Two Takes on Training the Ancient Warrior: Vegetius and Sun Tzu

If there’s one military maxim that has been proven time and again over many centuries of history, it is that the best trained militaries typically perform much better than their poorly trained enemies. It’s not a radical concept to understand, but what might surprise some people is how organized and committed certain commanders and societies were at training their soldiers. Two outstanding documents on training that have survived to this day are the well-known Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the not-as-well-known De Re Militari, by the Roman general Pulius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (or, simply, Vegetius). Both training manuals have a distinct style, and show us how two very different cultures held similar viewpoints regarding war.

Vegetius’s De Re Militari

Vegetius (5th century AD, around AD 435-450) and Sun Tzu (544 BC to 496 BC) have much in common because their goals are similar from the outset. Both generals wrote manuals describing the ideal conditions of conducting a campaign and managing men under their banners. This commitment to the ideal draws the philosophy of two men from different lands, cultures, and times together.

In the ideal, armies are made of disciplined troops, who are well supplied and organized, and who exercise caution and aggression at just the right moment. Of course, these ideal troops always operate from advantageous terrain, in the proper formation and end the battle victorious, with as few losses as possible to their side. They are controlled in pursuit of the fleeing enemy and they allow the enemy the opportunity to flee. An ideal campaign is not protracted and lengthy, and an army’s soldiers stay motivated and level-headed. These are goals that both Vegetius and Sun Tzu value and mention in their works. But that says more about military culture than the cultures of Rome and China. All militaries, with few exceptions, would agree to these commonalities, so it’s not surprising at all to find them in the works of both Vegetius and Sun Tzu.

What makes Vegetius and Sun Tzu different from many is that they placed value on educating others about war. They viewed their professional duties from a systematic standpoint, and did not place value on chance and random events. Both men believed, as Vegetius says, that “…he who hopes for success, should fight on principal, not chance.”[1] As both men held prominent positions as military leaders, this attitude reflects an appreciation in both cultures for reason, rule and order. The fact that these manuals were meant to be shared also reveals a value placed on education and literacy in both cultures, at least for the ruling classes.

Both men lived their lives in periods of time where warfare was common, even constant. Consider the references to war as an art form. The title of Sun Tzu’s work is “The Art of War.” Vegetius, in his final words of his manual, refers to the “art of conquest.”[2] If you had never encountered war before, and saw it for the very first time, would you refer to it as art? Probably not. War is chaotic, bloody, violent, and centered on death and destruction. Yet, Vegetius and the Chinese referred to war as art. Regardless of medium, art is almost always controlled, deliberate, expressive, inspired, and provokes thought and/or emotion. This is how the two men viewed war. How many conflicts would a person have to bear witness to, and be a participant in, before his point of view shifted from the fear and confusion of the first battle to the visionary experience of a master artist? How indoctrinated in war must these societies be in order for this viewpoint to seem normal?

Read either Sun Tzu or Vegetius and you will also encounter many references to how “the ancients”[3] did things or how the heroes who came before them conducted themselves in war. [4] This is indicative of cultures that share ancestor veneration in common. Ancestral altars and memorials are well-known features of both Roman and Chinese homes. Both cultures observe filial piety across all classes of society, and this tendency is reflected in the constant presence of the ancients in the works of Sun Tzu and Vegetius. Indeed, both generals may have acquired instant credibility for their views by linking them with the actions of respected figures from the past.

Sun Tzu

One of the main differences that is noticeable between Sun Tzu and Vegetius is how they operate in different planes. Sun Tzu is more strategic in view and his philosophy is ethereal and spiritual. He talks of balances and relationships between one variable and another, such as rest and exertion, union and separation, confidence and surprise. [5]  He draws parallels between war and nature [6] and makes references to ch’i.[7] He is the more cerebral of the two authors, and his philosophy seems to fall in line with the traditional Chinese emphasis on harmonious relationships.

Vegetius is more tactical in his recommendations, and his tone is flavored with traditional Roman practicality. This is exemplified in his general maxims, nearly all of which apply to common situations within a campaign’s ground-level operations. “Valor is superior to numbers.” “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.” “Novelty and surprise throw an enemy into consternation, but common incidents have no effect.”[8]

Many people have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and have attempted to apply the work to everything from organized sports to business. My personal view is that this is a less than ideal way to view this work. The Art of War is a relic of a particular place and time. So is De Re Militari. We can learn much from these works about how the Chinese and the Romans viewed war, the role of the commander, and how they viewed the men who served as soldiers in the rank and file. Of course, one can learn from both books and be influenced by the lessons within each, but I urge you to spend more time thinking about the time and the setting of both books, rather than how they apply to modern life. Both manuals are a gold mine of insight into the past, and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about ancient Romans and Chinese.

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[1] Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters, trans. John Clarke (St. Petersburg: Red and Black, 2008), 52.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Sun Tzu, “Chapter 3: The Art of Warfare” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (Boulder: Westview Press 1993), 163.

[4] Vegetius, 51.

[5] Sun Tzu, 158.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] Vegetius, 91.

 

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