Re-membering antiquity

It is important to insert a brief clarification in the discussion at this point. While military philosophes constructed a tactical system using information from antiquity, their conclusions were not always accurate. David Larmour makes a compelling argument that the Revolutionary Government “re-membered” antiquity in order to fit it to their own needs and ideals. [1] The same might be said of the development of the ordre profond, as military philosophes exaggerated and blurred the reality of classical battlefields. For example, the canonical writings of Polybius and Vegetius held in common that they were written about ideal Roman tactical systems, not actual tactical systems. This little-mentioned detail means that the military philosophes based their arguments on Roman legions which never actually existed, just as Machiavelli had done two-hundred years before them.[2] Furthermore, ancient authors like Caesar had a vested interest in making their battles appear both humane and decisive, yet in reality this was often not the case. Therefore it should be kept in mind what the military philosophes thought and what was actually the case are two different things. In fact, in many cases, the realities which eighteenth-century tacticians and the instructions which classical authors provided were two very opposite things. For example, Vegetius recommended that “every plan . . . is to be considered, every expedient tried, and every method taken” before battle was accepted, and if it was, “Good officers [would] decline general engagements where the danger is common, and prefer the employment of stratagem and finesse to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and intimidate them without exposing [their] own forces.” [3] However, military philosophes were looking for system to prevent this exact, indecisive approach. However, tacticians were willing to overlook such discrepancies in their effort to ‘re-member’ antiquity.

(continued from above) David H.J. Larmour, “History Recreated or Malfunctioned Desire? The Roman Republic Re-Membered in the French Revolution,” The French Revolution in Culture and Society, ed. David G. Troyansky, Alfred Cismaru, and Norwood Andrews, Jr (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).
[2] Oliver L. Spaulding Jr., “The Ancient Military Writers,” Classical Journal 28, no.9 (June 1933): 666.
[3] Vegetius, “The Military Institutions of Rome,” in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, ed. Major Thomas R Phillips (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943), 76, 38.

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