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Chapter 16


That the Soldiers of our days depart widely from the methods of ancient Warfare.


In all their wars with other nations, the most momentous battle ever fought by the Romans, was that which they fought with the Latins when Torquatus and Decius were consuls. For it may well be believed that as by the loss of that battle the Latins became subject to the Romans, so the Romans had they not prevailed must have become subject to the Latins. And Titus Livius is of this opinion, since he represents the armies as exactly equal in every respect, in discipline and in valour, in numbers and in obstinacy, the only difference he draws being, that of the two armies the Romans had the more capable commanders. We find, however, two circumstances occurring in the conduct of this battle, the like of which never happened before, and seldom since, namely, that to give steadiness to the minds of their soldiers, and render them obedient to the word of command and resolute to fight, one of the consuls put himself, and the other his son, to death.

The equality which Titus Livius declares to have prevailed in these two armies, arose from this, that having long served together they used the same language, discipline, and arms; that in disposing their men for battle they followed the same system; and that the divisions and officers of their armies bore the same names. It was necessary, therefore, that as they were of equal strength and valour, something extraordinary should take place to render the courage of the one army more stubborn and unflinching than that of the other, it being on this stubbornness, as I have already said, that victory depends. For while this temper is maintained in the minds of the combatants they will never turn their backs on their foe. And that it might endure longer in the minds of the Romans than of the Latins, partly chance, and partly the valour of the consuls caused it to fall out that Torquatus slew his son, and Decius died by his own hand.

In pointing out this equality of strength, Titus Livius takes occasion to explain the whole system followed by the Romans in the ordering of their armies and in disposing them for battle; and as he has treated the subject at length, I need not go over the same ground, and shall touch only on what I judge in it most to deserve attention, but, being overlooked by all the captains of our times, has led to disorder in many armies and in many battles.

From this passage of Titus Livius, then, we learn that the Roman army had three principal divisions, or battalions as we might now call them, of which they named the first hastati, the second principes, and the third triarii, to each of which cavalry were attached. In arraying an army for battle they set the hastati in front. Directly behind them, in the second rank, they placed the principes; and in the third rank of the same column, the triarii. The cavalry of each of these three divisions they disposed to the right and left of the division to which it belonged; and to these companies of horse, from their form and position, they gave the name wings (alŠ), from their appearing like the two wings of the main body of the army. The first division, the hastati, which was in front, they drew up in close order to enable it to withstand and repulse the enemy. The second division, the principes, since it was not to be engaged from the beginning, but was meant to succour the first in case that were driven in, was not formed in close order but kept in open file, so that it might receive the other into its ranks whenever it was broken and forced to retire. The third division, that, namely, of the triarii, had its ranks still more open than those of the second, so that, if occasion required, it might receive the first two divisions of the hastati and principes. These divisions, therefore, being drawn up in this order, the engagement began, and if the hastati were overpowered and driven back, they retired within the loose ranks of the principes, when both these divisions, being thus united into one, renewed the conflict. If these, again, were routed and forced back, they retreated within the open ranks of the triarii, and all three divisions, forming into one, once more renewed the fight, in which, if they were overpowered, since they had no further means of recruiting their strength, they lost the battle. And because whenever this last division, of the triarii, had to be employed, the army was in jeopardy, there arose the proverb, "Res redacta est ad triarios," equivalent to our expression of playing a last stake.

The captains of our day, as they have abandoned all the other customs of antiquity, and pay no heed to any part of the ancient discipline, so also have discarded this method of disposing their men, though it was one of no small utility. For to insure the defeat of a commander who so arranges his forces as to be able thrice during an engagement to renew his strength, Fortune must thrice declare against him, and he must be matched with an adversary able three times over to defeat him; whereas he whose sole chance of success lies in his surviving the first onset, as is the case with all the armies of Christendom at the present day, may easily be vanquished, since any slight mishap, and the least failure in the steadiness of his men, may deprive him of victory.

And what takes from our armies the capacity to renew their strength is, that provision is now no longer made for one division being received into the ranks of another, which happens because at present an army is arranged for battle in one or other of two imperfect methods. For either its divisions are placed side by side, so as to form a line of great width but of no depth or solidity; or if, to strengthen it, it be drawn up in columns after the fashion of the Roman armies, should the front line be broken, no provision having been made for its being received by the second, it is thrown into complete disorder, and both divisions fall to pieces. For if the front line be driven back, it jostles the second, if the second line endeavour to advance, the first stands in its way: and thus, the first driving against the second, and the second against the third, such confusion follows that often the most trifling accident will cause the ruin of an entire army.

At the battle of Ravenna, where M. de Foix, the French commander, was slain, although according to modern notions this was a well-fought field, both the French and the Spanish armies were drawn up in the first of the faulty methods above described; that is to say, each army advanced with the whole of its battalions side by side, so that each presented a single front much wider than deep; this being always the plan followed by modern armies when, as at Ravenna, the ground is open. For knowing the disorder they fall into on retreat, forming themselves in a single line, they endeavour, as I have said, as much as possible to escape confusion by extending their front. But where the ground confines them they fall at once into the disorder spoken of, without an effort to prevent it.

Troops traversing an enemy's country, whether to pillage or carry out any other operation of war, are liable to fall into the same disorder; and at S. Regolo in the Pisan territory, and at other places where the Florentines were beaten by the Pisans during the war which followed on the revolt of Pisa after the coming of Charles of France into Italy, our defeat was due to no other cause than the behaviour of our own cavalry, who being posted in front, and being repulsed by the enemy, fell back on the infantry and threw them into confusion, whereupon the whole army took to flight; and Messer Ciriaco del Borgo, the veteran leader of the Florentine foot, has often declared in my presence that he had never been routed by any cavalry save those who were fighting on his side. For which reason the Swiss, who are the greatest proficients in modern warfare, when serving with the French, make it their first care to place themselves on their flank, so that the cavalry of their friends, if repulsed, may not throw them into disorder.

But although these matters seem easy to understand and not difficult to put in practice, none has yet been found among the commanders of our times, who attempted to imitate the ancients or to correct the moderns. For although these also have a tripartite division of their armies into van-guard, main-body, and rear-guard, the only use they make of it is in giving orders when their men are in quarters; whereas on active service it rarely happens that all divisions are not equally exposed to the same onset.

And because many, to excuse their ignorance, will have it that the destructive fire of artillery forbids our employing at the present day many of the tactics used by the ancients, I will discuss this question in the following Chapter, and examine whether artillery does in fact prevent us from using the valiant methods of antiquity.


Niccolo Machiavelli

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