The Western Strategic Tradition

Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?

T. Greer asked for comments on how the Western strategic canon aligns with the Chinese strategic canon. Here are a few:

The Western (Latin Christian) strategic tradition up to c. 1500 springs from three major sources:

  1. The Vulgate by Jerome: Most military historians pay little attention to the Old Testament as a source of Western military thought. They think of the Old Testament as a book instead of what it really is: a library (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”) containing the core works of the Israelite nation. A medieval warlord could summon his court prelate and have suggestive examples of strategytechnology embargoes, asymmetrical warfare, fortification, and other topics related to war read and translated to him to supplement his knowledge of warcraft. Through Jerome’s Latin translation, he had access to a canon predating China’s strategic canon by up to 500 years. When Mesopotamian and Egyptian influence is included, it goes back even further. Here’s a good example.
  2. De re militari by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus: A kluge of many better but often lost Greek and Latin works inexpertly pieced together by a concerned citizen of the Roman Empire within 20 years (either way) of the Gothi sack of Rome in AD 410. This kluge became Latin Christendom’s go to strategic treatise for the next millennium. Wikipedia muses:

    …it was “one of the most popular Latin technical works from Antiquity, rivaling the elder Pliny’s Natural History in the number of surviving copies dating from before AD 1300″. The early English historian Bede (672/673 – 735) cites Vegetius in his prose Life of St Cuthbert. The earliest extant manuscript from England to contain Vegetius’ text is Cotton Cleopatra D.I (of the 11th, possibly late 10th century). De Re Militari came to the forefront in the late Carolingian period through Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), who used the text for his own manual De Procincta Romaniae Militiae, composed for Lothair II of Lotharingia (r. 855-869).

    The Roman Empire at Constantinople had higher quality military manuals than De re military such as the Strategikon attributed to Mauricius and the Taktika of Leo VI but they didn’t reach Latin Christendom until the Roman Empire fell in 1453. Even those manuals drew heavily from De re militari despite its haphazard flaws.

  3. Scuttlebutt: A lot of Western strategic thought was proprietary tacit knowledge passed orally and by example from practitioner to practitioner. This scuttlebutt was similar to the scuttlebutt Ralph Sawyer speculates was compiled by Chinese schools such as the Swun family into the original six of the Seven Military Classics (Questions and Replies between Tang TaiDzung and Li WeiGung dates from the early Tang dynasty).

If I were to draw a rough analogy between the Old Testament and De re militari in Chinese history, the Old Testament would be a compilation of all the major Spring and Autumn and Warring States‘ literature of one of the smaller seven warring states (Judah) redacted by a Legalist-leaning Confucian (the Deuteronomists of Josiah’s reign) right before Chin (Neo-Babylonian Empire) completed its conquest of China (Fertile Crescent) and then re-redacted by Szma Chyan (Ezra) in the early days of the Han (Achaemenid) Dynasty. The theme of the Deuteronomists (“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21:25) is similar to a strong theme emphasized by editors of the Seven Military Classics that China had to be unified under one authority (“all under Heaven” (TyanSya) to eliminate the disorder of warring states during the Warring States era. This theme was recently expertly propagandized by the Beibing Regime in the interesting Jet Li film Hero on Jau Jeng.

De re militari would be a compilation of stray bits of the six existing Seven Military Classics studiously assembled by a public-spirited provincial Confucian scholar with no military experience and submitted as a memorial to the Late Han court in the hopes that its ancient virtues would rouse the court to reverse the collapse of the dynasty.

The Western strategic tradition after 1500 drew heavily on works synthesizing De re military and more recent recovered works from antiquity like Polybius and especially Livy. Wikipedia relates this example of a direct transmission from antiquity to present by Willem Lodewijk, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg to his cousin Maurits of Nassau:

William Louis played a significant part in the Military Revolution of the 16th – 17th centuries. In a letter to his cousin Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange of December 8, 1594 he set out (from reading Aelianus Tacticus) an argument around the use of ranks by soldiers of Imperial Rome as discussed in Aelian’s Tactica. Aelian was discussing the use of the counter march in the context of the Roman sword gladius and spear pilium. William Louis in a ‘crucial leap’ realized that the same technique could work for men with firearms.[1]

” I have discovered evolutionibus [a term that would eventually be translated as “drill”] a method of getting the musketeers and others with guns not only to practice firing but to keep on doing so in a very effective battle order (that is to say, they do not fire at will or from behind a barrier….). Just as soon as the first rank has fired, then by the drill [they have learned] they will march to the back. The second rank either marching forward or standing still, will then fire just like the first. After that the third and following ranks will do the same. When the last rank has fired, the first will have reloaded, as the following diagram shows…

Most works written from Machiavelli to Guibert were books on tactics, what Clausewitz (no mean military historian himself) called the “science of war” (as opposed to the “art of war” which correlates more with strategy than tactics). Guibert seems to be the one who revived modern use of the term “strategy”. The term “stratagem” survived and passed into English separately.  

The book to read on the evolution of the Western strategic tradition is Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy. Readers may be surprised to find how poor scholarship on Western strategic thought really is. Heuser also published a selection of translations from neglected European military writers between Machiavelli and Clausewitz. 

Most of them lie outside the Received Narrative of current Western military thought that tolerates ahistorical abominations like the “Western Way of War” which hold that face to face infantry battle was the go to Western tactic from Marathon to present without specifying how this supposed continuous thread was transmitted from Greek to Roman to Frank and so forth.


John Lynn, who Greer cites in the footnotes to his post, has written that the medieval Western Way of War was more in the spirit of De re militari (“the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword” or “”It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places (i.e., through maneuver) than by a battle in the open field”). De re militari, unlike the mythical Western Way of War, represents a continuous transmitters of such ideas as manifested in the tactics like the chevauchée used during the Hundred Years War.

Some other miscellaneous notes on Greer’s post and footnotes:

  • A good resource for learning more about Japanese strategic tradition during the Age of the Country at War (a direct riff on China’s Warring States period) is the Samurai Archives podcast by some folks at the University of Hawaii.
  • Edward Luttwak, who can disable much larger men using a variety of nerve pinches, suggests the Shahnameh is the core of Persian strategic tradition derived from the “writings of pre-Islamic Persia”. The Illiad and Odyssey probably played a similar role for the Greeks and Romans but the influence of those epics was diffused in medieval Latin Christendom because they weren’t available in Latin and mainly passed through derivative works like the Aeneid.