In AD9, the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus was treacherously ambushed in the Teutobergian Forest by the German chief Arminius.  Varus’ three legions were annihilated:  a disaster of such epic proportions that their numbers (XVII, XVIII and XIX) were never used again.

Fast forward seven years, and the Romans were back:  this time with Germanicus Caesar at their head. 

Named for his father’s successes against the Germans; Germanicus was the nephew, adopted son and next in line to the throne of the Emperor Tiberius.  He was also the governor of two German provinces and had already achieved some success against Arminius in earlier campaigns.  Now he was campaigning not only to demonstrate Rome’s power to the ever-restless Germans, but also to keep his troops occupied at a time when they were almost in a state of open revolt over issues of pay and conditions.

The "Unleash Hell!" game from Salute 2003

In the spring of AD16, Germanicus therefore loaded his men onto ships and sailed down the Rhine, through the canals that had been engineered by his father, to the mouth of the River Ems.  The Legions then disembarked and headed upstream into German territory.  After a slight delay for bridge building and to dispatch a small force to put down a rebellion in his rear, Germanicus’ force faced the Germans across the river Weser. 

There, so the story goes, Arminius came forward and asked under flag of truce to speak to his brother, Flavus, who served with the Romans. 

Seeing that his brother had lost an eye to a terrible face wound, Arminius (who had also been a Roman auxilia officer as a young man) asked where Flavus had received such an injury and what rewards he’d received for his bravery and many years of loyal service.  Flavus told him that he had had a pay rise, and had received various symbolic rewards for his courage:  the Roman equivalent of medals for gallantry. 

Arminius apparently jeered at these ‘paltry’ rewards and a massive argument broke out between the two brothers:  one proclaiming the glory and magnanimity that was Rome, the other in favour of remaining loyal to his German fatherland, gods, mother, people etc.  The brothers were separated before actual fighting broke out, so ending a glorious opportunity for the ancient commentator, Tacitus, to state both sides of the political situation of the moment!

The next day saw a limited attack by the Roman cavalry across the river, which was beaten off with some loss to the Romans when the Germans feigned a retreat and successfully drew the horsemen into an ambush.

Germanicus than crossed the river in strength and set up a fortified camp on the same side of the river as the German host.  Warned by deserters and his scouts, a German surprise attack was thwarted before it even began:  with the Teutons deciding not to press home their charge when they saw the legionaries drawn up in fighting order behind their entrenchments.

Both sides then engaged in the ancient equivalent of “Psych Op’s”. 

The Germans offered a bribe of 100 sesterces, a wife and some land to any Roman soldier, legionary or auxiliary, who deserted and joined their fight for liberation from the Roman yoke.  Arminius also gave a speech in which he described Germanicus’ men as fugitives from Varus’ defeat with “wounds on their backs” etc.

Germanicus, on the other hand, reassured himself of his men’s loyalty by walking through the Roman camp in disguise listening to all the nice things his men had to say about him (Tacitus doesn’t state how good Germanicus’ disguise was) and then gave them a rousing speech in which he revealed that he had had a dream full of good omens, that the auspices were most favourable for a Roman victory in battle, and that eight eagles (co-incidentally one for each legion present) had been seen flying into the woods:  an event also full of positive significance.

Both generals then led their men down into Idistaviso plain.

Initial Deployment

Idistaviso (literally “the valley of the maidens”) was fought across heights dominating an area of open ground bordered by a bend in the River Weser and a forest.

The Romans were drawn up in three lines, with their cavalry on their left, forest-side flank.  The first line consisted of auxiliaries supported by light troops.  The second comprised four legions and Germanicus’ Praetorians.  The third consisted of more auxiliaries and elements of the other four legions that Germanicus had at his disposal.

The Germans formed a great arc across the heights, with their left flank just about on the river and their right flank extending into the forest.  Arminius’ own tribe, the Cherusci, held the centre of the German line.

The Battle

The battle was actually a comparatively simple affair.

Provoked by a Roman advance, the German line charged forward.  Sheer Cherusci ferocity almost broke the first Roman line in the centre, but the auxiliaries held and broke the rampaging tribesmen on either wing.

As the German left wing fled away from the river for the perceived safety of the woods they were met by the German right wing fleeing the other way.  Behind them were the ranks of Roman cavalry crashing through the German flank.

With their wings collapsed, the Cherusci in the centre also gave way, and a general rout ensued.  Many Germans were shot whilst attempting to swim across the river.  Those that made the forest and hid up trees were either shot down for sport or killed when the trees they were in were felled by Roman axes.  Arminius only escaped by smearing his face with blood so that he would not be recognised and fighting his way to safety.

Varus was avenged.

Wargaming Idistaviso

I have included army sheets for Vis Bellica for both the Germans and the Romans with each side shrunk by some 80% to allow for a good evening’s game.

Download the army sheets by clicking on the army names, below:

The Romans

The Germans

Start Positions

To accurately re-fight Idistaviso, each side should start as shown on the accompanying map and on their army sheets 

Note, however, that the shrunk down forces mean that the distance between the river and the forest, i.e. the width of the open part of the battlefield, should be no more than 50” at its widest point (where 1”=1cm at 15mm or 1”=1 inch at 25/28mm).  This should give a distinctly different feel to the game than most made-up encounter battles, which tend to consist of long, thin lines as opposed to the deep formation the Romans adopted here.

Terrain and Special Rules

Some historical commentators state that the forest was fairly clear of undergrowth, so could technically count as Woods-Rough terrain.  However, to give the Germans even a chance of winning against a very superior force, the forest should be counted as Woods-Difficult terrain.

The heights should count as Rough terrain.  The River Weser should be 10” wide and count as Impassable terrain, with Open terrain on the other side.

Due to the scaling down of each side’s force, the Roman Praetorian base now represents a detachment of Praetorians only.  This is why it has a much smaller Strength than normal.

Again to give the Germans a fighting chance, although both sides should have the defeat condition “All Gone”, the Romans should also have the defeat condition “Big Man Down” on Germanicus.

Final Note

The opening battle sequence from Ridley Scott’s epic movie Gladiator provided the inspiration for the giant “Unleash Hell!” demonstration game that the chaps from the Wargames Journal and I put on at Salute 2003.  Almost 1,000 28mm figures fought their way across some fantastic terrain using my own Vis Bellica rules.

As we were planning the game, the Editor asked whether Scott had based Maximus’ victory on a historical battle.  After some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that if it was based on any battle from the period, it was based on Idistaviso:  if only because both battles are won largely by a Roman cavalry charge from the flank through woods!

You can see photographs of the game elsewhere in the Wargames Journal, but here are the army sheets for Vis Bellica for our “Unleash Hell!” game.  Note, however, that both sides “grew” some extra figures on the day:  hence the reason you’ll see an awful lot more Roman cavalry than you might expect!  I wonder which side the Editor was playing…?

"Unleash Hell!" Army Sheet Downloads:

The Romans

The Germans

Robert Avery

This article reproduced from Wargames Journal (issue dated June 2003)