(Special Collections Research Center)


A centuries-old text on military science tells stories beyond tactics and strategy.

“Getting academics to cooperate is like a military endeavor,” says Michael I. Allen, associate professor in classics and the College. Which is why he donated a copy of De re militari, or On Military Matters, to the Special Collections Research Center in honor of University Librarian Judith Nadler, to acknowledge the Library director’s “leadership and careful guidance” for researchers.

The fifth-century text on military science by Late Roman writer Vegetius offers a 200-page digest of tactical, technical, and strategic knowledge collected over centuries. The edition Allen donated was printed in 1585 by the famous Antwerp publishing house Plantin Press.

“Every book has a story, and the older it is, the more stories it has to tell,” says Allen, who studies Latin literature of the Middle Ages. He was drawn to De re militari because of its story. Its military themes led the book to be shunned by the Church until Frechulf of Lisieux, a ninth-century Carolingian bishop and historian, prepared his own edition and exposed its relevance beyond warfare, to ethics. Frechulf pointed to maxims such as “A good leader doesn’t expose himself to danger,” and “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Editing the Plantin Press edition, Godescalci Stewechi doubled the length of Frechulf’s manuscript, adding his own commentary, including sketches of military formations, woodcuts, and pull-out astrological charts. Allen notes an illustration of Hannibal and his soldiers atop an elephant—strikingly accurate, despite Europeans’ limited exposure to elephants.

The book is rare; perhaps only a dozen copies exist in libraries across North America and Europe. But what Allen likes best is that it is useful. Comparing it with other editions could help recreate Frechulf’s manuscript, destroyed in the bombing of Dresden during World War II.