Ancient influences on military men c. 1700

More thinking out loud, and a question in there somewhere.

I’m working on a section of a chapter on the influence of the Ancients on English strategic conceptions, and am wondering if anyone has written on the (likely) language skills of English officers c. 1700? Certainly the stereotype is that the vast majority of educated people back then could read Latin, since Latin was one of the keystones of proper education. But I wonder how likely it was that an English officer/general would’ve read someone like Livy or Polybius or Tacitus or Vegetius in Latin rather than in the available English translations? In particular, would any such reading have made an actual impact, e.g. read while an adult or as part of professional preparation, or would this have just been homework for Latin class by a teenage boy and forgotten as quickly as any homework? As a humorous aside, one preface to an English translation of a classical work noted the disapproval of “morose gentlemen” who didn’t want the work translated, since they didn’t want anyone else to profit from its knowledge without undergoing the lashings they had to receive when learning the language!

Methodologically, you have the differences between learning a language at one point in life and then forgetting it, the difference between aural, oral and written skills, comprehension and composition, understanding the bare literal meaning vs. appreciating the style… Undoubtedly many people knew classical allusions and stories (what they were most likely to get out of their education), even famous Latin phrases and aphorisms, but I wonder how many English officers had, as adults, the language skills required to read a few hundred pages of text and engage the ideas within. As even the scholar Gabriel Harvey admitted, “Aphorisms and examples will speedily make you great and admirable. Of longer discourses and histories there is no end. They tire the body and confuse the intellect and memory.” Perhaps a straightforward style was most accessible, e.g. Caesar’s Commentaries? Gruber mentions that Caesar was the most popular of the Ancients for his British officers. But there were many English commentaries on Caesar as well.

I expect that there were individual nobles who were intellectuals (as described in “Gabriel Harvey”) and really got into it, but I wonder how common this was. Presumably most didn’t hire personal tutors like Harvey, or had close relatives or friends who did? (BTW, where can I sign up for Harvey’s job?) Clearly you can find plenty of “intellectuals” (chaplains, diplomats and propagandists in our field of military history) who wrote inscriptions and poems in Latin, made classical allusions, compared Marlborough to Caesar and Alexander and Belisarius… But I’m surprised at how I almost never come across any classical allusions or references made by military officers in the thousands of letters I’ve read. Sometimes I think I’d like to go through all of Folard’s (and Puységur’s, and Santa Cruz de Marcenado’s) correspondence from the Spanish Succession to see if their fascination with Polybius and Caesar was mirrored in their daily thoughts on war. Was this a purely intellectual exercise, or did they actually think in those terms? On the other hand, you do see quotidian mention of ancient parallels among literary types and diplomats like Matthew Prior, and of course in the Renaissance humanists, but I’m a bit skeptical that most military men thought first about classical parallels. I seem to recall some historian writing about whether reliance on Ancient models denoted professionalism or a lack thereof (or maybe that was one of my mental musings?).

I think the influence of the Ancients also may vary by period and by place. England in the late 17C seems rather more isolated from Continental norms than it had been earlier or would be later in the Enlightenment.

The few sources I know that discuss the issue suggest, to my reading, that reading knowledge of Latin was far from universal. Childs provides some evidence of English isolation from Continental intellectual norms, e.g. that few of even the English upper classes could read French at the time (though presumably Latin would be more familiar than French). Gruber’s analysis of British officers’ libraries indicates that the period from 1650-1710 was notable for its English translations, not only what was published (ESTC lists them all) but also what was found in the seven officers’ libraries for which he could find inventories. Gruber’s tables in Appendix A1 and B2 show that the publication of Latin texts continued through the 18C, but I’m not sure whether his measures there are what I need. His table A1 shows that English and French editions were far preferred over Latin (as represented in the officers’ libraries), e.g. Latin editions were held in a maximum of 11% of the libraries over the course of the 17C, vs. a max of 54% for English and a max of 39% for French translations. From 1675 on, the Latin proportion dwindles to only 5% of the total. So this seems to suggest that Latin was not the standard language that British officers read in, certainly in the late 17C. I suppose one could count up all the editions in the various languages, but it would still be good (though likely impossible) to get a sense of the sales figures for each.

As for one of the main characters in my academic life, John Churchill First Duke of Marlborough, the evidence seems somewhat weak. The modern catalogue of the Blenheim papers has two appendices (22 pages) on printed works kept with the Blenheim papers (unclear if this was the extent of the Duke’s library or not; a later Duke of Marlborough sold his collection in the late 18C). In it are listed many works in French and several other European languages, but no more than six in Latin, and those tend to be literary works dedicated to the Duke. Skimming through the various biographies on Marlborough you see all sorts of speculation about his language skills. One story even has it that as a youth his favorite work was Vegetius in Latin! That would be ironic to say the least. Coxe, generally pro-Marlborough, was skeptical of this tale and speculated that if Churchill had been enamored with Vegetius, it was probably with the pictures!

One other avenue to approach is the history of education. Thanks to Google Books, I searched for histories of early modern English education, and found that the English tradition of grammar school education based around Latin was apparently in decline from the civil wars on through the early 18C: enrollment dropped in many places and a secular non-Classical educational model increasingly replaced the older Latin tradition. Latin still influenced education and was still taught, but it appears less dominant than we (non-experts) tend to think. But I’ll need to look at that issue in more detail. The real question isn’t what they were taught in the first 21 years of life, but what lessons they took with them for the rest of their lives. Not sure if there’s a systematic source for that or not.

The ultimate answer to my question isn’t critical to my argument. I will spend quite some time in the section analyzing English glosses on the classical authorities, but I’m just not sure how much I should discuss the English vs. Latin editions of the works. Any thoughts or recommendations?


  • Childs, John. The British Army of William III, 1689-1702. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987.
  • Gruber, Ira. Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011.
  • Jardine, Lisa and Anthony Grafton, ‘”Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30-78.
  • Coxe, William. Memoirs of the Duke of Marlborough, with his original correspondance. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905.
  • Green, Ian M. Humanism and Protestantism in early modern English education. Ashgate, 2009.

BTW, if you ever have similar types of questions, research or otherwise, let me know and I’ll post them here. I’m trying to build an EMEMH community after all.


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9 responses to “Ancient influences on military men c. 1700”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    I’d say that the number of intellectual/officers was pretty high –certainly over the 5% that I established as a bedrock minimum in my meandering too-short-to-be-a-doorstopper.* The issue here is the nature of their education. Some classics can safely be assumed. Otherwise, writers like Montecuccoli, his nephew Hercole, and his grandson, L.A. Khevenhueller v. A. u. M, wouldn’t have been able to fill up their military writing with Latin tags.

    Now, the Habsburg officer corps is a special case, since the flip side of their multilingualism was a certain cheery, confident certainty in the primacy of ideas over modes of expression. (Less flatteringly, they were equally illiterate in many languages.) I have no idea whether, on the basis of some usefully representative statistical sample, that would have made them more or less confident in using their Latinity in public.

    Overarching that, though, is the nature of the education. The possibly apocryphal story about the Savoy-Carignacs abandoning their search for a clerical appointment for young Eugene comes to mind. When they noticed that Eugene was far more interested in mathematics than in Latin, they realised that he was bound for a military career, notwithstanding his general fabulousness and small size.

    Taking this more generally, I’m inclined to blither about “books of gentleman’s entertainment,” which typically use hunting to teach geometry, or possibly geometry to teach hunting, in the more general sense that hunting leads to real estate speculation. (Chasing a fox across an estate ought to lead to an intelligent estimate of the estate’s value.) There’s an educational trajectory that leads from the nursery to the theatre of war. It will lead through the _Commentaries_ for sure, but probably not, say, Tacitus. Sort of like the modern “Engineers versus humanities” thing.

    *”I wonder whether those consistently-sloppy writers should be allowed to hide behind editors?” Yes. Yes, they should.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve wondered whether central Europeans were more cosmopolitan than the 17C English or even the French, including their use of Latin as a lingua franca. I’m thinking of Stoye’s book on the polymath Marsigli for example, and of course the polyglot nature of the Empire.
      Carthago delenda est! The Latin tags are a good example of the knowledge that I’m sure was widespread: it requires little reading knowledge of Latin, just like we still use (far fewer) Latin phrases today (status quo, antebellum, quid pro quo, et cetera). On many English title pages c. 1700 you can see Latin epigrams – this was likely ornamental as much as meaningful, at least for some of the audience. On the other hand, many of the (diplomatic and military) letters between the English and Austrian courts were in Latin, but that’s the diplomatic corps, who were all a bunch of nerds anyway (except when they were generals). FWIW, I also recall finding in the Dutch archives a history of the 1710 campaign by a Dutch field deputy that was written entirely in Latin. Lacking Latin skills, I put it aside. 😦
      I did just discover that the Greeks (or Macedonians?) referred to the close(d) order of their ranks as Constipatio! (Sounds unpleasant.)

      Assigning percentages is necessary and useful, but we need to also look at influence and representativeness as you say – is 10% a lot or a little? Gruber explicitly addressed the influence aspect in his Books book, but it was easier for him because he had the libraries of the generals at the top, those who shaped the army.

      Your mention of engineers reminded me of Childs referring to the engineers as the “military bourgeoisie” who had far greater education/literacy as a whole than their compatriots. An English engineer Henry Sheeres translated Polybius into English in the 1690s. But of Vauban’s 171-title library that we have a list for, a whopping 8 were Ancient authors (11 books). These include the usual suspects and were all in French translation: Caesar, Polybius, Thucydides, Plutarch, Ammianus Marcellinus, Herodotus, Xenophon and Tacitus. That being said, Vauban rarely made classical references in his writings that I’ve read, not surprising given his own judgment that his education had provided him with only a superficial amount of Latin. He was from a poor provincial noble background after all.

      This also shades into the question of what language(s) were used in the armies for written commands and verbal orders, when you had volunteers/draftees/deserters from all over Europe officered by a cosmopolitan corps. I know for the Maritime Allies in the Spanish Succession it was the French tongue; Eugene corresponded with Marlborough in French as well (in that giant scrawl of his). Childs has a few interesting anecdotes on this during the Nine Years War, including an English regiment which had not a single officer that could read the French orders sent to them.

      • Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

        “I did just discover that the Greeks (or Macedonians?) referred to the close(d) order of their ranks as Constipatio! (Sounds unpleasant.)”

        That’s impossible, since “constipatio” sounds like a Latin rather than Greek term, and the Greeks continued to prefer their own language long after their subjugation by the Romans. Aelian’s treatise in the 2nd (or even 3rd?) century A.D. — our best source for the organisation of the Macedonian phalanx, even though it was written several centuries after the Roman legionary model replaced it — was still written in Greek. I believe the term for the closest order in it was “synaspismos” or something like that.

        Just showing off my nerd credentials. ;P

      • jostwald says :

        I believe I got this from James Turner’s Pallas Armata, Military Essayes of the Ancient Grecian, Roman, and Modern Art of War Vvritten in the Years 1670 and 1671 (London: Printed by M.W. for Richard Chiswell, 1683), so I’ll ask you take it up with him. Perhaps a letter to the publisher or the author’s estate? I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a retraction though.

      • Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus says :

        Ah. The Pallas Armata? I’ve only ever seen the swordsmanship section of that. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised about any confusion between Latin and Greek terms in that era, seeing as Latin would have been more familiar than Greek to most Western European scholars. All translations of Aelian into “modern” languages (English, French, etc.) are in fact heavily influenced by Latin translations and/or commentaries, and secondary works based upon them would be even farther removed from the original Greek.

        “Constipatio” still sounds like a pretty funny translation for “synaspismos” or “pyknosis,” though….

  2. Mark Danley says :

    When working on my doctoral dissertation, I did try to look at some general works on the history of education in eighteenth-century Britain. I was more focused on mid-century than ca. 1700 though. By the middle of the century there were all those day-schools and lots of “Dissenting academies” all around, to which a young man or boy from the middling classes could get an education decent enough to help him survive and (if he wanted) thrive as an army officer. That model of education actually *downplayed* reading the classics, though, especially in their original languages. They’d much rather have the kid slogging his way through what to them was “modern” history, especially “civil history” by which they meant what we now call traditional diplomatic and political history, e.g. Rapin’s History of England, etc. They still wanted kids reading the classics, and studying Latin, but not as philologists who actually could read and think about, say, Caesar, in Latin. The private military academies that sprang up reflected this approach. Louis Lochee’s well-known work on military education substantiates this (although I haven’t seen it in a while – you all may be able to correct me.) Besides, that’s later century anyway. I know Jamel is asking about the early decades of the century – hope I’m not muddying the waters with less-relevant perspectives!


    • jostwald says :

      Hey Mark, good to hear from you. Your diss is still on my reading list – it’s sitting (virtually) on my iPad as we speak. But I am glad to hear that you’ve finally come to terms with the fact that mid-18C is less relevant! 😉
      Thanks for the info. Lochée’s Essay on military education is free on Google Books now: pp 10-11 he does talk about wasting years teaching kids Greek and Latin that they can’t even use. Also p49, where he says that there’s so much available in English, French and German translation that it’s not really necessary to learn the languages. Gotta love full-text search.
      This reminds me that one should also look at the educational sections of prescriptive manuals on how to be a gentleman…

  3. Erik Lund says :

    The Italian polymaths are pretty amazing, and because of a …certain bent in traditional Italian historiography, we don’t know nearly as much about the early modern ones who served Vienna and Madrid during Italy’s “centuries of darkness” as we should. In many ways, Marsigli and Malaspina are less impressive than many not yet served with biographical studies: Gianluca Pallavicini, the Stratico brothers, the Veteranis…

    They also serve to illustrate an important point: this whole “rising bourgeois” heuristic is grossly misleading. it’s true, as Kenneth Maclennan chastised me, that the engineers of the fortress administrations were typically upwardly mobile strivers, but they made up a very small proportion of the men who served in the field as engineers. I took Imperial line officers promoted general between 1688 and 1740 who served in engineering capacities. Separate out the very biggest names by dropping men who became generals before the age of 30. I detected no statistical difference in the number or ancientness of titles, although unfortunately that’s not necessarily decisively telling about family fortunes. More importantly, their average age of promotion to lieutenant general’s rank was five years ahead of that of their counterparts.

    The morale of the story is that within the strictures of an extremely class-bound society, early modern armies were already technocracies by the time of the War of the Spanish Succession.

    Take that, you nineteenth century history of science whigs!

  4. Erik Lund says :

    Correction: a very small proportion of the number of officers who served at general officer’s rank in engineering capacities. I really can’t speak to below-field-grade, except to say that ethnic composition (as estimated by surnames) doesn’t change.

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