Military Education: Models from Antiquity

Barry Strauss

La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.

(War! It’s too serious a matter to entrust to the military.)

—attributed to Georges Clemenceau

The Greek city-states, in the centuries before the Macedonian conquest of 338 B.C., and the Roman Republic, from its founding (traditionally, 509 B.C.) to the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), both hold a special place in the Western imagination. They are the distant ancestors of the West and its civic tradition. Democracy, elections, oratory, and the idea of freedom itself all come from Greece and Rome. Yet, in one way, we are very different from the ancients. They put military training at the heart of their educational system. We have increasingly marginalized military education. Americans have gone from colonial militias to Minute Men to citizen-soldiers to, in some cases, ROTC-free college campuses. Meanwhile, professional historians leave relatively little room at the table for military history. Often connected to opposition to the Vietnam War, the demilitarization of American education reflects a deeper process.

World War I soured the West on war. World War II offered a sobering reminder of the limits of pacifism, but the lesson was soon forgotten. Some argued that the cure was worse than the disease, because to study war was to glorify it. Besides, both technology, on the one hand, and guerrilla warfare, on the other, seemed to make the citizen-soldier obsolete. By the 1970s, the verdict was in: Western voters would make only limited investments in the military. Americans would shoulder a tax burden but not conscription; Europeans insisted on an even smaller percentage of war tax and eventually dropped the draft as well. No doubt this was only the logical conclusion of a tendency in liberalism noted long ago by Benjamin Constant and more recently by Azar Gat, a turn away from war.

Modern liberal democracies are commercial republics. They offer their citizens the chance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The state provides peace, laws, and a certain degree of welfare services. But it is up to the citizens to pursue happiness on their own, in private life. Some people, being courageous, patriotic, or adventurous, choose to serve in the military, but they are the in the minority. Most choose civilian pursuits, since private enterprise offers more profit than war and at considerably less risk of life and limb. In modern democracies, war serves mainly for defense. For most people, the real action is elsewhere.

The situation was the reverse in ancient society. The economy offered limited credit, primitive technology, and little in its ideology to support the conquest of nature for the benefit of mankind. Private life, therefore, offered few opportunities for profit. Military conquest made rational, economic sense. States sought empire. Great captains earned honor and glory; captains of industry, such as it was, did not. The result is that the Greeks and Romans took war very seriously indeed, far more seriously than we do today.

Do the Greeks and Romans have lessons for us? If so, should we reinvigorate military education or should we shudder in relief to be free of the burden of militarism? I will return to this question presently; first, let us have a look at the ancient record.

Given the importance of war in Greece and Rome, we might expect that their cities were full of schools of warfare. They were not. No military academies or war colleges arose. Neither the Academy nor the Lyceum taught strategy and tactics. Neither Caesar nor Pericles attended lectures in the art of war. A fatal lacuna? No, because it bespeaks less the absence of military education than its ubiquity. To the ancients, war was too serious to leave to the military—or to the professors. Instead, war belonged to everyone. The whole city taught war.

To walk through Athens during the lifetime of Socrates (469–399 B.C.), for example, would have been to visit a living laboratory in the theory, practice, and ideology of war.1 Statues of victory goddesses, lists of names of men called up for military service, paintings and sculpted reliefs of famous battles decorating public buildings: all played prominent roles in the urban landscape. Athens and its port of Piraeus were each surrounded by walls and connected to each other by Long Walls stretching nearly four miles. Piraeus was both commercial port and naval base. Outside one of the city gates stood the Public Cemetery with tombs of the fallen in Athens’ wars. The Athenians began the practice, continued to this day, of inscribing the names of the dead on public war monuments. Each year when there was a war a leading citizen gave a funeral speech in memory of the newly fallen.

Meanwhile, craftsmen churned out arms and armor, the dockyards built and repaired warships, commanders offered sacrifices to the gods in hope of victory, playwrights represented war scenes in comedy and drama, athletic festivals featured races in armor and war dances, women prayed for their men’s success in battle, and even the festival of Dionysus—patron of drama—included a kind of graduation ceremony of war orphans. Raised at public expense, they appeared in full suits of armor, ready now to take their place as independent adults.

There was little separation of civil and military. All politicians served in the military and many if not most politicians did stints as commanders. All citizens owed military service between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine; resident aliens did as well. Slaves were sometimes rented out to row in the Athenian fleet (but note that most rowers were free men). Women were not eligible for military service or political participation, but the ancients recognized the importance of their support. Aristophanes based his funniest play, Lysistrata (411 B.C.), on the disastrous consequences for the war effort of a women’s sex strike.

Many of the men destined for Greece or Rome’s military elite began their military education at home, at the hands of their father or another elder with military experience, but eventually they would have encountered public military training. In classical Athens in the fourth century B.C., and probably earlier as well, healthy eighteen- and nineteen-year-old boys who were citizens were required to undergo two years of military training. They were called ephebes; their period of military training was known as the ephebeia. At first, it seems, the poor were excluded, but by late in the century, if not earlier, all eligible citizens were required to undergo ephebic training. They learned to fight both as heavy infantry and light-armed troops; towards the end of the century, they performed garrison duty. Every year the new eighteen-year-olds swore an oath that began with an emphasis on the military:

I will not disgrace the sacred arms nor desert my neighbor wherever I may be stationed in the ranks. I will defend all things sacred and profane, and I will not pass on my native land diminished but greater and better, as far as in me lies and along with others.2

The ephebeia apparently did not include the navy, but the Athenians recognized the importance of training crews. For example, every year Pericles sent out sixty ships filled with Athenian citizens—nominally, eighteen thousand men—to practice the tricky art of naval warfare.

So much for Athens; it is Sparta that holds the prize for military training among the Greek city-states. Spartan citizen-boys went through a unique education, the famous agogê (upbringing). They left home at the age of seven and lived in barracks, organized by age groups, until the age of eighteen. From eighteen to twenty, Spartan men lived in the countryside, policing Sparta’s oppressed and unfree laborers, the Helots. They then took their place as Spartan soldiers and citizens. As adults they devoted themselves to soldiering.

Spartan citizen-girls, meanwhile, were trained to be wives and mothers strong enough to accept sacrifice and inspire their men. Unlike girls elsewhere in Greece, they received a public education. To the scandal of Hellenic opinion, they exercised naked in public and in full view of the boys. But evidently the Spartans knew what they were doing, since Spartan women were known for their asperity—and their beauty.

Spartan training aimed at producing hardy warriors who put the public good before their own desires. Spartan education downgraded high culture. The boys learned enough reading and writing to transmit and receive orders. They were taught to speak in a pithy style rather than in the grand rhetoric popular in Athens; our word “laconic” comes from the geographical region where Sparta is located, Laconia. If anti-intellectual, however, Spartan education was not stupid. The regime inculcated not just patriotism and fortitude but cunning. No Greeks understood better that, in war, fear and fraud are force multipliers. As Plutarch points out, Spartan generals sacrificed an ox for beating an enemy by deception or persuasion, but only a cock for winning by actually fighting. He writes:

For although they were most warlike, they thought an exploit accomplished by means of argument and sagacity greater and more becoming to a man than one achieved by violence and valor.3

The result was a military machine that was the wonder of the Greek world. Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for about two hundred years after ca. 550 B.C. When Persia invaded Greece in 480 B.C., a unit of three hundred Spartan infantrymen died courageously at Thermopylae. The next year the entire Spartan army spearheaded the defeat of the Persian army of invasion at Plataea. Athens, Sparta’s partner in the liberation of Greece, was Greece’s leading naval power; most Spartans were landlubbers. Yet when, in time, these two great powers quarreled, Sparta was flexible enough to create a navy—or at least to provide its commanders—funded and rowed mainly by non-Spartans. But the navy did the trick and defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.).

Spartan education did not prove infinitely supple. The Spartan army suffered a crushing defeat at Leuctra in 371 B.C. at the hands of Greece’s new rising power, Thebes. Sparta never recovered from this setback. It remained for other states to claim the mantle of military superiority: first (after a brief Theban hegemony) the kingdom of Macedon, and then the Roman Republic. Founded ca. 509 B.C., the Republic conquered most of Italy by 265 B.C., and then engaged in a titanic set of struggles with Carthage, the dominant naval power of the western Mediterranean. After finally defeating Carthage, Rome added Spain and North Africa to its domains, then turned in other directions to bring the Greek East, Gaul, Britain, and western Germany under Roman rule. The Republic became a mighty empire.

To what did the Romans owe their success? The historian Josephus points to a thoroughly military and disciplined way of life. He writes that the Roman Empire was the product of the Romans’

valor, and not the bare gift of fortune; for they do not begin to use their weapons first in time of war, nor do they then put their hands first into motion, while they avoided so to do in times of peace; but, as if their weapons did always cling to them, they have never any truce from warlike exercises; nor do they stay till times of war admonish them to use them; for their military exercises differ not at all from the real use of their arms, but every soldier is every day exercised, and that with great diligence, as if it were in time of war, which is the reason why they bear the fatigue of battles so easily; for neither can any disorder remove them from their usual regularity, nor can fear affright them out of it, nor can labor tire them; which firmness of conduct makes them always to overcome those that have not the same firmness; nor would he be mistaken that should call those their exercises unbloody battles, and their battles bloody exercises.4

Josephus refers to the early Empire, when Rome had a professional army; the days of a citizen militia were long gone. He seems to be thinking of the training exercises to which Roman commanders subjected their troops rather than of the education of civilians. A writer of the Late Empire, Vegetius, apparently thinks similarly when he attributes Rome’s long history of victories to “careful selection of recruits, instruction in the rules, so to speak, of war, toughening in daily exercises, prior acquaintance in field practice with all possible eventualities in war and battle, and strict punishment of cowardice.”5

But it is not difficult to find examples of Roman military education for civilians, and in the Republic. Strolling through the city of Rome, for example, one would have seen constant reminders of the city’s martial glory, from the rams of captured warships decorating the speaker’s platform in the Forum to the annual levy of soldiers—traditionally held on the Capitoline Hill—to the honors and awards worn by decorated veterans (crowns, golden armbands, neck ornaments, or metal plates). Just outside the boundary of the city stood the Campus Martius or “Field of Mars,” a six hundred-acre area where soldiers engaged in military exercises. Back inside the city limits, nothing could compare to the military pageantry of victory parades, ovations, and, above all, triumphs: rare but unforgettable sights. Nothing, that is, except for the gladiatorial games.

In the Roman Republic, the city of Rome held great gladiatorial games, but not in an amphitheater: the games were put on in the Roman Forum, which was lined with temporary wooden stands for the occasion. The Colosseum was not built until A.D. 80. Rome’s conservative elite feared public gatherings and idle amusements, so they refused to allow an amphitheater. Nor did they want gladiators to be housed in Rome.

Roman thinkers believed that the bloody spectacle of the games prepared Romans to fight. In the Late Republic, gladiators were outfitted and trained to fight in a way similar to that of a Roman infantryman. Both gladiators and legionaries were armored swordsmen; for both, the main weapon was the gladius or sword. In fact, in a time of military crisis in 105 B.C., gladiatorial instructors were hired to train new military recruits in swordsmanship. The courage of the dying gladiator prepared Romans for their own moments of truth on the battlefield. It was, says Pliny the Younger, “a spectacle which inspired the audience to noble wounds and to despise death.”6

Many of the gladiators themselves were reminders of Roman military prowess, representatives as they were of peoples whom Rome had conquered: Celts, Germans, and Thracians. (To be sure, some of the gladiators were volunteers, including Roman citizens.) The Colosseum itself was perhaps a kind of war monument if it was funded, as an inscription suggests, by war booty, perhaps by loot from the Jewish War.

The spirit of civic virtue produced some of the most motivated soldiers in history and some of the least credentialed generals. Greek and Roman generals were professionals without degrees. Great Roman houses were known for various characteristics; some, like the Scipios, bred great generals. Sometimes an elite Roman would hire an expert in Greek military science— the gold standard of the time—to teach his son. The expert might well be a mercenary, with years of experience under his belt.

But most elite Romans learned the art of war from other, older Romans and they learned it on the job. Future generals did not begin at the bottom, but they did benefit enormously from the collective wisdom of the non-elite professionals, above all, from the centurions. Republican legions did not have standing commanders, but they did have junior officers. Each legion had sixty or so centurions: the Roman equivalent of today’s company commanders. Centurions were often professionals, sometimes with long military experience. In battle, they suffered high casualty rates, since they led from the front and made easy targets for the enemy, dressed as they were in distinctive armor.

An ambitious and elite young Roman would talk to the centurions but he would not wish to become one. Rather, he would typically begin his military career at a higher rank, as a kind of battalion commander called a military tribune. Each legion had six military tribunes who served directly under the commander. (The commander was usually an annual magistrate, an ex-magistrate, or the appointee of a provincial governor.) Some of the tribunes were appointed, others were elected. Upon completing his term as military tribune, an ambitious military man would then attempt to rise via the cursus honorum or “ladder of offices,” a series of elective offices culminating in the consulship. Each office typically carried with it a position of responsibility in the military, but not every office-holder sought a military career.

Military commands represented an important card to play in Roman politics, but some commanders merely bided their time until they held political power. Others were genuine military men and they would have made the most of their magistracies. For example, the chief magistrates, the two consuls, each held office for one year and raised and commanded two legions (ca. ten thousand men) to be used when needed. But many other high-ranking Romans might hold command. A curious combination of strict rules and informal procedures, the Roman regime entrusted command of legions to ex-magistrates and senators.

So much for young elites on their way to the top—what about ordinary soldiers? They too learnt the ropes from veterans, be they legionaries, centurions, or experienced commanders. Wise generals trained their troops before risking battle. One of Rome’s greatest generals was Lucius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Scipio Africanus, the eventual conqueror of Hannibal. In Spain in 209 B.C., while preparing to fight the Carthaginians, Scipio drew up the following plan for his military tribunes for training their men:

The first day he ordered the men to go at the double for thirty stades in their full arms; and on the second all of them to rub down, clean, and thoroughly examine their whole equipments; on the third to rest and do nothing; on the fourth to have a sham fight, some with wooden swords covered with leather and with a button at the end, others with javelins also buttoned at the end; on the fifth the same march at the double as on the first.7

Caesar too trained his men carefully. During his wars in Gaul in the 50s B.C., whenever the enemy was nearby, he imposed strict discipline, including extra long marches and maneuvers at night, in the rain, and on holidays.

Scipio served the Republic faithfully, while Caesar came to bury it. What better reminder of the perils of military glory? Caesar led to Caesarism. Rome’s victorious legions eventually marched right into the Senate and destroyed the Republic. The Empire that followed brought peace and prosperity but trampled on individual liberties. To be sure, the Empire nourished cultural greatness, from the poetry of Vergil to the sculpture of the Ara Pacis, and from the philosophy of Epictetus to the architecture of the Pantheon. But the old ideal of the citizen-soldier who returns home and helps to govern the commonwealth in the Forum had ceased to be a reality for more than an elite few. When Rome lost the Republic, it lost something irreplaceable.

Real as the dangers of dictators are, the way to resist them lies not in a pacified citizenry that turns military matters over to a tiny minority. No professional military, even one as patriotic and democratic as today’s U.S. military is, can defend citizen freedom as well as an armed citizenry can. A call to reinstate the draft would fall on deaf ears. Limited gun control makes good sense in a violent world.

But modest military training combined with a rudimentary education in military history and the nature of modern warfare would make today’s citizens more aroused, vigorous, and vigilant. We would be less passive in dealing with the government. We would show greater appreciation and gratitude for our soldiers’ sacrifices. We would be better informed about world affairs.

Universities can do their part by sponsoring more courses and more research on military affairs and military history. American undergraduates ought to learn the truth from political scientists, that war is all too common a reality outside of the garden that most of us are privileged to live in. They should be introduced by philosophers to debates about military ethics and just war, and by legal scholars to the laws of war. They should learn the history of military strategy and of war and society.

Universities can accept ROTC programs back on campus and permit military recruiters to do their job. This does not mean that universities must accept or agree with all government policies. For example, there is legitimate room to discuss, debate, or oppose current policies on gays in the military. It makes little sense to do so, however, while discouraging one of the most liberal segments in our society from taking part in the military—college students.

The patriotism of Cincinnatus or the eloquence of Demosthenes are too much to hope for. But we can dream.

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