Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wargaming the Barbarian Kingdom Period (6th century AD) - Part 1, Ostrogoths

The story of the Ostrogoths is a very interesting one, including their origin, and how they became to be considered a single people, but from a military/wargaming perspective, their war against the Romans (especially the Eastern Romans, or the Byzantines, as their identity was coalescing following the fall of Western Rome) in and around Italy is the most interesting, and where we find some potential scenarios and campaigns for good games.

The eastern Goths had come into Italy in the previous century, and held (as the result of a number of successful sieges and sacks) many of the key cities of the peninsula.  In a period of almost 20 years, under Justinian, the Byzantines waged the "Gothic War" in order to restore these areas back to Roman (Byzantine) rule.  This lasted from 535 to 554 AD.  Some Gothic strongholds in Northern Italy would hold out for another 8 years, not falling until 562.

The earlier period is the successful sweep of the Byzantines up the peninsula, crossing from Africa, and securing a number of strong strategic points up the Italian peninsula.

Early Phase of the Gothic War

Battles of this period feature an early Ostrogothic army, against a Justinian Byzantine army.  The fighting is suitable for somewhat larger battles, and also (due to the rough country and terrain of Italy) for smaller raids and skirmishes, that no doubt took place between Byzantine forces, and smaller Gothic strongholds and military units.  Eventually the Gothic stronghold at Ravenna would be conquered by the Byzantines in 539/540.

This leads to the second phase of the Gothic War (540-554 or event 562) where a revived Gothic push back against the Byzantines takes place under the Gothic leader of Totila.
Totila, painted by Salviati in 1549
During the push back phase of the Ostrogoths reclaiming the initiative from the Byzantines, the great Byzantine general Narses would suffer because he also was dealing with encroachments from the Franks and the Alamanni.  In 554 AD, Narses was succesful against the Goths, at the battle of Vesuvius (also known as the Battle of Mons Lactarius), by defeating the army of Totila, and also killing the king.  The Goths, after this, retreated north into Austria.

In the end, however, Byzantines were successful against the Goths in Italy, but it was a fleeting victory.  First, it kept the strength of the Byzantines from dealing with problems in the north and the east.  Second, once the Goths were subjugated, the area was swept over again, by another German group, the Lombards, who would prove to be a lot harder to dislodge (that task being left to the Carolingians).

Battle of Mons Lactarius in 554AD, painted by Adolf Zick (~1900AD)

The representation of the Ostrogoths in miniature wargaming is pretty interesting, even if the army only has a few distinctive troop types.  The DBA rules give a pretty good indication of what we can surmise from history (and how rules writers interpret that history into wargaming terms).  DBA (original) has Army number 86 (Italian Ostrogothic 493-554AD) with 6x elements of Knights, 4x elements of Psiloi, or skirmish infantry, and finally 2x elements which could be either formed as 2x more Psiloi elements, or 2x spear elements.  

Before looking at how they are represented in other rules, it is worth considering the basics presented by the DBA list.  First, is the cavalry. In a gothic army, that is the Ostrogoths that settled in Italy, or the Visigoths that settled in Spain, and the various places these two broad groups came from (stretching all the way back to Northern Eurooe, in what is modern day Sweden), the army was mainly focused on the Warriors being mounted, and fighting in a close order, for shock value.  The other members of the population, as well as absorbed and allied peoples, would generally fight on foot.  Mainly these were loose order skirmishes, designated to a role supporting the mounted warriors. But in the case of some absorbed peoples (like the remnants of local Romanized infantry, which would fight in a dense shielded formation, with sword and spear) the foot troops might actually fight in a formed up formation, not entirely unsuited for a place in the battle line.  Still, however, the main branch is the mounted warriors.

 This is very much the same as what we find in the original 1982 WRG Army List Book Two entry.  There, the army gets a mandatory 44-72 Gothic Cavalry (start at Heavy Cavalry, but some portion can be upgraded to Extra Heavy Cavalry, all with javelin/light spear and shield).  Add to those figures, up to 90 additional Gothic Cavalry (which start at Medium Cavalry, but can up upgraded to Heavy Cavalry, and can be upgraded to match the morale grade of the earlier lot, Irregular B).  This makes for a very strong cavalry section (as you would expect, given the history of the army at battles like Taginae and Mons Lactarius, where the Ostrogoths fought against Byzantines and Germans that countered them with a reinforced infantry center), but without infantry it will have problems against a mixed foe who can reinforce a central battleline of heavy infantry.  The only real infantry presence the Goths have is that of the Gothic Archery (presented in the WRG list as up to 100 Light Infantry, which can remain as Irregular D or be upgraded to Irregular C).

This is a very interesting army, for a wargamer, because of it's strange mix of troop types.  The heavy cavalry is very good, and may be a precursor for later armies in the post-dark ages period.  But, as it is only supported by light infantry archers, it might be tough against some armies.  Where this will do well (a-historically) is in games the give too much credence to archery, and games that do not provide structural problems to cavalry fighting deep formation infantry without support.  I own (and fight with) an Ostrogoth DBA army, but I have not yet tried it with Might of Arms, or Terry Gore's rules.  It should be (at least) an educational matchup against a sixth century Byzantine army.


Gisby said...

Well done. I await part 2. And 3, and so on. I have it on authority that History can somehow be applied to Wargaming. I am excited at the idea.

Charles Turnitsa said...

Thanks Gisby - Yes, I hope to get going on this again, but the summer has been busy, with moving to a new town, new house, and (partially) changing jobs.

I think that the Other Goths will be next, and maybe some others. I always liked the Lombards, but maybe 6th century is too late for them.