Middle Imperial Romans vs. Sassanid Persians
By Chris Hahn
Oh, to have been in attendance when “Go Meek Into The Desert 260 AD” was played . In addition to playing at war on simple, attractive, and completely transportable terrain populated with excellently-painted and therefore spectacular-looking figures, I would have been in the company of a very august group . Unable to travel back in time (unfortunately) and quite uninterested in simply staging a rerun of the scenario, I decided that I would adapt it for yet another attempt at “mastering” Lorenzo Sartori’s colorful and popular Impetvs, rules for miniature battles in the Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance periods .
Terrain and Troops
The completed landscaping of my six by four-foot tabletop is shown in Map 1. The layout of my fictional battlefield is based on the map provided on page 141 of the Hail Caesar rule book. My playing surface (as depicted in the accompanying photos) is an admittedly poor imitation of the table set up by Dr. Hendry. However, it does have the dual advantages of being very inexpensive, as well as quite functional. It also complements the “figures” that were used. Of course, terrain types and their associated penalties or bonuses vary from rule set to rule set. Hail Caesar and Impetvs are no different in this regard. All of the hills on my tabletop were classed as “gently
sloping,” meaning that they would have no great impact save that of affording troops on higher ground a slight advantage in melee. The several areas of scrub were classed as “broken ground,” meaning that skirmishers, light infantry, and missile troops could move into and through this terrain without any problem. Other unit types would suffer automatic disorder.
The small depression was classed as “difficult ground,” which is more problematic than “broken ground.” The oasis was also classed as “difficult ground” due to the heavier vegetation and presence of a small body of water.
The tower (really the abandoned ruins of a structure over 100 years old) was placed — odd as this may sound — for aesthetic purposes only. It would not qualify as a “built-up area.” It could not be garrisoned by any troops.
In the Hail Caesar scenario, Sassanids and Romans face off over a stretch of desert. I used similar combatants in my version of the scenario, adding an allied contingent
of Armenians to each force. The “figures” used were based on unit or movement stands cut to the dimensions recommended for 15mm scale .
The Middle Imperial Roman army was drafted from page 12 of Extra Impetvs 2, a supplement containing approximately three dozen army lists for three historical periods. The Sassanid Persian host was selected from page 13. Here, in list format, are the number and types of units that were assembled for each side.
Middle Imperial Romans
3 x Equites Alares (medium cavalry)
2 x Illyricianii (light cavalry)
10 x Legionarii
4 x Auxiliares (light infantry)
4 x Sagittarii (skirmishing archers)
2 x Funditores (skirmishing slingers)
Good Command Structure
Point Value: 579
2 x Cavalry
2 x Horse Archers
2 x Archers (formed)
4 x Light Infantry
Good Command Structure
Point Value: 234
TOTAL POINTS: 813
8 x Savaran Cavalry
4 x Savaran Horse Archers
6 x Militia
4 x Archers (formed)
3 x Elephants
Average Command Structure
Point Value: 532
1 x Noble Cavalry
2 x Cavalry
3 x Horse Archers
2 x Skirmishers – Bow
4 x Light Infantry
Average Command Structure
Point Value: 263
TOTAL POINTS: 795
Instead of following the Impetvs rules governing the determination of attacker and defender and how commands deployed, I decided to let the dice
do most of the work. To start off, the deployment of each allied contingent was determined by rolling a 1d6. On a result of 1-3, the Armenians would deploy on the left third of the field. They would deploy on the right third with a roll of 4-6. The majority of friendly cavalry would also have its deployment decided by the roll of a 1d6. For the Romans, this would amount to 3 units of horse. The Sassanids would make the same roll, and then place 7 units of cavalry on their right (1-2), left (5-6), or in the center (3-4).
With regard to the placement of the Persian pachyderms, a 1d6 was rolled three times. The first roll determined left side, right side, or center of the field. The second roll determined if they would be placed in the front line or as reserves. Group formation or a loose line of unit bases separated by 5 centimeters was determined with the third roll. As for the infantry formations of the Romans and Sassanids, the side with the lower score on a 1d6 would have to deploy their foot soldiers first. Opposing units could not deploy closer than 20 centimeters to an imaginary line dividing the tabletop in half lengthwise. There were no encampments placed on the field.
Map 2 shows how each army was arranged for battle.
As the dice would have it, the Armenian contingents of each army deployed facing one another.
Both side also had to set up the majority of their cavalry on this same flank. The Romans covered their legion-heavy center with screen of skirmishers. (The slingers were flanked by unprotected bowmen to either side.) The Roman right flank was held by auxiliaries supported by two units of Equites.
The Sassanid elephants occupied the front line of their left flank. The pachyderms were arranged in packets, not as a single group. Two units of militia would march behind these beasts of war.
The Persian center consisted of two lines. The first was made up of all the bowmen in their army. The second line contained as many militia. A number of cavalry units also occupied this sector.
Two units of horse were deployed at the junction of the left and center. Two units of horse archers, supported by a single unit of medium cavalry, guarded the right flank of the infantry battle lines. The right flank was where the mass and might of the Sassanid host was arranged.
The Armenians deployed with their cavalry on the far right (horse archers supported by nobles and other squadrons) and their infantry formations to their left. Seven units of Sassanid cavalry formed a large third line on this flank. The position of each attached-to-a-unit general is indicated by the asterisk next to the unit type.
Desert Storm, 257 AD
Instead of offering a turn-by-turn description or a similarly detailed account of how my adopted and adapted scenario played itself out, I thought I might try to produce a narrative centered around map “snapshots” of the “miniature” battle at various stages . To that desired end, I have included diagrams of the action showing the status of the tabletop field at certain points in the game. The accompanying narrative is essentially a summary of the play leading up to a specific turn and/or between a specified number of turns.
The battle proper began on the far left of the Roman line, when their Armenian allies drew first blood against their own countrymen in the employ of the Sassanid Persians. Flights of arrows flew back and forth as the opposing bodies of light horse closed with each other. The abandoned tower soon became a focus of the foot elements of each allied contingent as the javelin-armed light infantry wrestled for possession of this tall feature of an otherwise flat and arid landscape.
The Armenians working for the Persians did better in this local battle than their mounted brothers. The horse archers of both sides battered each other and then disengaged as supporting and heavier units of cavalry started moving forward . Only the light cavalry of the Sassanids remained in reserve on this flank. The five units of medium to heavy horse moved off toward the center of the field.
The Romans pushed forward their skirmish screen in the center. The bowmen were soon trading shots and/or evading the attention of Persian light horse. On the right of the line, the Roman archers managed to wound several elephants and then break the unit. The slingers advanced bravely against the massed line of Sassanid bowmen and flicked stones into the ranks while enduring flights of arrows launched in return. The sling stones made a definite impact. The more numerous arrows found their marks, eliminating half of the skirmishers.
On the Roman right, one unit of auxiliary infantry “danced” with the Persian elephants, while the majority were moving forward to relieve the skirmishing archers and threaten the Sassanid cavalry. The two surviving units of pachyderms were slowly making their way around the far side of the depression. Not at all interested in facing the smelly beasts, the Roman Equites steered toward the center of the plain, between the difficult terrain and their main battle line of legionary infantry.
On the Roman right flank, the cavalry and light infantry auxiliaries worked their way toward the center of the field. In doing so, they avoided having to deal with the Sassanid elephants. These lumbering animals went around the far side of the depression and then wheeled in order to follow the faster squadrons of enemy horse. One unfortunate unit of auxiliaries was unable to make its escape, however, and was quickly trampled into the desert ground. By the end of game turn 10, though, bow-armed skirmishers had executed an about face and were bothering the pachyderms from a safe distance.
Perhaps the most decisive action of the battle — at least so far — took place on the Persian right. The advance of their Armenian allies was hotly contested by the Armenian formations in the pay of the Romans. Light infantry, archers, and skirmishers vied for control of the tower hill. The general of the contingent working with the Romans urged his troopers forward and charged the opposing general and his cavalrymen. In a swirling melee, the Armenian commander allied with the Romans was captured. His loss had a significant and negative impact on the morale of his soldiers. In the space of a few moments, all organized resistance on the Roman left flank collapsed . The only troops standing between the victorious Armenians and the Roman legion reserve were two units of light horse and a single unit of Equites. The Illyrian cavalry galloped forward and harassed the enemy light troops but failed to dislodge them from their hard-won ground. A few volleys of javelins decimated and then broke the light cavalry, leaving just one unit of medium horse to face several times its number .
Having doled out some punishment to the dense ranks of foot archers, the Roman slingers withdrew and the main line of legionary infantry advanced. These sturdy veterans were attacked on the right and left ends of their line by Sassanid cavalry. While the enemy horse did cause a degree of disorder in the ranks, not very many heavy infantry fell victim to a cavalryman’s bow, spear, or sword. The Roman line kept up a steady pace; the Roman line kept holding against repeated charges and made the enemy horse pay dearly. When it was their turn, the Persian archers launched several flights of arrows against the advancing line. Very little damage was done . Eventually, the legionary infantry got to grips with the archers and chewed up this first line. In the process of destroying and dispersing the enemy bowmen, the Roman line broke into individual units but still remained highly efficient. To be sure, there were elephants to their right rear and their left flank was, for all intents and purposes, completely vulnerable. The center of the field seemed winnable, however. The Romans had withstood all enemy cavalry charges and the Sassanid foot appeared to be no match for the well-trained infantry of the legions.
During the final two turns of the engagement, the Roman heavy infantry continued to stand firm (if less in number) against repeated charges by Persian horse. Meanwhile, way over on the Sassanid left, the two “lost” units of elephants struggled to come to grips with the skirmishing bowmen of the Roman right. The pachyderms were unable to catch the nimble archers, and were subjected to harassing fire that caused the leading unit to retreat a bit after two of the animals had been brought down with arrows. On the other side of the field, a single unit of Equites faced twice as many units of Armenian medium cavalry and several units of horse archers. Judging the odds to be stacked very much against him, the commander of the Roman unit ordered his men to withdraw. Fortunately, the enemy units were not able to coordinate an effective attack.
The final decision, as might be expected, was reached in the center of the field. While the Roman heavy infantry continued to frustrate the Sassanids (in one melee, the Persian general was captured when his “regiment” charged into the left of the legion line), they could not stand up to the withering fire delivered at close range by the sole surviving unit of archers. Adding injury to injury, a unit of auxiliaries was repulsed and then broken when it tried to attack the left-most unit of militia in the Persian second line. The loss of these two foot units pushed the Romans over the “army morale cliff,” giving the Sassanids a very costly and very narrow victory.
The status of the field at the conclusion of the battle is shown on Map 5.
Even though my scenario was not completely original, I think the idea of adapting “Go Meek Into The Desert 260 AD” was a good one. Stipulating, again, that my approach to terrain and troops will not be acceptable to the vast majority of miniature wargamers, they functioned very well on my comparatively small tabletop. At the risk of repeating myself, I had no problem distinguishing this terrain feature from that terrain feature. I could tell at a glance what troops I was moving, firing, or pushing into melee, and could see if they were disordered or not, if they were fresh, or if they had suffered casualties in combat. With regard to the pre-battle solo mechanics, in general, I think these worked fairly well, though I did have some initial reservations about placing so much cavalry on the side of the battlefield containing terrain not very conducive to the mounted arm. I am considering adopting the deployment guidelines provided in Arty Conliffe’s Armati when I start another ancient wargaming project . As to the wargame itself, I am of mixed emotion and/or opinion, though leaning slightly more toward the positive side of the spectrum. First, I am rather pleased (as it has proved a time consuming process) to be able to draw a line through “play a complete solo wargame using Impetvs rules.” Even with the mistakes and frequent reference to the rule book, as well as more experienced players on the dedicated forum, I enjoyed myself during the two weeks it took to fight the battle. As mentioned in the narrative, it was a “near run thing.” In fact, the Sassanids were one morale point away from having their army break and run from the field. To be perfectly frank, I was tempted to keep fighting the battle even though a victor had been determined by the rules. An inspection of the tabletop after the game had been called revealed five units of fresh legionary infantry and three units of untouched medium cavalry on the Roman side. The Roman commander was still in control. The Sassanid general had been captured when his cavalry unit attacked and then “bounced off” a portion of the legionary line of battle. Then again, the Roman position was not all that good. Elephants were threatening their right rear. What remained of the army’s left flank was about to be overwhelmed by six units of enemy cavalry. I do not believe that the Sassanid militia could have withstood an attack by the Roman infantry. This advance and subsequent involvement would have drawn the legion formations farther into a type of sack, where I imagine they would have been surrounded and peppered with arrows from horse archers and heavier units of enemy horse.
Overall, I had fun playing at war in the desert with Impetvs. I think that the level of realism, always an integral part of the equation, was pretty good. However, this assessment is by no means final. It is simply a current and subjective opinion, one offered by an amateur, not an academic. This initial opinion, of course, is subject to change. My level of “mastery” with the Impetvs rules can only improve (at least I hope it does!) as I continue to play. After four or five more games (perhaps as many as eight or nine), I will be able to present a more informed opinion as to the level of realism afforded while using these colorful, popular, and well-supported rules. It remains to be seen whether this more informed opinion will be of interest to other wargamers interested in the ancient period.
 “Go Meek Into The Desert 260 AD” starts on page 138 of Rick Priestley’s colorful and popular Hail Caesar, and ends on page 143. The full title is: “Go Meek Into The Desert 260 AD: ,A Border Clash Between Romans and Persians.” It is one of seven battle reports contained in the latter half of the coffee table-sized rule book.
 In addition to the author of the rules, Duncan Macfarlane, Henry Hyde, Dr. Phil Hendry, Paul Sawyer, and Colin Speirs were present. These gentleman wargamers took up temporary residence in the “hobby-heaven-on-earth” gaming room of John Stallard. Alessio Cavatore and Guy Bowers arrived late to this Who’s Who in British Wargaming desert “party.”
 My history with Impetvs has been — how shall I phrase this? — embarrassing, frustrating, and to some, probably amusing or perhaps even pathetic. The decision to purchase the rules and a couple of the supplements can be traced back to late 2012, when, searching through an old issue of Slingshot — The Journal Of The Society Of Ancients, I stumbled across Mike Brian’s piece, “Impetus — A Very Brief Review” (Issue 268, January of 2010, pages 268-269). Rather intrigued, I searched the Internet for additional information and was pleased to find a number of sites reviewing, commenting upon, or further explaining the rules. Here are some links for those readers interested in finding out more about Lorenzo Sartori’s rules:
A Mr. Kurtus Brown has taken the time to post a number of tutorials about Impetvs on YouTube. Here is a link to just one of the many episodes he has produced:
Even with international help (I joined the Impetvs Forum in February 2013 and have posted a number of “newbie” questions and/or concerns, all of which have been quickly answered by members across the globe), I could not quite get the hang of these rules. I tried a “what if” experiment pitting Arrian against a wave of Alans. I tried a simple Hoplite vs. Hoplite engagement. I attempted to stage contests wherein Romans fought Gauls, Romans fought Macedonians, or Macedonians did battle with Classical Indians. Again, I just could not seem to get the hang of these rules. I gave electronic voice to my concerns in a June 9, 2013 post to the Lone Warrior Blog. Determined not to repeat the experience I had when I tried to stage a Horse & Musket period Peninsular scenario and set up the table four times only to take it apart four times, I resolved to complete at least one comparatively mistake-free solo wargame using the Impetvs rules before the end of 2013.
 Instead of painted and based miniatures, I use computer-manufactured counters, for lack of a better term. By this method, I am able to field fairly large forces at a very reasonable cost. Storage is never a problem. I don’t have to agonize over what color the shields or helmet crests should be. I don’t have to worry about accidently wrecking an expensive unit stand with a misplaced hand, elbow, or spilled drink. I can also switch periods of interest very easily.
Conrad Kinch, author of the monthly column “Send Three and Fourpence” considers the art of compromise as it applies to our chosen hobby on page 30 of the August 2013 issue of Miniature Wargames with Battlegames. He states: “We constantly make compromises in wargames, whether it’s playing a ruleset that we aren’t mad about because it’s what the club plays, or accepting that twenty men with a flag will, for the purposes of this game, be considered a battalion.” For purposes of this project, a computer-drawn card or counter will represent a cohort or other body of men. He admits his limits, remarking that people who are willing to play with unpainted figures is too much of a compromise for his sense and sensibilities. One cannot help but wonder what he would think of those who don’t even use miniatures. He ends the interesting column with an “argument” that wargamers should really focus on what it important to them as individuals. I agree heartily. The following saying has been applied at times to the political pursuits of man, I think it serves our hobby as well: “There is more that unites us than divides us.” This, he explains, will help them to get “on with the real business of wargamers, which is wargaming.”
 A similar approach was taken with a Horse & Musket Period report submitted for editorial review in early September of this year. If “all systems are go,” the article, about a fictional battle set during the American Revolutionary War and played using the colorful and popular Black Powder rules, should appear in Issue 185 of Lone Warrior magazine.
 Early on, light cavalry from the Armenian contingents engaged in melee on the far left flank of the Roman line. Two full turns of indecisive melee elapsed before a check of the rules revealed my mistake. Section 7.1 on page 37 of the rules informs that units with an Impetus value of zero cannot charge into melee. So much for “mastering” the rules. Sigh …. As the combat had been going on for a while, I let it play out, making a bold mental note to remember this provision for later in the game as well as for the next battle!
 The Roman-Armenian unit had a VBU (or combat value) of 5. The Impetus value was 3. The counter-charging Persian-Armenian unit had a VBU of 6 with an Impetus value of 3. I used both hands to roll the 17 dice (9 red and 8 blue). A single 6 came up on a red die which indicated damage. The Roman-Armenian unit had to take a cohesion test. Allowing for damage taken and the bonus of an attached general, the unit needed to roll a 5 or less to pass on a 1d6. Of course, a 6 was rolled. This result required an additional roll on the Leader Casualty Table. The allied commander was captured and his command was subsequently routed.
A little more than a day after removing the Armenian allies from the tabletop, I was skimming through the latter pages of Extra Impetvs 4. On page 45, I found some additional rules for generals. As the Armenian general working for the Romans was rated Expert, I could have … I should have been re-rolling his initiative dice. I should have also re-rolled the Leader Casualty Table result. Given his high rating and the good command structure, I doubt that the result would have been much different. Even so ….
 The Roman (Illyricianii) light cavalry were the victims of some very good dice throws by the Persian-Armenian light infantry. The light cavalry were skirmishing and opted to evade when the light infantry threw javelins. Hits were scored and the required cohesion tests were awful for the Romans. Exit (or exeunt) two units of light cavalry from the Roman left flank.
 I confess that I was a little taken aback by how easily the Romans marched across this Persian field of fire. Then again, two units of bowmen had been weakened by the skirmishing slingers and were also in a state of disorder, so perhaps it was not so unusual.
 According the diagram on page 4, only mounted units, light infantry, and skirmish infantry can deploy on the flanks of an army. The center or battle line sector is reserved for HI (heavy infantry) and/or all other units. There is a similar diagram on page 20 of Impetvs, but there is no detail with regard to where certain types of units have to deploy. I could not find any pre-battle deployment illustration or guidelines in my copy of Hail Caesar.