strategy and tactics: Evolution

The towering figure in early military science was Alexander the Great, who destroyed the Persian Empire built by Cyrus the Great. He recognized the importance of maintaining reserves, pursuing the enemy, building up supplies (stockpiling), and making use of elaborate scouting (intelligence). In the 4th cent. BC Vegetius wrote a summary of military matters which is an important source of information on the Roman military. In the Punic Wars (between Rome and Carthage), Hannibal emerged as the outstanding field commander. His famous victory at Cannae (216 BC) over the Roman armies is still studied as an example of battlefield tactics. The study of military theory captured the imagination of several Byzantine emperors, who hoped to restore the glory of the Roman Empire. They studied the operations of the Roman legions and reduced the studies to what may be called the foundations of military science. Strategicon (c.578), compiled by Emperor Maurice, and Tactics (c.900), issued by Emperor Leo VI (Leo the Wise), are exhaustive treatises on the subject.

In Western Europe during the Middle Ages military science did not advance as quickly as its practice did, although siegecraft (see siege) was much studied. Although early military theorists thought the Crusaders completely ignorant of military principles, recent studies have shown that medieval warfare was not devoid of strategy and tactics. John Zizka, the leader of the Czech Hussites, in the early 15th cent. was particularly innovative. He adopted the wagon-fort as a unit of tactics, made artillery a maneuverable arm, and was the first commander to employ cavalry, infantry, and artillery in efficient tactical combination. He also espoused the principle that mobility is a better protection than armor.

Gustavus Aldolphus (Gustavus II), king of Sweden, and Maurice of Nassau are credited with advancing the professionalization of armies at the end of the 16th cent. By the 17th cent. these professional armies were very costly to establish and maintain, and military strategists employed a cautious approach involving minimal risk of casualties. Even so aggressive a commander as Frederick II (Frederick the Great) was inhibited by fear of a bloody defeat; nevertheless, his wars left Prussia exhausted.

It was Napoleon I who, despite his mistakes, revolutionized the strategy and tactics of his time. Aided by a mass army, he made great use of the powerful shock attack, carefully planned in advance. He also introduced the loose formation, divisional organization, and the use of mobile, long-range artillery. Clausewitz's On War (1832) was an outgrowth of his studies of Napoleonic campaigns; it demonstrated the importance of destroying the enemy on the battlefield and downplayed the importance of the geometrical organization of troops in the field. Jomini's classic Précis de l'art de la guerre (1836), also influenced by a study of Napoleon's campaigns, had a different emphasis. Jomini stressed occupation of enemy territory through carefully planned geometric maneuvers while tactically he emphasized the importance of attacking. His work was influential and was part of the strategy during the U.S. Civil War. The main line of strategic theory, however, followed Clausewitz and culminated in the work of the Prussian-German school of H. K. von Moltke and Alfred von Schlieffen.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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