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Chapter 18


That the authority of the Romans and the example of ancient Warfare should make us hold Foot Soldiers of more account than Horse.


By many arguments and instances it can be clearly established that in their military enterprises the Romans set far more store on their infantry than on their cavalry, and trusted to the former to carry out all the chief objects which their armies were meant to effect. Among many other examples of this, we may notice the great battle which they fought with the Latins near the lake Regillus, where to steady their wavering ranks they made their horsemen dismount, and renewing the combat on foot obtained a victory. Here we see plainly that the Romans had more confidence in themselves when they fought on foot than when they fought on horseback. The same expedient was resorted to by them in many of their other battles, and always in their sorest need they found it their surest stay.

Nor are we to condemn the practice in deference to the opinion of Hannibal, who, at the battle of CannŠ, on seeing the consuls make the horsemen dismount, said scoffingly, "Better still had they delivered their knights to me in chains." For though this saying came from the mouth of a most excellent soldier, still, if we are to regard authority, we ought rather to follow the authority of a commonwealth like Rome, and of the many great captains who served her, than that of Hannibal alone. But, apart from authority, there are manifest reasons to bear out what I say. For a man may go on foot into many places where a horse cannot go; men can be taught to keep rank, and if thrown into disorder to recover form; whereas, it is difficult to keep horses in line, and impossible if once they be thrown into disorder to reform them. Moreover we find that with horses as with men, some have little courage and some much; and that often a spirited horse is ridden by a faint-hearted rider, or a dull horse by a courageous rider, and that in whatever way such disparity is caused, confusion and disorder result. Again, infantry, when drawn up in column, can easily break and is not easily broken by cavalry. This is vouched, not only by many ancient and many modern instances, but also by the authority of those who lay down rules for the government of States, who show that at first wars were carried on by mounted soldiers, because the methods for arraying infantry were not yet understood, but that so soon as these were discovered, the superiority of foot over horse was at once recognized. In saying this, I would not have it supposed that horsemen are not of the greatest use in armies, whether for purposes of observation, for harrying and laying waste the enemy's country, for pursuing a retreating foe or helping to repulse his cavalry. But the substance and sinew of an army, and that part of it which ought constantly to be most considered, should always be the infantry. And among sins of the Italian princes who have made their country the slave of foreigners, there is none worse than that they have held these arms in contempt, and turned their whole attention to mounted troops.

This error is due to the craft of our captains and to the ignorance of our rulers. For the control of the armies of Italy for the last five and twenty years resting in the hands of men, who, as having no lands of their own, may be looked on as mere soldiers of fortune, these fell forthwith on contriving how they might maintain their credit by being supplied with the arms which the princes of the country were without. And as they had no subjects of their own of whom they could make use, and could not obtain constant employment and pay for a large number of foot-soldiers, and as a small number would have given them no importance, they had recourse to horsemen. For a condottiere drawing pay for two or three hundred horsemen was maintained by them in the highest credit, and yet the cost was not too great to be met by the princes who employed him. And to effect their object with more ease, and increase their credit still further, these adventurers would allow no merit or favour to be due to foot-soldiers, but claimed all for their horsemen. And to such a length was this bad system carried, that in the very greatest army only the smallest sprinkling of infantry was to be found. This, together with many other ill practices which accompanied it, has so weakened the militia of Italy, that the country has easily been trampled upon by all the nations of the North.

That it is a mistake to make more account of cavalry than of infantry, may be still more clearly seen from another example taken from Roman history. The Romans being engaged on the siege of Sora, a troop of horse a sally from the town to attack their camp; when the Roman master of the knights advancing with his own horsemen to give them battle, it so chanced that, at the very first onset, the leaders on both sides were slain. Both parties being thus left without commanders, and the combat, nevertheless, continuing, the Romans thinking thereby to have the advantage of their adversaries, alighted from horseback, obliging the enemy's cavalry, in order to defend themselves, to do the like. The result was that the Romans had the victory. Now there could be no stronger instance than this to show the superiority of foot over horse. For while in other battles the Roman cavalry were made by their consuls to dismount in order to succour their infantry who were in distress and in need of such aid, on this occasion they dismounted, not to succour their infantry, nor to encounter an enemy contending on foot, but because they saw that though they could not prevail against the enemy fighting as horsemen against horsemen, on foot they readily might. And from this I conclude that foot-soldiers, if rightly handled, can hardly be beaten except by other soldiers fighting on foot.

With very few cavalry, but with a considerable force of infantry, the Roman commanders, Crassus and Marcus Antonius, each for many days together overran the territories of the Parthians, although opposed by the countless horsemen of that nation. Crassus, indeed, with the greater part of his army, was left there dead, and Antonius only saved himself by his valour; but even in the extremities to which the Romans were then brought, see how greatly superior foot-soldiers are to horse. For though fighting in an open country, far from the sea-coast, and cut off from his supplies, Antonius proved himself a valiant soldier in the judgment even of the Parthians themselves, the whole strength of whose cavalry never ventured to attack the columns of his army. And though Crassus perished there, any one who reads attentively the account of his expedition must see that he was rather outwitted than defeated, and that even when his condition was desperate, the Parthians durst not close with him, but effected his destruction by hanging continually on the flanks of his army, and intercepting his supplies, while cajoling him with promises which they never kept.

It might, I grant, be harder to demonstrate this great superiority of foot over horse, had we not very many modern examples affording the clearest proof of it. For instance, at the battle of Novara, of which we have already spoken, nine thousand Swiss foot were seen to attack ten thousand cavalry together with an equal number of infantry, and to defeat them; the cavalry being powerless to injure them, while of the infantry, who were mostly Gascons, and badly disciplined, they made no account. On another occasion we have seen twenty-six thousand Swiss march on Milan to attack Francis I. of France, who had with him twenty thousand men-at-arms, forty thousand foot, and a hundred pieces of artillery; and although they were not victorious as at Novara, they nevertheless fought valiantly for two days together, and, in the end, though beaten, were able to bring off half their number. With foot-soldiers only Marcus Attilius Regulus ventured to oppose himself, not to cavalry merely, but to elephants; and if the attempt failed it does not follow that he was not justified by the valour of his men in believing them equal to surmount this danger.

I repeat, therefore, that to prevail against well-disciplined infantry, you must meet them with infantry disciplined still better, and that otherwise you advance to certain destruction. In the time of Filippo Visconti, Duke of Milan, some sixteen thousand Swiss made a descent on Lombardy, whereupon the Duke, who at that time had Il Carmagnola as his captain, sent him with six thousand men-at-arms and a slender following of foot-soldiers to meet them. Not knowing their manner of fighting, Carmagnola fell upon them with his horsemen, expecting to put them at once to rout; but finding them immovable, after losing many of his men he withdrew. But, being a most wise captain, and skilful in devising new remedies to meet unwonted dangers, after reinforcing his company he again advanced to the attack; and when about to engage made all his men-at-arms dismount, and placing them in front of his foot-soldiers, fell once more upon the Swiss, who could then no longer withstand him. For his men, being on foot and well armed, easily penetrated the Swiss ranks without hurt to themselves; and getting among them, had no difficulty in cutting them down, so that of the entire army of the Swiss those only escaped who were spared by his humanity.

Of this difference in the efficiency of these two kinds of troops, many I believe are aware; but such is the unhappiness and perversity of the times in which we live, that neither ancient nor modern examples, nor even the consciousness of error, can move our present princes to amend their ways, or convince them that to restore credit to the arms of a State or province, it is necessary to revive this branch of their militia also, to keep it near them, to make much of it, and to give it life, that in return, it may give back life and reputation to them. But as they have departed from all those other methods already spoken of, so have they departed from this, and with this result, that to them the acquisition of territory is rather a loss than a gain, as presently shall be shown.


Niccolo Machiavelli

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