From Macedonians to Musketeers: Aelianus Tacticus and the art of war

Aelianus Tacticus was a Greek military writer whose famous treatise, Taktikē theōria (“Tactical theory”), is a detailed handbook for organising, arming and manoeuvring an army in the field. Probably written around 106 AD, the book covers the technical aspects of drill and tactics as practiced by the Macedonian armies after Alexander the Great, using armoured hoplites supported by light infantry and cavalry screens. Aelian, resident in Rome at the time of writing, also provides a brief account of the constitution of the Roman army and claims to have consulted all the best authorities , including a lost treatise by the Greek historian, Polybius.

Aelian strongly influenced the military systems of both the Byzantines and the Arabs, who translated his text for their own use in 1350. The copious details on army drill also rendered the Tactiks of considerable use to the army organisers of the 16th century, who found that the armoured phalanx and cavalry screens of Aelian bore many similarities to the solid masses of pikemen and the squadrons of horse which typified warfare in the 1500s, and translations formed the groundwork of numerous books on drill and tactics.

Together with the works of Xenophon, Polybius and Aeneus Tacticus, the Tactiks again became an essential manual for every 16th and 17th century soldier who hoped to master the art of war.

The Cardiff Rare Books Collection holds two copies of Captain John Bingham’s translation, Tactiks of Aelian, Or art of embattailing an army after ye Grecian manner, published in 1616 and 1631. Both contain dozens of detailed engravings  showing the arms, armour and tactics of early 17th century musketeers, pikemen and cavalry.

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