The fourth century AD was a time of almost continual crisis for the Roman Empire, with enemies pushing at every border.
The Emperor, Constantius, recognised that the situation was too much for one man to handle, and so appointed Julian, his cousin and only remaining male descendant of Constantine the Great, as commander in the West.
Julian was a scholar with a bent for war, which was quite fortunate as at that time Gaul was overrun with bands of roving Germanic barbarians held at bay only by the strong walls of various fortified towns and cities.
Leaving Vienna with a comparatively small force, Julian fought his way through Gaul until he had pacified all the Roman territory south of the Rhine. His tactics were to fight only when he was sure of winning, avoiding the larger groups of Germans until his steadily-growing army was large enough to deal with them.
With Gaul now safe, Constantius decided that now was the time to deter the Alamanni from future raids by launching a two-pronged punitive strike into German territory itself. His newly appointed magister peditum, Barbatio, would attack with 25,000 troops from Southern Gaul; Julian would attack with his 13,000 troops from Northern Gaul.
Julian's first thrust was very successful: the barbarians were caught napping on a series of islands in the centre of the Rhine and largely slaughtered, with the Romans able to re-stock from the Alamanni's own supply train and fields.
Barbatio, however, was not doing so well. Surprised with the speed of a German advance against him, he was forced to retreat back to his winter quarters: leaving Julian isolated north of the Rhine.
Julian's small force proved too much of a temptation for the Alamanni commanders to resist. Chnodomar, one of their Kings, led a force of some 35,000 tribesmen against him where he was camped near Argentoratum, modern day Strasbourg.
Confident of victory, the Germans first sent envoys to Julian, demanding he retreat from their territory. Julian held on to the envoys until he had finished the construction of a fortified camp, then released them and advanced to do battle.
The Roman army set out at dawn, and marched some 21 miles forward on a hot August morning to where the Alamanni were arrayed. Julian wanted to wait until his men had had a chance to rest, but his general's were keen to do battle. Persuaded to fight, Julian began advancing his men down from a hill towards the German lines.
The Germans were deployed in a line with their right flank anchored on some difficult terrain: either a wood or an area of marshy ground. Within this, they had constructed some sort of ambush, with some translations even stating that they had men hidden in trenches.
Whatever form this trap took, Julian didn't fall for it. His battle-line stopped well clear of whatever it was, and deployed for action.
Julian's left wing comprised a line of auxiliary infantry backed by legionaries. His right was fronted by the clibanarii extraheavy horse, backed up by his veteran auxiliaries and his elite Palatine troops, with its open end protected by light horse.
The Germans were massed in a long line with, according to the commentaries, their noble cavalry deployed on foot to bolster the morale of the great mass of tribal levy.
As the battle began, the Germans launched a fierce charge at the centre of the Roman line. In almost the first clash, the Roman clibanarii commander was killed, with the Roman cavalry falling back in panic and disorder as a result.
The Roman veteran auxilia, the Batavii and Regii, charged into the gap caused by the cavalry's retreat, holding the Roman line. The retreating clibanarii were prevented from leaving the field by the Palatine legion, then rallied by Julian himself and hurled back into the fray.
Meanwhile the Roman left was slowly pushing forward, but such was the pressure on the Roman line that a group of German nobles burst through the centre. Now was the moment of decision: quickly the Palatine legion, now clear of panicked cavalry, charged the triumphant Alamanni and re-established the Roman battle-line.
Now the superlative Roman mincing machine came into action. Grinding forward, the Romans slowly but surely drove the Germans back. The enemy line bowed then broke, with slaughter ensuing as the Romans took full advantage of their victory.
Chnodomar was captured and lost over 6,000 men. Only some 250 Romans have lost their lives. It was the high point of Julian's military career.
Julian's force was about 13,000 strong. Exact numbers and designations are difficult to deduce, but the list below is probably about right:
- 1,500 elite legionaries (possibly the Primani legion, or elite guard units such as the Scutarii, Armaturae and Gentiles).
- 2,500 veteran auxilia (four cohorts: the Cornuti, Bracchiatii, Batavi, and Regii).
- 3,000 average legionaries (possibly the Joviani, Heculani and Celtae legions, and perhaos also the Primani, if the elites were the guard units mentioned above).
- 3,000 other auxilia (six cohorts, including the Petulantes, Heruli and Sagitarii light bowmen).
- 600 cataphract cavalry.
- 2,500 or so light cavalry, some of which were horse archers.
Chnodomar could field a force of some 32,000 foot, the majority of which would have been poor quality tribal levy. There would also have been noble cavalry (around 2-3,000) either dismounted or with light infantry skirmishers mixed in.
Wargaming Argentoratum Using Vis Bellica
Wargaming Argentoratum at correct ground scale is possible, and gives a large battle with the Romans fielding about 750 points and the Germans about 1,500. You can click through to full army rosters for the full-size battle below:
Below, however, you will find OB for both sides scaled down to 500 points a side. This no longer represents a historically proportionate battle, but does provide a good evening's game. The numbers given are the number of bases of each troop type from the appropriate Book 2 Army List.
- Leader 1: 2 x Elite Legionaries, 2 x Veteran Auxilia
- Leader 2: 2 x Cataphracts, 2 x Light Cavalry
- Leader 3: 2 x Legionaries
- Leader 4: 3 x Auxilia
- Leader 5: 2 x Auxiliary Bow, 1 x Light Artillery
- 2 False Leader Bases
Defeat Conditions: Big Man Down on the SubGeneral (Julian)
- Leader 1: 2 x Noble Cavalry
- Leader 2: 2 x Veteran Warriors
- Leader 3: 4 x Warriors
- Leader 4: 5 x Tribal levy (OO Levy MI)
- Leader 5: 5 x Tribal levy (OO Levy MI)
- 2 False Leader Bases
Defeat Conditions: All Gone (18 bases)
You can download the army sheets here:
Setting Up The Full Game
For start positions, see Map 1.
The Romans lined up with a front line consisting of, from left to right, five cohorts of auxilia, two cohorts of veteran auxilia (the Cornuti and Bracchiatii), the cataphracts, and most of the light horse. Behind them was another line consisting of, again from left to right, one cohort of auxilia, the normal legions, the elite legion, two cohorts of veteran auxilia (the Batavi and Regii), and the rest of the light cavalry.
The Germans should form a rough line opposite the Romans with Chnodomar commanding the noble dismounted cavalry on their left, and Serapio commanding on their right.
Setting Up the Scaled Down Battle
The Romans can still be deployed historically if using scaled down armies. From left to right, bases should be deployed:
- Front Line: Auxiliary Bow, Auxilia, Auxilia, Cataphracts, Light Cavalry, Light Cavalry.
- Back Line: Auxiliary Bow, Legionaries, Legionaries, Elite Legionaries, Elite Legionaries, Veteran Auxilia, Veteran Auxilia.
- On Hill: Artillery.
Terrain & Special Rules
The Roman base line should be the crest of the low hill which they have just marched down.
Both sides should have one flank (the Roman left, the German right) anchored on thick woods counting as Difficult terrain.
The Germans have some kind of light works running about a quarter of the way up the battlefield from their baseline, on the right.
Ways To re-Fight The Battle
Players can start from the initial positions detailed above and see if their game follows the course of history.
Alternatively they can deploy troops as usual using Leader bases and see if they can do better than their historical counterparts. The Germans would then be allowed to use their light works for an attempted ambush: seeing if they can lure the Romans far enough forward for an assault from the woods on their flank.
Solo wargamers should re-fight the battle from the Roman viewpoint: with the Germans programmed with Attack or Forward orders.
This article first appeared in The Courier magazine #90.