The turn to antiquity

     Opposed to their enemies’ tactical systems, yet frustrated by their own, many eighteenth-century French tacticians turned to the armies of antiquity for inspiration. This turn was in fact not unusual. Ultimately, tacticians turned to classical military models because the systems of antiquity could fix all the problems which philosophes had outlined with the ancien régime army. Greek and Roman warfare appeared successful, decisive, methodical, and, as an added bonus, dignified.[1] Furthermore, it relied on massed infantry offensives using deep formations – such as the Greek and Macedonian phalanxes — to charge and break the enemy lines. This was just the sort of approach which French soldiers were supposedly ideally suited for. Even better, the soldiers of the hoplite phalanx, inspired by their state, did not seem to desert their ranks.[2] Contemporary intellectual trends already strongly encouraged a turn towards antiquity. Steeped in classical literature, the philosophes of the Enlightenment have, perhaps rightly, been accused of knowing the history of Greece and Rome better than that of their own state.[3] Inevitably, ideas from the political and social branches of the Enlightenment filtered into military discussions. Calls for a more humane approach to warfare, new political systems which might include a citizen militia instead of a mercenary army, and new social discourse which might encourage more equal battlefield formations evoked regular comparisons to Rome, Sparta, and Athens.[4]  As J.E. Lendon suggests in “The Rhetoric of Combat,” the way the Greeks and Romans approached, understood, and therefore wrote about war placed particular emphasis on soldiers’ moods and morale. He demonstrates in particular how Caesar emphasized morale and spiritual condition as a deciding factor on the battlefield.[5] Entrenched in such texts, and having grown into the humanist tradition of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, it is easy to understand how Enlightenment scholars, concerned with the humanity of individuals and the social contract, could easily and quickly identify with the classical approach to warfare.

Consequently, tacticians’ investigation of classical military texts, and in particular Folard’s Commentary on Polybius in which the ordre profond was first propagated, did not seem out of place. Indeed, Nathaniel Wolloch claims that the vocabulary used for understanding war was based on a classical understanding of warfare, and necessarily shaped how military philosophes understood and expressed warfare.[6] Moreover, military study of the classics was in no way unprecedented in the eighteenth century. Throughout the Renaissance, classical military treatises were the subject of much debate and comparison. Machiavelli begins his Art of War, for example, by suggesting that “if we consider the practice and institution observed by the old Romans (whose example I am always fond of recommending), we shall find many things worthy of imitation; these may be easily introduced into any other state.” [7]  This demonstrated to many tacticians that they were indeed on the right track.  Finally, it helped that classical tactical systems were both attainable and inexpensive. Technologies did not need to be invested in, mercenaries did not need to be hired, and little training was required. Instead, the French infantryman, armed with his own spirit and a pike, could decide the result of a war.

[1] Gat, Origins, 8; David Bell suggests that the birth and popularity of the novel was in part responsible for this trend by giving readers a new way to identify with the classics. David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), 202.
[2] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 145-147.
[3] Bell, 101.
[4] Rousseau is particularly known for this, though Montesquieu and others suggested it as well- consequently, the application of such citizen soldiers to the battlefield by Saxe cannot be seen as out of place or as revolutionary. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Constitutional Project for Corsica.Kessinger Press, 5, 36, 1&ved=0CCoQ6wEwAA#v= onepage&q&f=false.
[5] J.E. Lendon, “The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions,” Classical Antiquity 18, no. 2 (October 1999): 281-282, 293.
[6] Nathaniel Wolloch, “Cato the Younger in the Enlightenment,” Modern Philology 106, no.1 (Aug. 2008): 6.
[7] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, trans. Ellis Farneworth (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1965), 12.

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