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Early Medieval Wargaming, Historical Wargaming, Last Wars of the Western Empire

The Last Wars of the Western Empire Part 5: Arles, 411

Introduction

Our first scenario concerns a battle between two ‘Roman’ armies. It is one of very few battles of this period for which we have been left any reliable information about the tactics used, and that only by chance. Examining this battle allows us to pick up some points made earlier in this series about the role of the Romans themselves in destroying the western field army and about the relative importance assigned, by Romans, to Roman and barbarian threats respectively.

Background: Civil War and Barbarian Invasion, 407-11.

The West, 410

Emperor Honorius’ reign (392-423) was dogged with difficulties. These came in two principal forms: barbarians and usurpers. The destruction of the Gothic realm in the 360s-70s had left a power-vacuum north of the Danube, which by the first decade of the fifth century had begun to be filled by the Huns. The success of one faction, as usual in barbarian politics, led the losers to seek either to refuge in the Roman Empire, or to try and acquire military sufficient success there to enable a return to their homelands with enhanced prestige and Roman booty and perhaps tribute. As a result a series of serious barbarian attacks afflicted the Empire, first the invasion of Italy by a Gothic king called Radagaisus, which was defeated by the magister militum Stilicho, and second the ‘Great Invasion’ of 405/6, when a large confederation of Alans, Vandals and ‘Sueves’ from the interior of Germania crossed the Rhine and ravaged throughout Gaul and (after 409) Spain.

More serious, though, were internal political factors. Honorius’ youth and incapability (he was, one ought to remember, twenty-three by 405, although some authors write as though he was still a child!) led to the domination of Roman politics by court faction-fighting. Until 408 these focused on the attempt by Stilicho to consolidate his position as chief minister of the emperor in both halves of the Empire. Thereafter, following Stilicho’s murder, it was taken over by a bewildering series of palace coups and counter-coups. This all meant that the old means of governing the empire, keeping the different regional interest-groups balanced, disappeared. As in 383 the result was usurpation in the north-west, in Britain, where eventually a soldier called Constantine was elevated to the purple, taking the title Constantine III and crossing to Gaul with the best of whatever remained of the British field army. He soon had Gaul and Spain under his control, as well as Britain. Another result of the politicking between eastern and western courts (Honorius’ elder brother Arcadius died in 408 leaving a young child, Theodosius II, on the throne with the inevitable confusing minority) and within the court at Ravenna, was the rebellion of the Gothic federate general, Alaric. Alaric wanted a permanent, secure place for himself and his army within the imperial Roman government and military, specifically the sort of place occupied by Stilicho. He was certainly not after an independent Gothic kingdom. He failed to get this, even after raising and then deposing his own emperor, Priscus Attalus, and besieging Rome twice. In 410, he sacked the eternal city in an event that briefly sent shock waves around the Roman world, but still didn’t obtain what he wanted, and died later that year in the south.

What is interesting and important is the way that the Ravenna government and that of the western usurper Constantine ‘III’ prioritised internal politics over dealing with the barbarians. The barbarians of the ‘Great Invasion’ were largely ignored between 407 and 414. As argued in earlier parts, Roman contenders for power presented a much more serious threat to any emperor or chief minister than barbarian armies. In 409, Roman politics became yet more confused. The inhabitants of Britain and Aremorica (a swathe of north-western Gaul much larger than modern Brittany) expelled Constantine’s officials and apparently declared their loyalty to Honorius, although there was little that the latter could do about it. In the same year, Constantine’s general in Spain, Gerontius, rebelled and declared a certain Maximus as emperor. Constantine sent his son Constans, now elevated to the position of co-emperor, to deal with the rebels while he invaded Italy to support Honorius against Alaric. The Italian incursion was short-lived and Constantine soon scuttled back to Gaul. Meanwhile, Constans was driven out of Spain, pursued by Gerontius and Maximus, who eventually killed him in Vienne, north of Arles.

The Campaign of 411

Confused so far? It’s about to get worse! Having disposed of Constans, Gerontius’ army turned south and had besieged Constantine in Arles by about May 411. At this point our reconstruction of the course of events is hindered by the fact that we have two sources that tell us about the 411 campaign in Gaul but neither survives intact. One, Olympiodorus’ ‘Notes for a History’ (written c.425), exists in a large number of fragments in later Byzantine texts. The other, a history written by one Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, presumably in Gaul, survives only as a couple of passages quoted by Gregory of Tours in Book 2, chapters 8-9 of his Histories. Renatus and Olympiodorus each give us a part of the story but not the whole thing and the confusion stems from the fact that both describe campaigns directed against the troops around Arles from the Rhine frontier, which seem very similar and have often been assumed to be one and the same. Close scrutiny, however, reveals that they must be talking about different events, even if sharing some general similarities.

What seems to have happened is this. Faced with the unravelling military situation in the south, Constantine ‘III’ sent one of his officers, a Frank called Edobech, to raise another army from what was left of the Roman forces along the Rhine and from the barbarians on that frontier if possible. Shortly afterwards, however, yet another usurper was raised, at Mainz, in the shape of a certain Jovinus. Jovinus had the support of the Burgundians who had arrived in the area in the wake of the Great Invasion. He it might have been who recognised the existence of a kingdom of Burgundians on the Middle Rhine, around Worms (whose fate will concern us in a later part of this series). Jovinus too set off for the south with an army largely composed of diverse barbarians. It is clear, however, that Edobech’s arrival near Arles was a quite separate movement, even if his mission to the Rhine might have been behind the recruitment of many of Jovinus’ barbarians. Possibly, Jovinus had been intended to bring these along as a further reinforcement but decided instead to make his own bid for power. Who knows? Be that as it may, Olympiodorus is clear that the first army that approached Arles was commanded by Edobech, not Jovinus, and makes no mention of barbarian troops. Clearly this was intended as a relieving force for Constantine ‘III’.

Things, however, had not stayed the same around Arles during Edobech’s absence. Emperor Honorius’ forces in Italy had crossed the Alps under the leadership of a general called Constantius (the confrontation of a Constantine and a Constantius not making this period’s history any less confusing!). Constantius was a Balkan soldier, from Naissus (mod. Niš, Serbia) and was to dominate the next ten years of western Roman history. Constantius’ second-in-command was a cavalryman called Wulfila, yet another of the dozens of Gothic foederati officers roaming the Empire at this time. On the approach of Constantius’ troops, Gerontius’ besieging army went over to Honorius’ side. Gerontius and his puppet Maximus had no option but to flee with a handful of followers. Gerontius was slain in a heroic last stand and Maximus hid amongst the barbarians in Spain. What interests me about this episode is the fact that when the chips were down, Roman troops rapidly exhibited loyalty to the dynastic imperial claimant over and above any regional or other professional solidarities. This would be a crucial factor later in the century, when there were no dynastic claimants. Nevertheless, for now, Constantius’ troops with their new recruits took over the siege of Constantine’s forces in Arles. It was they who would face Edobech’s troops. Constantine and Edobech might have hoped that fresh reinforcements would have induced Gerontius’ men to resume their old allegiance and desert their commander. This would be much less easy with Constantius’ Italian troops, who had never served anyone but the son of Theodosius. Even so, a council of war in the legitimist camp was in favour of breaking off the siege and returning to Italy when they heard of the relief force. Only when it was reported that Edobech’s troops were too close to do this safely was it decided to move out and fight.

The response of Constantius’ officers to the news of Edobech’s approach is interesting. It suggests that they were not confident about facing the relief force in battle. Perhaps Edobech had a numerical advantage. This is surprising given Constantius’ reinforcement by Gerontius’ former army and even more so in that one would have thought that the legitimist army was rather better than the units assembled by Edobech. Constantius’ troops came from the Italian field army and from what was left of the better British and Gallic units, which had originally formed Constantine’s forces. By contrast, Edobech had had to pull together a force from the remnants of the troops, mainly limitanei (second-line troops), in northern Gaul. Some of these possibly took a bit of a beating in 406 and, with the successive troop movements from the region since 383, we might not expect that those that were left were especially high-quality. But perhaps they were. It is possible that Constantius’ officers just did not wish to risk damaging the political situation (the Gothic army was still at large in the south of Italy, now under Alaric’s brother-in-law, Athaulf, Alaric having died in 410) in the lottery of battle, although it is difficult to see how the political situation could be bettered with this attitude. Kulikowski points out that the overall standard of generalship during these wars was not very high.

Details about fifth-century battles are few and far between and when they are given, as in Jordanes’ account of the Battle of Campus Mauriacus (or the Catalaunian Fields, somewhere between Troyes and Châlons, 451), they are often of dubious reliability. Fortunately, one of the surviving fragments of Olympiodorus’ work does tell us about what happened when Constantius and Edobech confronted each other. What Olympiodorus says is flimsy enough but we are lucky to have the snippet at all. He tells us that, once it had decided to fight, Constantius’ army crossed the Rhône and took up a position facing Edobech’s forces. Fifth-century Arles lay on the east (left) bank of the Rhône (as the main town of Arles still does), so the besieging force was presumably mostly arranged around that side. The reference to crossing the river must imply therefore that Edobech was marching down the western bank, presumably hoping to enter the city through the, by this date, deserted Trinquetaille quarter across the Rhône bridge, which other sources tell us was a pontoon bridge. Constantius drew up his infantry to face the attack of Edobech’s forces, while the cavalry, under Wulfila, was placed in an ambush. When the battle was joined, on a pre-arranged signal the cavalry surged into the rear of Edobech’s army and the rout was complete. As usual the losers lost heavily in the pursuit.

Wargaming the Battle of Arles

Map of terrain and suggested deployment: Arles 411

Olympiodorus’ account suggests something of a one-sided battle. For the wargame, then, our main concern is to find some ways of evening up the odds. Fortunately there are a few variables that we can play with.

1. Edobech’s limitanei. Olympiodorus implies that the rush of Edobech’s army was something to be resisted. I am probably reading too much into this but let us assume that the northerners had some sort of advantage in the charge. Now, the famous francisca throwing axe appears to originate in northern Gaul (its associations with the Franks come later, and it is always more common inside Gaul than east of the Rhine) and I have suggested that it originated as a cheap and easily produced weapon for the Roman troops in the region. We might therefore give the relieving force’s infantry some sort of bonus for its ‘heavy throwing weapons’. In WAB this can be very effective. In DBM terms, making the bulk of Constantius’ front line Auxilia (S) (as auxilia palatina) and Edobech’s a mix of Blades (O) and (I) ought to have about the right effect.

2. Wulfila’s ambush. Most rule sets have provision for ambushes and their discovery. There are two variables here. One is the possibility that Edobech discovers the ambush in advance. In the simplest option Constantius’ army should be deployed first but with the ambushers left off table. Edobech then throw dice to decide whether Edobech spots the ambush force. He can be told that the dice is just to receive more information about Constantius’ army. If he spots the ambush then Wulfila’s force is deployed and Edobech deploys in the knowledge of their existence; otherwise Edobech deploys his army without knowing of Wulfila’s presence. Alternatively you can throw the dice each move until Wulfila launches his attack (again, presenting the dice as in order to ‘find something out’). One option that might give the game more spice is for only the Edobech player to know whether he has spotted the ambush. To do this, Edobech chooses a number from 1 to 6 and writes it on a piece of paper, which is then placed face down at the edge of the table in both players’ sight. He is told (in advance, but after his deployment) that if that number is thrown by Constantius at the start of a move, he may respond to the presence of ‘some enemy troops’ or ‘something going on’ (something suitably vague) in the ambush area. Constantius then throws 1 D6 every move, announces the result and records it on a piece of paper. Even if detected Wulfila’s troops are not deployed until they are visible to Edobech’s men. Edobech can then thus start to respond to this information but he does not know the size or composition of Wulfila’s force – it could, for all he knows, just be a force of skirmishing light infantry… Nevertheless he can respond, or probe the area in subtle ways so that Constantius does not immediately realise that his plan has been spotted. The minimal ‘paperwork’ will allow the players to see when he spotted the ambush. The other variable is that, for some reason or other, Wulfila does not launch his ambush when Constantius gives the signal (he doesn’t see the signal; a messenger is killed by a stray arrow or spear; etc.). I would suggest that when Constantius wishes to launch his ambush he throws 1 D6. A 5 or 6 means the attack is launched successfully. If not, he throws again the next move but the necessary score is reduced by one (so a 4, 5 or 6 will launch the attack). If he fails again, a score of 3, 4, 5 or 6 will launch the ambush in the next move. And so on. This may mean (in conjunction with the bonus given to their charge by heavy throwing weapons) that Edobech is, with luck, able to break the legitimist line before Wulfila charges.

3. Treachery. A significant portion of Constantius’ army had until recently been fighting for Gerontius and, not long before that, Constantine ‘III’. They were clearly not above changing sides. As I mentioned earlier, legitimists always tended to have a prior claim on the loyalty of Roman troops, but if the battle was not going well, perhaps Gerontius’ old units might remember their former comradeship with Edobech’s and their loyalty to Constantine, and change sides. There are two ways, I suggest, of representing this possibility. One is to say that if Constantius’ army has not won the battle (or is not clearly winning, having broken or destroyed some enemy units to none of its own, or disorganised an enemy command – your rules should provide some way of giving a non-controversial means of judging this) within a certain number of moves (say, two-thirds of the usual number of moves in your set), then any of Gerontius’ former troops in contact (or shooting at/being shot at by) with Edobech’s will change sides. The other means would be to make any of Gerontius’ former troops who are beaten or driven back by Edobech’s (or who flee and then rally, in WAB) change sides. This should give Constantius’ pause for thought in how to deploy or use these units.

4. A sally from Arles. Another possibility is to allow Constantine ‘III’, who seems to have given up all hope and lost his ability to think or act decisively by this stage, to stir himself and launch a sally from Arles into the rear of Constantius’ army. The simplest means of doing this would be to throw a dice at the start of each move with a 6 meaning that Constantine’s sally appears in the rear of Constantius’ army. Constantine’s force should have the same effect on the former troops of Gerontius as Edobech’s, making them change sides if driven back. You can, alternatively, use the possibility of a sally to even up the sides, on the grounds that Constantius has despatched a force to guard against any such sally.

You will need to ponder how, and in which combination, you represent these variables. Using them all might stack things too heavily against Constantius. Forces: I’ve described how I see the troops so you can convert these into your preferred rules, rather than using a single prescriptive rules-based set of definitions. Because some rules work in terms of units and others in terms of elements, I’ve used proportions, which can be transferred to either. I’ve never played Armati so I’ve had to guess at general definitions from the rule book; troop types refer to the Late Roman (Western), 400-493 army on page ‘O’ of the lists.. In no case is this gospel, so feel free to play about with these suggestions as you see fit.

1. Constantius’ army

Constantius’ force contained two principal elements: the force he brought with him from Italy and the besieging army that deserted to him from Gerontius. It is possible that the cavalry of the former were commanded by Wulfila. Wulfila was likely a foederatus and so, therefore, might have been some of the cavalry. I have gone with these possibilities but you can, as with all of these suggestions, modify them as you see fit. There is, ultimately, little or no hard evidence to go on. As hinted at above, to give Edobech’s infantry a sort of advantage in the charge, I have largely made the legitimist infantry spearmen with some archers and light infantry in support (see last month for discussion of this). The ex-Gerontius troops can include some troops with similar capabilities to Edobech’s but, while these might be able to oppose the latter, if they are pushed back they might change sides.

Overall, the army is made up of 60% infantry and 40% cavalry.

The Army of Italy (four fifths of the cavalry; half of the infantry)

For unit names and shield patterns, see http://www.ne.jp/asahi/luke/ueda-sarson/MagisterItalia.html which helpfully suggests (although in sometimes idiosyncratic Latin) the type that each unit is, such as auxilia palatina. Cavalry (mostly under Wulfila in ambush but some on Constantius remaining flank)

Made up as:

2/5 Foederati: The cutting edge. Good regular troops. Equipped with spear and shield. Wearing helmets and at least some should be armoured too. As Scholae in the WAB Fall of the West supplement. Reg. Cav (O) in DBM terms, probably. Armati Bucellarii HC. If you are starting to hanker after olde worlde definitions, how about ‘Regular B’, HC or MC, spear, sword and shield? N.b.: These don’t appear in the Notitia.

2/5 Equites: Good old Roman regular units. Helmets and armour, spear, sword and shield. Reg Cav (O) in DBM terms? ‘Roman shock cavalry’ in Fall of the West. Armati HC ‘Equites Palatina’(sic). ‘Regular C’ HC, spear, sword and shield. 1/5 Light Horse. Regular light cavalry, like mauri and illyricani. Unarmoured except for helmets, perhaps; javelins, sword and shield. Armati LC ‘Illyricani Palatina’ (sic). ‘Regular B’ or C, LC, javelins, sword and shield.

Infantry:

I have made Constantius’ infantry an expeditionary force of auxilia palatina from the Italian army with some supporting archers and light troops.

3/5 Auxilia Palatina. Veterans. Spearmen in mail or lamellar body armour with helmets. Reg Ax (S). As outlined in Part 3 you might want to redefine these as Reg. Spear (S) if you prefer. In WAB Fall of the West, they should be ‘Palantina’ (sic: should of course be Palatina, and ‘palatine’ rather than ‘palantine’ in the description) but replace the throwing spear with a thrusting spear (or javelins if you prefer but, for the purposes of this game, not both). Armati LHI ‘Bucellarii or Aux’. ‘Regular B’ HI (or LHI), spear, sword and shield.

1/5 supporting archers. Average quality regular archers. Reg Ps (O). Either Sagittarii in Fall of the West, or added to the back of the units of auxilia palatina (in which case they have to drop to ¼, as per the rules – use the left-over for light infantry). Armati SI ‘Auxilia’. ‘Regular B’ LI or LMI, Bow, sword and shield.

1/5 light infantry. Reg. Ps. (S). In Fall of the West these will have to be Roman pedites (not pedes: that is the singular form) who take the option to skirmish. Armati LI ‘Auxilia’. ‘Regular C’ LI, javelins or darts, sword and shield.

The former army of Gerontius (half of the infantry; 1/5 of the cavalry)

These are a motley mix of ex-British garrison, troops stationed in Gaul and some Spanish units. Some have the same characteristics as Edobech’s northerners; others I assume have replaced such weapons with spears, or simply had to take in recruits untrained in the use of the old throwing weapons. For unit names and shield designs, see http://www.ne.jp/asahi/luke/ueda-sarson/MagisterGalliarum.html.

Cavalry

Equites: As above.

Infantry 1/5 Auxilia Palatina. As defined above

1/5 Good legions. Hard-bitten regulars who have campaigned across the West for the past four years. Helmets and leather or better armour, armed with swords, shields, and an array of heavy throwing weapons (pila, franciscae, plumbata). Reg. Bd (O). In Fall of the West, Roman Pedites with heavy throwing spear and darts. You can take the ¼ archers option if you want. Armati FT (Pedes [sic]). ‘Regular B’ HI or MI, Heavy Throwing Weapon, sword, shield.

2/5 Other units. These are units of various types who have suffered losses and made them up as and where they could. As a result they have lost much specialist training and equipment. Experienced troops in helmets and leather or no armour. Spear, sword and shield. Reg Sp (O). Fall of the West Pedites but with thrusting spear instead of throwing. No archer option. In Armati I’d use the FT Skutatoi from the early Byzantine list but leave out the bows. ‘Regular C’ (maybe some ‘Regular D’), spear, sword and shield. 1/5 Light infantry. As above.

2. Edobech’s army (25% cavalry; 75% infantry)

For names and shield designs, see http://www.ne.jp/asahi/luke/ueda-sarson/MagisterGalliarum.html but stick to non-palatine or comitatensian units. I’ve given Edobech a small contingent of allied Franks, as he had been on a mission to recruit such and as the Franks had proved loyal in 406. Mostly, though it is just for colour!

Cavalry

3/5 Equites. As above, but perhaps the morale of most should be downgraded slightly to, say, Reg Cav (I) or with a point docked from leadership in WAB. ‘Regular C or D’.

1/5 Light horse. As above.

1/5 Frankish allies. Decent irregular horse with helmets, some armour, spears, swords and shields. Irr. Kn (F) or Irr Cav (O) – take your pick. WAB Fall of the West ‘Barbarian Shock cavalry’. Armati HC Foederati (German [ugh!]). ‘Irregular B’ HC or MC, spear, sword, shield.

Infantry

3/5 Decent limitanei: As for Edobech’s ‘good legions’. Reg Bd (O) in DBM terms. Otherwise probably slightly worse, maybe deducting a leadership point (mostly Ld 6 in WAB), and with less armour. ‘Regular C’ rather than B. Most MI rather than HI

1/5 Other limitanei. Inexperienced in battle or unenthusiastic but with effective weaponry. As Edobech’s good legions but rather weaker in morale terms. Reg Bd (I). WAB Pedites but knock their leadership down to 5 (low, but the preponderance of deadly heavy throwing spears needs to be compensated for). Armati Pedites FT but with a suitable deduction in quality. ‘Regular D’ MI, Heavy throwing weapons, sword, shield (the return of the WRG 5th edition late Roman legionary: hurrah!).

1/5 Frankish allies. Irregular troops in helmets alone or no armour (maybe the odd armoured figure here and there), with spears, swords and shields. The Franks certainly had the francisca by the middle decades of the 5th century and might have been so equipped after Stilicho’s treaties with them in the 390s but I’m plumping for a more fourth-century appearance at this stage – you can give them some heavy throwing weapons instead if you want. Irr Wb (O) [or (S) if you give them the franciscae]. WAB Fall of the West barbarian warriors, without the heavy throwing spears (although, see above – under WAB, though, the advantages of the heavy throwing spear are such that giving all of Edobech’s army such weapons would probably unbalance the game).

1/10 supporting archers. As for Constantius’ army but with the usual lowering of morale value, though in DBM I think they have to stay at (O).

1/10 light infantry. As for Constantius’ army but with the usual lowering of morale value. DBM Reg Ps (O). The garrison of Arles (if you use the ‘sally’ option) I have assumed, out of pure romanticism, that the last unit to stay with Constantine ‘III’ was the old II Augusta from Richborough (the Secundani Britones in the Notitia). They should be classified the same as the ‘good legions’ in the ex-Gerontius force.

Aftermath

Defeated, Edobech fled to the estate of a friend of his called Ecdicius, who murdered him in the hope of gaining favour. Constantius, however, sent Ecdicius away with a flea in his ear. In the aftermath of Constantius’ victory, the gates of Arles were thrown open and Constantine ‘III’ and his son Julian, who had taken the precaution of getting themselves tonsured to try and ward off execution, were captured. In Renatus’ account it is the approach of Jovinus’ army of barbarians that leads to this surrender. Perhaps Constantine had reasons to fear Jovinus. Constantius and his troops must have suffered significantly in the fight as this time the counsel in favour of a return to Italy prevailed. The army crossed back over the Alps, leaving Jovinus to rule most of Gaul (although the south coast actually seems to have remained loyal to Honorius) for a year or two. Indeed, Jovinus struck coins to celebrate his ‘victory’ over Constantius. Once back in Italy, Constantius had Constantine ‘III’ and Julian beheaded and sent their heads to be exhibited in Ravenna, tonsured or no. The main result of Constantine’s wars between 407 and 411 had been the further destruction of the western Roman army. A string of battles culminating in the butchery of the Gallic limitanei at Arles had only added to the huge losses suffered between 388 and 394 discussed in Part 2 and of course a large swathe of the surviving elements of the old British and Gallic field armies (those which had followed Gerontius) marched off back to Italy with Constantius, reducing the defence of the north-western provinces yet further.

 

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