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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 28, No. 9 (June 1933), 657‑669.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p657 The Ancient Military Writers
By Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr.
Colonel United States Field Artillery
Harvard Universitya

Army Regulations tell us that "the principles of war are immutable"; but when we inquire into these principles, we find that every writer draws up his own list, a little different from all others. Probably the principles of war are immutable; they should be if there is any such thing as an art or science of war. But our codes of principles must be faulty somewhere, for in their case the immutable changes.

Doubtless some of our codifiers have gone too far. They sometimes claim to base their activity upon the authority of Napoleon, who often mentions the principles of war in a way to imply that he was on the point of formulating them, "Si un jour il en avait le temps." But he never did, and finally, at St. Helena, he spoke of writing the history of his own campaigns, "Sans parler des grands principes," in such a manner that"l'on se formerait soi-même en réfléchissant."

In other words, he says that the military art is to be learned from history, not from modern history alone. While in this passage he mentioned only his own campaigns, he gives us elsewhere his famous list of the "seven great captains" — Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Prince Eugene, and Frederick. On unimpeachable authority, then, we may say that there is something in ancient campaigns that is of value of the modern; that there is something immutable in the midst of the changes in the methods of war; that, in fact, "plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose."

How may we find out about the ancient art of war? It does us no good to read that A with a handful of heroes destroyed the barbarian hosts of B. Even the serious narratives of ancient historians p658do not quite satisfy us. We cannot understand them, for they pass lightly over all those technical matters which they themselves perhaps did not know accurately, or which their readers were assumed to understand. Are there no contemporary technical treatises?

There are such treatises; their number, in fact, is surprising; Their modernity is also surprising; one realizes, almost with a shock, that the ancient warrior did not know that he was an ancient warrior. He thought that he was a highly modern warrior; and after reading more we are forced to admit that he was. Perhaps it is worth while to make a survey of the field, at least in so far as Greece and Rome are concerned, to see what technical military writings there are, what is their nature, and where they may be found.

The Greek traced his military knowledge back to Homer, whom he took very seriously even as a military instructor — witness Socrates as reported by Xenophon. There were military teachers and students all through the earlier ages of Greece. Even their names are mentioned occasionally; but if these men wrote, their writings have disappeared. The first real military writer, at least the first who is definitely known to have written, was this same Xenophon.

A natural-born soldier he was, and moreover, a gentleman and a scholar. His first conspicuous service seems to have been undertaken from sheer love of the game; and he soon found, with Kipling's "Mulvaney," that the army "spoils a man's taste for milder things." He could not settle down again as a quiet student of philosophy. Failing to gain high military command, he retired young, doubtless to his own disappointment but to our great gain, for to this leisure we owe his extensive writings.

All of these, even his minutes of Socrates' lectures, have their military passages; and most of them are strictly military. The Anabasis is not merely history, it is true military history. The Lacedaemonian Republic is a soldier's book; the Hellenica also is military but emphasizes the Spartan unduly, at the expense of the Athenian and Theban. The treatise on the captain of cavalry p659is delightful in its modernity; books with titles like Letters of an Old Cavalryman to His Son come out not seldom today, but none more practical than this their original, which, as some suggest, may well have been written for his soldier sons, Diodorus and Gryllus. Horsemanship does not go so far into the refinements of Haute École as do Fillis and the moderns, but there is little that we can do today with a blanket, surcingle, and snaffle only — the sum total of the Greek equipment — that Xenophon has not told us. He was a true horseman; loved and understood a horse, knew how to treat him, and had sound notions of stable management. The retired soldier stands out in this, and even in his little treatise on hunting. And the Cyropaedia was the amusement of his later years, the vehicle for his military fancies.

Contemporary with Xenophon was our next writer, Aeneas, commonly called the Tactician. The two men may even have been acquainted; Xenophon mentions two officers of that name. This Aeneas was general of the Arcadians in 366 B.C.b and enjoyed a high reputation as a writer. Aelian (second century A.D.) says his work was summarized by Cineas, the intimate friend of Pyrrhus, presumably for the king's use. The work as now known to us does not justify the title of "Tactician," for it is merely a treatise on the defense of fortified places (Περὶ τοῦ πῶς πολιορκουμένους ἀντέχειν). It is probably part of a larger work on the art of war in general; the title given by Polybius so indicates — Περὶ τῶν Στρατηγικῶν Ὑπομνήματα.

His writing shows him to have been a practical soldier, with a good knowledge of military operations of the first half of the fourth century B.C. His work has been criticized as trivial; he does indeed go into various minutiae, such as the details of the fastenings of city gates. But these details were doubtless the very things that the commander of the defense had to watch; and in other matters, such as the legal status of individuals under martial law, and police regulations within the besieged city, the discussion is far from childish. It throws useful sidelights, too, upon social and political conditions, as when he describes the first "Gerrymander," and gives an instance of treacherous use of p660pacifistic propaganda. The language is good and pure Greek.1

The earlier Greeks thought in terms primarily of field warfare; fortification was known to them, but little of siege operations. That knowledge came a little later, when Philip and Alexander in the East and the rulers of Syracuse in the West had absorbed the art from the Semitic peoples who seem to have developed it first. About the second century B.C., then, we find the first systematic treatise upon military engineering — the Μηχανικὴ Σύνταξις of Philo of Byzantium. Much of this is lost, but the fourth and fifth books remain. The fifth treats of fortifications, their construction, attack, and defense. It is a remarkable work, showing us, although it is the earliest authority which we have, a complete and highly developed system with most of the essentials of modern construction. Practical precepts for supplying a fortress are added; then the whole routine of attack and defense is discussed.

Book IV (Βελοποιικά) is a technical treatise on the construction and use of siege artillery. It is written for the technical man and deals extensively with mathematical formulae and with precise dimensions. It describes not only the standard types of catapult and ballista but experimental types, some apparently of the writer's own invention. Certain of these use steel springs or compressed air cylinders in place of twisted hair ropes as propellants.

A companion piece to this fourth book is the work under the same title by Hero of Alexandria, a century or two later. This is historical and more or less popular in character. It traces the development of artillery from the bow and crossbow to the most elaborate engines that depend for power upon hair ropes under heavy torsion. It refers to diagrams and contains some mathematical computations but does not go so deeply into technicalities as Philo's work. Hero's other works, while numerous and important, have no direct military bearing.

Roman military literature begins with Cato the Censor in the second century B.C. His treatise De Re Militari is entirely lost, p661but some idea of it may be obtained from quotations and references by later writers. It would seem that Cato, true to character, wrote as an ultra-conservative, standing for the good old Roman traditions and deprecating the infiltration of Greek influences. His extensive and varied military experience should have made his work valuable.

No native Roman succeeded him for many generations. The next writer on Roman military matters was a Greek, Polybius. His invaluable work is historical and political; but he could not, if he would, keep away from military matters. Not only did his subject, Rome, compel him to treat them, but his own instincts also compelled him. A soldier by inheritance, inclination, and training, he was barred by political events from a military career at home. Sent to Rome as a hostage, he lived for years in the Scipio family, absorbing the Roman point of view, political and military. He accompanied Scipio Aemilianus in the field, in active campaign, and he studied carefully on the ground the operations of Hannibal. The part of his Universal History which has come down to us is full of military interest, and references in later writings show that the same was true of the rest. Of exceptional value is his detailed study (Book VI) of the Roman military system; also his critical analysis and comparison (Book XVIII) of the Greek and Roman tactical systems — a comparison which he was especially qualified to make, having had personal experience with both. Besides his history, he wrote a textbook on tactics, but this is wholly lost.2

We now come to a new and strange form of military literature — purely theoretical formal tactics. Alexander the Great had been ahead of his times. His tactics were the tactics of the combined arms — always infantry and cavalry, sometimes even artillery. This was too much for his successors to handle; they seized upon his phalanx — his solid mass of pikemen — and with it drifted back toward the old infantry tactics. Socrates, soldier and philosopher, could talk soldier language when he wished; p662later philosophers, not soldiers, felt that to make good their claim to universality for their doctrines, they must treat the military art. The phalanx lent itself well to logical and mathematical treatment, and so we find a long line of writers who have so treated it.

The first of these is Asclepiodotus, a pupil of the Stoic Poseidonius, who is mentioned by Cicero and Seneca. His treatise, Τέχνη Τακτική, may have been based upon notes of Poseidonius' lectures, for Aelian, who probably used this text, mentions Poseidonius but not Asclepiodotus. The phalanx was obsolescent when this work was written. The book is lifeless theory, with no historical illustrations and no comment from experience. None the less, it is of great value as showing us intimate details of phalangial organization and tactics.3

At the same time there was being produced a work diametrically opposite in character — Caesar's Commentaries. Asclepiodotus was the pure theorist, totally unconscious of any lack of qualification for military writing. He seems the very type of that Phormio mentioned by Cicero (De oratore II.18.75) qui numquam hostem, numquam castra vidisset, yet who had the temerity to lecture on tactics in the presence of Hannibal, drawing from that general the comment multos se deliros senes saepe vidisse, sed qui magis quam Phormio deliraret, vidisse neminem.c Caesar, qualified to deal with Hannibal on equal terms, gave us involuntarily a valuable military work, whereas he himself looked upon it rather as historical and political.

These Commentaries deal with the Marian legion, pure and simple — the ten interchangeable cohorts, the freedom of maneuver, the perfect combination of javelin and sword. They show us nothing new in organization or tactics, little that is new in administration; they do not even discuss, directly, any of these things. But they do show us, as nothing else does, the full development of the art of handling that perfected instrument, the p663ease and flexibility with which the Roman military system adapted itself to the most varied conditions.

Caesar was an experienced soldier trained in minor commands before his Gallic campaigns. During the ten years of war covered by the Commentaries, he grew into a master of the art, equally at home in field or siege operations. In either case, he never failed to make good use of his engineers — not only experts in fortification and artillery but handy men of their hands. One of this corps was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who in later life was an architect at Rome; when, under Augustus, he wrote a treatise on architecture, he did not omit his military chapters. He devotes a chapter to permanent fortifications, and several to artillery. An interesting passage gives a hint as to the adjustment of torsion artillery. The author remarks that the engineer in charge of this work should have a good ear for music; for if the two driving ropes are not so twisted as to sound the same note, the gun will not shoot true. Obvious, when stated, but the modern would hardly think of it.4

Augustus not only patronized military writing such as this but took a hand in it himself. By him, or under his direction, were prepared the Constitutiones, or army regulations. The text is lost, but various references to it are found.

Toward the end of the first century A.D. we find an interesting pair of writers dealing with the same material but each in his own fashion. The art of generalship is a favorite subject for discussion at military schools and in military magazines; these discussions, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, are based largely upon the work of these two men.

The first is Frontinus, a practical soldier of some note, who after his retirement was water commissioner of Rome and who is best known for his treatise De Aquis Urbis Romae. But he wrote on military subjects also. His most important military work, a treatise on the art of war in general, is lost, but it was highly esteemed at the time. As a supplement to it, he published p664under the title Strategemata a collection of over four hundred historical illustrations of the technique of the general, many of them mere anecdotes, but many others apt and convincing suggestions.

In distinct contrast to Frontinus is Onasander, the philosopher. The soldier tried to give us material in numerous fragments of generalship from which to construct the general. The philosopher draws in his Στρατηγικός the picture of what a general ought theoretically to be; then he places this ideal general in various military situations, and considers how he ought to proceed.5

In the reign of Nerva, about the end of the first century, Frontinus was visited by one Aelian, a Greek writer residing in Rome, who asked his advice about a plan which he had formed for military writing. It appeared that he had become interested in the history of the old phalangial organization and tactics but doubted his competence to write upon it; he doubted also the value of the study since the system was no longer in practical use. Frontinus encouraged him, and early in the second century he published his Τακτικὴ Θεωρία, dedicated to the Emperor Trajan.

The author names a number of writers whose works he used, some of them already mentioned above, others unknown to us. He then gives a complete and well-arranged account of phalangial drill and tactics, as employed under the successor so Alexander. The work is indispensable to anyone who would use the phalanx. It is the earliest attempt at a study, not of tactics proper, but of the history of tactics.

But the system was not so obsolete as the writer thought. Working under new conditions, the Roman army was changing rapidly. As cavalry came to the front as the principal arm and infantry began to fall to a secondary place, the natural tendency of the foot troops was toward the phalanx — a simple, solid formation, calling for and permitting no individual initiative. But p665"phalanx," in its nonmilitary sense, may mean "roller" and it may mean "log." The ancient phalanx had been mobile and offensive, the true prototype of the "steam roller" familiar in the earlier days of the war with Germany; the newer phalanx was showing a fatal tendency to become immobile and defensive, little more than a passive obstacle. Books such as Aelian's, naturally attractive to the philosopher-tactician, became useful also to the practical soldier, who found a cavalry army with a defensive phalanx of foot attached and studied it as a working tool.

Contemporary with Aelian was Arrian of Nicomedia in Bithynia, distinguished alike as soldier, civil official, and writer. He was a pupil of Epictetus and a friend of Pliny the Younger. He is best known for his Anabasis of Alexander, but almost as well for his Τέχνη Τακτικὴ. He has left us also various minor works, philosophical, historical, and military — for he was an avowed admirer and imitator of Xenophon and tried to model his work upon him. The Τέχνη Τακτικὴ is so nearly identical in text with Aelian's Τακτικὴ Θεωρία that some commentators take Aelian to be a mere revised edition of Arrian. This is possible; others, however, prefer to follow the tradition which makes them independent works, their similarity due to their common sources.6

The military works of the next century or two, so far as preserved, are not of very great importance. Several writers are known by name only, and others refer only incidentally to military matters. Two or three books should be mentioned briefly.

There is a good textbook on siege engines and siege craft, the Πολιορκητικά of Apollodorus of Damascus, written in the vain hope of regaining the lost favor of the Emperor Hadrian. Another book, similar to that of Frontinus and entitled Στρατηγικά or Στρατηγήματα, was compiled in the reign of Marcus Aurelius by Polyaenus of Macedon, a rhetorician at Rome. It contains p666over eight hundred anecdotes, mostly military, but has no great value. Then there is the Κεστοί of Sextus Julius Africanus, bishop of Emmaus in the third century A.D., known chiefly as the compiler of a general chronology, from the Creation, which he fixes at 5499 B.C., down to his own time. The Κεστοί is a sort of collection or miscellany, largely military, of no particular value in itself, but sometimes useful for comparison with other texts. One passage gives a formula for preparing an explosive or incendiary compound — probably the first mention of "Greek fire."

The next really important name is Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who lived in the latter part of the fourth century. Nothing is known of his life, but his book, Epitoma Rei Militaris, is the best known of the ancient military works. It is based upon extensive study; the writer names among his authorities the Constitutions of Augustus and Hadrian and the writings of Cato, Frontinus, and others. The Epitoma is planned on a comprehensive scale, almost a manual of Field Service Regulations. At the same time it is historical and mildly controversial, attempting to check what the writer considers seem to be injurious and degenerative tendencies.

Book I treats of recruitment, individual training, and the rudiments of collective training; Book II, of the organization, formations, armament, and interior economy of the legion — for the old names still persist, although cuirass and pilum are disappearing and the bow is becoming the principal weapon. Book III is strategy and tactics; besides other things, it contains a large number of maxims of war, among which may be noted:

Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.

Qui victoriam cupit, militem imbuat diligenter.

Nemo provocare, nemo audet offendere, quem intelleget superiorem fore, si pugnet.d

Book IV discusses the attack and defense of fortresses; Book V, naval warfare. In marked contrast to most ancient military writings, this one has never fallen into obscurity. It was copied in great numbers of manuscripts and translated into all modern languages as soon as those languages had reached a stage of development making translation worth while. The earliest printers seized p667upon it as one of their first texts; half a dozen printed texts appeared before the end of the fifteenth century.

There is much of military value in the Notitia Dignitatum et Administrationum Omnium, the Congressional Directory of this period. Among its appendices is an anonymous treatise De Rebus Bellicis, including a section De Bellicis Machinis, but these are of no great importance.

This is the last of the important Latin works; the later ones were from the Eastern Empire. A very important one is the anonymous Byzantine treatise Περὶ Στρατηγικῆς. This book is completely and logically planned. There is an introduction treating of political organization and statecraft in general. The writer then turns to military affairs. He gives us a manual not unlike that of Vegetius, almost a Field Service Regulation; he does not concern himself with history or controversy, but simply treats of the military machine which he finds in existence. He speaks with confidence and authority, as one who has seen war, but not quite in the tone of a commander of troops; one might infer that he had served as an engineer officer on some headquarters staff. In engineering matters he is sound and practical, but his tactics seem more theoretical.

This treatise seems to have served as a model for several others. The first and perhaps the best of these is the Στρατηγικόν attributed to the Emperor Maurice.7 But whoever wrote it, it is a remarkable book, containing practical hints upon every point included in modern Field Service Regulations. It includes a military intelligence summary, explaining the character and fighting meths of all the probable enemies of the Empire; and it has a code of Articles of War, which is unquestionably a direct ancestor of our own present code. The author claims no originality; and the book is avowedly a compilation, showing the military p668system as it actually existed. But from its form and style one can readily imagine that it was written by the soldier emperor for the instruction of his own less successful generals. The compiler was certainly a practical field soldier, who used his own experience to supplement his written authorities. Among these authorities the anonymous text just described was evidently used, but it was not copied; the language and style of the anonymous are literary Greek, while those of the Strategicon are rough and careless.

An interesting point is the mention of stirrups. These seem to have been a standard article of equipment in Maurice's time, but no earlier work mentions them. This is of importance in the evolution of cavalry tactics, for no cavalry prior to their introduction could charge home with the lance. It was restricted to sword-play, or fire with bow and javelin. And it is probably due in part to this fact that the army of the Strategicon is a cavalry army. Infantry is discussed carefully and thoroughly, but distinctly as secondary. This book set the standard for ancient field service regulations. In one form or another it remained in force down to the time of the First Crusade. There were at least two revisions and republications of it — one known under the name of the Emperor Leo VI ("the Wise"), at the end of the ninth century, the other under that of his son and successor Constantine VII ("Porphyrogenitus"), in the tenth.

Leo's work bears the title Τῶν ἐν Πολέμοις Τακτικῶν Σύντομος Παράδοσις and is generally known as Military Institutions. It contains little that is entirely independent of Maurice; parts of it are literal copies, but other parts are elaborated and brought down to date, so that it well shows the state of the art at its time. Some other minor tactical works are attributed to Leo or to his group of writers.

Under Constantine's name appear several works. His Τακτικόν and Στρατηγικόν together cover the same ground as Leo; his other works are primarily political, and only incidentally military.8

p669 There are two small treatises, prepared under the direction of the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, who came to the throne only a few years after Constantine's death. These are much in the vein of Maurice and Leo; but, making no pretense to being complete manuals, they go into considerable detail on specific subjects. The first of these is Περὶ Παραδρομῆς Πολέμου, which deals with the defense of the Empire's Asiatic frontiers. It outlines a plan of operations and discusses minor tactics at some length. The second is Περὶ Καταστάσεως Ἀπλήκτου, or a Treatise on Castrametation; its scope is really somewhat broader than the name would indicate.

Two curious little works may well be mentioned in closing. Michael Psellos (1020‑1105) has left us a pamphlet entitled Περὶ Πολεμικῆς Τάξεως, chiefly taken from Aelian. It goes on the old philosopher's idea, that he must treat everything intellectual. The writer says that a philosopher, to form troops for action, should know at least the meanings of the technical terms; and he proceeds to define them. Most delightful of all, there is another little essay, of uncertain date, which explains how Alexander owed all his successes to the advice of Aristotle — not in the form of general education, but of specific precepts. It is so sweeping and positive that one instinctively puts it down as sarcasm; but if it was so intended the writer maintains the tone to perfection and never smiles or raises his eyebrows.

This summary is not a catalogue, but it does make reference to all the really important military works of the period covered.


The Author's Notes:

1 The text with an excellent English translation by W. A. Oldfather and others is published in the Loeb Classical Library.

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2 Perhaps the most convenient text of Polybius is that published in the Loeb Classical Library, with an English version by W. R. Paton.

Thayer's Note: Onsite, here.

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3 The text is published in convenient form in the Loeb Classical Library in the same volume with Aeneas, mentioned above. It is accompanied by notes and by diagrams redrawn from tenth-century manuscripts.

Thayer's Note: Onsite, here.

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4 The text is in process of publication in the Loeb Classical Library, with an English version by Frank Granger.

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5 The text of both writers has been published in the Loeb Classical Library. One volume contains both the Strategemata and the De Aquis of Frontinus, with an English translation by Charles E. Bennett. Onasander, with translation by W. A. Oldfather and others, is in the same volume with Aeneas and Asclepiodotus.

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6 The text of the Anabasis has been printed in the Loeb Classical Library, with an English translation by E. Iliff Robson. The Τακτική is printed in Köchly and Rüstow's Griechische Kriegsschriftsteller II.1.40, in parallel columns with Aelian, which arrangement has its advantages whether or not one may agree with the editors as to the fundamental identity of the two works.

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7 The case for attributing it to him is well stated by François Aussaresses in his little book L'Armée Byzantine à la Fin duº VIme Siècle: Bordeaux, Feret et Fils (1909), and in a magazine article, "L'auteur du Strategicon," Revue des Études Anciennes VII (1905). Others have attributed it otherwise; e.g. R. Vari, in an article "Zur Ueberlieferung Mittelgriechischer Taktiker," Byzantinische Zeitschrift XV (1906), 47.

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8 There are twenty of Leo's "Institutes" or chapters. A very fine text of the first eleven, edited by R. Vari, was published at Budapest in 1917.


Thayer's Notes:

a Oliver Lyman Spaulding, Jr. (1875‑ March 27, 1947), recognized early in his life as an expert in the modern methods of historical research as applied to military history, was called on to be one of the founding instructors in the Historical Section of the U. S. Army War College, then its chief from 1919 to 1924. He had written several manuals and large-scale works on field artillery, and a number of articles on military history in various scholarly journals, tending to focus on military education and training: as for example, The Military Studies of George Washington (AHR 29:675‑680). At the time he wrote this article, he was Professor of Military Science, Harvard University (1931‑1935). In 1935 he was chief of the Historical Section of the War College for a second time; and after his retirement in 1939 with the rank of Brigadier General, a third time from 1941 to 1945. He was the author of The United States Army in War and Peace (1937), Pen and Sword in Greece and Rome (also 1937), and Ahriman: A Study in Air Bombardment (1939); and the co-author of Warfare: A Study of Military Methods from Earliest Times (1925) and The Second Division American Expeditionary Forces in France, 1917‑1919 (1937), as well as the translator of The Power of Personality in War, a military classic by Maj. Gen. Baron Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to his father, Oliver Lyman Spaulding, Sr. (1833‑1922) — a veteran of the War between the States who rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in the Federal forces, and was eventually a U. S. Representative and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

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b A common surmise, first expressed by Casaubon in the early 17c and with much to be said for it, but not a certainty: see the Loeb edition introduction to Aeneas.

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c In English — Cicero says of Phormio "He never saw an enemy, never saw a camp." And Hannibal: "I've often seen lots of old men who've gone gaga, but one more gaga than Phormio, never."

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d In English:

Whoever wants peace, let them prepare war.

Whoever wants victory trains their soldiers diligently.

No one dares to provoke or to attack someone they understand would be stronger if they were to fight.


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