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Chapter 37

Whether a general engagement should be preceded by skirmishes; and how, avoiding these, we may get knowledge of a new Enemy.

Besides all the other difficulties which hinder men from bringing anything to its utmost perfection, it appears, as I have already observed, that in close vicinity to every good is found also an evil, so apt to grow up along with it that it is hardly possible to have the one without accepting the other. This we see in all human affairs, and the result is, that unless fortune aid us to overcome this natural and common disadvantage, we never arrive at any excellence. I am reminded of this by the combat between Titus Manlius and the Gaul, concerning which Livius writes that it "determined the issue of the entire war; since the Gauls, abandoning their camp, hastily withdrew to the country about Tivoli, whence they presently passed into Campania."

It may be said, therefore, on the one hand, that a prudent captain ought absolutely to refrain from all those operations which, while of trifling moment in themselves, may possibly produce an ill effect on his army. Now, to engage in a combat wherein you risk your whole fortunes without putting forth your entire strength, is, as I observed before, when condemning the defence of a country by guarding its defiles, an utterly foolhardy course. On the other hand, it is to be said that a prudent captain, when he has to meet a new and redoubtable adversary, ought, before coming to a general engagement, to accustom his men by skirmishes and passages of arms, to the quality of their enemy; that they may learn to know him, and how to deal with him, and so free themselves from the feeling of dread which his name and fame inspire.

This for a captain is a matter of the very greatest importance, and one which it might be almost fatal for him to neglect, since to risk a pitched battle without first giving your soldiers such opportunities to know their enemy and shake off their fear of him, is to rush on certain destruction. When Valerius Corvinus was sent by the Romans with their armies against the Samnites, these being new adversaries with whom up to that time they had not measured their strength, Titus Livius tells us that before giving battle he made his men make trial of the enemy in several unimportant skirmishes, "lest they should be dismayed by a new foe and a new method of warfare." Nevertheless, there is very great danger that, if your soldiers get the worst in these encounters, their alarm and self-distrust may be increased, and a result follow contrary to that intended, namely, that you dispirit where you meant to reassure.

This, therefore, is one of those cases in which the evil lies so nigh the good, and both are so mixed up together that you may readily lay hold of the one when you think to grasp the other. And with regard to this I say, that a good captain should do what he can that nothing happen which might discourage his men, nor is there anything so likely to discourage them as to begin with a defeat. For which reason skirmishes are, as a rule, to be avoided, and only to be allowed where you fight to great advantage and with a certainty of victory. In like manner, no attempt should be made to defend the passes leading into your country unless your whole army can co-operate; nor are any towns to be defended save those whose loss necessarily involves your ruin. And as to those towns which you do defend, you must so arrange, both in respect of the garrison within and the army without, that in the event of a siege your whole forces can be employed. All other towns you must leave undefended. For, provided your army be kept together, you do not, in losing what you voluntarily abandon, forfeit your military reputation, or sacrifice your hopes of final success. But when you lose what it was your purpose, and what all know it was your purpose to hold, you suffer a real loss and injury, and, like the Gauls on the defeat of their champion, you are ruined by a mishap of no moment in itself.

Philip of Macedon, the father of Perseus, a great soldier in his day, and of a great name, on being invaded by the Romans, laid waste and relinquished much of his territory which he thought he could not defend; rightly judging it more hurtful to his reputation to lose territory after an attempt to defend it, than to abandon it to the enemy as something he cared little to retain. So, likewise, after the battle of CannŠ, when their affairs were at their worst, the Romans refused aid to many subject and protected States, charging them to defend themselves as best they could. And this is a better course than to undertake to defend and then to fail; for by refusing to defend, you lose only your friend; whereas in failing, you not only lose your friend, but weaken yourself.

But to return to the matter in hand, I affirm, that even when a captain is constrained by inexperience of his enemy to make trial of him by means of skirmishes, he ought first to see that he has so much the advantage that he runs no risk of defeat; or else, and this is his better course, he must do as Marius did when sent against the Cimbrians, a very courageous people who were laying Italy waste, and by their fierceness and numbers, and from the fact of their having already routed a Roman army, spreading terror wherever they came. For before fighting a decisive battle, Marius judged it necessary to do something to lessen the dread in which these enemies were held by his army; and being a prudent commander, he, on several occasions, posted his men at points where the Cimbrians must pass, that seeing and growing familiar with their appearance, while themselves in safety and within the shelter of their intrenched camp, and finding them to be a mere disorderly rabble, encumbered with baggage, and either without weapons, or with none that were formidable, they might at last assume courage and grow eager to engage them in battle. The part thus prudently taken by Marius, should be carefully imitated by others who would escape the dangers above spoken of and not have to betake themselves like the Gauls to a disgraceful flight, on sustaining some trifling defeat.

But since in this Discourse I have referred by name to Valerius Corvinus, in my next Chapter I shall cite his words to show what manner of man a captain ought to be.

Niccolo Machiavelli

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