Ancient Chinese and Roman Approaches To Warfare

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War traces back to the beginning of civilization, with the earliest pictographs of war dating to around 3500 BCE. Political entities, nations, and city-states fight wars to resolve disputes and armies made up of soldiers or mercenaries carry out the conflict on a battlefield. Carl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military analyst, calls war “the continuation of politics carried on by other means.” This paper compares the Ancient Chinese and Roman society’s approaches to warfare, including an analysis of how they compare to the modern principles of warfare. While both ancient eastern and western civilizations were influential on the modern way of war, the timeless fundamentals of Ancient Chinese military theorists are more dominant.

The Ancient Roman army was an aggressive well-trained, well organized, disciplined, and resourceful fighting force. War was a way of life for the Ancient Romans and parents raised their boys from birth to be warriors. The Ancient Romans tied political and social status to military success; it was one of the first nations to employ professional soldiers. The government wanted its citizen-soldiers to fight and defend their homeland and the citizen-soldier expected to be involved in their government’s politics in return. The Roman army was very direct in their approach to warfare. They had a heavy focus on discipline and order, relied on hand-to-hand combat, and would fight to death. The well-known Roman phalanx formation, a legion formation that derived strength from mass and morale, would run toward the enemy and unleash their javelins into the enemy before closing with sword and shield. Due to their civic militarism, Romans fought for their freedom and their country which gave them a significant depth of force and a drive to win. After the Carthage army almost annihilated the Roman army in the battle of Cannae, their citizen-soldier army quickly reconstituted with thousands of more soldiers. The Roman army had a powerful combination of personal freedom, warrior spirit, and rigid discipline that created a cohesive, lethal, massive fighting force as shown by the story of Ten-Thousand.

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The Ancient Chinese army was also a well-trained, well-organized, disciplined, and inventive fighting force. However, the Ancient Chinese were indirect in their approach to warfare, preferring to negotiate and use diplomatic and political avenues to gain an advantage before applying military power. War was not a way of life for the Ancient Chinese. Sun-Tzu, a military theorist, philosopher, Chinese general, and author of the “Art of War” believed that an army should not fight unless necessary; the Ancient Chinese only engaged in battles if they were certain they could win. The Ancient Chinese also believed in allowing your enemy to surrender to keep their forces alive instead of forcing combat and taking unnecessary losses. Trickery, deception, and surprise laid the foundation of the Ancient Chinese military strategy, and they had a heavy focus on intelligence and strategy. Chinese political success did not rely on military prowess, and the eastern perspective on warfare favored cunning, deception, strategy, and economy. In the Chinese culture, not all men were warriors and politics did not depend on military skill. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Both the Ancient Chinese and Romans had unique yet effective approaches to warfare. While both countries produced well-disciplined, well-trained, fighting forces, the Romans warrior upbringing and intensity on the battlefield is very different than that of the Ancient Chinese. The Romans, believed in the total annihilation of the enemy while the Chinese allowed surrender. Ancient Chinese armies were larger than Roman armies were, but the Romans could reconstitute more quickly. The Romans were more aggressive, headstrong, and physically dominant in their no-survivor methods of offensive attack while the Chinese focused on the theoretical side of warfare and were more subversive. The Chinese preferred to avoid war if possible, while the Romans almost welcomed it.

Both the Ancient Chinese and Roman approaches to warfare fit into the modern model of western warfare where individuals fight collectively in a single formation for a common purpose. However, the fundamentals of Ancient Chinese societies approach to warfare has proven to be more successful over time, and they employed more of the recognized modern principles of warfare. The Ancient Chinese principles of warfare directly contributed to the development of the modern principles of warfare. According to United States America Army Field Manual 3, Appendix A, there are nine principles of war: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. Sun-Tzu stressed the importance of the principles of warfare and governance and the Ancient Chinese more continually applied those principles than the Romans.

The Art of War” by Sun Tzu has remained popular throughout the years; militaries, civilian corporations, and educational institutions still use the book to this day. One reason for its long-standing popularity is that it is sufficiently abstract enough to apply to modern problem-sets. It is also applicable in multiple disciplines, not just the military field. A young-adult sitting at home and preparing for an interview can as easily apply the principles from “The Art of War” as a U.S. Army General who is about to take their troops across the berm and invade a foreign country. Military generals in Vietnam, World War I, and World War II have tested the principles outlined in twenty-five century-old book. As long as the theory continues to drive success, it will still be relevant.

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