FLAVIUS VEGETIUS RENATUS

 

This article is taken from the 11th edition, Encyclopedia Britannica, with modifications in layout, and some added or re located text where noted with [*].

 
VEGETIUS (FLAVJKJS VEGETTOS RENATUS), a celebrated military writer of the 4th century. Nothing is known of his life, station and military experience, save that in MSS. he is called vir illustris and also comes. His treatise, Epitoma rei militaris, sive inslittttorurn rei militaris libri quinque, was dedicated to the reigning emperor. [* Most modern scholars believe that the emperor was Valentinian II (reigned from 375 to 392 CE), as Gratianus, the successor of Valentian I, is mentioned in Vegetius' work. Theodius I (r.379-95) is another possibility; and Valentinian III, in the fifth century is highly unlikely. A rough date of composition is about 390 CE, just before Rome was sacked by Alaric and his Goths, which is not mentioned in Vegetius' work.]

Vegetius' sources, according to his own statement, were Cato, Cornelius Celsus, Frontinus, Paternus and the imperial constitutions of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian. The book, which is a confused and unscientific compilation, has to be used with great caution, but is none the less invaluable to the student of the ancient art of war. [*Delbrück describes Vegetius as not being " ... a practical soldier and having "no insight into the matters about which he wrote. In fact, he could not possibly have had such knowledge, for the Roman army in the forms in which we have come to know it had ceased to exist for a long time." --- Delbrück's The Barbarian Invasions, History of the Art of War, vol 2, (Renfroe trans, , pp.202-3 ).]

The first book is a plea for army reform, and vividly portrays the military decadence of the empire. The third contains a series of military maxims which were (rightly enough, considering the similarity in the military conditions of the two ages) the foundation of military learning, for every European commander, from William the Silent to Frederick the Great. When the French Revolution arid the 'nation in arms' came into history, we hear little more of Vegetius. Some of the maxims may be mentioned here as illustrating the principles of a war for limited political objects with which he deals. " All that is advantageous to the enemy is disadvantageous to you, and all that is useful to you, damages the enemy"; " No man is to be employed in the field who is not trained and tested in discipline "; " It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises and care for difficult places {i.e. through manoeuvre) than by a battle in the open field "—maxims that-have guided the leaders of professional armies in all countries and at all times, as witness the Chinese generals Sun and Wu (see E. F. Calthrop, The Book of War, London, 1908). His " seven normal dispositions for battle," once in honour amongst European students of the art of war, are equally ludicrous if applied to present-day conditions. His book on siegecraft is important as containing the best description of late empire and medieval siege matters, and from it amongst other things we learn details of the siege engine called onager, which afterwards played a great part in sieges. The fifth book is an account of the material and personnel, of the Roman navy.

Manuscript versions of Vegetius's work were widely distributed in the Middle Ages prior to the invention of printing. While some of the work's proposed theories about army formations was obviously out dated -- and were probably even unworkable in the ancient era, it did serve as a rought guide toward conducting sieges and defending fortresses. Its rules of siegecraft were much studied in the middle ages.

Vegetius' work was translated into French, English, and various other Western European languages. It was among the first works to be printed when that capability became operative. Printed editions were known in Utrecht (1473), Ulm (1475), Cologne (1476), Paris (1478), Rome (1487), and Pisa (1488). An English version through the French was published by Caxton in 1489.

[*Such wide spread dissemination of his work ensured Vegetius's position among premier military critics for many years. As late as the18th century the eminent soldier, Marshal Puysegur based his own works on this acknowledged 'model', and the famous Prince de Ligne wrote " C'est un livre d'or."]

A full edition was published by Karl Lang (Leipzig, 1869). Reportedly the great 18th century military leader, Marshal de Saxe, 'rediscovered' cadence marching, which had been ignored for a thousand years in European armies. Most late 20th century military scholars agree with Delbrück's general assessment that the value of Vegetius is providing "a series of tenets basically and clearly expressed, which are very useful for military reflection or discussion." (The Barbarian Invasions, p.203).]

[* For the anglophone readers of today, Vegetius is available in The Military institutions of the Romans, by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, translated by Lieutenant John Clark [and published in London in1767], edited slightly by Brig. Gen. Phillips and published by Stackpole Books, Military Classic Series, 1944. This publication contains Books I through III only. Editor's explaination: "The fourth and fifth books, both very brief, deal with the attack and defense of fortified places and with naval operations. These are of interest only to military antiquarians and for that reason have not been included." However, the publicvation has a usefull introduction by Phillips. Without its full introduction, the same translation is available in Roots of Strategy, ‘Flavius Vegetius Renatus' The Military institutions of the Romans', pp.65-175, edited by Brig. Gen. T.R. Phillips (USA), Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, 1985 in paper .

 
 
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