Three Ancient Traditions of Tactical Writing
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Three Ancient Traditions of Tactical Writing

A forthcoming conference has me thinking about writings on tactics in the ancient world. While the English word tactics indicate a clever way of fighting, the Greek adjective τάκτικη means “having been put into a formation for battle.” In other words, in the ancient world tactics were what we call organization and drill. Ancient and modern critics have complained that tactics in the Greek sense are insufficient education for a soldier, but experienced soldiers tended to recognize that they were necessary.

Most people interested in ancient warfare are familiar with the Greek tradition, whose surviving remains are the most verbose. We have the works of Xenophon from the fourth century BCE, most of which describe how to organize and manoeuvre men at some point, three books on organizing a Macedonian army by Asclepiodotus, Aelian, and Arrian, a worked example of how to organize a Roman army for the march and for battle by Arrian, and a rich medieval tradition from the sixth century CE onwards which drew on lost texts and the practice of the Roman army. Our knowledge of these works depends on a single manuscript at Florence, Laurentianus Graecus LV, 4, made for the East Roman emperor in the tenth or eleventh century. The other manuscripts all descend from this one, which gathered a variety of military works. I suspect that amongst its sources was a volume of military writers whose names began with “A.”

The remains of Hittite literature from the second millennium BCE include at least two similar texts. The “Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard” proscribes what the king’s guards should do when they are protecting the palace, guarding a law court, or accompanying the king in the street. I am told that there is another text on what the garrison of a fort should do in the morning which resembles the Greek advice of Aeneas Tacticus in the fourth century BCE, but I have not read it in full.

From the Levant, there is some tactical content in Josephus’ Jewish War (preserved in Greek but originally written in Aramaic “the language of our country”) and in one of the Qumran texts which describes how the righteous will make war with the forces of evil at the end of time. Both of these say more about organization than movement, but the same is true of some Greek writing on tactics.

Much comment on ancient tactical writing is haughty and concentrated on the Greek tradition. I hope to write a bit about drill in Hittite and Jewish literature from a more sympathetic perspective in future posts. These texts can be dry and technical, and like all handbooks they are prescriptive not descriptive, but they also let us see how ancient soldiers thought about one of the basic skills of their trade.

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1 thought on “Three Ancient Traditions of Tactical Writing

  1. One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite | Book and Sword says:

    […] the last thousand years, but not so much about ancient Southwest Asia. I promised to write about the different ancient traditions of tactical writing. This is a topic known from Greek, Hebrew, Hittite, and Indian literature in the ancient world, and […]

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