Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.59
Christopher Allmand, The 'De Re Militari' of Vegetius. The Reception, Transmission and Legacy of a Roman Text in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 399. ISBN 9781107000278. $99.00.
Reviewed by Marco Formisano, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vegetius, who lived between 383 and 450, has the misfortune of being the author of a text that lies at the very margins of Latin literature, by virtue of its being “technical” in nature and late antique in date. But, although it has only rarely been taken seriously from a literary point of view, the Epitoma rei militaris (see below on the title) has enjoyed a rediscovery over the past decade or two: two critical editions (Teubner and OCT) and many translations have appeared in English, German, Italian and Spanish (though, strangely enough, no edition has yet appeared in the Collection Budé) and some of these contain valuable introductions and/or rich commentaries.1
Though he seems a “minor” author today, Vegetius had the honor of a rich reception in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond: with more than 300 manuscripts (both of the Latin text and of translations into vernacular languages) his fortune can be compared among Latin prose authors only to those of Cicero and Caesar. Machiavelli’s dialogue Dialogo sull’arte della guerra, among the most important works of Renaissance Italian prose and certainly not a manual on warfare, unashamedly rewrites Vegetius without quoting him explicitly.2 In short, Vegetius’ text was extraordinarily adaptable to different ages, contexts and disciplines well beyond its subject narrowly defined. And yet, despite this eloquent reception, modern Latinists have as a whole deemed Vegetius’ text as unworthy of literary study and seem pleased to hand it over to historians as a source for historical reconstruction. Nothing could be more wrongheaded: the Epitoma rei militaris represents no less than the literary foundation of the discourse of war in Western culture.3
The object of Allmand’s inquiry is—as the title programmatically declares—the reception, transmission and legacy of Vegetius’ text in medieval Europe. His main purpose is “to help a modern-day reader appreciate how the contents of the De re militari may have been understood when read through the eyes of medieval man” (p. 3). Accordingly, with its emphasis on seeing “through the eyes of medieval man”, this book belongs neither to the field of classics and its sub-field of late antique studies nor to the flourishing field of reception studies, but rather to medieval history, and history of a particular and rather old-fashioned kind.
Allmand is interested above all in the influence of Vegetius’ ideas, both in the art of war and in other fields, such as politics and theology. He thus treats the Epitoma and other texts not, ultimately, as texts, but rather as sources, and the kind of reception he is investigating is not literary (it is not based on the relationships among different textual realities) but practical: he wants to see how much Vegetius is present in the medieval way of doing war, and occasionally in other fields. Insofar as Allmand is an historian, this is understandable enough, yet this study is entirely dedicated to a text and its reception.
Allmand’s long and deep familiarity with both Vegetius and war in the Middle Ages is impressive; after a number of articles and books over the past forty years, this volume benefits from the author’s study of more than three hundred manuscripts in numerous libraries. This background, along with the book’s clear structure, makes it an indispensable tool for anyone who wishes to explore Vegetius’ presence in the Middle Ages. The reader will find a great deal of information on manuscripts and medieval translations, glosses, excerpts and imitations, and this is its great strength.
The book consists of a short introduction and three parts. The first part, “The medieval reception”, is devoted to the discussion of how extant manuscripts of Vegetius can, through their glosses and marginalia, help identify their medieval readers, in particular their social status and their ways of approaching Vegetius’ text and the Roman tradition of the art of war. An entire chapter of this section is dedicated to the glosses by Petrarch contained in a Vatican manuscript. Scrutiny of the manuscripts can also help us identify other texts and authors with whom Vegetius was associated; these were not only other military tracts (mostly Frontinus’ Strategemata) but also, and perhaps more revealingly, works in other fields of technical knowledge (Vitruvius and Palladius), Ciceronian philosophical works (De officiis and De amicitia), historians (Sallust) and medieval political authors (John of Salisbury and Giles of Rome). The second part of Allmand’s study, “The transmission”, investigates medieval responses to Vegetius in the writings not only of other military authors but also of political theorists and spiritual writers; particularly interesting are the chapters dedicated to Christine de Pisan, Denis the Carthusian and Machiavelli. Translations into various vernacular languages are reviewed here, organized by country, as is the evidence from illustrations (diagrams, drawings and illuminations) and excerpt collections, i.e. anthologies which put together the ‘best’ of Vegetius and fully decontextualized single passages from the entire work, ascribing to them the universal value of sententiae. In this book’s third part, “The legacy”, Allmand explores responses to Vegetius’ texts within the military thought and practice of the Middle Ages. Two useful appendices complete the volume: the first contains a selection of terms used in the various medieval translations of the Epitoma, while the second is a list of extant manuscripts both of the Latin text and its vernacular translations.
As this summary shows, the strength of this book is that of a Nachschlagewerk; its detailed discussion of Vegetius’ medieval reception is presented in a user-friendly way, allowing readers quickly to find what they might be looking for. Unfortunately, this strength is not complemented by a broader and more theoretically alert discussion of the role played by Vegetius in the formation of a specifically Western discourse of war or of his particular contribution to the fundamental contiguity between war and literature. In what follows, I wish to emphasize that my remarks are inspired by Allmand’s work as a typical example of a certain kind of historical scholarship, especially when texts are its object of study.
I begin with the title of Vegetius’ text. All modern editions and translations, following the authoritative manuscripts, give it as Epitoma rei militaris, a title which well reflects the textual form chosen by Vegetius.4 The label epitoma concisely illustrates the essence of Vegetius’ thought, and his text is a significant representative of the literary production of his time: an epitomizing trend is deeply characteristic of late Roman culture and literature. Yet Allmand gives the title as De re militari without ever explaining or justifying his choice, and he only once, in passing and somewhat vaguely, refers to the fact that Vegetius’ work might have another title: “A further title given to the work, Epitome (sic) /Liber institutionum rei militaris might be rendered as the ‘Summary of/Handbook on war’ or, in modern parlance, ‘The A to Z of fighting war’” (p. 151).
Allmand’s reading of the Epitoma is based on the conviction that it should be considered almost exclusively in accordance with Vegetius’ intentions in general and his didactic goals in particular. More than once, for example, Allmand asks what Vegetius would have thought about the reception of his own text and whether he would have been satisfied with the practice of excerpting or interpreting his text in an original or unexpected way (see, for instance, p. 7). Elsewhere Allmand observes, first, that “a short excerpt, taken out of context, might be misunderstood or misinterpreted by even the best intentioned of the readers” and then that “excerpts almost inevitably reflected the interests of the person responsible for selecting them, with the result that no two collections are the same, the treatment given to particular books and chapters differing from one collection to another” (p. 331). These remarks make clear how this study understands reception: in essence, excerpts are not trustworthy because they “misunderstand” the original text by decontextualizing it, as if there could be any reception of texts which does not decontextualize.
Allmand’s discussion of Machiavelli’s 1521 Dialogo sull’arte della guerra deserves mention precisely because of the recognized high literary quality of the Italian text. Allmand throughout describes, and sometimes gives the impression of dismissing, Vegetius’ text and later texts inspired by it as “manuals”, but that label certainly cannot be placed on Machiavelli’s classic Italian prose text. Readers familiar with it might be surprised to see how this sophisticated and finely structured dialogue, with its varied voices and points of view, is treated in Allmand’s study merely as a reflection of contemporary history and political judgement.5
For those familiar with scholarship on the discourse of war and military texts of all ages, questions around applicability are at the theoretical core of any investigation. Allmand’s study does not appear particularly well informed on the debate, presenting the problem of applicability as if it were exclusive to Vegetius’ medieval readers and not a general characteristic feature of the literary art of war from antiquity onward.
By not anchoring its discussion of Vegetius’ text in the ancient tradition of the art of war, this study excludes a factor fundamental to the understanding not only of the Epitoma rei militaris but more importantly its surprising successes. For in a period of military decline, Vegetius’ (perhaps surprising) solution to the problem is a return to books; the veterum disciplina needs to be restored by means of reading and summarizing earlier texts. The author starts with texts, justifies actions with exempla which have come from a world of books, and returns inexorably to texts. Although the foundations for victory in war lie in ars and exercitatio, the equally important foundations for these qualities are in turn supplied by the epitoma itself: “For brave deeds belong to a single age; what is written for the benefit of the State is eternal” (2,3,7, trans. Milner).
1. Philippe Richardot’s 1998 monograph Végèce et la culture militaire au moyen âge remains fundamental for the type of intellectual history which goes beyond connoisseurship of the manuscripts.
2. see M. Formisano, “Strategie da manuale. Vegezio, Machiavelli e l’arte della guerra”, QS 55 (2002): 99- 127 and Id., “The Renaissance Tradition of the Ancient Art of War”, in G. Beltramini (ed.), Andrea Palladio and the Architecture of Battle (Venice, 2009), pp. 226-239.
3. Likewise, Vitruvius wrote a work which in the past had been marginalized in the scholarship as a “manual” without literary qualities, one whose utility as a source for historians of art and architecture is, moreover, extremely limited. But the De architectura is currently enjoying a great deal of attention precisely for its sophisticated textual qualities.
4. See for instance N. Milner, Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool, 1996), pp. xvi ff.; and M. Formisano, Vegezio. L’arte della guerra romana (Milan, 2003), pp. 14 ff. The Latin form epitoma is discussed in the 2004 OCT edition of M. D. Reeve (p. v).
5. His argumentation is largely that of Sidney Anglo’s 2005 book Machiavelli. The First Century. This chapter would have profited in particular from Frederique Verrier, Les armes de Minerve. L’humanisme militaire dans l’Italie du XVIe siècle (Paris, 1997).