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Pendragon: The Deva Legion

(here are some thoughts by Stewart Stansfield – historian, musician, bon vivear, gamer on the potnetial forces Deva (Chester) would have in a Pendragon campaign alongside the more normal knights. Reproduced with permission. Oh and I used to be known as Moose back then)

What is a key point I think, is that although Devaic troops may harken back to the days of the Empire (or even Republic) in terms of style and equipment, the nature of war in the Dark Ages, and the size of the Devaic army itself, precludes a return to earlier tactics wholesale. Arthurian forces are in essence a highly mobile and powerful shock force of cavalry supported by a body of moderately to poorly trained foot troops and retainers (in effect quite similar to the elite Takeda army of Sengoku Jidai period Japan). Also, you can’t really mimic a quincunx effectively with a few hundred men, and I think that the standard shield wall tactics of the later period (almost a resuscitation of the Greek phalanx in some ways) would prevail.

The earlier Roman army (even of the Republican period) was a highly drilled and well trained machine. In terms of cohesion and overall capability, the troops of this period can’t come close. Also, cavalry was a far smaller and less competent component in most armed forces in earlier times. If our forces did try manoeuvres like Flamininus’ double triarii envelopment at Cynoscephelae, or Scipio’s flanking march at Ilipa, they might swiftly come unstuck!

One of these reasons is that, although we have books, what we lack are the centurions with 20 years experience, who through the history of the imperial army provided the rock on which its traditions rested. Recreating these traditions and military institutions from scratch may create some useful innovations, but these would probably be incorporated into the way in which these troops were comfortable with fighting, rather than replacing them wholesale.

Organisation, equipment and light troops

The idea of skirmishers is a good one, Moose, and also mimics the old practices of the Republican armies in both style and career path.

‘Skirmishers’ (in general: lightly armed troops used to hinder and break up the enemy advance) were still used by the Roman armies in the fifth and sixth centuries, but at times in a different manner. We famously hear of Cretan and Hamian archers, Balearic slingers, Spanish Caetrati light swordsmen and Batavian auxiliaries throughout the history of the Roman army. The later Roman armies also possessed light troops, including sagitarii (archers), exculcatores (javelinmen), funditores (slingers) and, interestingly, balistarii (primitive crossbowmen). In eastern armies, an estimated one in every five soldiers was an archer, and Vegetius himself urges that between a third and a fourth of all new recruits be trained in archery (this is probably not per unit, but in total, funneling those with talent for archery into other units). In addition to these specialists, the auxilia of the palatini and a large amount of allied units were fully versed in light infantry tactics.

Dependent upon the nature of any Arthurian engagement, it is possible that small forces of light troops would harry enemy deployment, manoeuvre and advance. In fact, a key point of the later Roman army is the ability of the majority of the field troops to engage in skirmish actions, and their training and equippal to better do so, particularly among the auxilia palatina [interestingly, the elite, more heavily armed legions of the comitatenses are described by a contemporary report as being ‘a positive nuisance’ in such special engagements!]. Lighter armour and longer blades favour such modes of operation, and also when the shield wall breaks; in the broken terrain of northern and western England, this would be an important facet of any army’s operations.

In open terrain, I doubt that early Arthurian commanders would have been confident in the ability of light troops to skirmish in advance of the main body, in the presence of large numbers of enemy cavalry (far larger at this time than in any period in the past, when skirmishers were used in great numbers); or, more importantly, of the ability of the main troops in the shield wall to co-operate closely with the skirmish line, and form a solid base upon which the light troops could retreat and reform quickly and cohesively, with minimal threat to the tactical position.

In such open ground, the Roman army would still harry the enemy, but the light troops would do so from behind the shield wall… in effect, they are ‘skirmishing from the rear’. The Strategikon states that ‘at present we form the archers and others with missiles behind the files for drill.’ In addition to these specialied light troops, large numbers of the actual main line of battle would also ‘skirmish’ with the enemy, in a variety of ways.

Depending on the richness of cities in this early period of Pendragon, mail armour may not be especially prevalent. For any soldier, the priority was shield, spear and helmet before sword and armour. Typically, later Roman formations featured a number of experienced, armoured veterans in the front ranks, supported by larger numbers of lighter and variably armed, younger soldiers behind. These lines of battle were typically formed four, eight or sixteen ranks deep. For a small army the size of Deva’s, the troops would most probably form up in four ranks to secure necessary frontage (or eight if morale was low and the enemy was mainly cavalry); anything less would lead to a dangerously weakened line.

As stated, within this line one would expect significant variations amongst the ranks, both in equipment, and tactical role. Vegetius speaks of many troops being unarmoured around this time; for a solid line of battle, the Strategikon suggests ‘picked men… to have mail coats, all of them if can be done, but in any case the first two in the file’. These men would be the main fighters in the formation, the armoured front of the line of battle; the shield wall. They would carry swords, spears, and perhaps heavy darts or javelins.

Those behind the two (or four etc.) front ranks would be lighter armoured or unarmoured soldiers, carrying greater ranged missile weapons, including javelins, slingsa nd darts; behind such troops may well be situated a line (or two) of archers. In Britain, you would more commonly find slingers rather than archers, though if you want to add an old Hamian veteran from Syria, or a descendent of one, it may add colour to the city by his training of the young lads in the art, and potentially provide a great character).

As an example, earlier in history Arrian gives the order of battle of a legion set to face cavalry:

‘The legionaries will be formed in eight ranks and deployed in close order. The first four ranks will be armed with the spear… The men of the first rank will present their pila at the approach of the enemy… those of the second, third and fourth ranks will be in a position to throw their pila. They will be directed to aim their strikes accurately at the right time in order to knock down the horses and throw the riders… The four ranks immediately behind will consist of men armed with the lancea. Behind these there will be a ninth rank composed of archers.’

Later sources abrogate this. Using sources such as Ammanius and the Strategikon, Simon MacDowall gives an idea of how a Roman army of this period would have deployed and fought in a pitched battle. Here is a brief summary:

As the enemy approach to towards maximum short bow range (~300 paces) the troops would be called to attention. Archers in the rear ranks would soon start to pepper the enemy at extreme range, more to morally disorganise than cause significant casualties. as the enemy grows closer, archery fire would become more effective, possibly causing the enemy to halt briefly. The sides would now be within 50 to 100 metres of each other. Now we would see scenes reminiscent of Cornwell’s “Winter King”. Both armies would shout their battle cries, banging swords and spears on shields and causing a general vocal ruckus. For the Romans, this consisted of the barritus, a cry they took off the Germans and which consisted of a low note which swelled to a loud roar. Earlier, Tacitus stated:

‘They either terrify their foes or themselves become frightened, according to the noise they make on the battlefield… What they particularly aim at is a harsh intermittent roar; and they hold their shields in front of their mouths, so the sound is amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation.’

Interestingly, the Strategikon, in describing matters of drill, suggests an altogether more calm preparation (which you can imagine being stated by an officer of a Napoleonic army…):

‘Silentium. Mandata captate. Non vos turbatis. Ordinem Servate. Bando sequite. Nemo demittat bandum et inimicos seque.’

[‘Silence. Observe orders. Do not worry. Keep your position. Follow the standard. Do not leave the standard and pursue the enemy.’]

Soon, one or both sides may continue the advance. When they had closed to within 50 metres, the archers would fire again, and the front ranks would let fly with their plumbatae (darts). If they continued to close, the front ranks would first let loose their spiculi (heavy javelins, if they possessed them), and troops to the rear would let loose more darts and sling bullets. Just prior to the clash of shield walls, the rear ranks (typically 5th-7th or 3rd-4th depending on the depth of the formation) would let fly with their light javelins, and then be pushed forward by the file closers, in support of the front ranks. The rear rank(s) of archers would fire arrows at a high trajectory, dropping them into the enemy’s rear ranks.

According to the Strategikon, as the front ranks prepared to clash with the enemy, they would adopt a stance familiar to your Napoleonic infantryman… The front one or two ranks would crouch down, lock shields and

‘fix their spears firmly in the ground, holding them inclined forward and straight outside their shields… They also lean their shoulders and put their weight against the shields to resist any pressure from the enemy. The third (or perhaps second) man, who is standing nearly upright, and the fourth man, hold their spears like javelins, so when the foe gets close they can use them either for thrusting or for throwing and then draw their swords.’

Now it would devolve into a glorified, barbed shoving match. There would be little room to use weapons in the crush; hence spathae would be useful if they could gain enough room to swing over the enemy shield wall, and gladii useful to thrust in with less need for room to wield them at the front.

Against cavalry, tactics often remained the same. Even the rather ‘ordinary’ infantry of Belisarius (typically left in camp in most key engagements, through lack of trust and confidence in their abilites) held their ground against the Persian cavalry with great effect at the Battle of Sura in AD 531. The problem arose when the infantry were engaged, and the difference in armour and training amongst the troops rendered the formation at great risk from flank attacks.

For the Devaic army, although vastly depleted in numbers relative to the later legions, allies and auxilia, the above order of battle may well be replicated, with reduced numbers of ranks for specific troop types. In addition to this standard line of battle, there were some more specialised battle formations.

The cuneus was the standard attack column. It was adopted from the Germans, and known as the ‘swine’s head formation’ by the soldiers (it remained in use with the vikings later). Vegetius describes this as ‘a mass of men on foot, in a close formation, narrower in front, wide in the rear, that moves forward and breaks the ranks of the enemy.’ Interpreting this as a simple triangle has its problems, as although this formation is favoured by missile troops, for infantry it would prove suicidal and not bring critical weight to bear quickly at the place of engagement. Rather, Tacitus describes it as ‘closely compressed on all sides and secure in front, rear and flank.’ The Strategikon describes it as ‘even and dense’. Simon MacDowall argues that this is simply a rectangualr column which, when charging, will form a shape similar to that described by Vegetius, as the men in front crowd together and surge forward, whilst those at the rear hang back; possible, but there does seem as though there would be more design behind it, even if trapezoidal formations sound like an absolute nightmare to control at times…

The fulcum (sometimes called the testudo, but distinct from the earlier testudo of popular imagination) was a variation on the cuneus, and useful when encountering substantial numbers of missile troops. The Strategikon describes this so:

‘The men in the front ranks close in until their shields are touching, completely covering their midesctions almost to their ankles. The men standing behind them hold their shields above their heads, interlocking them with those of the men infront of them, covering their chests and faces, and in this way we move to attack.’

It is recommended when the front ranks possess no armour; it certainly seems a cumbersome formation.

A few thoughts on Symbology

By this late period, Roman armies identified regiments by the colour schemes painted on the shields. I’ll post some examples online. A fish could easily be painted over one of these colour schemes to symbolise the Christian nature of the city.

As to the aquilla, this a wonderfully potent symbol; but I would suggest that the actual eagle of Legio XX could be an object that could be found later, on an adventure, and imbued with further Pagan or Christian significance as you seek. What if it had been carried by Magnus Maximus to France in the later fourth century, and blessed [by whatever rite] before being lost? Or captured by raiding Atacotti or Irish in earlier times? Its recovery by knights of Deva, from whatever source, by the Knights of Deva could provide an important mystical boost to the city in a time of need.

Each early Imperial century carried a signum, which may well have been retained, and often a standard containing a legion symbol. The symbol of Legio XX Valeria Victrix was a boar (passant to use later terminology). Vexilla, or standards carried by detachments of the legion could well feature this symbol.

My concept of the Devaic (foot) Army

Using what Moose, Chris etc. have said, here are a few ideas of how I perceive the Devaic army. A lot I’ve copied off others, just so as I can present a complete description.

The experienced soldiers in the later prime of their life would be armoured in iron mail shirts (lorica hamata) and relatively crudely made, embossed helmets of the Trajanic type (late development of Gallic and Italian helmets, fitted with reinforcing crossed bars on the crown and across the front – the famous ‘hot cross bun’ helmet). The latter would be made from casts and examples gained from Roman fortresses and the continent, and of iron or bronze manufacture. A few key officers may possess suits of lorica segmentata of the Corbridge or Newstead types (at least as old as some of the helmets being used, after all), made by local armourers from patterns taken from old suits turning up from old rubbish tips, disturbed graves or junked supply stores. These could have been bestowed by the Dux on particularly deserving veterans and officers.

A city the size of Deva may have problems securing uniformity of armament for its troops at the start of the Pendragon campaign. Other soldiers (including what we may class as ‘skirmishers’) would be armoured in cheap bronze scale armour (lorica squamata), leather tunics or (commonly) lack any armour at all. If enough Trajanic helmets could be made, they would wear these; if not, they might wear a motely mix of cheaply made bronze jockey cap helmets (made from examples garnered from the continent), or, more commonly, contemporary Sarmatian-influenced spangenhelm type helmets or the more Persian-influenced ‘ridge helmets’.

The troops could well wear long-sleeved red woolen tunics. Roman soldiers are nearly always depicted in red tunics; there is no evidence to support this for all troops, but sources to speak of allies taking to red tunics with pride. On the march, troops may well wear the common Roman ‘Pannonian cap’, a leather, cloth or fur pillbox hat, instead of their helmets. if you want to use a single item of clothing to depict ‘Romanness’, this distinctive cap is very much it, and could be worn by all male members of society. Shields would be of a wooden construction, in a large oval shape, and possibly semi-convex rather than flat. They will feature a central metal bosse, and be covered in stretched, painted goatskin.

The main weapon of the soldiers would be the spear. This would be a relatively light model (lancea), light enough to be thrown effectively in combat, but also wielded in the line of battle. If possible, ranks in the rear of the formation would carry more specialised javelins, such as the heavy spiculum or lighter veruta. If available (they are relatively costly to make), the front ranks would carry batches of five weighted, barbed darts (plumbatae or mattiobarbuli). Lighter armoured, younger troops would probably carry slings rather than darts. Some troops could be trained as archers, but slings would be cheaper to train and equip soldiers in the use of.

As a close arm, these troops would carry either a spatha or replica gladius (unless the troops possessed good cohesion, or could find gladii of high quality, these would be probably be abandoned in favour of the spatha, which could be swung over the enemy’s shield wall). A well-made gladius would have been a terrible weapon. Although weighted and edged for the thrust, it could easily dismember a lightly armoured opponent. Troops in the front rank may carry gladii to take advantage of gaps in the scrummage, and plunge into weak areas; troops behind would seek to swing over the front rank with longer swords and spears).

They would be organised into centuries, of between 60 and 100 men and led by a centurion, supported by his optio. Each century would possess a mix of troop ‘types’ (though the general differences are small), and learn to fight as a cohesive unit. Units would be subdivided in to contuburnii, or tent-parties, of ~8 men, probably led by an experienced legionary, who may carry the title semissalis. These would generally be constructed by file from a line of battle; therefore, each party would possess an interesting mix of soldiers, and young ‘skirmishers’ would camp beside armoured veterans. This would be a key element in passing on experience and tactics from the older hands to the younger lads.

If I remember correctly, Moose said that on top of the 150 footmen listed there might be a few hundred more. A useful organisation of the army would be at Cohort strength, but perhaps based in organisation on the first cohort, with five (non-double) centuries instead of six. Dependent on organisation, centurions would be named according to their century (see my other mail…). Each century would possess a standard (signum), and perhaps different symbols and patterns on their shields. The army as a whole would follow a standard; if not an eagle, this could be an old regimental standard from the XX Legio (or from one of its vexillations), featuring a boar.

In battle, they would array themselves as described above, typically in four ranks. The first one or two would be armoured (the veterans), and the remainder would be more lightly or unarmoured, and carry javelins in preference to heavier spears. Younger soldiers would also carry slings. A fifth rank of detached archers and slingers may be formed at the rear. Given a century strength of 80, and assuming a five century army, a four rank line of battle (excluding archers) would give a frontage of 100 files, or about 100m; a moderate line of battle, but one which may need to be well anchored.

[N.B. In the later Roman army, the ranks were more complicated. The basic infantryman was called a pedes, and his experienced counterpart was known as a semissalis. Higher ranks ran (in ascending order): circitor, biarchus, centenarius, ducenarius, senator and primicerius]

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