Ancient History & Civilisation



‘THE PERSONALITY OF THE GENERAL IS INDISPENSABLE, HE IS THE HEAD, HE IS the all of an army. The Gauls were not conquered by the Roman legions, but by Caesar.’ Napoleon’s verdict is unsurprising, since he identified so strongly with the idea of the ‘great man’ shaping the world around him and saw parallels between his own career and the great figures of antiquity. From the Enlightenment onwards European education, art and culture was dominated by stories of the classical world, and the history of Greece and Rome was often told as a sequence of episodes dominated by one or two individuals – the philosophers, statesmen or generals, such as Socrates and Plato, Pericles and Demosthenes, Philip and Alexander, or many of the Romans we have discussed in the preceding chapters. Ancient biographers like Plutarch concentrated on the character of a subject and how his – always ‘his’ since the significant characters of antiquity celebrated in the sources were invariably men – virtues led to his successes and how his flaws led to any failures. In an age when learning, combined with the determination to implement its lessons, seemed to offer a way to understand and improve the world, the emphasis on the inner strength of the individual was highly attractive.

For Napoleon his own talent and will – even his star – shaped his rise from obscurity to supreme power in France and permitted the subjugation of almost all of Europe. We may point to other factors which made all this possible – the political chaos of the Revolution creating a vacuum of power at the centre; the introduction of massed conscription which provided him with armies of a size previously unimaginable; the military reformers who laid the foundations for much of the strategy and tactics which would make La Grande Armée so formidable – but acknowledging their importance does not force us to the conclusion that Napoleon’s character and talents were irrelevant. He did not create from thin air the corps d’armée system which permitted his armies to outmanoeuvre more clumsy opponents, or the imperial staff which co-ordinated their movements, but he certainly set his distinctive stamp upon them. The staff in particular was based around him and the written orders dispatched from it worded in his own idiosyncratic way. In a real sense the spirit of Napoleon imbued his army in a way that few of his opponents could match. The warfare of the period was obviously shaped to a great degree by more practical things – sheer numbers of soldiers and the ability to train, move and supply troops with food, clothes, weapons, ammunition, all of which cost a state money – and Napoleon himself remained ever aware of this. Yet this does not alter the fact that the conflicts of those years cannot be understood without some allowance for the personality of the emperor.1

In a similar sense there is at least a degree of truth in the claim that it was Caesar who conquered Gaul. As we have seen, there was a strong element of chance leading to Caesar’s fighting a Gallic rather than a Dacian war, and his own desire for glory to serve his political ends influenced many of his decisions, most notably to attack Britain. It could be argued that the Roman Republic’s drive to expand was bound to lead to the conquest of Gaul at some time, so that if Caesar had not begun this in 58 BC then someone else would have done it later. Yet this would imply an inevitability about the course of history which would remove from human beings any real independence of action. In this scheme underlying trends and pressures – perhaps social, ideological, economic, or conditions created by developments in technology, a rising or declining population, or shifts in climate and changes in the environment – dictate that events must happen, effectively removing the human element from history altogether.

Such a view is extremely difficult to square with observation of the real world, for life is full of conscious and unconscious decisions, all of which have consequences. Furthermore people vary hugely in their reactions and abilities, even when they appear to come from a very similar background and environment. In war, as perhaps in no other activity, the capacity of each actor to influence events is obvious, since the consequences of their decisions and actions tend to be dramatic. If Caesar had not conquered Gaul another Roman commander might have done so at some future time, but he would not have done it in precisely the same way as events occurred between 58 and 50 BC. Caesar’s personality, and indeed that of everyone involved on both sides, helped to shape the course of his campaigns, but the man at the top of a hierarchical organization inevitably has more influence than any other single individual. Essentially we have returned to our starting point to say that leaders and generals matter, and that they were and are a significant, if not necessarily decisive, factor in determining the course and outcome of a conflict.

In this book we have looked at a number of conflicts and individuals during centuries of expansion, consolidation, and finally struggle against collapse. Warfare and generals were ever present in Roman history. Rome’s rise and fall would surely still have happened even if the fifteen men discussed in this book had died in childhood, as did so many of their contemporaries, or been killed whilst leading their armies. Yet their careers and victories represented important stages in this process and did much to determine the detail of the way in which this occurred. At various times the appearance of especially talented or determined leaders injected higher levels of purpose and momentum into Roman war-making than was the case in other periods. Men like Marcellus, Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus helped Rome to endure Hannibal’s onslaught and finally to defeat Carthage. Pompey and Caesar may ultimately have torn the Republic apart, but they also added more territory to the Empire than any other leaders. Augustus publicly justified his new regime through conquest as much as through the claim to have restored internal peace and stability.

War and politics remained inseparably linked since there was no greater service that a leader of the State could perform than to defeat an enemy in war. In late antiquity the old tradition of a mixed civil and military career had been abandoned, and yet even so Belisarius was made consul by a grateful Justinian on his return from Africa. War was frequent in the ancient world and the State needed able men to win its campaigns. In all periods this brought prestige which could be turned to political advantage. The senatorial aristocracy which provided Rome’s generals for so many centuries prided itself on the virtus which fitted its members for high command, but was never very comfortable with individuals whose martial prowess outshone their peers by too great a margin.

It is instructive at this point to survey the fate of our fifteen subjects. Two were killed in skirmishes – Marcellus by the Carthaginians and Julian perhaps by his own side – and Trajan died of natural causes whilst on campaign, as did Marius soon after taking Rome. Three were murdered – Sertorius by some of his own officers, Pompey by orders of Ptolemy’s courtiers, and Caesar by a conspiracy of senators – and another, Corbulo, was ordered to commit suicide by Nero. Scipio Aemilianus and Germanicus both died amidst rumours of poison, Titus unlamented by the brother who succeeded him. Fabius Maximus remained in politics, but the end of his long life was tinged with jealousy for the growing fame of Scipio Africanus. The latter was prematurely forced out of public life into bitter retirement, as in some ways was Belisarius. The last years of Aemilius Paullus were scarred by the opposition he had been forced to overcome in order to celebrate his triumph, and even more by the death of his two sons. In battle Roman commanders directed their troops from just behind the fighting line, a position of some danger. Surviving this and winning great glory brought further perils that were no less real.


We must confess Alexander, Caesar, Scipio and Haniball, to be the worthiest and famoust warriors that ever were; notwithstanding, assure your selfe … they would never have … conquered Countries so easilie, had they been fortified as Germanie, France, and the Low Countries, with others, have been since their daies.

Even as Sir Roger Williams wrote his Briefe discourse of Warre in 1590 and hinted that new developments in warfare – most notably modern fortifications and improved cannon – had lessened the relevance to contemporary commanders of exempla from antiquity, many other military theorists were actively seeking to learn from the Greeks and Romans.2 This was not entirely new, since Vegetius’ late fourth-century Epitome of Military Science had been one of the most frequently copied secular manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. It is difficult to establish the extent to which Vegetius’ ideas actually influenced the behaviour of medieval captains on campaign, but he was certainly well thought of by the literate community. Many of his recommendations, for instance avoiding battle except in the most advantageous circumstances, and withdrawing behind well-provisioned fortifications until an invader ran out of food and had to retreat, were certainly characteristic of medieval warfare. However, the leaders who put these into practice may well have based their decisions on experience rather than the advice of a Roman theorist.

By the sixth century Roman warfare had itself become characteristically medieval, with relatively small armies, looser discipline than in earlier years, and a prevalence of raiding and other small-scale operations over larger battles. Medieval kingdoms lacked the wealth, resources and degree of centralization needed to field armies resembling in any way those of Rome at her height. It was not until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that conditions began to change as states became more sophisticated and fielded ever larger armies. Traditional methods of controlling armies proved impractical as numbers of soldiers grew, a problem made worse by the much greater need for order if the new light firearms were to be wielded effectively. Literacy was becoming more widespread, access to books and pamphlets made far easier by the introduction of the printing press. Some ancient authors were rediscovered, and many made more accessible by translation into modern languages. By the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries leaders like Maurice and William of Nassau in the Netherlands and Gustavus Adolphus in Sweden were consciously trying to turn their armies into forces based on the discipline, organization and tactical system of the Roman legions. In 1616 John Bingham published an English translation of The Tacticks of Aelian which included not only diagrams showing pikemen in seventeenth-century dress performing the individual movements, but also a section on how the ancient drills had been adapted for use in the Dutch service. The cover was even more direct, for it depicted Alexander the Great handing over his sword to Maurice of Nassau.

With armies designed after the Roman model – or at least after what the military reformers thought was the Roman model – it is unsurprising that in many ways commanders can be observed acting in a rather Roman way for several centuries. At the head of armies rarely numbering more than 30,000 men moving in close formation, they too could see most of a battlefield. Many of the conditions within which the general operated, and his capacity to control his troops, had not changed – telescopes would improve visibility, but at the same time the clouds of smoke produced by black powder weapons reduced this. Communication was still no faster than the speed of a dispatch rider. The staff who assisted a leader were usually, as in Roman times, drawn from family and friends, comparatively few in number, unspecialized in purpose, and lacking any formal training. It seems doubtful that Caesar or Pompey would have found the battlefield of Gustavus Adolphus or Marlborough so very different from their own experience, or indeed vice versa.

The seventeenth- or eighteenth-century commander was still similarly mobile, moving to a vantage point to observe or riding along behind the line, trying to guess where the next crisis or opportunity would occur and placing himself in the best position to respond. Through personal observation, sending an officer to look on his behalf, and reports sent by his subordinates controlling each section of the line, the general attempted to understand the battle, committing as appropriate the units which, like any Roman leader, he had kept in reserve. At times he might ride forward and lead a charge. Some commanders through temperament or sense of obligation did this more often than others, though most who led in this way would, like Gustavus Adolphus, eventually be seriously wounded or killed. The development of modern artillery ensured that even leaders who remained behind the line were still at far greater risk of injury than their Roman counterparts.

It is easy to find many occasions when seventeenth- or eighteenth-century commanders acted in a way strongly reminiscent of Roman leaders – the gesture of grabbing a standard in an effort to rally a fleeing or faltering unit became as much an artistic cliché in this era as it had been a literary motif for the Romans. It was also in reality a practical method of trying to stop routers. It is much harder to say whether they did this because most were well educated in the classics and consciously emulated heroes of the past as Julian the Apostate had done, or whether similar battlefield conditions simply produced similar responses.

Yet in some respects eighteenth-century warfare differed markedly from Roman conflicts. Much of the formality, cautious manoeuvring, and reluctance to risk battle of the eighteenth century has more in common with the tentative campaigns of Alexander’s Successors than the ruthless determination with which Rome usually waged war. Another difference was in the relationship between the leader and his soldiers. Military discipline as it developed in the military revolution of the early modern era was shaped by the problem of employing hand-held firearms effectively. Muskets were of limited range – their introduction had not really provided infantry with a weapon any more effective than the bow, but it was much easier to train musketeers than archers. They were also extremely inaccurate and slow to load, so that a single rank of musketeers might easily be overwhelmed by charging enemy (especially cavalry) before they had fired more than one shot. Therefore, methods were devised requiring infantry to deploy in several lines which would fire and load in turn, at first often by moving through the rank ahead before giving fire. Over time, improved methods of loading lowered the number of ranks needed to present a near constant fire on the enemy from as many as ten down to three or two, but these developments if anything diminished accuracy. In the eighteenth century line infantry did not aim (most muskets did not even have a sight), but simply levelled their piece and fired straight forward. The assumption was that a volley from closely packed ranks was bound to inflict damage on a similar formation as long as it was close enough.

Drill was intended to make all the movements of marching in formation and loading a musket mechanical, for unless everyone coordinated their actions the result would be confusion and probably many accidental injuries. Discipline was therefore extremely rigid, since the intention was to turn the soldier into an automaton, virtually a ‘walking musket’. Although marching in step and keeping formation were important in the Roman army, victory in hand-to-hand combat did not come purely from such tight drills. Initiative and individual aggression were, under the right circumstances, actively encouraged by the Roman military, for often the actions of a few men represented the difference between victory and defeat. One of the Roman general’s most important tasks was to act as witness and judge of the behaviour of individual soldiers. The army’s tactical system gave the commander a vital role in co-ordinating the units under his command and encouraged him to intervene at a low level if necessary. However, this was never at the expense of discouraging a high degree of initiative in subordinate officers at all levels. The role of legates, tribunes, prefects and centurions was vitally important. One of the reasons why a general could afford to ride up and down the line trying to direct events at what he judged to be the most crucial section of the fighting was his confidence that subordinate officers would act appropriately to control the troops in other sectors of the battlefield.

The Roman aim was to have somebody inspiring and directing the troops at every point – the army commander’s authority and prestige gave him the potential to instil more purpose into events than anyone else, but many others were capable and willing to take charge when he was occupied elsewhere. There were unwise subordinates as there were unwise generals, and sometimes acts of initiative by a junior officer made the situation worse or led to defeat (and at Gergovia in 52 BC had provided the army commander with an excuse for failure). Yet on the whole the activities of the general and subordinates complemented each other to give the army far greater flexibility than any of its opponents.

Only in the late eighteenth century did something of this flexibility return to European armies. Through the corps d’armée system Napoleon was able to control effectively the strategic movements of armies more than twice the size of anything which had been possible using more traditional methods, or for the Romans. By its nature this required the granting of far more freedom of action to his subordinates and especially the corps commanders. Yet the army was not so large that the emperor was unable to see and be seen by most of his soldiers. On campaign he spent a good deal of time in the saddle, and his formal and informal visits to units usually culminated in the immediate promotion or decoration of individuals. Though only a handful of the soldiers of La Grande Armée ever found the marshal’s baton they supposedly carried in their backpack, enough men had spectacular careers to convince the rest that courage and ability were both noticed and rewarded. Discipline was important, but not intended to be so tight that blind obedience stifled all initiative, an ethos that had much in common with that of the Roman army.

Napoleon’s propaganda and rhetoric was markedly classical and particularly Roman – triumphal arches, reliefs showing the triumph of wreathed victors, eagles as standards and classically inspired helmets for some units. Napoleon had a wide knowledge of military history, including that of the ancient world, and listed Caesar amongst the great captains from whose campaigns much could be learned about generalship. His order of the day at Austerlitz – ‘Soldiers, I shall in person direct all your battalions; I shall keep out of range if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy; but if the victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself in the front rank’ – could easily have come from a Roman general. Napoleon was most active before a battle, bringing about the circumstances in which his army could smash the enemy, and left much of the tactical handling of the actual fighting to subordinates. The sheer size of his armies, especially in some of the later campaigns, encouraged this, making it important for the Imperial Headquarters to be fairly static and so easy for messengers to locate.

Wellington, who in most cases led smaller forces and had a far less numerous and efficient staff with which to control them, acted during a battle in a very Roman style. At Waterloo he was very mobile, riding around close to the front line, trying always to be at the critical point, issuing orders and receiving reports wherever he happened to be, and intervening wherever he thought appropriate, even at times at a very low level – ‘Now Maitland, now is your time!’ The British accounts of the battle mention the sudden appearance of the duke, although his was certainly not a style of leadership encouraging too much initiative from his juniors.3

After Waterloo it became impossible for an army commander to direct a battle in such a personal way, at least in Europe where the growing power of the nation state, combined with developments such as railways and telegraphs, produced armies numbered in hundreds of thousands and eventually in millions. At the same time improvements in weaponry rendered traditional close formations suicidal and increased the size of the battlefield. Battles were now fought over distances that made it impossible for a commander to observe the entire action in person. Only indirectly could he now lead his men, and many of the tasks of closely supervising and inspiring the soldiers as they fought were now left solely in the hands of subordinates. Yet the classics continued to form a central part of education, including the military education provided for young officers in a number of countries, and most military men had some familiarity with the great campaigns of the Greek and Roman past. A direct influence on their behaviour is in most cases difficult to prove, since merely performing an action similar to something once done by Scipio or Pompey may simply provide an indication that good and successful leaders often act in much the same way. Indirect influence, however distant is hard to dispute, for the classical tradition ran so deep in Western culture. The many leaders who modelled themselves on Napoleon, for instance Havelock, McClellan, and even ‘Boney’ Fuller, were copying a man who had closely associated himself with the great leaders of history.

Military theorists in the post-Waterloo era were as divided as those of the Renaissance over the relevance of Greek and Roman warfare to their theme. Clausewitz saw the formal battles of antiquity, usually joined through mutual consent, as having little in common with modern war. Yet for all his influence on the Prussian and later German military, the study of military history, including that of the ancient past, became established as a vital part of a staff officer’s education. In the extreme case of Von Schlieffen, the quest to draw practical lessons from ancient battles reached a level close to obsession. The interest in the past was especially deep in the German army, and it should not be forgotten that in the same period German scholars dominated most fields of study into the ancient world, but they were not alone. The influential French theorist Ardant du Picq took many of his examples from Roman battles because he believed that the ancients were more willing than more modern sources to tell the truth about men’s behaviour in battle.4

The world has changed since the nineteenth century, and one of the greatest shifts has been the falling from wider consciousness of the classics. Yet it is still not unknown for military writers to seek lessons for the present day from the wars of Rome. In one sense the increased probability that Western armies will fight asymmetric warfare against opponents less sophisticated than themselves, rather than wars against those with similar tactical systems and levels of technology, creates a situation not unlike that faced by Rome. For much of its history the Roman army was better equipped and, even more importantly, far more organized and disciplined than its enemies. In Victorian parlance many Roman campaigns were ‘small wars’. Perhaps it is in the way that such operations were conducted, rather than in the famous battles against Carthaginians or Macedonians, that lessons for the present day should be sought.

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