or An ‘Impetvs’ Interpretation of the Battle of Watling Street
By Chris Hahn
The more I studied the map on page 194 of “Warfare in the Classical World”  and the more I reviewed the accompanying explanatory caption on page 195, the more excited and interested I became about the prospect of refighting Queen Boudicca’s final battle on my tabletop .
When staging historical battles as wargames, I always strive to follow the common-sense guidelines put forward by the late, great, and greatly missed Donald Featherstone. On page 10 of “Battle Notes for Wargamers” (a must-have text — at least in my opinion — for every wargamer’s library), this exemplar of the hobby explains: “To refight any historical battle realistically, the terrain must closely resemble both in scale and appearance the area over which the original conflict raged, and the troops accurately represent the original forces.” In all of my previous historical projects, I have followed the order of terrain and then troops . In this current effort, however, I found that I had to figure out how I wanted to represent the Roman army of Governor Suetonius before I could model the landscape of this ancient battlefield. Fortunately, the rules selected for this particular battle, Lorenzo Sartori’s colorful and evidently quite popular “Impetvs,” provide an indicative unit scale. On page 8, one finds that “a unit of Heavy Infantry represents 600-1,200 men, Light Infantry and Medium/Heavy Cavalry 400-800 men, and units of Skirmishers or Light Cavalry around 200-300 men.” Using this sliding scale in conjunction with the order of battle listed in “Warfare” the information gleaned from the narratives of Dio and Tacitus , and the Early Imperial Romans list found on page 9 of “Extra Impetvs 2,” a reasonable order of battle was established for the outnumbered army of Governor Suetonius.
Seven units of heavy infantry (at 600 men per unit) suffice for the 14th Legion. The detachments of the 20th Legion can be represented by three units of heavy infantry (also at 600 men per unit). For the auxiliaries, I set a unit strength of 500 men. This gave me eight units, which were divided into two units of heavy infantry (armed with the pila like the legionaries), four units of light infantry, and two units of archers armed with short bow A. As for the cavalry arm, two units of Equites Alares (medium cavalry at 400 men per base) were prepared, and a single unit of light cavalry (the equivalent of approximately 200 troopers) was also enlisted. The “miniature” Roman army added up to 11,000 men, which was slightly more than the total listed on page 195 of “Warfare” and reported in the account of Tacitus. I do suppose that a couple of the auxiliary units could have been removed from the army list, but I thought that the extra Roman numbers would not serve to severely imbalance an already significantly imbalanced historical engagement.
With regard to command and control, I opted to field Governor Suetonius as an Expert General and attach him to one of the unit stands of the 14th Legion. The Roman army would enjoy the benefits of a Good Command Structure, meaning that the +3 leadership bonus of Suetonius would reach 50 centimeters, the unit of measurement I would use during the refight.
Terrain and Roman Deployment
Dio explains that Suetonius deployed his small army into three divisions . The account provided by Tacitus is more wargamer-friendly. He states that “the legionaries were posted in serried ranks, the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings” . To replicate this, I placed six units of the 14th Legion in the center of the Roman position. These heavy infantry were flanked by two units of heavy infantry auxiliaries. Three units of light infantry auxiliaries, including archers, were deployed to the left and right of this main line. One unit of cavalry was placed on the far right of the line and two units of horse were placed on the far left of the line. The remainder of the 14th Legion and the detachments of the 20th Legion (four units of heavy infantry in total) were deployed approximately 6 centimeters behind and centered on the main line. In 15mm-scale “Impetvs,” each unit base has a frontage of 8 centimeters. Allowing for some gaps between formations, and attempting to model the “shallow bowl” appearance as depicted on page 194 of “Warfare,” my Roman army occupied a frontage of 139 centimeters or approximately 54 inches. The wooded defile was built around the Roman deployment. Map 1 shows how my tabletop looked prior to the placement of the mass of tribal warriors and the commencement of hostilities.
The Queen’s Host
While very little is known about the exact composition of the mass of
allied warriors that challenged Suetonius, it is accepted and understood that the Romans were at a fairly significant numerical disadvantage . I kept that fact in mind while drawing up an order of battle using the Ancient Britons list found on page 16 of “Extra Impetvs 2.”
I gave Queen Boudicca five units of javelin-armed light cavalry in addition to five units of light chariots. Her complement of skirmishers consisted of three units with slings and three more with javelins. I did not think it improbable that she would have a number of veterans with her, so I prepared three units of better-classed warriors for the tabletop. These were not large units, however. The majority of her army was composed of large units (essentially double-strength formations) of light infantry warriors. After some back and forth, I settled
on deploying a dozen of these units (each being the equivalent of 1,200 men, using the aforementioned sliding scale) against the “trapped” Romans. With regard to barbarian leadership, the mass of warriors had just one commander: Queen Boudicca. Even though the description provided by Dio is less than flattering, I decided to rate this historical figure as a Charismatic general . The Command Structure of the tribal alliance was, as might be expected, classed as Poor. Queen Boudicca would only be able to influence units within 10 centimeters of her chariot.
Map 2 shows how these units were placed on the battlefield. Every source studied for this refight made mention of the deadly and disastrous interference caused by the mob of family members, camp followers, and assorted baggage which accompanied the queen’s army. To be sure, two or three dozen vignettes of camp followers and or wagons of Roman loot being drawn by oxen and such would be very visually appealing. The treasure and time invested in preparing such pieces, however, would, I estimate, be prohibitive — at least for the majority of historical wargamers. I decided to represent this barrier of non-combatants and miscellaneous material with 12-inch by 2-inch sections of black poster board. These representative sections of poster board were classed as difficult ground. All friendly units contacting this “terrain feature” would be treated like scythed chariots contacting difficult ground: The unit would be considered destroyed and its point value calculated as part of army morale. Roman units would not suffer the same fate. Romans units, if any made it that far, would treat the representative sections of women, children, and wagons as difficult ground.
Paragraph 2.7.3 of the “Impetvs” rules (page 16) explains how and when a general’s ability to lead troops may change. While certainly an entertaining aspect of the typical “one-off” contests between friends on a weekend or during a club night, I did not think this particular procedure would fit so well in the staging of this particular historical battle. Therefore, it was decided to keep Suetonius rated as an Expert general throughout the battle, and keep his counterpart, Queen Boudicca, classified as a Charismatic leader. Were I interested in “just” a wargame, I would have used the general procedure. (No pun intended.) Along that same line, I would have permitted each side to deploy in any manner they wished. (How different would Watling Street have been if the Britons had pushed at least a part of their numbers into the woods and then around the Roman position?) It was also decided to ignore the instructions concerning the representation of army baggage (Paragraph 2.8, also on page 16) and the attacking/defending of same.
Using the General Rule detailed in paragraph 8.1 of the rules (page 43), the Total Demoralization Value (i.e., break point) of the Roman army was calculated to be 55. Suetonius and his legionary and auxiliary infantry would be defeated when 50% of that value, or 28 points (rounding up) of units were lost. Applying the same math to the Britons resulted in an army break point of 43 points. Given that this was a documented action and given the condition of both sides (desperate but disciplined and professional Romans as well as auxiliaries versus overly confident and rather less professional masses of Britons), I decided that it would be reasonable to adjust these numbers. The Romans would be defeated when 30 points of units were broken and routed. The Britons would lose collective heart and flee the field when 36 points of their units had broken.
The Almost Last Stand of Suetonius
Two days before Christmas Eve of 2013, the first rolls for initiative were made on my model battlefield of Watling Street. The Roman governor won the advantage for the first turn, but there was little he could do since approximately 40 centimeters separated the armies and it would not have made any tactical sense to abandon the high ground. After looking upon the mass of warriors, chariots, light cavalry and skirmishers arranged across my front (impressive and a little unnerving, even though they were only two-dimensional), I did the only sensible thing I could and attempted to place my auxiliary archers and all of my cavalry on opportunity. To my disappointment, only the light horse and archers on my left flank responded. Taking off my ornate helmet and cuirass, I climbed down off my splendid horse, donned a primitive crown and then climbed into my light chariot. In the role of Queen Boudicca, I pointed my spear at the thin, gray, and silent line, and urged my “uncivilized” countrymen forward.
In the second turn of the wargame, the barbarians secured the initiative with a winning roll of 12 to 10. (As it turned out, the Queen would hold on to the initiative for the majority of the engagement.) Once again, the disorganized mass lurched, galloped, or ran forward. The Roman horse on the extreme flanks of the line was targeted by Briton light cavalry. Nothing happened on the Roman right but, on the left, a shower of javelins fell on
the Roman light horse causing them to panic and break. Fortunately, the medium horse deployed in support wasn’t impacted by this early turn of events. First blood of the day, then, went to the Britons. In this same sector, a unit of auxiliary archers fired a volley against some fast-approaching light chariots. A number of horses and drivers were struck, causing the “formation” of vehicles to become disordered.
In the Briton phase of turn three, the chariots and light cavalry approached the waiting line of Roman and auxiliary infantry. The
warbands could not move as fast but did continue to advance on the governor’s position. The light cavalry threw javelins and managed to disorder the auxiliary archers on the right of the Roman line, as well as the medium horse on the far left flank. As for the Roman response, Suetonius ordered the 14th Legion to advance to the “edge” of the hill, thereby denying any barbarian unit purchase and keeping the uphill advantage when close combat began. He also released his medium cavalry on the flanks. Both formations charged units of enemy horse but failed to achieve anything. There was a lot of hacking, slashing, and posturing, but very little in terms of results.
Queen Boudicca retained her firm grasp on the initiative for the fourth turn of battle and used it to press the attack all along the line. Units of
light horse and chariots dared to engage the 14th Legion. Several units of heavy infantry were disordered by javelins; at least one unit of chariots was overthrown and broken in melee against the stubborn gray line. On the right flank of the general advance, the combat between Roman medium horse and Briton light cavalry continued. The Romans enjoyed some success on the far right of their line as a unit of medium horse battled against enemy light cavalry and chariots. The Britons were forced to withdraw. While the light horse were able to scoot away, the chariots were caught by the pursuing Romans and destroyed.
The initiative was won — yet again — by the Britons in game turn five. Though the queen enjoyed numerical superiority, she was starting to be plagued by what might be called “traffic jams” as units started to interfere with each other’s direction of advance. Even so, there were several instances of charges into the comparatively static Roman line. On the left flank, a unit of light cavalry committed to a kind of suicide charge and managed to rout a unit of auxiliary archers. Their disintegration disordered the ranks of some auxiliary light infantry positioned just
behind. On the Roman left, a unit of auxiliary heavy infantry was contacted by some crazed chariot-borne warriors and forced to give ground. The infantry regained their footing in the next melee round, however, and were able to rout the offending charioteers. To the front of Queen Boudicca, two units of veteran warriors slammed into Roman shields held firm by the 14th Legion and bounced off when their charge proved ineffective. During this turn, the prolonged cavalry combat on the Roman left was finally decided in favor of Suetonius’s medium horse. Reordering their ranks, these troopers decided to launch a charge against a nearby warband. This proved a costly mistake. The Roman cavalry were roughly handled and forced to withdraw with about one-third of their original strength. On this same flank, a unit of auxiliary infantry managed to catch and destroy another chariot formation. Over on the right of the line, another unit of chariots was attacked and routed. Queen Boudicca’s chariot formations were in serious danger of becoming extinct. Annoyed by the harassing missiles from skirmishers and enemy light cavalry, a majority of the 14th Legion left the advantage of the hill and marched onto the plain. Their forward movement forced the enemy light units to evade and saved the heavy infantry from having to endure yet another round of sling stones and javelins.
In what might be called the sixth hour of battle (or perhaps the third hour, if a time scale of one complete game turn represents the passage of 30 actual minutes is accepted), much blood was spilled on both sides. Two units of veteran warriors were defeated by superior swordsmanship of steadfast units of the 14th. Three large units of light infantry warriors were reduced to skeletons of their former size while fighting more elements of the embattled 14th. Over on the right flank of the Roman line, a unit of light infantry was run over by a warband and a unit of Roman cavalry took a few losses from a lurking unit of enemy light horse. When the Equites charged downhill into an approaching warband, there were enveloped by the more numerous Britons and eliminated.
The chaos of battle continued in turn seven and the casualties continued to mount. The Roman right flank was completely broken when first the
heavy infantry auxiliaries ran away and were followed by a neighboring unit of light infantry. In the center of the field, a unit of legionary infantry were caught flat-footed by some warriors and destroyed. On the left of their now ragged defensive line, the Romans lost another unit of light infantry auxiliaries and the much reduced unit of medium cavalry withdrew under further pressure exerted by a large warband unit. The men under Suetonius gave almost as good as they got in the exchange, eliminating two more Briton stands and due to proximity, causing disorder and “carried along” losses to a supporting warband. The Roman governor ordered the three units of the 20th Legion forward. These heavy infantry were to take up the defensive line vacated by the men of the 14th. Suetonius stayed put, well protected by the ordered ranks of his personal cohort.
On the final turn of the wargame, the Romans gained the upper hand with respect to initiative and used the temporary advantage to move against the battered and bloodied barbarians. Enemy skirmishers and light cavalry
were again forced to evade the advancing albeit disjointed line of heavy infantry. A few new melees were generated and several ongoing melees were resolved. When all of the hacking, stabbing, and shoving was over, the Romans had lost another unit of legionaries but the tribal warriors under Queen Boudicca had lost three times as many units. These additional casualties proved too much for the morale of the assembled warriors. The remaining warbands broke off the engagement and withdrew to the “safety” of the semi-circle of wagons, carts, family members, and camp followers. No pursuit was attempted by the Romans.
On pages 10 and 11 of “Battle Notes for Wargamers,” Mr. Featherstone explains:
The most obvious manner of conducting the battle is for the troops to perform precisely the same manoeuvers as they did in the past, take the same percentage of losses and achieve the same success or failure. This is an historical exercise, not a wargame, and will only serve as a demonstration of what occurred during the real-life battle …. Another method is to follow the original course of events reasonably well, but allow some leeway, without too much imaginative stretch, for a reversed result. Too many liberties may not be taken, however, or, as we have said, the battle will become a wargame played for its own sake, lacking any precision.
My reconstruction — that is, my interpretation — of Watling Street was neither a demonstration nor just an exercise. There were no wedge-like formations used against the mass of Briton warriors; there was no complete disparity in terms of casualties suffered by each side. For a few turns at least, it appeared that I, the only and very active participant, would be witness to a reversal of the established historical record. As just related, however, history was in fact repeated, if not to the particulars of the ancient accounts, on my subjectively unattractive but functional and financially reasonable tabletop. In my opinion, there were not too many liberties taken; the resulting wargame was not lacking in precision. In my opinion, this reconstruction of the Battle of Watling Street was both fun and realistic. The “Impetvs” rules provided for smooth and relatively easy play. Speaking with all the authority that a year’s experience with these colorful, popular, and well-supported rules allows, I think that the interaction of the opposing units on this battlefield was realistic .
While preparing to play and then playing this solo wargame reconstruction of Watling Street, I was re-reading portions of Victor Davis Hanson’s best selling “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” In his analysis and discussion of Cannae, he remarks, “The sight of the mass fighting must have been as spectacular as it was soon sickening” (100). While this observation could be applied to many ancient battles (as well as modern), I thought it was rather appropriate for the field of Watling Street. One can imagine what a Roman soldier in the front rank saw on that fateful day, but it is harder — at least for me — even with the help of the narratives by Dio and Tacitus, to imagine what he felt, did, smelled, and suffered in the ensuing contest. The same mental exercise can be completed for a stripped-to-the-waist or painted warrior in the ranks of Boudicca’s host. The battle between the army of Boudicca and the army of Suetonius must have been spectacularly sickening. I do not possess such a good imagination, unfortunately. Fortunately, however, I can avoid the horrors of actual ancient warfare but still learn quite a lot and have fun by playing it safe as a general of a model army moving around on a landscaped tabletop.
 The full title is “Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome.” I think the reader will agree that the full title is a bit lengthy for inclusion in the text body.
This Salamander book, written by John Warry and edited by Philip de Ste. Croix, came out in 1980 and so, is a bit dated. On a couple of occasions, when I have made mention of it in an online forum, it has been dismissed as a “coffee table book.” I prefer to view it as a ready source of ideas and inspiration.
 In the course of my research, I ran across several spellings of Boudicca. I opted to go with the spelling found in “The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200” (page 91), written by Professor Adrian Goldsworthy. This is the same spelling used by Tacitus (“Annals,” Book XIV, Chapter 31).
 At the risk of appearing self-congratulatory, I have had some success in following “Featherstone’s Law.” Over the past 13 years, my reports on wargaming Cannae, Metaurus, Cynoscephalae, Pharsalus, The Sambre, Zama, Gaugamela, Raphia, and Chalons have been published in magazines catering to the hobby.
 The translation of Tacitus was secured from the following website:
Chapters 31 through 37 proved especially useful. As for Cassius Dio, the translation of his narrative was secured from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/62*.html. My focus was on Book 62, Chapters 7 through 12.
 I confess that I found Dio a more enjoyable read than Tacitus. Suetonius addresses and exhorts each division in his outnumbered force whereas in the Tacitus narrative, he makes just one pre-battle speech. Chapter 12 of Dio’s account is graphic and gripping. Chapter 37 of Tacitus’ narrative is more matter-of-fact, but it does mention “wedge-like formations” which, I imagine, will please those who wargame with Rick Priestley’s “Hail Caesar” rules.
 This quote is from Chapter 34 of Book 14. See also Figure 1 on page 134 of Professor Goldsworthy’s book.
 Dio offers the enormous and certainly exaggerated figure of 230,000 for the army under Queen Boudicca (Book 62, Chapter 8). In Chapter 34 of his narrative, Tacitus reports that the barbarians “were in unprecedented numbers.” The number of warriors offered in the “Warfare” caption falls somewhere between 40 and 60,000, along with an unknown number of chariots.
 To be certain, each of us will have slightly (or greatly) differing definitions of what constitutes fun and what makes a wargame realistic. I should like to think this is one of the strengths of the hobby as opposed to one of its weaknesses.