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Chapter 10


That a Captain cannot escape Battle when his Enemy forces it on him at all risks.


"Cneius Sulpitius when appointed dictator against the Gauls, being unwilling to tempt Fortune by attacking an enemy whom delay and a disadvantageous position would every day render weaker, protracted the war."

When a mistake is made of a sort that all or most men are likely to fall into, I think it not amiss to mark it again and again with disapproval. Wherefore, although I have already shown repeatedly how in affairs of moment the actions of the moderns conform not to those of antiquity, still it seems to me not superfluous, in this place, to say the same thing once more. For if in any particular the moderns have deviated from the methods of the ancients, it is especially in their methods of warfare, wherein not one of those rules formerly so much esteemed is now attended to. And this because both princes and commonwealths have devolved the charge of such matters upon others, and, to escape danger, have kept aloof from all military service; so that although one or another of the princes of our times may occasionally be seen present in person with his army, we are not therefore to expect from him any further praiseworthy behaviour. For even where such personages take part in any warlike enterprise, they do so out of ostentation and from no nobler motive; though doubtless from sometimes seeing their soldiers face to face, and from retaining to themselves the title of command, they are likely to make fewer blunders than we find made by republics, and most of all by the republics of Italy, which though altogether dependent upon others, and themselves utterly ignorant of everything relating to warfare, do yet, that they may figure as the commanders of their armies, take upon them to direct their movements, and in doing so commit countless mistakes; some of which have been considered elsewhere but one is of such importance as to deserve notice here.

When these sluggard princes or effeminate republics send forth any of their Captains, it seems to them that the wisest instruction they can give him is to charge him on no account to give battle, but, on the contrary, to do what he can to avoid fighting. Wherein they imagine themselves to imitate the prudence of Fabius Maximus, who by protracting the war with Hannibal, saved the Roman commonwealth; not perceiving that in most instances such advice to a captain is either useless or hurtful. For the truth of the matter is, that a captain who would keep the field, cannot decline battle when his adversary forces it on him at all hazards. So that the instruction to avoid battle is but tantamount to saying, "You shall engage when it pleases your enemy, and not when it suits yourself." For if you would keep the field and yet avoid battle, the only safe course is to interpose a distance of at least fifty miles between you and your enemy, and afterwards to maintain so vigilant a look-out, that should he advance you will have time to make your retreat. Another method is to shut yourself up in some town. But both of these methods are extremely disadvantageous. For by following the former, you leave your country a prey to the enemy, and a valiant prince would far sooner risk the chances of battle than prolong a war in a manner so disastrous to his subjects; while by adopting the latter method, and shutting yourself up in a town with your army, there is manifest danger of your being besieged, and presently reduced by famine and forced to surrender. Wherefore it is most mischievous to seek to avoid battle in either of these two ways.

To intrench yourself in a strong position, as Fabius was wont to do, is a good method when your army is so formidable that the enemy dare not advance to attack you in your intrenchments; yet it cannot truly be said that Fabius avoided battle, but rather that he sought to give battle where he could do so with advantage. For had Hannibal desired to fight, Fabius would have waited for him and fought him. But Hannibal never dared to engage him on his own ground. So that an engagement was avoided as much by Hannibal as by Fabius, since if either had been minded to fight at all hazards the other would have been constrained to take one of three courses, that is to say, one or other of the two just now mentioned, or else to retreat. The truth of this is confirmed by numberless examples, and more particularly by what happened in the war waged by the Romans against Philip of Macedon, the father of Perseus. For Philip being invaded by the Romans, resolved not to give them battle; and to avoid battle, sought at first to do as Fabius had done in Italy, posting himself on the summit of a hill, where he intrenched himself strongly, thinking that the Romans would not venture to attack him there. But they advancing and attacking him in his intrenchments, drove him from his position; when, unable to make further resistance, he fled with the greater part of his army, and was only saved from utter destruction by the difficulty of the ground, which made it impossible for the Romans to pursue him.

Philip, therefore, who had no mind to fight, encamping too near the Romans, was forced to fly; and learning from this experience that to escape fighting it was not enough for him to intrench himself on a hill, yet not choosing to shut himself up in a walled town, he was constrained to take the other alternative of keeping at a distance of many miles from the Roman legions. Accordingly, when the Romans entered one province, he betook himself to another, and when they left a province he entered it. But perceiving that by protracting the war in this way, his condition grew constantly worse, while his subjects suffered grievously, now from his own troops, at another time from those of the enemy, he at last resolved to hazard battle, and so came to a regular engagement with the Romans.

It is for your interest, therefore, not to fight, when you possess the same advantages as Fabius, or as Cneius Sulpitius had; in other words, when your army is so formidable in itself that the enemy dare not attack you in your intrenchments, and although he has got within your territory has yet gained no footing there, and suffers in consequence from the want of necessary supplies. In such circumstances delay is useful, for the reasons assigned by Titus Livius when speaking of Sulpitius. In no other circumstances, however, can an engagement be avoided without dishonour or danger. For to retire as Philip did, is nothing else than defeat; and the disgrace is greater in proportion as your valour has been less put to the proof. And if Philip was lucky enough to escape, another, not similarly favoured by the nature of the ground, might not have the same good fortune.

That Hannibal was not a master in the arts of warfare there is none will venture to maintain. Wherefore, when he had to encounter Scipio in Africa, it may be assumed that had he seen any advantage in prolonging the war he would have done so; and, possibly, being a skilful captain and in command of a valiant army, he might have been able to do what Fabius did in Italy. But since he took not that course, we may infer that he was moved by sufficient reasons. For the captain who has got an army together, and perceives that from want of money or friends he cannot maintain it long, must be a mere madman if he do not at once, and before his army melts away, try the fortunes of battle; since he is certain to lose by delay, while by fighting he may chance to succeed. And there is this also to be kept in view, that we must strive, even if we be defeated, to gain glory; and that more glory is to be won in being beaten by force, than in a defeat from any other cause. And this we may suppose to have weighed with Hannibal. On the other hand, supposing Hannibal to have declined battle, Scipio, even if he had lacked courage to follow him up and attack him in his intrenched camp, would not have suffered thereby; for as he had defeated Syphax, and got possession of many of the African towns, he could have rested where he was in the same security and with the same convenience as if he had been in Italy. But this was not the case with Hannibal when he had to encounter Fabius, nor with the Gauls when they were opposed to Sulpitius.

Least of all can he decline battle who invades with his army the country of another; for seeking to enter his enemy's country, he must fight whenever the enemy comes forward to meet him; and is under still greater necessity to fight, if he undertake the siege of any town. As happened in our own day with Duke Charles of Burgundy, who, when beleaguering Morat, a town of the Swiss, was by them attacked and routed; or as happened with the French army encamped against Novara, which was in like manner defeated by the Swiss.


Niccolo Machiavelli

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