be delegated to anyone, anywhere.

Once selected according to criteria which emphasised the recruit's moral and intellectual qualities, as well as his physical ones, the future soldier was put through a preliminary four-month period of intense training enabling him to learn skills that made him confident and ready to take part in war. Having passed a final assessment, he was tattooed and taken into service.

Vegetius was encouraged by his imperial master and patron (possibly Theodosius I) to write more. He obliged with a second book largely given over to the workings and administration of the ideal Roman army. Less directly relevant to later military practice, this book appealed rather less to a medieval readership in terms of what it taught. However, what it revealed regarding the day-to-day workings of the Roman army was appreciated by those interested in how the Roman empire had been won and defended. The book also contained practical advice that could be valuable:

   Every recruit without exception
   should in the summer months learn
   the art of swimming, for rivers are not
   always crossed by bridges, and armies,
   both when advancing and retreating,
   are frequently forced to swim.

Likewise, they must learn to cross difficult terrain, to run 'so as to charge the enemy with greater impetus', and to jump with a heavy pack on their backs, 'for both mobility and strength are thought to be required of the [soldier]'. Most important was the public role that Vegetius envisaged for soldiers who, once trained, took an oath:

   by God, Christ and the Holy Spirit ...
   that they will strenuously do all that
   the Emperor may command, will
   never desert the service, nor refuse to
   die for the Roman State ...

whose servants they became and whose remuneration they accepted.

Book III came to be regarded as the core of the work. It took as its basic premise the need to defeat the enemy, but to do this avoiding bloody battle as far as possible. Indeed, the duty of the general (the dux) was essentially to preserve 'the wealth of landowners, the protection of cities, the fives of soldiers and the glory of the State'. Not surprisingly, since Vegetius wrote when Rome was being attacked by exterior forces, he regarded war as being mainly defensive in aim and character. The famous statement that 'he who desires peace, let him prepare for war' derives from Vegetius. Yet the remainder of that statement is often ignored. It continues:

   ... he who wants victory, let him train
   soldiers diligently. He who wishes a
   successful outcome, let him fight with
   strategy, not at random. No one dares
   challenge or harm one whom he
   realises will win if he fights. 

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