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“De Re Militari,” or “The Military Institutions of the Romans,” is a description of the Roman army written in ancient times by Vegetius. It’s a fascinating read. It gives the reader an insight into the Roman army, its organization, strategy and training. It’s an invaluable historical source, but it also has a very contemporary feel to it. That’s because so much of what Vegetius describes is still very relevant. It’s even relevant to our situation at Fort XYZ, preparing to go to Iraq.
Modern armies face the same organizational challenges as the Roman army. Rather than re-invent the wheel, much modern military organization has been copied from the ancient Romans. When you read Vegetius, it seems obvious. The modern U.S. Army, including those of us who’ve been preparing for Iraq duty at Fort XYZ, owe a great debt to the ancient Romans.
Vegetius begins by explaining the key to the Romans’ military greatness:
“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it. We find that the Romans owed the conquest of the world to no other cause than continual military training, exact observance of discipline in their camps and unwearied cultivation of the other arts of war. Without these, what chance would the inconsiderable numbers of the Roman armies have had against the multitudes of the Gauls? Or with what success would their small size have been opposed to the prodigious stature of the Germans? The Spaniards surpassed us not only in numbers, but in physical strength. We were always inferior to the Africans in wealth and unequal to them in deception and stratagem. And the Greeks, indisputably, were far superior to us in skill in arts and all kinds of knowledge.
“But to all these advantages the Romans opposed unusual care in the choice of their levies and in their military training. They thoroughly understood the importance of hardening them by continual practice, and of training them to every maneuver that might happen in the line and in action. Nor were they less strict in punishing idleness and sloth. The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary, numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.”
What Vegetius says about discipline and training are as true now as when they were written. He also offers recommendations for military training:
“The first thing the soldiers are to be taught is the military step … the young recruits in particular must be exercised in running. …”
Today, soldiers train on various weapons – so did the ancient Romans. Vegetius tells us they trained on swords, javelins, slings and some on bows and arrows. He also writes about the Roman army’s use of catapults, temporary bridges and the various tools the Roman soldiers carried with them. Vegetius writes that “… the legion should carry with it wherever it moves whatever is necessary for every kind of service so that the encampments may have all the strength and conveniences of a fortified city.”
And he writes: “To accustom soldiers to carry burdens is also an essential part of discipline.”
As today, road marches were part of training:
“It was a constant custom among the old Romans, confirmed by the Ordinances of Augustus and Hadrian, to exercise both cavalry and infantry three times in a month by marches of a certain length. … They made these marches not in plain and even ground only, but both cavalry and infantry were ordered into difficult and uneven places and to ascend or descend mountains, to prepare them for all kinds of accidents and different maneuvers that the various situations of a country may require.”
More on training:
“In short, both legionary and auxiliary troops should continually be drilled in cutting wood, carrying burdens, passing ditches, swimming in the sea or in rivers, marching in the full step and even running with their arms and baggage, so that, inured to labor in peace, they may find no difficulty in war. … In war, discipline is superior to strength.”
Here is Vegetius’ description of a centurion, the leader of 100 infantrymen: “The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short, for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright.” Bible students will find this interesting, as several Roman centurions are mentioned in the Gospels and Acts.
Record-keeping was also important in the Roman army, as it is in today’s U.S. Army:
“Several posts in the legion requiring men of some education, the superintendents of the levies should select some recruits for their skill in writing and accounts … for the whole detail of the legion, including the lists of the soldiers exempted from duty on private accounts, the rosters, their tour of military duties and their pay lists, is daily entered in the legionary books. … The daily guards in time of peace, the advanced guards and outposts in time of war, which are mounted regularly by the centuries and messes in their turns, are likewise punctually kept in rolls for that purpose, with the name of each soldier whose tour is past, that no one may have injustice done him or be excused from his duty by favor.
“They are also exact in entering the time and limitation of furloughs. …”
If you’re interested, I recommend you find a copy of Vegetius and read for yourself. To close this article, let me share this quite telling comment from “De Re Militari”:
“… No great dependence is to be placed on the eagerness of young soldiers for action, for fighting has something agreeable in the idea to those who are strangers to it. …”