Saturday, 20 January 2018

All Gaul

There exists somewhere in Western Europe a bit of rather depressed graffiti from, I think, the Second Century AD, along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, the Romans always win.’ From that perspective, of course, the graffiti is correct. Things might have looked a little different a century or so later, but from the First Century BC to the Second Century AD (don’t let us get all politically correct over dating systems) the Romans carried all before them.

The reasons for Roman success are, of course, many and varied. According to their own accounts they did win more battles than they lost, but the historian has good reason to suspect that these accounts are a bit biased, with any losses being rather glossed over. A second reason is that the enemies of Rome were, in general, rather divided. This some Gauls cheered Caesar on in defeating other Gauls, who were their enemies. This probably made life a bit easier for the former, but ultimately they were subsumed into the Empire just the same.

Thirdly, there is the fact that Roman armies were professional. Thus they could be in the field earlier than tribal armies, and stay there longer. If the tribes were not to starve, spring planting and autumn harvesting needed to be carried out, and the manpower cannot both be in the field and on campaign. Further, the logistical capability of most tribes was not great. Supplying an army in the field was a major operation, which successive nations, armies and generals have failed to do down the ages.

All of this means that, over the three centuries of interest here, the Romans did, indeed, win. But it also makes things a bit awkward for the wargame rule writer. If the Romans win, then why bother wargaming at all? Indeed, it does seem to me that, despite all the interest in the Romans, the period is rather under-wargamed, often being dismissed as boring, as the Romans always win.

The topic has been brought to my mind by JWH’s blog, Heretical Wargaming, where the author has played a number of Romans against Gauls scenarios using Polemos: SPQR and ‘An Introduction to Wargaming’ rules. This has led to the question of whether the Gauls can ever win a wargame against the Romans. And that, of course, implies the question as to historical accuracy and what that might mean.

My first ever set of wargame rules was for ancients, and included a rather strange rule by which a Roman legionary, throwing a pilum, got an enormous plus on their dice roll. Indeed, for some time the pilum seems to have been regarded as a sort of super-weapon, which can disable an opponent and make them vulnerable to a sword thrust, even if not killing them outright itself. Slightly saner counsels have prevailed since then.

My second brush with ancient rules was DBM, on the one occasion I visited a wargame club. I was put in charge of some Roman legionaries awaiting the onslaught of a Gallic army. My co-general pointed to the Roman cavalry and said ‘They’ll win the battle for us; that lot,’ indicating the legions with a wave of the hand ‘are useless.’ The cavalry lost their battle and the Romans vaporised in about half an hour.

When I came to tackle SPQR I knew that there was a balance to be struck. The Romans should not be too good to win without breaking sweat but, on the other hand, they should not be so poor as to be mere speed bumps to a tribal charge. This is, of course, a rather tricky thing to pull off. The point, however, is that the Romans did not have it all their own way, but there must have been some purpose in dragging those legions over the whole of Europe and the Near East.

I am not claiming that SPQR does this balance perfectly or even, perhaps, adequately. But at least the problem has been identified. Reading the sources, mostly Caesar, Josephus and Tacitus, indicates a couple of things fairly clearly. Firstly, the Romans, while reporting their victories, do admit that they sweated a bit in achieving them. Secondly, that when the tribal armies won, they tended to do so from a position of ambush. Thus the Germans and the Jews both obtained startling victories from ambush.

Straight up, toe to toe slogging matches tended to go the way of the disciplined, well supplied and professional army that could, and did, relieve its front combat troop regularly. Tribal armies, which did not do this, tended to exhaust their front rank troops and lose. Thus, it seemed to me in writing, and still does on reflection, that the tribal armies either win big and quickly or lose, perhaps a bit more slowly but comprehensively. If the Romans can stand the first charge, then they are likely to win.

I have, of course, tried this out. For the Gauls and their ilk, the problem is in the timing. You have to get close enough to the Romans to charge them, without being too close to be advanced into. It is a difficult balance to strike, and, if you can manage it, victory, while more likely, is by no means guaranteed. For the Romans, the requirement is to break up the tribal foot into manageable portions and defeat them in detail, preferably without being charged.

I have no idea whether these options are historical or not, but they seem reasonably likely. A further advantage is that it does remove the view of the commanders of tribal armies as mindless beasts who only knew enough to wave their swords in the general direction of the Romans and shout ‘Charge!’ What we do know of tribal commanders is that they were no worse than the Roman generals, knew their troops and, in some cases, were trained by the Romans in command themselves.  The word ‘barbarian’ after all, simply means ‘non Greek speaker’.

As I said, I have tried this out a number of times and yes, the Romans usually win. The most spectacular victory for the Gauls was from ambush, where they not only won big, but practically wiped the Romans out. On most other occasions the Romans managed to grind out a victory, especially if they can dispose of the opposing cavalry first.

Historical accuracy is, of course, moot. But I hope that I have managed to obtain a balance between the ‘plus six because they are Romans’ camp and the ‘really the legions are speed bumps’ view. The generals on both sides knew their troops and, often, the enemy, and went about their jobs as best they could. At least we owe them the respect of taking their tactics seriously.


  1. Interesting post. I think there is a bit of a revision in opinion on how 'barbarian' armies fought. There seems to be more awareness that they were not necessarily one-trick (or one-charge) ponies, and that rules writers may have done them a disservice previously. That still doesn't help much with the central point though, which is that the Romans almost always won. There's more scope for barbarians victory at the small unit level, but as you say, in the larger set-pieces, unless there is an element of surprise, Roman overconfidence and/or some trick regarding the terrain, the legions will win.

    My solution seem to the problem is to play Lost Battles, which has a handicap points system that gives the losing army a chance of winning the game, to do Roman Civil War battles, or to create smaller or scenario-driven games, which may have more of a role-playing or puzzle-solving aspect rather than just a straight out 'win the field' encounter.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Again, an interesting read.


    1. Thank you.

      There are a few hints in Tacitus that the Germans, at least, started to adopt Roman tactics, although it is hard to figure out if they worked or not. Somewhere in SPQR there is an option to reclassify half the German tribal foot as legionaries or auxilia and see what happens.

      The general point is germane, though. Lost Battles, or carefully designed scenarios generally, will do some balance. Campaign games might as well, especially ones which give options for Romans fighting each other (and the tribes doing likewise) and both calling in the other to help. Neither side was particularly averse to pulling in other troops - our sorts of national and / or ethnic pride did not exist across 'Germans' or 'Romans'.

      Finally, of course, someone commented that a careful read of Caesar suggested little difference between the behaviour of the legions and the Gauls. As wargamers we tend to take possibly minor differences and inflate them, just to make the two sides different.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post. If I may respectfully disagree on one thing, I am in favour of the BCE/CE thing. Like most politically correct options, it is there simply to show respect, in order to not take people's beliefs and world view for granted. In this case, it shows respect to non-christians, which is a pretty big group (and includes myself).

    Keep the posts coming!