This is the first instalment in a series of articles by Classics Ambassador Ffion Shute introducing lesser-known Roman authors. The series will cover forgotten gems ranging from history to architecture to military tactics, whose authors deserve to be more widely known. Strictly no Cicero or Tacitus here: these articles will help you to know your Frontinus from your Fronto!
Sextus Julius Frontinus was born in around 35 CE to an upper class family, probably of Narbonese descent (Gallia Narbonensis is now the very southern part of France). He was most likely educated in Alexandria, the hub of Greek and eastern culture in the imperial period, and rose to prominence in the military. From his own works, we can infer that his big career breakthrough was under the emperor Domitian in the year 70, when he probably took part in suppressing the Rhineland rebellion, which apparently ended in the surrender of 70,000 enemy soldiers. He was briefly consul in 73, before being made governor of Britain, where he spent several years subjugating the Silures in what is now South Wales. He left the post in 77, and does not appear in records again until 86, when coins and an inscription tell us that he was proconsul of Asia. This impressive military CV is put to good use in his larger work, Strategemata, a manual instructing generals in the art of warfare through the medium of a wide variety of anecdotes and precedents.
At some point, he returned to Rome from Asia and, in 97, was appointed water commissioner, the post responsible for the administration of aqueducts. As a result of this, he took it upon himself to write De Aquis, a guide to the workings of the Roman water supply.
The Porta Maggiore in Rome was built in 52 CE to carry the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus, two aqueducts that Frontinus would have been responsible for maintaining.
‘As I … have attempted to reduce the numerous rules of military science to a comprehensive system … I feel obliged to complete the task I started by summarising in convenient anecdotes the affairs of generals, which are known in Greek as strategemata.’
These opening lines of Frontinus’ first surviving work (his earlier Art of War is lost) sets out his premise: the need to instruct others in the art of warfare in terms understandable to the beginner general. Frontinus seems to be concerned that young men, fresh out of basic training, would be unfit to lead an army into battle without proper knowledge of strategy and tactics. When we think of a Roman general, it’s tempting to think of Laurence Olivier’s Crassus in Spartacus, full of gravitas and experience. The reality was often very different: young men filling top military posts not through experience but through family connections, probably of doubtful ability to lead an army competently. Despite being written in long, florid sentences riddled with sophisticated grammatical mannerisms, Frontinus shows no indication of being snobby or unpleasant about his expertise and Strategemata is actually a kind of ancient Warfare for Dummies!
The work is written in four books, each one on a different aspect of warfare, respectively on preparation for battle, tactics during battle, the siege and defence of towns, and miscellaneous notes on various aspects of military science. Each book is carefully divided into around 12 sub-sections about each type of military tactic. These sub-sections contain paragraphs, usually of no more than 70 or so words, describing the actions of a particular general or army in a certain situation. These range from widely known historical precedents to the manœuvres of the day that Frontinus himself may well have been involved in.
Something interesting that distinguishes Frontinus from many other authors is that he does not seem to care about the wider context of each anecdote as long as it illustrates his point. Whereas authors like Livy would use every opportunity to paint a picture of the Roman Empire as a powerful and glorious state, Frontinus produces many different stories of warfare, Roman and non-Roman, glorifying and deprecating. In one anecdote, he describes the easy victory of the Carthaginian commander Hannibal, who greatly embarrassed the general Fabius Maximus by driving the Roman army back to their camp with a herd of flaming oxen (I.v.28). In another, he describes the mutilation of Zopyrus to fool the Babylonians, thus delivering a victory for his master, King Cyrus (III.iii.4). This is a Persian story derived from Herodotus, which is an unusual thing to crop up in a Roman textbook. Other generals described come from a huge variety of times and places: the expeditions of Julius Caesar are mixed in with those of the mythical kings of early Rome, Athenian naval commanders, Macedonian generals and the Scipio clan.
My personal highlight of the work is his chapter called ‘On dispelling the fears inspired in soldiers by adverse omens’. In this section, he outlines the general’s role in re-interpreting meteor showers, eclipses, earthquakes etc. as good omens to keep up the morale of likely superstitious troops. My favourite story is about Scipio Africanus, who tripped while disembarking from his ship to attack Carthage. When his soldiers began to mutter about bad luck, Frontinus says that he announced “Rejoice, my men, for I have hit Africa hard!”
For all these amusing anecdotes, I started to wonder why Strategemata remains almost completely obscure when a similar Chinese work, Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, is so widely known? There are many possible answers to this question, but my opinion is that Art Of War is so broad – even nebulous – in its metaphors regarding strategy that it can be applied to almost anything, regardless of time period or geography and even to spheres other than warfare. Frontinus’ work, on the other hand, while interesting in its illustration of how a Roman general saw the world, suffers from its emphasis on tactics specific to warfare in ancient Europe and western Asia at the expense of any wider treatment of strategy.
De Aquis or, to give it its full title, De Aquis Urbis Romae, is Frontinus’ other surviving work. Although shorter than Strategemata, it is dense with unique information. Frontinus really comes into his own in this work, demonstrating his Alexandrian education in mathematics by setting out the statistics and calculations concerning the aqueducts of Rome. He is enthusiastic in his treatment of capacity, flow rates, pressure and other engineering concepts, detailing technical matters in a way not seen in other Roman literature.
Although these matters might seem like a mundane thing for a distinguished Roman general to be concerning himself with, the large supply of clean water was one of the most important things necessary to sustain the population of Rome, which reached an estimated 1 million people towards the end of Frontinus’ life. He recognised the importance of the water supply in his charge and sets out the same principle for writing De Aquis as he did for Strategemata – to instruct the people who would follow him in the skills necessary to do the job properly. Anybody who would have filled his post after him would have found an easy handbook that contained the capacity, route and history of every aqueduct in Rome, along with more details concerning the legal and administrative aspects of running the aqueducts. The work includes everything from the origins of the Julian aqueduct to a law stating that a man must pay a fine of 10,000 sesterces (around £3,000) for building a tomb or planting a tree within 15 feet of somebody’s water pipes. Towards the end of the work, he complains of “puncti” (literally “puncturers”) – people who illegally attached smaller lead pipes to the main network, siphoning off water for private use in their houses.
Whereas Tacitus can baldly say, “they dug a tunnel and drained the Fucine Lake”, it is only in De Aquis that you can find such unique and detailed insights into the scale of Roman engineering achievements like these. Despite its extensive use of statistics and jargon (you have to be quite dedicated to try and master Roman measurements!), it is an excellent place to start for any study of Roman infrastructure.
Strategemata and De Aquis are available in a single Loeb volume (no. 174) but I’ve read them so you don’t have to! Next time: the grammarian and part-time philosopher Aulus Gellius.