Battle Seeking: The Contexts and Limits of Vegetian Strategy

Battle Seeking: The Contexts and Limits of Vegetian Strategy

By Stephen Morillo

Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol.1 (2002)

Introduction: Over the last decade or so a consensus has formed about the general shape of medieval strategy. Although R.C. Smail showed as long ago as 1956 that medieval strategy could be analyzed on its own terms, books and articles by Bernard Bachrach, John Gillingham, and others also showed that medieval strategy could be seen as following many of the fundamental precepts of Vegetius, the late Roman writer on military affairs. Thus, without getting into the question of whether medieval strategy was always or even often self- consciously Vegetian, we may take the term “Vegetian strategy” as convenient shorthand for the general contours of much medieval strategy.

I shall outline the characteristics of this consensus view more fully in a moment. For now, it suffices to say that the patterns of Vegetian strategy were based largely in limitations imposed on medieval commanders by resources, transport technology, and geography. As these same factors constrained commanders in ancient and classical times – Vegetius was, after all, a classical author – Vegetian strategy also characterized much classical warfare.

Indeed, because the conditions governing Vegetian strategy arose fromthe natural world and human interaction with nature (geography, agricultural productivity and seasonality, and so on), it is easy to take the patterns of Vegetian strategy as “natural”. In support of this claim one could point out the similarities between the strategies advocated by Vegetius and those advocated by Sun-Tzu, the great Chinese military analyst who wrote a good 600 years before Vegetius. To cite only two cases:

Vegetius: “The main and principle point in war is to secure plenty of provisions and destroy the enemy by famine.”

Sun Tzu: “Hence the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy, for one bushel of the enemy‟s provisions is equivalent to twenty of his; one hundredweight of enemy fodder to twenty hundredweight of his.”

Vegetius: “Good officers decline general engagements where the danger is common,and prefer the employment of strategem and finesse to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and intimidate them without exposing our own forces.

Sun Tzu: “Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy‟s army without battle.”

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