We know almost nothing of the life and career of the Roman military writer Vegetius. Historical references in his books suggest that he flourished in the late fourth century A.D. His work on Roman military affairs, De Re Militari (On Military Science) is a revealing window on the state of the empire’s military preparedness in its author’s era.
Gibbon (Decline and Fall, Ch. XXVII) speaks respectfully of Vegetius, calling him “a military writer who had accurately studied the genuine and ancient principles of Roman discipline.” The five books of the De Re Militari were dedicated to the Emperor Valentinian; they contain much that is obsolete, of course, but here and there are studded with timeless observations that cannot fail to enlighten our own confused age. We will discuss some of the moral factors that he identifies in the first book of his treatise.
Discipline. The secret to Rome’s preeminence in military affairs, he notes, was iron discipline:
We find that the Roman people brought the whole world under their sway for no other reason than their exercise of arms, the discipline of the camps, and an attention to the other military arts.
Nulla enim alia re videmus populum Romanum orbem subegisse terrarum, nisi armorum ex exercitio, disciplina castrorum, usuque militiae [I.1]
Other nations may have had certain advantages over Rome, but they could never equal her in discipline:
The Spaniards surpassed us not only in numbers, but in strength of body. We were always inferior to the Africans in wealth, and the resources of subtlety and stratagem: and the Greeks, beyond dispute, were far superior to us in a genius for arts, and all kinds of knowledge. But to all these advantages the Romans opposed an unusual care in the choice of their levies, and in their instruction in the use of their arms. They thoroughly understood the importance of hardening them by continual practice, and of training them in the Field of Mars to every evolution that might happen in the line and in action. [I.1. Trans. by J. Clarke]
The Romans took military matters seriously, and devoted to them unending attention. Rigorous training, they understood, was a matter of life and death. Anyone sending men into battle without proper instruction can expect only disaster:
No one fears to do that which he is sure he has been well prepared for. Indeed in warfare, a small number of well-trained men is more ready for victory; but a multitude of inexperienced and untrained men is invariably exposed to slaughter.
Nemo facere metuit, quod se bene didicisse confidit. Etenim in certamine bellorum, exercitata paucitas ad victoriam promptior est; rudis et indocta multitudo, exposita semper ad caedem. [I.1]
How should be best men be acquired and trained? Vegetius offers specific guidance. The age of puberty is the ideal age to initiate military training; for at this stage of development, the mind is most impressionable. With regard to a man’s size, his height is not as important as the robustness of his body; an examination of his face, eyes, limbs, and deportment will often tell us a great deal. Vegetius notes with anger and sadness the decline of Rome’s military in his own time, and places the blame squarely on the effects of luxury, moral corruption, and apathetic leadership:
An army raised without proper regard to the choice of its recruits, was never yet made good by length of time: and we are now convinced by fatal experience, that this is the source of all our misfortunes. So many defeats can only be imputed to the effects of a long peace which has made us negligent and careless in the choice of our levies; to the inclination so prevalent among the better sort in preferring the civil posts of the government to the profession of arms; and to the shameful conduct of the superintendents, who, through interest or connivance, accept any men which those who are obliged to furnish substitutes for the soldiery choose to fend, and admit such into the service as the masters themselves would not even keep for servants. Whence it appears, that a trust of such importance should be committed to none but men of merit and integrity. [I.7. Trans. by J. Clarke]
Exercises and Training. Recruits should be thoroughly taught how to drill and perform maneuvers, with special attention to the kind of running and leaping found in actual battles. Becoming a proficient swimmer is also critical, since soldiers will often be required to ford streams or rivers, both in the advance in when exhausted in the retreat. Training in weapons cannot be emphasized enough. A slashing motion with the sword is far less effective than a thrust, which only requires several inches of penetration to be fatal.
The Armatura. Thorough drill with various weapons (a system called the armatura) should be the backbone of peacetime camp life. Those who excelled in the performance of the armatura were rewarded, Vegetius notes; those failing to measure up were put on diminished grain rations. Training with swords, the javelin, and the sling should receive equal attention. So-called “loaded javelins” (i.e., javelins weighted with lead, or martiobarbuli) were used to improve strength and throwing balance. Soldiers should also practice vaulting on and off wooden horses to improve their dexterity in battle. Every man should be able to carry a pack long distances; the minimum load was around sixty pounds, although the Roman pound was somewhat lighter than the English pound. In the end, enemies respect only superior force:
For it is not the splendor of our clothing, or a profusion of gold, silver, or gems, that may incline our enemies to respect us or show gratitude—this can only be accomplished by the terror of our arms. [I.13]
Vegetius notes with disgust just how far military prowess has declined in his own time. Unlike in ancient times, he observes, the Roman infantrymen of his own day were too bodily weak to wear appropriate armor. “Negligence and sloth” on the part of military commanders had done serious damage to the legions. Their ineptitude left the men exposed to the missiles of the Goths, Huns, and other mounted enemies:
From the foundation of the city till the reign of the emperor Gratian, the foot [soldiers] wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armor too heavy, as they seldom put it on.
They first requested leave from the emperor to lay aside the cuirass, and afterwards the helmet; in consequence of which, our troops, in their engagements with the Goths, were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows: nor was the necessity of obliging the infantry to resume their cuirasses and helmets discovered, notwithstanding such repeated defeats, which brought on the destruction of so many great cities. [I.20. Trans. by J. Clarke]
The Consequences of Neglect. Vegetius closes his comments in the first book with an ominous warning about the inevitable results of the neglect of the martial virtues:
To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which are now subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits, and infused into them, a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.
Nor will it appear surprising that this alteration should have happened in latter times, if we consider that the peace, which lasted about twenty years or somewhat more, after the First Punic War, enervated the Romans, before everywhere victorious, by idleness and neglect of discipline to such a degree, that in the Second Punic War they were not able to keep the field against Hannibal. At last, after the defeat of many consuls, and the loss of many officers and armies, they were convinced that the revival of discipline was the road to victory, and thereby recovered their superiority.
The moral corruption bred by indolence, luxury, and a long peace is an old theme in history. The concerns of Vegetius are shared by us today; like him, we look upon the state of military preparedness, and the contemporary social scene, with ever-increasing alarm. Physical fitness levels in the youth have plummeted; social agendas have been given preference to readiness and performance; and political leaders seem unconcerned that military recruitment levels have fallen to dangerously low levels. The question is whether reforms can be instituted before the arrival of disaster, or whether, as human nature is ill-suited to the recognition of unarrived dangers, a cataclysm must take place before a people recovers its senses. It is question that will be of the utmost significance for the United States in the coming years.
To hear this essay read by the author, click here.
Read more about character and the martial virtues in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha: