TCS Daily

Ancient Visionary

By Kenneth Silber - October 2, 2003 12:00 AM

In the late fourth century A.D., a citizen of the Roman Empire wrote a treatise known to history as De Rebus Bellicis (On Matters of Warfare). The author, whose name is unknown, offered dramatic proposals for inventions and reforms to shore up the Empire's defense. The manuscript was addressed to the highest level: the Emperor himself.


Among the proposals (complete with illustrations) were an oxen-powered warship, a portable bridge, and new types of chariots and artillery. Anonymous (as I'll call the author) pressed for an expansion of border fortifications and faster promotion and discharge of soldiers. Anonymous also called for nonmilitary reforms, including changes in the monetary and legal systems and an end to corruption by provincial officials.


There is some uncertainty about the work's date, but it is plausibly estimated at between 366 and 375. Anonymous used a plural form in his opening salutation, which suggests it was during the joint reign of Emperor Valentinian I and his brother Valens. In any event, there is no indication the treatise reached its intended audience. More likely, it was pigeonholed by wary bureaucrats.


Copies of the text and illustrations did, however, find their way into medieval manuscripts (the original is long lost). De Rebus Bellicis has been a subject of scholarly attention for centuries, but it is little known to the general public. And some scholars have tended to regard Anonymous as merely eccentric rather than brilliant or important.


Yet De Rebus Bellicis is a remarkable document. The proposals of Anonymous show considerable ingenuity and imagination, even if their practical value is debatable. Moreover, Anonymous stands out among his contemporaries for his emphasis on technological progress and belief in the possibility of improvement and reform. Had more Romans held such priorities, the Empire might have endured much longer than it did.


As it was, the year 378 brought the disastrous Battle of Adrianople, in which Roman forces were annihilated by horsemen of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes, and in which the Emperor Valens lost his life. Subsequent decades saw the Empire divided permanently and barbarians marauding through Rome itself. The Western Empire finally collapsed in 476.


Thus, De Rebus Bellicis also serves as a cautionary tale, evoking what happened to a civilization that failed to adequately deploy technological and economic resources for its own defense. Despite its antiquity and the crudeness of its technological ideas by modern standards, the treatise echoes resonantly in the present, as our own era is marked by threats to civilized societies and controversy over defense-related technologies and reforms.


Making De Rebus Bellicis yet more intriguing is the mystery and speculation that surrounds it. The author's identity will likely never be known. His personal background is not clear, and the meaning of some of his passages is obscure; there are words, and maybe entire sections, missing from the text. Anonymous wrote in Latin, so he likely lived in the western provinces, but he also shows knowledge of the Greek-speaking eastern provinces. He seems to have belonged to the middle class rather than the aristocracy. He makes no mention of Christianity, which suggests he was a pagan.


Whoever he was, he made the first known suggestion that a ship could be propelled without sails or oars; the oxen aboard his proposed warship would walk in circles around a pole, turning shafts connected to paddle wheels on the outside of the ship. (A similar ship was actually built in England in the early 19th century.) Anonymous proposed a portable bridge made of inflated animal skins, and noted that such a bridge should be thrown obliquely across a river to avoid a head-on collision with the current.


Anonymous proposed several types of scythed chariots, with curved blades jutting from their wheels; here, he was seeking to revive a technology of an earlier era. He sketched out machines for hurling projectiles from a city's walls or on a battlefield. He proposed a wheeled device that would shelter soldiers as they approached a besieged fortress. He drew up spear-like weapons and a shield with nails driven into it for additional strength. Anonymous also designed a soft garment to protect the body of an armored soldier.


Certainly, Anonymous had a clear sense of the dangers facing his society. He wrote:


"Above all it must be recognized that wild nations are pressing upon the Roman Empire and howling around it everywhere, and treacherous barbarians, covered by natural positions, are assailing every frontier."


The barbarian tribes, he noted, could be found in various terrains and conditions. Thus, he outlined a comprehensive strategy: An enemy on open land would be routed by the scythed chariots, while a concealed adversary would be undone by artillery. He added that an enemy beyond a river would be reached via the portable bridge, while one on the open seas would be defeated by the oxen-powered warship.


On domestic policy, Anonymous was no less innovative. He suggested that the problem of currency debasement could be solved by isolating employees of the national mint on an island to prevent fraud. He advocated that new border fortifications be paid for by landholders in outlying areas, not by the government. He argued that machines would reduce the need for military manpower, and that discharged soldiers would become productive farmers and taxpayers.


And, showing he was truly ahead of his time, Anonymous complained that the legal system was beset by "confused and contradictory rulings," and asked the Emperor to issue a pronouncement "to put a stop to dishonest litigation."


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