Epitoma Rei Militaris

By Flavius Vegetius Renatus

Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris is, essentially, an agitprop pamphlet written to inspire his nation to revert to the grand military tradition of their ancestors. The book seems to have been written during the reign of emperor Valentinian II (375-392) or Theodosius I (379-395 ). At least, it’s not clear to me which emperor Vegetius dedicated it to. Since the Sack of Rome occurred only a little later, in 410, we can conclude that he failed in his objective. But he did write a book that has been the constant companion of military leaders through the ages.

  • Author: Flavius Vegetius Renatus
  • Title: Epitoma Rei Militaris
  • Published: 2001 (1767)
  • Publisher: Mads Brevik (Penguin)

Recently, a fresh Dutch translation of Vegetius has been published. Of course, I only read the review and announcement on a Saturday evening, and I couldn’t rush out and buy it; so I went to Google and searched for Vegetius. There is no Vegetius in Project Gutenberg, but Mads Brevik has prepared an electronic version of the 1940 reprint of the 1767 translation of the first three books. Together with the Latin text, I was able to get my fix instantly. I bought the Dutch translation by Fik Meijer today, but haven’t read it yet.

According to my sources, Vegetius cribbed this comprehensive introduction to the best practices of the Roman army from a variety of sources: Cato the Elder, Cornelius Celsus, Paternus, Frontinus, and the regulations and ordinances of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian. The book is divided into four parts:

  • The Selection and Training of New Levies
  • The Organization of the Legion
  • Dispositions for Action
  • Attack and Defense of Fortified Places and Naval Operations

The fourth book is more of an afterthought, and consists of the two parts mentioned.

I have catalogued this review under Reference rather than Classics, because that’s how I used it. You see, I’m busy writing a novel, when not writing book notices, hacking or sleeping. The second one, to be exact. In this novel, a young woman becomes advisor to the emperor, and she brings with her a copy of the book Lua Kelamach — On War. It’s chock-full of good advice on selecting troops, training troops, organizing troops and deploying troops.

Sounds familiar? I invented this imaginary work before I’d even heard of Vegetius. In fact, I didn’t know about Vegetius until I read that review of the new translation in the newspaper, two weeks ago. Just as silly a coincidence as naming the setting of the novel Andal. The two books are so isomorph, that I fear that readers will assume I simply nicked Epitoma Rei Militaris

For my purposes, Vegetius, with his constant appeals to return to the rugged vigour of the ancients and their precise, smooth bureaucracy is perfect. That’s just the message Manxu is bringing to the emperor. As for the book’s worth as a guidebook to generals, who am I to argue? Plenty of military leaders throughout history have considered themselves military geniuses just because they’d got their Epitoma in their saddle-bags.

But if a general doesn’t know already that he should train his soldiers before going to battle, would he be able to learn that from a book?

Most of Vegetius advise boils down to: train your troops. Organize them. Pay them. Keep them well-fed and healthy. Don’t rush in, but use spies. Make sure your front-line men can be relieved when they’re tired. Stab, don’t hack. Make sure you’ve got a base to fall back to. Make sure you’re not surprised by the enemy. Make sure you reward good men, and punish slackers. Be vigilant. And, above all, be prepared.

Everyone know all those things already, don’t they?

In fact, the reason that Vegetius didn’t delve deeper into the res was that he wasn’t one of those rugged, well-trained, experienced officers he’s talking about. He might’ve been a comes, but he was also a hack, who gathered his book together from a wide variety of sources, and who didn’t check his facts any too well. Scholars more knowledgeable than me are quick to point out that part IV is mostly fiction. And when the going gets complex, as when describing the field formations of the Roman Army, Vegetius retreats behind a barrier of vague language — so vague in fact, that the Dutch translator had to consult subject experts because he couldn’t make chocolate from the Latin.

All in all, even these failings make the book more valuable for my purposes. You won’t hear me complain…