Thursday, 11 September 2014

134 BC: Servile War in Sicily

The latest battle in our ancients campaign sees a punitive Roman army attempt to put down the slave revolt in Sicily. The Romans are led by the junior consul that year, Gaius Fulvius Flaccus, the senior consul (Scipio Aemilianus Africanus) being rather too grand to lead an army on such a menial task.  He has, after all, conquered Carthage and Numantia, and has graciously condescended to leave some minor military glory for others. The slaves, mostly Greek in origin, are led by Eunus.

I constructed and supplied both armies and, in the interests of saving time, laid out the defending slave army's deployment on a map. Simon couldn't make it, so we used a mixture of North Africans and Spanish to simulate the slaves. I played them with Graham against Billy and Gordon as Flaccus and his legate. Map:

The slaves are in blue, Romans are in red, Socii in white, and auxiliaries in yellow. The large pale rectangle denotes the slaves' deployment zone, just by way of explaining the choices open to me as defender of all that is good and right against the rapacious hordes of greed.

On our side, Graham led our paltry cavalry forces from our left, with plenty of support from light infantry and skirmishers, while I ran the infantry masses. In terms of deployment, I packed our left and refused our right, leaving a lone unit of foot in front of a marsh to hold up the opposition for as long as possible, and hiding another in some woods. Most of our foot was concentrated in large columns aimed at where I thought the Romans would be on the right of their army. We ruled that the slaves shouldn't have much cavalry or decent equipment, but should have high morale.  They really hate Romans, and they know what will happen to them if and when they lose. But Eunus is going to go down fighting and take as many of them with him as he can. Our army:

Extreme Left Wing Command
Four units of 12 Peltasts

Left Wing Command
Two units of 8 light horse with javelins
One unit of 12 medium horse +1 morale
One large unit of 15 slingers

Main Infantry Command
Two units of 48 massed medium foot (+1 Morale) in four ranks
Three units of 48 massed medium foot (+1 Morale) in six-rank columns; these deploy in between the two wider units to either side of the formation
Two units of 11 skirmishers with javelins

The Consular army comprises two Roman and two Socii legions, each having 8 Velites, 24 Hastati and 24 Principes. There is no functional difference between Romans and Socii, nor between the two types of heavy infantry, this being a very late Republican army only one generation before the reforms of Marius are due to take place. They also have various auxiliary types.  Gordon set them up as follows:

Right Wing Command
One unit of 12 Spanish Caetrati
Three units of 8 Numidian Light Horse
One large unit of 15 Numidian skirmish archers

Centre Right
The Socii legions, deployed as four units of 24 figures, each in three-rank columns

Centre Left
The Roman legions, deployed in the same way as their allies.

Left Wing Command
18 Roman Equites medium cavalry
18 Latin Equites medium cavalry
Three units of 12 Spanish Caetrati
One large unit of 15 Numidian slingers

Before the battle, the Roman commanders in their conference decided that the enemy would try to pack one wing and break through the Roman lines, doing as much damage as possible.  It would be impossible to predict which wing this would be, but since the wood at the left of the field as seen from the Roman point of view could be easily taken by the Caetrati, the wide open area beyond could then be exploited by the cavalry, which would also incidentally set them up for pursuit. This explains the somewhat unusual reversed deployment, with Romans on the left instead of their more usual position in the right.

We used the reverse of my cloth, which is red, to make the battlefield seem more volcanic (it is in southwestern Sicily). Mots of the photos didn't really come out, but I hope the deployment map gives some sense of the relative starting positions.  Terrain favours the defenders, but even so it will be a race to see if the large columns can crash through the Italians before the right wing of the slave army is destroyed. I as Eunus know that this is all or nothing.
We join the battle at mid-point, the exciting bit. This is our main moment of attack. The Italians perform badly, but so do the columns. The best we can now hope for is that at least our left gets away before the Romans come crashing in with full force.
This is what threatens our right. The Equites, led by the Italians, have ridden all the way round the rightmost wood and are now in position to hit the flank of our rightmost infantry unit. Our hope was that by this point the columns would have punched through, but now we are in real danger of losing the entire army.
Having said that, on our extreme left Graham is having real fun destroying Numidians and Caetrati. Our entire left has been cleared.
First blood to the Equites, but our enhanced morale enables the rest of the army to hold firm.
Our central column has collapsed, and the one to our right is about to go the same way. However, Eunus leads the left most column in person and our weight at the left finally tells - one and a half Italian legions suddenly disintegrate, allowing about 40% of the slaves to make a run for it.  Eunus himself dies as the Equites slam into his unit on pursuit.

His sacrifice, however, is not in vain.  The destruction of all of the auxiliaries on the right of the Roman army plus the loss of all those Italian legionaries means that, although victorious on the field, Rome does not have enough power left to hunt down and finish off the remnants of the slave army. They will need reinforcements to do that, so Consul Flaccus' dreams of military glory are somewhat dashed.  In the meantime, nasty guerrilla actions will continue over the winter and into the next year before Rome can finally decree the area pacified.

I have to say that this was a real fun game.  Campaigns have many difficulties, not least striking a balance as to which games are worth playing.  The slaves were always going to be well up against it, with little likelihood of pulling off a victory.  However, as with the Parthians, the tabletop challenge in these circumstances seems to work well: maybe you won't see a victory in battle, but there will be ongoing campaign consequences if you do your best. It can be somewhat liberating to know that you are meant to lose, but nevertheless manage to pull something out of it.  Besides, if you do win, you earn serious bragging rights. The trick is to make such games plausible and interesting to play, even if they are somewhat unbalanced.


  1. Nice report of a "volcanic" battle! Good job, and great map too!

  2. Thanks, Phil, you must have been passing through just as I posted!

  3. Always enjoy your After Action Reports. Must say though, the orange and green colors gives me a headache. I take it the Slaves were at a disadvantage. Did you calculate the Points per T2. I would be interested in knowing what they were for setting up similar games.

    1. Hi Mitch, we did indeed use Tactica 2. Points values for the slaves were:

      12 Massed Cavalry FV 4-6 Elite Morale @ 7 points
      16 Light Cavalry FV 3-6 with javelins @ 4 points
      240 Massed Infantry FV 4-6 Elite Morale @ 7 points
      48 Light Infantry FV 3-6 with javelins @ 4 points
      15 Skirmish Slingers @ 3 points
      22 Slirmish Javelins @ 2 points

      If I remember correctly, the total came to 2110 rather than the standard 2000 points because it was a campaign game.

      The reason for the troop choices was the little amount of info I could find on the First Servile War on the web. We decided that the troops should be highly motivated, but not so well equipped, and there should not be many cavalry. It will be different for the Second Servile War, which will have veteran infantry FV 5-6 (same points values!) and more cavalry.

      The figures should have been Greek types, especially close-based Thureophoroi, but our club member who has those couldn't make it that evening. So we improvised...

      Hope this makes sense!

  4. Great looking battle and good write-up.


    1. Cheers, Gareth, it's good to hear from you