Military Adventurism Brings Disaster To The Reckless

In the year 1260, Tuscany was engulfed in war.  The cities of Florence and Siena were engaged in mutual hostilities.  About twenty-five miles from Siena was located the small town of Montalcino, which happened to be a friend and ally of Florence.  The Sienese hoped that by staging an attack on Montalcino they might be able to compel the Florentines to send an expedition for its relief–an expedition that, they hoped, they could lure into a trap.  To this end, the Sienese government publicly announced their intention to move against Montalcino, and watched to see what the Florentine response would be.

The municipal government of Florence was not of one mind on how to deal with the crisis.  There were some who advocated for prompt action to relieve their ally; others, men with military experience, counseled against a rash intervention and pointed out that Florentine forces would be drawn through the countryside at the whim of their enemy.  They said that it would be imprudent and dangerous to be compelled to fight at a time and place that was not of their own choosing.  But as often happens in such situations, the voices of rashness and ignorance were loudest.  They berated the Florentine magistrates for their supposed inaction and excessive caution.  The humanist Leonardo Bruni, in his Latin History of the Florentine People, explains further:

The Florentine magistrates were, conversely, leaning towards sending an expedition.  They were of such a mind due to their lust for glory and false hopes of [the enemy’s] betrayal.  Exiles had secretly sent some men under false pretenses during the deliberations; these men came to Florence in the greatest secrecy.  [II.36].

These agents told the Florentines that the people of Siena were sick of war, and had no appetite for it, but that they were being led by strongman named Provinciano di Salvano who insisted on continuing the fighting.  However, the agents dropped hints that if the Florentines were to send an expedition to Montalcino, an uprising would take place in Siena, di Salvano would be deposed, and the war could be concluded.  Everything would turn out well; the outcomes could indeed be managed and controlled.  This is what they told the magistrates of Florence.  Leonardo Bruni tells us that some of the inexperienced magistrates, men who knew nothing of war, were enthusiastic to hear these kinds of statements.  These men Bruni scornfully describes as

Homines plebeios ac bellicarum artium ignaros, quales plerumque in magistratu esse solent.

In other words, “plebian types, and ignorant of the arts of war, the types that tend to proliferate in civil councils.”  They would not listen to the voices that advocated caution and restraint, but instead pushed for an immediate expedition to help their supposedly beleaguered allies in Montalcino.  But there were some men in the city with military experience, and sensed that Florence was being baited into a trap.  A man named Tegghiaio d’Aldobrando Adimari, who Bruni describes as a vir disertus et magnae per id tempus auctoritatis (“a well-spoken man of considerable authority at the time”), was chosen to make a direct appeal for caution to the Florentine magistrates.

Tegghiaio began his speech with an invocation to patriotism seasoned by realism and restraint.  Experts, he said, were unreliable because they saw everything except the larger picture:

No one was ever so knowledgeable about something, such that what he did know exceeded what he did not know.  [Nemo autem usque adeo gnarus rerum umquam fuit, quin eidem longe plura ignota quam cognita essent.]  Thus if something must be built, we speak with builders and architects; if we must go to sea, we find captains to guide us.  In war we must be even more careful in seeking sound counsel, since the dangers in waging it are that much greater.

In other types of enterprises, the damage can be more easily tolerated, so to speak, since the bad outcomes can be contained and repaired.  But besides everlasting disgrace, military mistakes produce death, wounds, and general ruin.  Catastrophic missteps of this type can never be wiped away or corrected; so you must be guided in a mature fashion, and must listen to those who have had long experience in such matters.  [II.39]

This was the warning that Tegghiaio conveyed to the magistrates of Florence.  He continued by saying that even though the planned expedition might be derived from good intentions, it nevertheless was “more audacious than prudent” (plus audaciae quam prudentiae).  All things considered, he told them, it was simply not a risk that Florence could take.  Its forces would be exposed to attacks on all sides, and it seemed that the Sienese would bring their German allies into the fight.  He continued:

To downplay the power of one’s adversary when forming plans is to delude oneself.  The harsh realities of war apply equally to all; and the luck of combat can go either way.  The military capability of the enemy is such that no one should reject them out of hand…[Verum communis mars et omnis fortuna pugnae anceps; copiae hostium tales, quas nemo sobrius aspernetur.]

A sounder policy was the protection of Florence’s own borders, where the city could be surer of victory; an expedition far away carried extreme dangers.  “To prefer peril to victory,” he said, “is sheer insanity.”

Bruni tells us that the magistrates did not receive Tegghiaio’s speech well, knowing as they did that it exposed their own stupidity and rashness.  There was even an arrogant upstart present named Expeditus, “the kind of man that excessive civil liberty can often produce.”  In typical fashion, Expeditus accused Tegghiaio of being a timid defeatist, a coward, and a subversive whose real goal was to shirk military service.  He poured derision on the sound advice that he had just been given, and had Tegghiaio and his delegation dismissed without any further discussion.  Bruni concludes that the magistrates chose to undertake the expedition very much out of a desire not to appear to be afraid of Siena.  Thus they sacrificed the safety of their people in order to appease their own vanity.

So the expedition went ahead, and all opposition was shouted down in a chorus of accusation.  A military force pitched camp near the river Arbia, which was about four miles from Siena.  Soon after this the Florentine force was hit by a surprise attack of Sienese with their German allies.  A disaster then unfolded; the Florentine line broke, and the expeditionary force was routed, despite much bravery on the Florentine side.  According to Bruni, about three thousand men died in the battle, with about four thousand taken prisoner; all of the equipment was captured.  When news of the disaster reached Florence, there was a wave of grief and anger that swept through the community.

There was no way to conceal the scale of the disaster from the public, and resentment ran high against those who had pushed for the expedition in the first place.  As often happens, those who were most vocal in promoting the attack were nowhere to be found; or, if they could be found, they took refuge in platitudes about doing their best in the circumstances.  It is a pattern that is not unfamiliar.  It is very easy to launch expeditions; bringing them to successful conclusions is another matter entirely.  There are many who believe that they can manage all possible outcomes of such enterprises; but this view ignores the lessons of history.  It remains nothing but a comfortable delusion that the hard reality of events will dissipate in due course.


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