BMCR 2005.04.06

P. Flavio Vegezio Renato. L’arte della guerra romana. Prefazione di C. Petrucelli, introduzione, traduzione e note di M. Formisano. BUR Classici Greci e Latini

, , L'arte della guerra romana. BUR classici greci e latini ; L1455. Milano: Biblioteca universale Rizzoli, 2003. xx, 372 pages ; 18 cm.. ISBN 8817106453 €11.50 (pb).

It is evident, especially taking into consideration our current global situation, that warfare cannot be separated from historical and socio-political concerns. Revisiting some classical approaches to the matter, as a means to understand from the past certain aspects (at least) of our present, constitutes an interesting perspective to address, as a number of recent works seem to demonstrate.1 And, of course, if these readings tend to deal with ancient opera which are mostly unknown to the great mass of readers, their advantages and usefulness increase.

This is the case for the newest BUR version of Vegetius’ Epitoma rei militaris, one of the most significant technical handbooks from Late Antiquity. This text, which represents an influential model of strategic and tactical resources, has gained interest lately among historians and polemologists worldwide.2

The present book, aligned with these recent efforts, includes Vegetius’ work introduced, translated and annotated by Marco Formisano (F hereafter), a young classicist who has specialized mainly in the relationship between scientific knowledge and literary codification.3

The volume, dedicated to Prof. Eva Cantarella (Milan) and prefaced by Corrado Petrocelli (Bari), offers at its core a Latin-Italian face-to-face version of Vegetius. The modern translation is mostly accurate. However, since it is not intended for philologists, the editing of the original text unfortunately does not include notes or an apparatus criticus, which, considering the complex stemma codicum of the manuscripts, would have helped to shed light on certain textual discrepancies and some doubtful lectiones. Nevertheless, to overcome the inconvenience faced by specialists who might find this omission a little disappointing, an initial reference takes the reader back to the last Teubner edition by Önnerfors,4 establishing it here as the canonical printed source for Vegetius’ Latin prose. It is just a shame that Reeve’s excellent edition was still not published at the time of this book;5 had it been known to F, some passages from his translation would have probably been altered in accordance with the new punctuation presented by the Oxford text.

The analysis of the four books into which tradition has divided the text6 is headed by an “introduzione” (7-45), where F unfolds the available information both on the author — considered a member of the senatorial elite (8-11) — and on the Epitoma itself (11-14). The composition of the manuscript is examined here as a literary response to the bureaucratic crisis of the Roman Empire. In this sense, it reflects a Weltanschauung in which war is central as a living example of cultural, geographical, and political fragmentation.

F studies the use of the word Epitoma in the title as a reference to a historical circumstance, since the term, derived from the Greek epitemno, refers to small treatises — well-cut syntheses of extended pieces of work — which were frequently written in this period (14-16). After dealing with this discussion, F concentrates on the problems of the sources underlying Vegetius’ proposal (16-20). Identifying Celsus, Paternus, Frontinus, Cato, and Varro as possible models for different parts of the manual, the author concludes that Vegetius did not face the issue of warfare as an historian, but rather as a technical specialist. The whole work must thus be considered as part of a “letteratura tattica”, a specifically defined genre among the ancient scientific disciplines.

The close relationship between writing and technique is connected to the opposition theory / action. The “applicability” of Vegetius’ ideas in the field of warfare is afterwards discussed (22-25). When addressing the articulation of his line of thought, two main intertwined arguments can be discovered (26-27): an ‘ethical-historical’ one — based upon the acknowledgement of the decadence of military art and the need to regenerate morale through formal training of combatants — and a ‘practical’ perspective of its provisions. Utilitas, diligentia, sollertia and virtus are distinguished as Roman values which become essential for the first argument. The second one offers exempla to promote both exercitatio (etymologically related to exercitus) and ars.

A second part in the Introduction (32) deals with the reception of the book across time: after commenting on the special recognition granted among contemporary authors (32-33) and on its widespread success in the Middle Ages (33-38), F shows how the Epitoma was read as a military treatise by the Humanists (38-43) and briefly describes its general decline from the Rennaissance onwards (43).

Following these brief remarks, F’s conclusions are presented (44-45). In his last introductory words, attention is paid once again to the importance of reading in Vegetius a relationship between theory and praxis. On the basis of the famous quotation by von Clausewitz,7 F is able to conclude here that “l’azione è la continuazione della scrittura con altri mezzi”.

After the introduction, the Latin-Italian text (58-363) is prefaced by a general note to the version, identifying previous editions and translations (47-49), and a complete bibliographical survey (51-56). The list of books and articles quoted here covers a wide range of perspectives and languages.8

Finally, the text is followed by an appendix, where the composition of the Roman army is diachronically described (365-369). A short index of personal names and locations allows to search the handbook for specific information (371-373).

As a whole, F’s edition of the Epitoma rei militaris is most welcome. Even though some minimal critiques might be put forward — like the absence of footnotes to the Italian text, which might clarify certain obscure points —, the translation is clear and the edition is easily manageable. I am sure that scholars and students from various disciplines, interested in the ancient military art of war, will gratefully receive this new contribution and will appreciate this effort to make Vegetius’s treatise available to a wider (and well-deserved) audience.


1. See K. Raaflaub & B. Rosenstein (edd.) War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval World (Cambridge, MA, 2001), B. Campbell, War and Society in Imperial Rome, 31 B.C.-A.D. 284 (New York, 2002), A. K. Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army (London & New York, 2003), J. J. Wilkes (ed.) Documenting the Roman Army. Essays in Honour of Margaret Roxin (London, 2003), inter alios.

2. L. E. Stelten, Flavius Vegetius Renatus. Epitoma rei militaris (New York, Frankfurt & Paris: 1990), N. P. Milner, Vegetius. Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool: 1993) and F. L. Mller Abriss des Militärwesens (Stuttgart: 1997) — just to cite some of the better material, which F consulted.

3. He is the author of Tecnica e scrittura. Le letterature tecnico-scientifiche nello spazio letterario tardolatino, Roma: 2001.

4. A. Önnerfors, P. Flavii Vegetii Renati Epitoma rei militaris, Stuttgart & Leipzig: 1995.

5. I am referring to the recent work by M. D. Reeve (ed.) Vegetius. Epitoma Rei Militaris (Oxford, 2004).

6. With only the exception of C. Lang, Vegetius. Epitoma Rei Militaris (Stuttgart & Leipzig, 1885), who accepted the existence of five books, instead of four.

7. C. von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (Berlin, 1832).

8. Even though the most up-to-date texts are here mentioned, this bibliography is, of course, not meant to replace the larger canonical article by R. Sablayrolles, “Bibliographie sur l’Epitoma rei militaris de Vegèce”, Cahiers du Groupe de Recherche sur l’Armée Romaine et les Provinces 3 (1984), pp. 139-146.