Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BCE

The closer one looks at Caesar's great victory over Pompey and the Optimates ('Best Men'), the more the combination of skill, daring, troop superiority and, of course, 'the imponderable' comes to light. It's certainly a huge challenge for the Caesareans to repeat history on the wargaming table.

We based our scenario for the battle largely on Caesar's account complimented by interpretations from a few modern military histories of Rome, such as Goldsworthy's In the Name of Rome and two published by Osprey (written by Jane Penrose and Kate Gulliver & colleagues)—see list at the end of this post. Added to these were the ready-made wargames scenarios from Simon McDowall's and Paul 'Caliban' 's website/blog. Being guided chiefly by Caesar, we did not include all of the 'auxiliary' troops that these gents include in their scenarios.

The result of all of this was orders of battle that gave odds of around 1.5:1 in favour of the Optimates. The difference in numbers is clearly evident in this photo of the battlefield at game's start.
Populares (Caesareans) on the left, Optimates (Pompeians) on the right, River Enipeus in the distance. Note Man's Best Friend, Miff, advising the 'Best Men'–an omen?!

Looking along the lines of the Optimates, from their right to left:

In terms of Impetus points the Populares had 863 points against 582 for Caesar's army. Caesar's boys were generally better; half of his legions VBU 6 c.f. all Pompey's 5. The Xth, represented by three bases, were rated as élite with A class discipline. The Caesareans also had a better command structure. One over-sight was that we should have made Caesar the commander of the right of the army so that his better command rating (Expert c.f. Fair for Pompey) came into play. 

As this was set-up as an historic re-fight, we did not do any balancing or introduce victory points/conditions that could make a 'loss' a 'win'. It was simply a case of breaking the other side to win.

Unexpectedly prior to the game, it ended up also being a play-test (for us) of Advanced Impetus version 1.7 September 2015. We did not realise that Dadi and Piombo had produced this update until Mark H. made us aware of it. This is an updated compilation of amendments and clarifications that appear in various places (such as the army lists and website), but also contains some 'new' rules, a development that raised our eyebrows. More on that later...

Ah! Our Sage had read the entrails of that goat correctly; Mark H Sulla Jr. rolls an 11 for the first initiative.

This early conclusion was reinforced when the first unit of Labienius' (Julian's) Gallic cavalry managed only  a 1 for it's combat die followed by a big, fat 6 for the cohesion test!
Putting the early results of the cavalry mêlée in favour of Caesar's men.

Marcus Antonius Pescatore (yours truly) foolishly sent his slingers too close to the Optimates' lines and suffered accordingly–a revision of our interpretation as to when the disordered loss occurs resulted in "they had gone, no they hadn't, yes they had, no they had not!).

View of the left from the Caesarean's point of view (the on again/off again slingers are missing from the photo, but they did come back again, albeit briefly##).

In the centre, the lines were approaching one another, slowly and steadily,

... while the cavalry mêlée developed on the Caesareans' left.

'Labienius' was cock-a-hoop with four sixes amongst his hit dice, which 'Sulla Jr.' calmly parried with a one!

They did not survive the second round of mêlée, however!

##The on again/off again slingers did not last long. Three sixes for hits were parried by a one, but the disorder loss got 'em! 

Views down the length of the battlefield, looking towards the River Enipeus (i.e. from the Caesarean right).

Followed by three views from the Optimates' side, from their left to right.

Finally two shots from end river side of the battlefield.

The reading of the entrails was holding up: Afranius (Biko) rolls a double one, reducing him from 'average' to 'poor'.

No matter, compounding his poor handling of the slingers, Marcus Antonius Pescatore advanced his legion only far enough to displace Afranius' skirmishers and exposing them to a charge from Afranius' legionaries.

The Populares' main line edged forward, slowly...

while the cavalry combat broke into individual mêlées.

A cricket-style view: "down the wicket from the River End"

The numbers were beginning to tell in the cavalry mêlée; not to mention the rolling of a six for cohesion tests. Mark Sulla Jr. seemed to become a bit fix'ed on this tactic as the game wore on!

Finally, the legions clashed!

In the centre...

and on the (Caesarean) left.

In these first encounters, it was fairly even in the centre, but the Optimates' got the better of the left.

The mêlées continued in the centre, the Xth being pushed back!

Over on the river side (Caesarean's far left) Marcus Antonius' final unit hung on tenaciously.

To their right David Calvinus' troops were in a struggle against the combined forces of Biko Afranius and Wilko Scipio.

Quality began to show as the Xth broke through Marc W Ahenobarbus' first line.

They were now well and truly worn though, as evidenced by all those markers.

Time for some serious aggression. David Calvinus' legions made some good headway on the Caesarean centre-left.

Taking stock of the overall situation: llooking from the Pompeian side of the battlefield, from their left to right, then the view from the River End.

The Caesarean cavalry now a spent force, it was up to the reserve legions (the attack by whom was decisive in the actual battle) to face-off Julius Labienius' horsemen. Which they did pretty well.

A counter-attack by Marc W Ahenobarbus' second line put paid to the weakened Xth legion and with it the Caesarean centre-right!

Could a miraculous win be achieved from a seemingly inevitable loss for Caesar's men?

David Calvinus' legions did their best with bold counter-attacks.

Even Marcus Antonius Pescatore's last unit joined in!

These local successes, while increasing the Pompeian losses, were not sufficient to turn the tables.

This was yet another most enjoyable and interesting game. It was great to have seven players, all enjoying a fine wargame, the banter and trying to win for their side. Losses in victory points were about equal 36 vs 35, but our break point was 29 and theirs 51. clear victory to the 'Best Men'—we Caesareans had to be content with second place!

The imbalance in numbers was a major hurdle to overcome, but the Caesareans could have won. We needed to be more aggressive. Even though we said that we needed to do that we were too circumspect and concerned with advancing in a contiguous line. Silly. Gotta use that advantage in quality and discipline to do multiple moves and get stuck in! I think that perhaps we allowed those massed cavalry on the Optimates’ left to worry us too much too. We'll have to fight it again sometime to see...

Of course, luck is also needed. Caesar had/made plenty of that in the real thing. We could have included a few ‘rolls of destiny’ (re-rolls) to weight the odds a bit. We've not yet tried them in Impetus. I’m not overly keen on them in general, but the version in Impetus does seem pretty reasonable.

You'll find a 'players' view of the game at Mark's excellent one-eyed..., I mean one-sided miniatures discourse (!) blog:

Dadi & Piombo—Messing With Something Good?

We have enjoyed using the Impetus rules since Mark W. first introduced them to us back in mid-2013. To their credit, Dadi & Piombo ('Dice & Lead') have made the rules freely available courtesy of their 'Basic Impetus' rules and they also have army lists that are available to download as pdfs. We, and I'd expect many/most players have taken the 'plunge' and purchased the full set of rules and, between us, the five volumes of 'Extra Impetus' which contain more detailed army lists, scenarios and rule amendments and clarifications. These latter have been summarise in releases of 'Advanced Impetus', again freely available from their website.

As I mentioned above, this game was the first time that we had used the September 2015 version of the 'Advanced Impetus' amendments. In addition to compiling the amendments, this version introduces some new rules. We'll have to play them more than once, but, at first sight/playing, we are not overly keen on many/most of the changes.
1. The discipline test for skirmishers to evade. How often do recorded accounts indicate that as a 'unit' skirmishers were over-run? Yes, the odds are slim (die roll of 1 or 2 only, depending on discipline). If failure is uncommon, then it seems even more reason not to have it. Why add a test that is near-meaningless? 
2. Supported flanks. This seems okay at first, but not as a cumulative bonus in addition to a supporting unit. 
3. Better class. This does not occur too often, but smacks of the double-bonus (penalty) that we saw (and disliked intensely) in Le Feu Sacré. Given that better class troops generally have a higher VBU, why also give them another plus one die? It could perhaps, be better included in the discipline test—if it were to be included at all (but then I 'spose it already is, isn't it...?!) 
4. More weight given to additional factors than the quality of the troops. On a couple of occasions the net effect of flank support and better quality mentioned above meant that a unit received many more dice. For example, a unit that would have rolled one die got four! This seems to be a disproportionate weighting of 'other' factors over base fighting ability and so seems problematic.

As I said, we'll have to play using these changes a few more times before we pass final judgement. I'll be interested to get a copy of Impetus 2 when it comes out to see what is in and what is not. If, as we most fear, Dadi and Piombo have messed with something good, then we can see ourselves going for a 'house' version, beginning with the original and taking only those bits of the second version that we like.

We shall see.

Our next

Remaining with our present ancients and specifically Caesarean theme, for our next game we are planning a re-fight of the contested Roman landing in Britain that was Caesar's poorly-planned and troubled first invasion. Mark is putting together the scenario for that one.

Caesar, GJ (1928) Caesar: The Civil Wars. Translated by AG Peskett. First Published 1914. William Heinemann, London. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Caliban (2016) Scenarios: 250-0 BCE, Pharsalus, 48 BCE on Caliban-somewhen

Gilliver, K, Whitby, M and Goldsworthy, A (2005) Rome at War: Caesar and his legacy. Essential Histories Specials 6 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England. 288 pp. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Goldsworthy, A (2004) In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. Phoenix Press, Location: Fisher collection, York.

MacDowall, S (2016) Pharsalus 48 BC on Legio Wargames.

Penrose, J (2005) Rome and her Enemies: An Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England. 304 pp. Location: Fisher collection, York.

Reilly, C and Harris R (2015) Life Of Caesar #33 – The Battle Of Pharsalus. Life of Caesar Podcast


  1. Enjoyed the report, Gaius Pescatore!

    1. Thanks Peter, pleased that there was something there for you.

  2. Valde nice Pharsalus proelio...Bene factum!

  3. Good report James! Ah yes if I'd attacked with those legions one turn earlier we would have had a better show of it! Still a wonderful days gaming with lovely figures, historical set up and good company!

    1. Cheers David. It was great to have you along and hopefully not too long until you join us again.
      I reckon that the errors in election were spread pretty evenly across we Caesareans. We'll see if we can do better another time!

  4. Excellent BatRep, James! SoAs has Phasalus as their Game Day centerpiece this year. Your battles encourages me to get cracking on giving it a go.

    1. *That* is an excellent result then! If you are for Caesar I hope that you fair better than we did!