Discourses on Livy/Third Book/Chapters XXXVI-XLII

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Discourses on Livy by Niccolò Machiavelli
Third Book (Chapters XXXVI-XLII)



The boldness of that Gaul who defied any Roman at the river Arno to combat (singly) with him, and the subsequent fight he had with T. Manlius, makes me remember what T. Livius often says, that the Gauls at the beginning of a fight are more than men, and in the course of the fight they turn out then to be less than women. And in thinking whence this arises, it is believed by many that it is because of their nature, and which I believe it true: but it is not because of this that this nature of theirs which makes them ferocious in the beginning, cannot be so disciplined that they might maintain that ferocity until the end. And in wanting to prove this I say that there are three kinds of armies: the one, where there is ardor and discipline, for from discipline there arises ardor and virtu, like that of the Romans: For it is seen in all histories that there was discipline in those armies, such military discipline had prevailed for a long time: for in a well-ordered army no one ought to perform any action except by regulation: and therefore it will be found that in the Roman army ((which having conquered the world, all other armies ought to take as an example)) no one ate, slept, traded, or did any other military or domestic act, without an order from the Consul. For those armies which do otherwise are not truly armies, and if they sometimes give some proof of it, they do this by their ardor and impulse, not because of virtu. But where virtu is disciplined, it employs its ardor with moderation and at the right time; and no difficulty debases it, or makes it lose courage, because good order renews this courage and ardor, nourished by the hope of victory, which is never missing while discipline is preserved. The contrary happens in those armies where there is ardor but no discipline; as were the Gauls, who were completely lacking in this while combatting, for if they did not succeed in winning with the first onset, in which they hoped, and not being sustained by a well regulated virtu, and not having anything outside of their fury in which to confide, they failed when that (first ardor) cooled. The Romans were the opposite; they were less apprehensive of danger because of their good discipline, were not mistrusting of victory, fought with the same courage and virtu at the end as at the beginning (of a battle), the heat of battle actually inflaming them. The third kind of armies is where there is no natural ardor or chance discipline; as are our Italian armies of our time, which are all useless, and unless they fall upon an army that by some accident is fleeing, they never win. And without citing other examples, it is seen every day that they give proof of not having any virtu. And as everyone knows from the testimony of T. Livius how good military organizations are created and how bad ones are made, I want to cite the words of Papirius Cursor when he wanted to punish Fabius, his Master of cavalry, when he said: Let no one have fear of men or Gods; but let them observe neither the Imperial edicts nor the auspices: let the soldiers, without provisions, roam in packs when going in the territory of the enemy; forgetting their oaths, from which they absolve themselves as they wish; let them desert their ensigns in large numbers, nor follow the edicts for assembling: let them indiscriminately fight by day and by night, in favorable and unfavorable positions, with or without the orders of the Commanders; and let them observe neither the ensigns nor discipline, blind and confused like robbers -than being like a sacred and solemn army.

From this text, therefore, it can be easily seen whether the military of our times are blind and confused, or sacred and solemn, and how much they lack in being like that which can be called military, and how far they are from being arduous and disciplined like the Romans, or furious only as the Gauls.



It appears that in the actions of men ((as we discussed at other times)) there is found, in addition to the other difficulties when it is desired to conclude something successfully, that good is always accompanied by some evil, which so easily arises with that good, that it appears impossible to do without the one when desiring the other; and this is seen in all the things that men do. And, therefore, good is acquired with difficulty, unless you are aided by fortune in a way that she, with her power, overcomes the ordinary and natural difficulties.

The combat between Manlius Torquatus and the Gaul makes me remember this, of which Titus Livius says: So much influence did the momentous outcome of that fight have on the whole war, that the army of the Gauls, having precipituously retreated from their camps, fled across the Tiber, and then into the fields of Campania. For, on the one hand I consider that a good Captain ought to avoid entirely doing anything of little importance which can have a bad effect on his army; for to begin a battle where he cannot employ all his strength and where he risks his entire fortune, is a completely foolhardy thing, as I said above when I condemned the guarding of passes. On the other hand. I consider that a wise Captain, when he comes to encounter a new enemy which has reputation, finds it necessary before coming to an engagement for his soldiers to probe such enemies by skirmishes, so that they begin to know him and how to handle him and lose any terror which their fame and reputation may have given them. And this part (of his duties) in a Captain is most important, for he feels almost a necessity in himself which constrains him to do it, as it appears to him he would be going to a certain defeat unless by these light experiences he first removes that terror which the reputation of the enemy may have placed in their hearts. When Valerius Corvinus was sent by the Romans with the armies against the Samnites, who were new enemies, and in the past had never had a test of arms against each other, he made the Romans engage the Samnites in some skirmishes, where as Titus Livius says: Neither a new war or a new enemy should make them fear. None the less, there is a very great danger that if your soldiers are defeated in those slight battles, their fear and apprehension will increase, and that the opposite effects will ensue from what you designed, that is, you may have discouraged them where you had planned to reassure them. So that this is one of those things which has evil so near the good, and are so joined together, that it is an easy thing to adopt one (course) believing to have taken the other.

Upon this I say, that a good Captain ought to see to it with all diligence, that nothing springs up which, by some accident, can discourage his army. And that which can begin to discourage is to begin to lose, and, therefore, he should guard against small combats and not permit them unless he can engage in them with the greatest advantages and certain hope of victory: he ought not to engage in guarding passes where he cannot employ all his army: he ought not to engage in guarding towns except those which, if lost, would of necessity cause his own ruin, and in those that he does guard so organize himself that if faced with the possibility of siege, he can with the guards and the army employ all his strength, and ought to leave the other places undefended: For whenever something is lost which is abandoned but the army remains intact, he neither loses reputation in the war nor the hope of winning it. But when something is lost which you had planned to defend, and everyone believed you would defend it, then there is damage as well as defeat, and you have almost, like the Gauls, lost the war through a matter of little moment. Philip of Macedonia, father of Perseus, a military man and of great renown in his times, having been assaulted by the Romans, abandoned and laid waste many of his territories which he judged he could not defend; for in his prudence he judged it would be more pernicious to lose his reputation by not being able to defend that which he set himself to defend, than by leaving it a prey to the enemy lose it as something neglected (and of no value). The Romans, after the defeat at Cannae, when their affairs were afflicted, refused aid to many of their allies and subjects, advising them to defend themselves as best they could. Which proceedings are much better than to undertake their defense and then not defending them: for in such a proceeding both friends and strength are lost, while in the other they lose only friends.

But to return to skirmishes, I say, that even if the Captain is constrained to engage in some because of the newness of the enemy, he ought to do so only with so much advantage on his side that there is no danger of losing; or certainly do as did Marius ((which is the better proceeding)) when going against the Cimbrians, a most ferocious people who came to plunder Italy; and their coming spread fear because of their numbers and ferocity and because of having already overcome one Roman army; and Marius judged it necessary, before coming to battle, to do something by which his army might lose that terror which fear of the enemy may have given them; and as a most prudent Captain, he placed his army several times in positions whence the Cimbri with their army should have to pass. And thus, he wanted his soldiers, from within the strongholds of his camp, to see and accustom their eyes to the sight of that enemy, so that seeing a disorganized multitude, encumbered with impediments, partly armed with useless weapons and partly without arms, they would be reassured and become desirous of the battle. Which proceeding, as it was wisely taken by Marius, so also should it be diligently imitated by others, so as not to incur those dangers which I have mentioned above, and not to have to do as the Gauls: who in fear from some small thing, retreated to the lands behind the Tiber and into Campania. And as we have cited Valerius Corvinus in this discourse, I want ((through the medium of his words)) in the following chapter to show how a Captain ought to be constituted.



Valerius Corvinus ((as I have mentioned above)) was sent with his army against the Samnites, new enemies of the Roman people, whence, in order to reassure his soldiers and to make them recognize the enemy, had them engage in some skirmishes; nor was this enough for him, as he wanted to speak to them before the engagement; and with great efficacy he showed them how little they should esteem such enemies, recalling to them the virtu of his soldiers and his own. Here it can be noted, from the words which Livius makes him say, how a Captain ought to be constituted in whom an army has to confide: Which words are these: Think of him under whose lead and auspices you are going to fight: whether he you are hearing is only a magnificent exhorter, ferocious only in words, or expert in military matters, and himself a thrower of weapons, to lead before the ensigns, and to combat in the thickest of the fight. Follow my actions, I do not want to say to you soldiers my words, and not only my orders, but the example of him who by his right arm has fought for the consulship and the highest glory. Which words, well considered, teach anyone how he ought to proceed in wanting to hold the rank of Captain: and he who acts otherwise will find in time that rank ((to which he may have been led by ambition or fortune)) to have been taken away and not have given him reputation; for titles do not honor men, but men titles. It ought also to be considered from the beginning of this discourse, that, if great" Captains have employed extraordinary means to firm up the courage of a veteran army, how much more he has to use that industry with those unaccustomed to face the enemy in a new army that has never seen the enemy face to face. For if an unaccustomed enemy creates terror in an old army, how much more ought any enemy create it in a new army. Yet all these difficulties have many times been seen to have been overcome by the prudent acts of a good Captain; as were Gracchus, the Roman, and Epaminondas, the Theban, of whom we have spoken another time, who with new armies overcame the veteran and best disciplined armies. The methods they employed were to exercise their troops in sham battles for several months, accustom them to obedience and order, and afterwards with maximum confidence lead them into the real battle. Any military man, therefore, ought not to despair of being able to create a good army as long as he does not lack men; for that Prince who abounds in men but lacks soldiers, ought not to complain of the baseness of men, but only of his indolence and little prudence.



Among the other things that are necessary to a Captain of armies is the knowledge of sites (localities) in the countries, for without this general and particular knowledge, a Captain of armies cannot do anything well. And although wanting to possess successfully every science requires practice, yet this one requires more than others. This practice, or rather this particular knowledge, is acquired more by means of the chase, than by any other exercise. For the ancient writers say that those Heroes who governed the world in their time, were brought up in forests and in the chase: for, in addition to this knowledge, the chase teaches infinite things that are necessary in war. And Xenophon, in his life of Cyrus, shows that, when Cyrus was going to assault the King of Armenia, in dividing the army (among the commanders) recalled to his men that this was nothing more than one of those chases which they had many times made with him. And he recalled to those whom he sent in ambush in the mountains, that they were very similar to those who went to rouse the game from their den, so that they would drive them into the nets. This is said to show how the chase, according to its proof by Xenophon, is an image of a war. And because of this such exercise is honorable and necessary to great men. This knowledge of countries cannot be learned in any other convenient manner than by way of the chase, for the chase makes those who indulge in it to know in detail the character of the country where the army is. And when one has become familiar with a region afterwards he easily knows the character of all new countries, for every country and every part of them have together some conformity, so that the knowledge of one facilitates the knowledge of others. But he who has not experienced one, with difficulty or never learns (of another country) except after a long time. And whoever has had that experience will in a glance know how the plain lies, how that mountain rises, where that valley leads to, and all other such things of which in the past he has made a firm study.

And that this is true Titus Livius shows us with the example of Publius Decius, who was Tribune of the Soldiers in the army which the Consul Cornelius led against the Samnites, and the Consul having come to a valley where the army of the Romans could be closed in by the Samnites, and (Publius Decius) seeing it in so great danger, said to the Consul: Do you see that point above the enemy, Aulus Cornelius? That strong point is our hope and our safety, if we ((as the Samnites blindly have left it)) seize it quickly. And before these words were spoken by Decius, T. Livius says: Publius Decius, the Tribune of the army, had observed a hill immediately above the camp of the enemy, difficult to get on (by an army) with its impediments, but expeditiously by light armed (soldiers). Whence being sent by the Consul to take it with three thousand soldiers, he saved the Roman army; and designing with the coming of night to depart and save his soldiers as well as himself, (T. Livius) has him say these words: Come with me, and while daylight remains, let us explore where the enemy strong points are placed, and how we can exit from here. And lest the enemy about should note him from among his soldiers, he changed his clothing. He who considers all this text, therefore, will see how useful and necessary it is for a Captain to know the nature of countries; for if Decius had not known and recognized them, he could not have judged how useful the taking of that hill was to the Roman army, nor would he have been able to recognize from a distance if that hill was accessible or not, and having then brought himself to it, and having the enemy around him, he would not have been able from a distance to reconnoiter the path of his departure, nor the places guarded by the enemy. So that of necessity it behooved Decius to have such perfect knowledge (of the country) which enabled him, by the taking of that hill, to save the Roman army, and afterwards ((being besieged)) knowing how to find the way to save himself and those who he had with him.



Although to use deceit in every action is detestable, none the less in the managing of a war it is a laudable and glorious thing; and that man is equally lauded who overcomes the enemy by deceit, as is he who overcomes them by force. And this is seen by the judgment which those men make who write biographies of great men, and who praise Hannibal and others who have been very notable in such ways of proceeding. Of which so many examples have been cited that I will not repeat any. I mention only this, that I do intend that that deceit is glorious which makes you break your trust and treaties that you made; for although it sometimes acquires a State and a Kingdom for you, as has been discussed above, will never acquire them for you gloriously. But I speak of that deceit which is employed against that enemy who distrusts you, and in which properly consists the managing of a war; as was that of Hannibal when he feigned flight on the lake of Perugia in order to close in the Consul and the Roman army; and when to escape from the hands of Fabius Maximus he fired (the fagots on) the horns of his cattle. A similar deceit was also employed by Pontius, the Captain of the Samnites, in order to close in the Roman army within the Caudine forks, who, having placed his army behind a mountain, sent some of his soldiers under the dress of shepherds with a large herd upon the plain; who, being taken by the Romans and asked where the army of the Samnites was, all agreed according to the orders given by Pontius to say that it was at the siege of Nocera. Which was believed by the Consuls, and caused them to be enclosed within the defiles (of Claudium), where (having entered) they were quickly besieged by the Samnites. And this victory obtained by deceit would have been most glorious to Pontius, if he had followed the counsels of his father, who wanted the Romans either to be liberally set free, or all put to death, and would not take the middle way: Never make a friend or remove an enemy. Which way was always pernicious in the affairs of a State, as has been discussed above in another place.



The Consul and the Roman army ((as mentioned above)) were besieged by the Samnites, who had proposed the most ignominious conditions to the Romans, which were to put them under the yoke, and to send them back to Rome disarmed; the Consuls were astonished and the entire army was in despair because of this; but L. Lentulus, the Roman legate said, that it did not appear he should avoid any procedure in order to save the country, for as the life of Rome depended on the life of that army, it appeared to him it should be saved in whatever way, and that the country is well defended in whatever way it is defended, either with ignominy or with glory; for by saving that army, Rome would in time wipe out that ignominy; but by not saving it, even though they should die most gloriously, Rome and its liberty would be lost. Which thing merits to be noted and observed by any citizen who finds himself counselling his country; for where the entire safety of the country is to be decided, there ought not to exist any consideration of what is just or unjust, nor what is merciful or cruel, nor what is praiseworthy or ignominious; rather, ahead of every other consideration, that proceeding ought to be followed which will save the life of the country and maintain its liberty. Which counsel is imitated by the words and deeds of the French in defending the majesty of their King and the power of the Kingdom, for they listen to no voice more impatiently than that which says: Such a proceeding is ignominious to the King; for they say that their King cannot suffer disgrace in any of his decisions either in good or adverse fortune, because, whether he wins or loses, they all say it is a matter that only concerns the King.



When the Consuls returned to Rome with the disarmed army and the ignominies received, the first who said that the peace made at Claudium (the Caudine Forks) ought not to be observed was the Consul Sp. Posthumius; he said that the Roman people were under no obligation, but only he and the others who had promised the peace were obligated: and, therefore, if the People wanted to free themselves from every obligation, they had only to give him and the others who had promised it as prisoners into the hands of the Samnites. And he held this conclusion with such obstinacy that the Senate agreed to it, and sent him and the others as prisoners to Samnium, protesting to the Samnites that the peace was of no value. And so favorable was fortune to Posthumius in this case, that the Samnites did not keep him, and when he returned to Rome, Posthumius was received by the Romans more gloriously for having lost, than was Pontius by the Samnites for having won. Here two things are to be noted: the one, that glory can be acquired in any action; for it is ordinarily acquired in victory and in defeat it is acquired either by showing that this defeat was not due to your fault, or by quickly doing some act of virtu which counteracts it: the other, that it is not a disgrace not to observe those promises which were made by force: and always forced promises regarding public affairs, will be disregarded when that force is removed, and he who disregards them is without shame. Many examples of this are to be read in all histories. And, not only are forced promises not observed among Princes when that force is removed, but also other promises are not observed when the causes for making those promises are removed. Whether this is praiseworthy or not, and whether or not a Prince ought to observe them in a similar manner, has been discussed at length by use in the treatise on the Prince: therefore we will be silent for the present.