Vegetius and Taccola: Was medieval writing on war at sea of any practical use?

By Susan Rose, published February 2018


For much of the medieval period little time was devoted to the discussion of how war should be waged at sea. Discussion on war was often based on the writings of Flavius Vegetius Renatus, from the late fourth or early fifth century. His short treatise De re militari is based on the works of earlier Roman writers and many commentators consider that it contains very little original material. Its naval section, however, contains 16 short chapters on naval warfare, which provide virtually the only advice on how to conduct war at sea in the medieval period. This article assesses whether this influenced medieval warfare at sea in practice. It also investigates whether it had any influence on the work of respected fifteenth-century engineer Mariano Daniello di Jacobo, known as Taccola. The machines featured in his De machinis bellicis reveal an inquiring and creative mind working on possible solutions to warfare at sea. His solutions were not actually adopted, but they do show an awareness of the problems related to effective weaponry and their use at sea. This article argues that his work should not be dismissed as just an amusing curiosity but as a way of dealing with real problems for which no technology was yet available to convert into reality.

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Filed under: Antiquity | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Battles & Tactics | Strategy & Diplomacy | Weapons

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