Monday 25 July 2016

Written in Water #15: Imaginal Armies, Part One

The Roman Army wasn't immune to the collapse of history. As the Empire entered its final state of narrative disintegration, the army entered into the realm of myth, of story. An imaginal state, where the idea of the military forces of Rome transcended the reality. I have two stories to tell regarding this.

Before I get to the first, let's go back a bit. For context's sake.

At the Battle of Cannae in 216BCE, the Roman Army lost about 80,000 men to Hannibal's forces, slain or captured. 80,000 is a nice round number for a whole army annihilated, ten legions worth of men, and in fact there are several battles where one side or the other supposedly lost that number. For eample, the battle of Arausio in 105BCE, where the Romans lost to the tribal Cimbri and Teutones; the Battle of Watling Street in 60CE, where Boudica lost the same number to the Romans. Whether or not these forces lost that exact number is not the question, but it speaks to the sheer numbers of men who would enter the field. Supposedly, at the marine Battle of Actium in 31BCE, where Octavian and Agrippa defeated Antony and Cleopatra, 250,000 men were present on both sides. It was the biggest sea battle of ancient times.

The Roman army in its heyday fought in vast numbers. But the end of the fourth century, Roman forces would be no bigger than 20,000 or 30,000 men. Times had changed.

Nonetheless, even today the Roman legions are thought to be the greatest military machine of the ancient world. But in Europe and the Middle East, what other military machine was there? For much of its history, only the Persian Army in the East could match it, and just like any other large scale military force, it had strengths and weaknesses. The Romans never really got the hang of cavalry until late in their history, for example, and just like many modern organised armies today, they had no real way of coping with guerilla warfare.

But the Roman Army had its own mythology, its own mystique, as imperial armies – British, American, whatever – have always done. It had its own image in the minds of its admirers. It was a thing of blood and fire and glory, a thing that brought ruin to the field of conflict, that laid waste to the enemies of peace. Pax Romana, the Roman peace, that raped the daughters of queens, that murdered children, that burned down cities (but did not salt the ground; that was a later invention).

Rcalling Virgil:
But remember, Roman, these are your arts:
To hold dominion over the peoples. To impose law on peace.
To have mercy on the defeated and to cast down the arrogant. 
The myth of Roman supremacy persisted long after it had lost any relationship to the truth.

And so, Vegetius. The Epitoma Rei Militaris (Summary of Military Doctrine). It's supposedly a book about the Roman Army; a guide to arms and armour, training and tactics. In fact, he was never a soldier, Flavius Vegetius, just a man who read a lot of books about the Roman Army. He wrote towards the end of the fourth century, and his work, which continued to be a massively popular textbook of military science right up until the Victorian era, isn't about any real army.

Addressed to an Emperor (some versions suggest Valentinian II, which dates it in the 390s, but it's probably later than that), it's about nostalgia for a Roman army that never was, a should-be Roman army, with shining armour and polished swords, that destroys all before it.
For we see that the Romans owed their subjugation of the whole world only to their training in arms, in the discipline of their camps, and the practice of military science. How else could only a few Romans triumph against a multitude of Gauls? Or how else could they, as short as they were, win through against the height of the Germans? It's obvious that there weren't just more Spanish than us, but they were stronger too. We never had as much money or cunning as the Africans. And no one doubts that the Greeks were our betters in knowledge and skills.

But against all these advantages, it worked for us to pick a recruit shrewdly, and, so to speak, teach him arms, harden him with training, and get him ready for anything that could happen in the military formation and in the fray through continual practice, and in severely punishing slackers. Knowledge of the arts of war feeds bravery in combat. No one is afraid to do something he has well learned. And really, in a pitched battle a small trained force gets the victory more swiftly: a rough, untrained horde is always open to be slaughtered.
Vegetius, ERM I. 1
That's the start of the work proper, after preambles. He's writing at the very end of the fourth century, or the beginning of the fifth, and yet, and yet the ultimate enemies he chooses, the Spanish, the Gauls, the Germans, the Africans, they haven't really been much of a threat for a very long time. And when wars were fought against armies from those nations, they were Roman armies. They were civil wars. When Magnus Maximus, and Carausius and the Gallic Emperors before him used Gaulish forces against Rome, they were Roman forces. And what interests me the most about Vegetius's programmatic statement here is not who he talks about, it's who he doesn't.

He doesn't mention the Persians. Going right back to the time of Caesar, the empires of Persia, the Parthians and later the Sassanids, remained an insoluble problem for the Romans. And it wasn't from lack of trying. Way back in 54BCE, Julius Caesar's colleague Marcus Crassus failed dismally to invade Persia, and depending on which version you favour, ended up either beheaded and used as a theatrical prop, or having molten gold poured down his throat (which I would imagine really hurt). In 260CE the persecutor Valerian tried and ended his life humiliated and skinned. The best the Romans ever managed was the invasion mounted by the prodigiously talented and humane Emperor Julian the Apostate, which ended in 363 with Julian dying in the middle of a battle he'd just won and humiliating terms being made (and a note, Julian deserves a post of his own sometime, because he's super interesting).

Funny thing about Persia. It was the other Big Imperial Power on this side of the world back then. But the aggression was always on the Roman side. The Persians hadn't attempted to invade Europe for literally hundreds of years before Caesar and Crassus, let alone during the time of the Roman Empire. But the Romans tried to invade Persia again, and again, and they failed. Every time.

And aside from the Persians, closer still to home were the Goths. Even if he was not writing after the Battle of Adrianople (he was) or after Alaric the Goth burning Rome to the ground in 410 (he might have been), why doesn't Vegetius mention the Goths? The various tribes under that blanket name had been a thorn in the Roman side for a very long time – way back in 251, the Emperor Decius died in battle against them. He mentions the Goths in the book... but only in passing.
But in this respect, we don't follow the ways of the historical Roman army: we have followed the example of the Goths, the Alans and the Huns and have improved our cavalry, but our infantry are basically naked. From the very beginning of Rome up until the time of Emperor Gratian, the footsoldiers wore body armour and helmets, but in the years intervening between then and now, negligence in training and laziness brought an end to that. They began to think it was too heavy. And so the soldiers rarely wear it.
Vegetius, ERM I. 20
That is literally the only mention in Vegetius that the Goths even exist (although there's a couple more mentions of the Huns, Alamanni and Persians, in similar contexts, always in passing, and always to do with some sort of comparison with the way they conduct their armies).

The part about the armour is also probably entirely untrue. There isn't a single other source from the era that agrees with that, and there's no picture, relief or statue of the era that has a Roman soldier without armour. But then, as I said, the man wasn't a soldier. His talk of camp discipline, sending men for runs, weapons drills dummy-fighting and the like wasn't actually representative of the Roman army as it was. It was the Roman army that should have been in opposition to a Roman army that shouldn't, and both existed in an imaginal space, an idea of an army, one that never really fought save on the battlefield of story.

So much for Vegetius. In the second armies post, I'll talk about a different sort of imaginal army, in the shape of the legend of the Theban Legion.