Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. II.: Of the Science of War, as practised by the Romans. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. II.: Of the Science of War, as practised by the Romans. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters) 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 3.
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Of the Science of War, as practised by the Romans.
AS the Romans devoted themselves entirely to war, and considered it as the only science, they therefore bent all their thoughts, and the genius with which they were informed to the improvement of it doubtless a god, says * Vegetius, inspired them with the idea of the legion.
They judged that it would be necessary to arm the soldiers who composed the legion with weapons whether offensive or defensive, of a stronger and † heavier kind than those of any other nation.
But as some things must be done in war, which a heavy body is not able to execute, the Romans would have the legion include within itself a band of light forces, which might issue from it in order to provoke the enemy to battle, or draw back into it in case of necessity; they also would have this legion strengthened with cavalry, with archers, and slingers, to pursue those who fled, and compleat the victory; that it should be defended by military engines of every kind, which it drew after it; that every this body should entrench itself, and be, as Vegetius * observes, a kind of strong hold.
But that the Roman soldiers might be able to carry heavier arms than other men, it was necessary they should become more than men; and this they became by perpetual labour, which increased their vigour, and by exercises that gave them an activity, which is no more than a just distribution of the strength we are invigorated with.
It is observed in this age, that the † immoderate labour which soldiers are obliged to undergo, destroys our armies; and yet it was by incredible labour that the Romans preserved themselves. The reason I take to be this; their toils were continual and uninterrupted, whereas our soldiers are ever shifting from the extremes of labour to the extremes of idleness, than which nothing can possibly be more destructive.
I must here take notice of what authors ‡ relate concerning the training up of the Roman soldiery. They were inured to the military pace, that is, to walk twenty miles, and sometimes four and twenty, in five hours. During these marches, they carried burthens of threescore pounds weight; they habituated themselves to running and leaping, armed cap-a-pee; in their § exercises they made use of swords, javelins and arrows, double the weight of common weapons; and these exercises were carried on without intermission.
The camp was not the only military school; there being, in Rome, a place in which the citizens used to perform exercises, (it was the Campus Martius:) after their fatigues * they plunged into the Tiber, to accustom themselves to swimming, and cleanse away the dust and sweat.
We have no very just idea of bodily exercise: the man who assiduously applies himself to it, appears to us rather in a contemplible light, inasmuch as the far greater part of his exercises have for their object nothing more than self-gratification: whereas, among the ancients, every exercise, even down to that of dancing, made a part of the art military.
With us moderns a deep knowledge in the use of warlike weapons is become ridiculous; for since the custom of single combats was introduced, fencing has been regarded as the sciences of quarrelsome fellows or cowards.
Those who criticise Homer for inspiring his heroes with strength, dexterity and agility of body, should hold Sallust ridiculous, who celebrates Pompey † for running, leaping, or carrying a burthen as well as any man of his time.
Whenever the Romans thought themselves exposed to any danger, or were desirous of repairing some loss, it was a constant practice among them to invigotate and give new life to their military discipline. Are they engaged in a war with the Latins, a people no less martial than themselves? Manlius reflects upon the best methods of strengthening the command in the field, and puts to death his own son, for conquering without his orders. Are they defeated before Numantia? Scipio Æmilianus immediately removes the several blandishments, which had enervated them. Have the Roman legions passed under the yoke at Numedia? Metellus wipes away their ignominy, the instant he has obliged them to resume their ancient institutions. Marius, that he may be enabled to vanquish the Cm bri and the Teutones, begins by diverting the course of * rivers; and Sylla employs in such hard labour his soldiers, who were terrified at the war which was carrying on against Mithridates, that they sue for battle, to put an end to their hardships.
Publius Nassica made the Romans build a fleet of ships, at a time when they had no occasion for such a force: these people dreaded idleness more than an enemy.
Aulus Gellius † gives no very good reasons for the custom among the Romans of letting soldiers blood who had committed a fault; the true reason is, that strength being the chief qualification of a soldier, this was the means of adding not to his weakness, but to his disgrace.
These men thus inured were generally healthy and vigorous: we do not find by historians, that the Roman armies, which waged war in so great a variety of climate, fell often a prey to diseases; whereas in the present age we daily see armies, without once engaging, perish and melt away, if I may use the expression, in a single campaign.
Desertions are very frequent among us for this reason, because the soldiers are the dregs of every nation, and not one of them possesses, or thinks himself possessed of, a certain advantage which gives him a superiority over his comrades. But among the Romans they were less froquent; it being scarce possible that soldiers, raised from among a people naturally so haughty and imperious, and so sure of commanding over others, should demean themselves to such a degree, as to cease to be Romans.
As their armies were not great, they were easily subsisted: the commander had a better opportunity of knowing the several individuals; and could more easily perceive the various faults and misdemeanours committed by the soldiery.
The violence of their exercises, and the wonderful roads they built, enabled them to make long and speedy marches. Their sudden presence damped the spirits of their opposers they shewed themselves, especially after some unfortunate event, at a time when their enemies were in that state of negligence which is generally consequent on victory.
In the battles fought in our age, every single soldier has very little security and confidence, except in the multitude; but among the Romans, every individual, more robust and of greater experience in war, as well as more inured to the fatigues of it, than his enemy, relied upon himself only. He was naturally endued with courage, or in other words, with that virtue which a sensibility of our own strength inspires.
As no troops in the world were, in any age, so well disciplined, it was hardly possible that in a battle, how unfortunate soever, but some Romans must rally in one part or other of it; or, on the other side, but that the enemy must be defeated in some part of the field: and, indeed, we find every where in history, that whenever the Romans happened to be overpowered at the beginning, either by numbers, or the fierceness of the onset, they at last wrested the laurel out of the enemy’s hand.
Their chief care was to examine, in what particular their enemies had an advantage over them, and when this was found, they immediately rectified it. They accustomed themselves to behold the blood and the wounds of the gladiators. The cutting swords * of the Gauls, and the elephants of Pyrrhus intimidated them but once. They strengthened their cavalry † first, by taking the bridles from the horses, that their impetuosity might be boundless; and afterwards by intermixing them with Velites * : when they understood the excellence of the Spanish † sword, they quitted their own for it. They baffled all the art of the most experienced pilots, by the invention of an engine which is described by Polybius. In fine, as Josephus observes ‡ , war was a subject of meditation to the Romans, and peace and exercise.
If any nation boasted, either from nature or its institution, any peculiar advantage, the Romans immediately made use of it: they employed their utmost endeavours to procure horses from Numedia, bowmen from Crete, slingers from the Baleares, and ships from the Rhodians.
To conclude, no nation in the world ever prepared for war with so much wisdom, and carried it on with so much intrepidity.
[* ]Lib. ii. cap. 1.
[† ]See in Polybius, and in Josephus, De bello Judaico, lib. ii. a description of the arms of the Roman soldiers. There is but little difference, says the latter, between a Roman soldier and a loaded horse. “They carried (says Cicero) provision for fifteen days, necessaries of all sorts, and whatever they should have occasion for in throwing up trenches. As to their arms, they were no more incumbered with them than with their hands.
[* ]Lib. ii. cap. 25.
[† ]Particularly the throwing up of the ground.
[‡ ]See in Vegetius, lib. i. and in Livy, lib. xxvi. the exercises which Scipio Africanus made the soldiers perform after the taking of Carthago Nova. Marius used to go every day to the Campus Martius even in his extreme old age. It was customary for Pompey, when fifty eight years of age, to arm himself cap-a-pee, and engage in single combat with the Roman youths. He used to exercise himself in riding, when he would run with the swistest career, and hurl the javelin. Plutarch in the lives of Marius and Pompey.
[§ ]Vegetius, lib. 1.
[* ]Vegetius, lib. i.
[† ]Cum alacribus saltu, cum velocibut cursu cum validis recte certabat. Fragm. of Sallust by Vegetius, B, i. cap. 9.
[* ]Frontin. Stratagem. lib. i cap. 11.
[† ]Lib. x. cap. 8.
[* ]The Romans used to present their javelins, when the Gauls struck at them with their swords, and by that means blunted them.
[† ]At the time that they warred against the lesser nations of Italy, their horse was superior to that of their enemies, and for this reason the cavalry were composed of none but the ablest bodied men, and the most considerable among the citizens, each of whom had a horse maintained at the public expence. When they alighted, no infantry was more formidable, and they very often turned the scale of victory.
[* ]These were young men, lightly armed, and the most nimble of all the legion. At the least signal that was given, they would either leap behind a horseman, or fight on foot. Valerius Maximus, hb. ii. Livy, lib. xxvi.
[† ]Fragm, of Polybius cited by Suidas in the word [Editor: illegible Greek word].
[‡ ]De bello Judaico, lib. ii.