The name of Flavius Vegetius is not so much popularly known today, though his influence is felt through the hands of other, more famous, writers and thinkers. He was seen as the most adept writer on the Roman mind in warfare, and his De re militari libri quator... was his masterpiece. It was reprinted in 1532 by Christian Wechel from sources reaching back to the original, which was written around 390 ACE, and found a wide readership not only for its authority on all things military/Roman but also for his iconic insights and aphorisms on warfare in general. It was Machiavelli who came under his spell and who adopted some of Vegetius, who became further disseminated through the military followers of Machiavelli, and so on.
I came to this work much more simply than all of this - I liked this image of the underwater warrior, who was somehow able to breathe while submerged. I get the importance of this sort of undercover, guerrilla maneuver, but what I really like was the rarity of seeing a Renaissance illustration of human submarine life, which is pretty uncommon. Also, the use of the lines to represent the underwater quality of the image—giving the woodcut an overall grey tone—is also very scarce in the history of illustration, at least before 1600. And very neat! One of the hallmarks of this printing of Vegetius was the liberal use of white space in many of the (119) woodcut illustrations, though it is clearly not on display in the woodcut that I’m sharing here.
Of further interest are the following excerpts of Vegetius from the 1767 English translation found at the Digital Attic website. I’ve selected four interesting bits on the selection of recruits, their initial training, the size of recruits and the need of the new soldiers to learn how to swim. I find them a fascinating insight into the appreciation of the raw military recruit from 1600 years ago.
The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari)
By Flavius Vegetius Renatus
The first thing the soldiers are to be taught is the military step, which can only be acquired by constant practice of marching quick and together. Nor is anything of more consequence either on the march or in the line than that they should keep their ranks with the greatest exactness. For troops who march in an irregular and disorderly manner are always in great danger of being defeated. They should march with the common military step twenty miles in five summer-hours, and with the full step, which is quicker, twenty-four miles in the same number of hours. If they exceed this pace, they no longer march but run, and no certain rate can be assigned.
But the young recruits in particular must be exercised in running, in order to charge the enemy with great vigor; occupy, on occasion, an advantageous post with greater expedition, and prevent the enemy in their designs upon the same; that they may, when sent to reconnoiter, advance with speed, return with greater celerity and more easily come up with the enemy in a pursuit.
Leaping is another very necessary exercise, to enable them to pass ditches or embarrassing eminences of any kind without trouble or difficulty. There is also another very material advantage to be derived from these exercises in time of action; for a soldier who advances with his javelin,.running and leaping, dazzles the eyes of his adversary, strikes him with terror, and gives him the fatal stroke before he has time to put himself on his defense. Sallust, speaking of the excellence of Pompey the Great in these particulars, tells us that he disputed the superiority in leaping with the most active, in running with the most swift, and in exercises of strength with the most robust. Nor would he ever have been able to have opposed Serrorius with success, if he had not prepared both himself and his soldiers for action by continual exercises of this sort.
TO LEARN TO SWIM
Every young soldier, without exception, should in the summer months be taught to swim; for it is sometimes impossible to pass rivers on bridges, but the flying and pursuing army both are often obliged to swim over them. A sudden melting of snow or fall of rain often makes them overflow their banks, and in such a situation, the danger is as great from ignorance in swimming as from the enemy. The ancient Romans, therefore, perfected in every branch of the military art by a continued series of wars and perils, chose the Field of Mars as the most commodious for their exercises on account of its vicinity to the Tiber, that the youth might therein wash off the sweat and dust, and refresh themselves after their fatigues by swimming. The cavalry also as well as the infantry, and even the horses and the servants of the army should be accustomed to this exercise, as they are all equally liable to the same accidents.
THE PROPER AGE FOR RECRUITS
If we follow the ancient practice, the proper time for enlisting youth into the army is at their entrance into the age of puberty. At this time instructions of every kind are more quickly imbibed and more lastingly imprinted on the mind. Besides this, the indispensable military exercises of running and leaping must be acquired before the limbs are too much stiffened by age. For it is activity, improved by continual practice, which forms the useful and good soldier. Formerly, says Sallust, the Roman youth, as soon as they were of an age to carry arms, were trained in the Strictest manner in their camps to all the fatigues and exercises of war. For it is certainly better that a soldier, perfectly disciplined, should, through emulation, repine at his not being yet arrived at a proper age for action, than have the mortification of knowing it is past. A sufficient time is also required for his instruction in the different branches of the service. It is no easy matter to train the horse or foot archer, or to form the legionary soldier to every part of the drill, to teach him not to quit his post, to keep ranks, to take a proper aim and throw his missile weapons with force, to dig trenches, to plant palisades, how to manage his shield, glance off the blows of the enemy, and how to parry a stroke with dexterity. A soldier, thus perfect in his business, so far from showing any backwardness to engage, will be eager for an opportunity of signaling himself.
We find the ancients very fond of procuring the tallest men they could for the service, since the standard for the cavalry of the wings and for the infantry of the first legionary cohorts was fixed at six feet, or at least five feet ten inches. These requirements might easily be kept up in those times when such numbers followed the profession of arms and before it was the fashion for the flower of Roman youth to devote themselves to the civil offices of state. But when necessity requires it, the height of a man is not to be regarded so much as his strength; and for this we have the authority of Homer, who tells us that the deficiency of stature inTydeus was amply compensated by his vigor and courage.