Tuesday, December 20

Vegetius–the ancient Roman War Chronicler

You might have heard about Clausewitz or Sun Tzu and a whole host of other people who wrote on war, son. Vegetius was one of the ancient Roman historians. While there are debates about how good a writer he was, his book, De Re Militari, is a good exposition on how the early Roman Empire came to being. One can argue that the Roman military was one of the most successful in the world. So what did he say as general advice? Here are some of his maxims.

  • “Men must be sufficiently tried before they are led against the enemy.
  • Valour is superior to numbers.
  • The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.
  • Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.
  • An army is strengthened by labour and enervated by idleness.
  • Troops are not to be led to battle unless confident of success.
  • An army unsupplied with grain and other necessary provisions will be vanquished without striking a blow.
  • A general whose troops are superior both in number and bravery should engage in the oblong square, which is the first formation.
  • He who judges himself inferior should advance his right wing obliquely against the enemy's left. This is the second formation.
  • If your left wing is strongest, you must attack the enemy's right according to the third formation.
  • The general who can depend on the discipline of his men should begin the engagement by attacking both the enemy's wings at once, the fourth formation.
  • He whose light infantry is good should cover his centre by forming them in its front and charge both the enemy's wings at once. This is the fifth formation.
  • He who cannot depend either on the number or courage of his troops, if obliged to engage, should begin the action with his right and endeavour to break the enemy's left, the rest of his army remaining formed in a line perpendicular to the front and extended to the rear like a javelin. This is the sixth formation.
  • If your forces are few and weak in comparison to the enemy,you must make use of the seventh formation and cover one of your flanks either with an eminence, a city, the sea, a river or some protection of that kind.
  • When an enemy's spy lurks in the camp, order all your soldiers in the day time to their tents, and he will instantly be apprehended.
  • Consult with many on proper measures to be taken, but communicate the plans you intend to put in execution to few, and those only of the most assured fidelity; or rather trust no one but yourself.
  • Punishment, and fear thereof, are necessary to keep soldiers in order in quarters; but in the field they are more influenced by hope and rewards.
  • Good officers never engage in general actions unless induced by opportunity or obliged by necessity.”

You can see quite a lot of these maxims are dedicated to internal army organisation but some of these general points apply in real life as well, son.

For example, the first one is important, train your team before putting them into operations. By itself, size is of no matter, the courage and individual matters much more. Unfortunately, by itself, the individual or even the collection cant do much when we are talking about the nature of the ground – in business we refer to this as the macro economic environment or the regulatory landscape. Few men are born brave, but care, discipline and training can improve your staff members hugely. And so on and so forth.

The Roman Legions were a formidable force and has been fairly well documented as compared to other ancient armies such as of the Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, etc. Much to learn from them, son, much to learn. Much of western civilisation has descended from what these Roman Leaders and legions did.

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