There is a book to be written—but not by me—on the relationship between civilization and military technique. Why is it that the more civilized states in history tend to rely on infantry (Greece, Rome, the modern West) and the more barbaric cavalry? In merely asking the question I’ve exhausted my knowledge of the topic, but I can at least suggest The Art of War in the Middle Ages, Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization, and Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War as companion pieces for further reflection on the subject.
Machiavelli begins to give us something of an answer when he discusses Rome’s reliance on infantry as its primary military force. He notes that Rome always preferred to use infantry rather than cavalry (and certainly, we can add, rather than sea power). This prejudice remained to the very end of the empire when infantry had been, for better or worse, surpassed by cavalry technologically and logistically, and even to some extent through the end of the Byzantine Empire as well—though they were less dogmatic about the subject.
For Machiavelli, the ultimate evidence of the virtue of infantry over cavalry is not just that Rome preferred the former to the latter, but that Rome repeatedly won. Victory on the battlefield was for him the proof of superior Roman military power, and therefore superior virtue. Example after example from the time of Rome and from recent history (especially drawing on the Swiss) are used to demonstrate the virtue of those who rely on foot soldiers over horsemen. Though Machiavelli does not explicitly say so, he implies that the occasions when cavalry do win the victory are examples of failures of virtue on the part of infantry, not necessarily of superior virtue on the part of the victors.
But again, we have to ask: why is this the case? What makes infantry so much better than cavalry, either in terms of Machiavelli’s virtue or in civilization itself? Machiavelli gives a number of reasons:
A man on foot can go many places where a horse cannot go. He can be taught to observe order, and that he has to resume it if it is disturbed; it is difficult to make horses observe order, and impossible to reorder them when they are disturbed. Besides this, as in men, some horses are found that have little spirit and some that have very much; and often it happens that a spirited horse is ridden by a cowardly man, and a cowardly horse by a spirited one, and, in whichever mode this disparity occurs, from it arises uselessness and disorder. Ordered infantry can easily break horse, and only with difficulty be defeated by them. (II.18.2)
In other words, infantry is to be preferred because it relies more on virtue and less on fortune. Infantry, if well trained, will “observe order” while remaining flexible (going “many places where a horse cannot”). Men can be shaped and trained and formed into a military power which directly translates virtue into victory. Interestingly, many of Machiavelli’s examples are drawn from Roman losses, in which the infantry was defeated, and yet because of the strong discipline present in the Roman forces not all was lost—”Mark Antony,” for example, “virtuously saved himself” (II.18.3) despite having lost the battle in question.
By comparison, reliance on cavalry brings too much fortune into the equation. To be sure, horsemen need training and “order” too. There is virtue involved in creating a well-disciplined unit of this kind as well. But involving animals brings an inherently irrational element into play—horses can be “impossible to reorder… when they are disturbed” (II.18.2). Likewise, horses and riders each have their own spirits which can be cowardly or bold, and an army might end up with cowardly riders on bold horses or vice versa, all of which brings yet another uncontrollable element of fortune onto the battlefield. At the end of the day, whatever advantages cavalry bring to the table (and Machiavelli is clear that they do have a role to play in combat) are not offset by their disadvantages when they become the crux of the state’s war plans.
We can add the interesting tidbit as a corollary to Machiavelli’s examples of infantry losses as proofs of the virtue of those nations that societies which rely exclusively on cavalry do have a tendency to topple with a single military defeat. Hannibal could crush army after army of Roman soldiers, but one loss sent him packing for North Africa. (And yes, I’m being generous there and counting “elephants” as “cavalry.”) It is fairly remarkable how much of a beating ancient Rome, or modern America, could absorb on the battlefield without seriously disrupting its civilization. And while I might not go as far as to say it’s solely because of their reliance on infantry over and above other forms of combat, there might still be some kind of correlation there.
Having won the battle and established rule over new territories, what next? Once again, Machiavelli argues that if we’re not virtuous in the manner of Rome we should not expect any kind of lasting success. In fact, we should expect what little victory we’ve achieved to come undone and leave us in a worse position than that in which we started. The problem is that people “these days” either think times have changed so much that these Roman examples no longer apply, or think those examples were never true to begin with. But if only we would believe what we read in the histories, that well-ordered infantry can defeat whatever is thrown at it:
republics and princes would err less, would be stronger in opposing a thrust that might come against them, and would not put their hope in flight; and those who have in their hands a civil way of life would know better how to direct it, either by way of expanding it or by way of maintaining it. And they would believe that increasing the inhabitants of one’s city, getting partners and not subjects, sending colonies to guard countries that have been acquired, making capital out of booty, subduing the enemy with raids and battles and not with sieges, keeping the public rich and the private poor, and maintaining military exercises with the highest seriousness is the true way to make a republic great and to acquire empire. (II.19.1)
The Roman way of war is the key to everything that Machiavelli has been discussing up to this point. Any attempt on the part of a republic to grow without growing in this way is not only futile, but actively destructive to the republic itself. Even if the republic doesn’t wish to expand into an empire, it still must pursue this because “if it will not molest others, it will be molested” (II.19.1). While the German republics might be exceptions to this rule, that is rather the result of oddities of geography than universal truths about republics.
The republic that does wish to grow and develop must grow and develop its military at the same time, or else risk perishing:
For he very likely acquires empire without forces, and whoever acquires empire without forces will be fittingly ruined. Whoever impoverishes himself through wars cannot acquire forces, even should he be victorious, since he spends more than he obtains from his acquisitions. (II.19.2)
Rome itself ultimately fell victim to this process, when its borders finally expanded beyond what it could reasonably hope to rule. As a result, the bad influences of the nations it conquered, instead of being restrained and transformed into virtuous pursuits (as with the Roman conquests in Italy), gradually sapped the strength of Rome until it collapsed of its own corrupted weight. And if the Romans with all their virtue couldn’t save themselves, what hope do modern Americans have?
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.