Friday, 19 June 2009

Discworld: General Tacticus

He was trying to find some help in the ancient military journals of General Tacticus, whose intelligent campaigning had been so successful that he'd lent his very name to the detailed prosecution of martial endeavour, and had actually found a section headed What to Do If One Army Occupies a Well-fortified and Superior Ground and the Other Does Not, but since the first sentence read "Endeavour to be the one inside" he'd rather lost heart.
-- (Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum)

I went to see a production of Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, starring my ex-housemate, in London yesterday, which I really enjoyed - I'd never seen a Discworld stage play before and it was really funny, a really good evening out.

Promotional material from the production

Since the play was about the army, I was reminded of this elusive character, who is mentioned in a number of Discworld novels (I don't know how many, but I'm sure there's a website somewhere that does!). When I was a first year undergraduate studying ancient history, I was briefly very confused because, thanks to the Discworld, I thought that Tacticus was named after Tacitus, and that Tacitus was, therefore, a famous military commander and military historian (which isn't a million miles from the truth but isn't quite right, at least not in the way that I was imagining). Of course, I also thought that Spartacus was called 'Sparatacus', because that's what Cher calls him in Clueless. How I eventually got to PhD level is mystery.

The possible Classical and other antecendants of General Tacticus are listed at the Discworld wiki here, which appears to be reasonably accurate (I checked it against the Oxford Classical Dictionary!). On the etymology of 'tactics', see the Online Etymology dictionary here; although they don't mention Aeneas Tacticus, it wouldn't surprise me if the word came in to popular usage partly because of his name.

However, until today, I'd never heard of these people (I had a vague notion there was an ancient Chinese book on the Art of War, but that's about it). I had, however, heard of Tacitus, who did write some military history, though his work is more a record of past military maneouvers than a guide to future military endeavours. Tacitus' chief surviving works are the Histories, the Annals, Agricola and Germania, and he is an important written source for Roman Britain. He did serve in the army, but is not known for his military achievements.

Most people reading Discworld novels, like me, won't have heard of Aeneas Tacticus. They might have heard of Tacitus, but the historical characters Pratchett evokes when he writes this character are different - in addition to Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, most people will think of Julius Caesar.

General Tacticus' habit of conquering everything in sight certainly owes more to these two than to obscure Greek military historians and Pratchett deliberately recalls Caesar with the title of Tacticus' journal Veni Vidi Vici: A Soldier's Life. Pratchett might reasonably assume that the majority of his readers will have heard of Caesar, so it is Caesar who is actually Tacticus' real-world counterpart, though their stories end rather differently. Caesar declared war on his own city-state, Rome, in an act of civil war, conquered it and, by adopting Octavian (Augustus) as his successor, caused the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire. Tacticus, however, declared war on Ankh-Morpork from a leadership position in another city and destroyed its Empire. Perhaps this change is the result of Discworld's position at the far cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs Cynicism.

Caesar. Just look at that expression. You do not want to mess with this guy.

Thinking of great conquerers of Antiquity might lead some to think of Alexander the Great, but, great military leader though he was, Alexander was also an alcoholic with a quick temper who enjoyed the luxurious benefits of being ultimate ruler rather too much, and Tacticus feels more like a Caesar than an Alexander to me. Additionally, Discworld's 'old' language Latatian is clearly Latin, while Greece is more usually represented by Ephebe, which doesn't seem to have its own language, or if it does, it isn't discussed.

I like General Tacticus and his practical but not always helpful advice. He reminds me very much of this helpful section from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

BOOK: What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can't move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn't been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won't be troubling you much longer. (Douglas Adams, Fit the Eighth)

General Tacticus' advice is generally as helpful as this to our heroes when in a sticky spot, but Vimes seems to find him useful in Jingo anyway. In the end, though, Tacticus may only be the second greatest military thinker in the history of the Disc. The greatest is probably the man who has, as per Tacticus' advice, carefully avoided getting into a war in the first place, while ruling the world through commerce instead.

Veni, Vidi... Vetinari.

(The artwork is not mine: The top illustration is by the late Josh Kirby, and this one is by Tealin - visit the website here for this and many more Discworld images)


  1. Being pedantic, which of course is not at all like me, I'm pretty sure Aeneas is referred to as Tacticus ('the Tactician') *because* he wrote a book on tactics. His parents weren't Mr and Mrs Tacticus.

    "Endeavour to be the one inside" - brilliant.

  2. Aaahhh, that makes much more sense! I must confess I'd never heard of the dude until today.

    Without wishing to denigrate Sir Terry's knowledge of Classics, I have to confess I doubt that Aeneas Tacticus is the inspiration behind General Tacticus anyway - I really think its a combination of Tacitus and Julius Caesar. But I can't rule out the possibility (since Gen Tacticus is called A. Tacticus at one point) so was trying to cover all bases!

  3. Tacticus is a fairly common misreading of Tacitus (no wonder, considering that most people have probably heard the word tactics before encountering the historian), so that is probably what Sir Pterry had in mind when he named the fellow, especially when you consider his importance for British history. He is, after all, the major source for things like Boudicca/Boadicea/whatever the heck the currently accepted spelling is, or the administration of the island. On the other hand, if you consider the quote you use to start this post, it may be significant that the only surviving work by Aeneas Tacticus is How to Survive Under Siege.

    Just to confuse things further, we also have an Emperor Tacitus. One of those Emperor-of-the-month types in the late 3rd century, who lasted 9 whole months! To confuse things even further, there is also an Aelianus Tacticus, who also wrote about tactics (hence the name). To make matters worse, he is one of the 2 chief sources for Aeneas Tacticus (the other being Polybius), apart from Aeneas' only extant work. This is almost as bad as Byzantine history, where everyone is named John.

    As for what language they speak in Ephebe, it seems to me that Epheban philosophers shout "Eureka!" while running naked and wet through the streets. OTOH, the great Epheban hero, Odysseus analogue, and ancestor of Rincewind was named Lavaeolus, which seems to be a combination of Greek and Latin.

  4. Good point, I had forgotten about Eureka - that does suggest that Ephebian is Greek, though of course, the Greek does not mean 'give me a towel'! ;)

    Lavaeolus is a weird name, I've often wondered where that one comes from - sounds a bit like lava, but that doesn't sounds likely... Answers on a postcard!

  5. Lavaeolus is actually really quite obvious. Remember, he abhors violence and will do just about anything to get out of a fight. Lav-Aeolus = Washer of Winds, i.e. He Who Rinses the Wind, or...

  6. OK, that makes sense. Since I read Eric once, about 10 years ago, and had never heard of Aeolus or studied Latin at the time, oddly enough, I missed that one!

  7. I wonder if Pratchett was thinking of Frontinus?

  8. How bad is it that I had to look Frontinus up?! I don't think there are any dreams in his work on aqueducts and military strategy though! ;)

  9. Hi! The artist of the Vetinari image is me. :) You can find it on my actual own website here, in the Going Postal section. I'm glad to see it is loved.

  10. Hi Tealin! Sorry for nicking your image. If you're happy for it to stay up there, I'll add a citation for you.


Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...