BMCR 2001.01.13

Vegetius: Abriss des Militärwesens

, , Abriß des Militärwesens : lateinisch und deutsch. Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997. 357 Seiten. ISBN 3515071784. DM 136.

There has been a welcome upsurge in publication on Vegetius recently. The revised edition of Lang’s venerable Teubner text in 1985 was followed by a new Teubner in 1995 edited by Önnerfors (with a 1997 supplement). Wille produced a German translation and commentary in 1986, while Milner and Stelten (with a Latin text) produced English versions in 1993 and 1990 respectively; Milner’s work was given a second edition in 1996. In 1989, Blackman and Betts produced a Concordance.1

A commentary is badly needed because of the complexities posed by the work. Vegetius provides a detailed description of military equipment, organization and practice and is thus an invaluable source for Roman military historians. However, using Vegetius is complicated by his idealizing view of the past. He intended his work to serve as a guide for his contemporaries so that current practices could be reformed in light of the practices of ‘the good old days’ of the early Empire or even the middle Republic (hence the appearance of such archaic terms as principes, hastati and triarii). Since Vegetius wrote in late antiquity, this presents us with serious problems regarding his sources—Cato, Celsus, Frontinus and Paternus—who wrote in the late Republic and early empire. Moreover, Vegetius, as he tells us, was not a soldier, so we need to make judgments on his handling of technical terms.

Vegetius’ date is uncertain, the parameters being 383-450 (the earliest date being a mention of Gratian [375-383] as deified, the latest a note in the manuscript from a scribe at Constantinople). His work is dedicated to an emperor, like other late antique military treatises such as the Anonymous de rebus Bellicis and Urbicius Epitedeuma. Müller briefly summarizes the possibilities in the introduction (11) but goes no further.2 Vegetius describes himself as a “vir illustris et comes.” Müller offers the possibility that he was comes sacrarum largitionum, but the discussion shows no comfort with the details of late antique titulature: neither here nor in the introduction (12-13) does one receive any sense of just how powerful illustres were. Nor is there any useful discussion of how the emperor was addressed, i.e., no comparisons to the de Rebus Bellicis or any of the verse or prose panegyrics.

As a vir illustris, Vegetius would have had access to the emperor, but this does not mean that his suggestions would have been adopted. Nonetheless, the work was not filed in an obscure archive but was copied frequently. Vegetius’ work became very popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe for two reasons. First, unlike the military manuals of Onasander or Aelian, it was highly practical—inexperienced generals could use it as a guide in the field. Second, it was written in a clear and simple Latin, allowing these same generals to use it without much difficulty.

Müller’s work provides a text and facing translation (27-231), together with notes (Erläuterungen, 233-320) at the rear. The 1995 Önnerfors text is the basis of Müller’s edition and is taken over virtually unchanged. Indices keyed to the text are provided only for proper names, all Latin words and for subjects. I have to admit to some surprise at Müller’s selection of Vegetius as a project, since his previous work has included studies on Thucydides’ sources (1997), and translations and notes on ad Herennium (1996), Herodian (1996) and Eutropius (1997).

A sample of Vegetius’ descriptions of infantry equipment provides a good example of translation and notes in action. Müller is clear that his interests are philological and literary (‘Die nachstehenden Erläuterungen sind vorwiegend literarisch-philologisch orientiert’ [233]). He also notes that “In general, I have no interest in (ancient) weapons.” (233) However, this highly technical material is why many people read Vegetius in the first place. Any understanding of Vegetius has to start by assuming that he (or his sources) used their technical vocabulary correctly—the difference between a verutum and a spiculum meant something to someone in antiquity. Whether Vegetius clearly understood the terms is a problem but one which a translator and commentator should aim to clarify.

Haec est gravis armatura, quia habebant cassides, catafractas, ocreas, scuta, gladios maiores, quos spathas vocant, et alios minores, quos semispathia nominant, plumbatas quinas positas in scutis, quas primo impetu iaciunt, item bina missibilia, unum maius ferro triangulo unciarum novem, hastili pedum quinque semis, quod pilum vocabant, nunc spiculum dicit…aliud minus ferro unciarum quinque, hastili pedum trium semis, quod tunc vericulum, nunc verutum dicitur. (2.15.4-5)

Dies war die ‘Schwere Bewaffnung’: denn sie hatten Helme und Schuppenpanzer und Beinscheinen und Schilde und grössere Schwerter, die man spathae (Degen) nennt, und andere kleinere, die man Halbdegen (semispathia) nennt, und je fünf an den Schilden befestigte Bleigeschosse, die sie im ersten Ansturm schleudern, ebsenso je zwei Wurfspiesse: einen grössere Lanze mit dreieckiger Eisenspitze von 9 Zoll und einem Schaft von 5.5 Fuss, die sie pilum (Lanze) nannten, die jetzt spiculum (Speer) heisst…und eine andere kleinere Lanze mit 5 Zoll Eisen und einem Schaft von 3.5 Fuss, die damals vericulum (kleiner Spiess) heiss, jetzt aber verutum (Jagdspiess).

Müller’s translation is clear and straightforward throughout. The provision of the Latin in this passage allows the reader to follow Vegetius’ thought rather than that of the translator. However, the Latin for technical terms is generally provided only at their first occurrence. This does make for a tidier page, but requires frequent cross-referencing with the text. Some vocabulary choices do not, I think, serve the reader well. Whether Schuppenpanzer (= scale armor) is a good translation of cataphractas is debatable—the sense of the passage is surely any piece of body armor. Elsewhere, e.g., where Vegetius describes the supposed abandonment of armor by infantry (1.20.3), Müller first translates catafractas as Schuppenpanzer, before changing to the more natural Panzer (though without comment in the translation).3 Lanze is too widely used, here for pilum, but elsewhere for lancea (3.14.5) and even for Sarisa (3.24.7).

What adds to the difficulty is that the notes are of little help. This passage is the first time Vegetius mentions verutum, spatha and semispathium, yet none is glossed. Overall, the notes are extremely disappointing, in some cases resembling a paraphrase of the translation. Although there is a secondary bibliography (four pages), there are numerous omissions, e.g., Kolias, T., Byzantinische Waffen (Vienna, 1988) or Barker, P.A., ‘The Plumbatae from Wroxeter’, De Rebus Bellicis, BAR S63, eds. M.W. Hassall and R.I. Ireland, (Oxford, 1979), 97-100 on plumbatae (lead weighted darts) at I.17. Neither Milner’s 1991 Oxford thesis nor his 1993 translation mentioned. Most of the material in the bibliography seems to stay there, and there is little use of some items, e.g., Lammert’s article on naval writers is not mentioned in the analysis of naval warfare in the notes or introduction. References to primary sources are also few and far between, with no references to Ammianus Marcellinus, the de rebus Bellicis, Claudian, the Scriptores Historia Augusta or even Eutropius that I saw. Even interesting non-military words are passed over. Monoxyli (Einbäume), for example, is a Greek loanword for which the closest English equivalent is “dug-out canoe.” Vegetius uses it twice (2.25, 3.7.7), but other Latin authors use it sparingly. Müller has no comment.

So, this work is a paperback with a clear German translation and a good Latin text. It costs about the same as the Teubner text alone. This makes it a good starting point for studying Vegetius. That said, 136 DM (c.$65) seems a bit expensive. The almost ninety densely printed pages of notes add little to the academic value of the book (though they could have) and probably much to the price.


1. Lang, C., Flavi Vegeti Renati Epitoma rei militaris (Leipzig, 1985) 2nd edition; Wille, F., Das gesamte Kriegswesen, Flavius Renatus Vegetius (Aarau, 1986); Milner, N.P., Vegetius: epitome of military science (Liverpool, 1993, rev 1996); Stelten, L.F., Epitoma rei militaris: Flavius Vegetius Renatus (New York, 1990); Önnerfors, A., ed., P. Flavii Vegeti Renati Epitoma rei militaris (Stuttgart, 1995) and Postskriptum zur Teubner-Edition der ‘Epitoma rei militaris’ des Vegetius (1995) (Lund, 1997); Blackman, D.R. and Betts, G.G., Concordantia in Vegetii Opera (New York, 1989)

2. add to literature cited by Müller: Zuckerman, C., “Sur la date du traité militaire de Vegece et son destinaire Valentinien II,” SCI 13 (1994), 67-74; Richardot, P., “La datation du De Re Militari de Vegece,” Latomus 57.1 (1998), 136-147.

3. armor, Coulston, J.C.N., “Later Roman Armour, 3rd-6th Centuries AD,” Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 1 (1990), 139-60