THE CHARGE OF THE CHERUSCI
An Interpretation of the Battle of Idistaviso
By Chris Hahn
The information on page 192 of Warfare in the Classical World is certainly wargamer-friendly, but is it historically accurate? Excited by the educational and entertainment potential of staging this engagement on my modest tabletop, I started searching for additional as well as clarifying information online and on the shelves of my local library.
After a few days of intensive but thoroughly enjoyable study, I decided that the Warry map was incorrect. My reasoned position was based on several readings of the relevant chapters of the Church and Brodribb translation of Tacitus. For my reconstruction of Idistaviso, there would not be any Roman cavalry (heavy or light) stationed in the woods. The horse archers would remain in reserve and there would be a single unit of cavalry assigned to protect the Roman commander, Germanicus. Roughly half of the mounted auxiliaries would be positioned on the flanks of the army. The squadrons on the left would hug the tree line; they would not deploy inside of it. The remainder of the Roman cavalry would start the game off table, ready to enter the field behind the assembled German host on a designated turn.
Having enjoyed a modicum of success with ARMATI when refighting historical engagements, Arty Conliffe's rules were selected for this particular solo wargaming project .
The terrain of my six by four-foot table was functional, by no measure was it fantastic. I depicted the edge of the Great Forest with a thick piece of appropriately colored yarn. The Visurgis or Weser River was represented by another piece of appropriately colored yarn. The hill in the approximate center of the plain was modeled out of dark green, 2mm thick foam sheets.
I took a similar approach with the opposing armies. The composition of each force was a product of educated guesses, which were themselves a product of the previously mentioned period of study .
The first line of Germanicus' army contained 18 units of auxiliary infantry and occupied roughly 54 inches of the table. It was considered a small, separate army, and was treated as such. It had a general, division control points, initiative, and a key unit breakpoint total. The second line of the Roman army fielded 12 units of legion infantry and 7 units of other troops. It was under the direct command of Germanicus and had its own control points, initiative rating, and breakpoint as well. The third line of the Roman deployment consisted of 12 units of legion infantry and 12 supporting units. Again, this reserve formation was considered its own army. The off-table detachment of Roman cavalry numbered 3 units. This formation had only the following: a leader, an initiative rating, and a breakpoint.
With regard to the Germans under Arminius, there were three commands deployed on the table. The left wing – or as Tacitus called it, "column" – consisted of 20 units. The majority of these units (as in all the German formations) were warbands. Like the three Roman lines, this wing had a commander, an initiative rating, divisional control points, and a key unit breakpoint total. The center was under Arminius. He commanded 27 units in the refight. There were twenty units deployed to the right of the contingent led by the German chieftain.
Summary of the Action
Scores of arrows and sling stones were followed by an even greater number of light spears and javelins as the screen of German skirmishers and light infantry ambled closer to the waiting Roman line. The effect of these various missiles was negligible, however. Eager to get into the fight, the massed warbands raised a war cry and charged through their skirmishing compatriots. Initial contact was made on the left and right of the Roman line; the center under Arminius misjudged the distance to the waiting wall of auxiliary infantry. This error was corrected – and then some – in the following turn. A majority of the units in the first line of the Roman defense in depth were disordered by the fierce charge of the German warriors. The auxiliary formations held, but just barely. Melees raged back and forth all across the Roman front. In the woods on the far left of the Roman line, Germanic warriors threw themselves against auxiliary units from Gaul. The writing was on the wall for the auxiliary formations, unfortunately, as first one and then two more started to give way.
Germanicus ordered a unit of cavalry on the left to support the hard pressed line. To his right, he ordered some cavalry and light infantry to add their weight to the defense. These counters proved too little too late. The pressure and weight of the massed warbands was simply too much for the Roman first line. They sold themselves dearly, though, inflicting a number of losses on the barbarians – including the leader of the left wing, and causing many of the attacking units to become fatigued.
As the second line of Romans, comprised of four legions and the Praetorian cohorts moved forward, the detachment of Roman cavalry made their appearance behind the occupied Germans.
Another series of melees started all along the front of the second battle line. This time, the Roman infantry enjoyed the advantage. They were fresh troops and confident into the bargain. The Germans were tired, bloodied, pressed on the extreme flanks of their line, and there was a rumor of Roman horsemen attacking them from the rear.
To the dismay of the Stertinius, his cavalry did not have the impact he thought they would. The barbarian "division" at the rear of the massed horde made an about face and, though in a state of disorder, managed to prevent the Roman squadrons from breaking through. The rear division of the German right was not so lucky. This group of warriors was broken in half by an impressive charge of Roman cavalry. Meanwhile, the slog continued along the main line of battle.
Fatigued and weakened German units proved to be no real match for the heavily armed and armored legion infantry. These drilled troops made significant inroads against the disordered warriors. In one desperate melee on the barbarian right, the commander of these warbands fell in personal combat. In quick succession, the German right was broken, and then the left. While the brave men under Arminius had repulsed the Roman cavalry attacks and had managed a kind of stalemate across their front, the situation was essentially untenable. Reluctantly, Arminius ordered his veteran warriors to fall back.
In nine turns (spread over a couple of days in late March), history had been repeated – though not exactly as Tacitus reported – on my tabletop. Arminius was not wounded in my version of Idistaviso and the Roman cavalry had not been as impressive as they had been in the historical narrative. In these specific respects then, the wargame was not historically accurate. Then again, the purpose of the wargame was not to play an exercise in history, it was to use history as a foundation, and then let the game proceed from that point. To an arguable degree, the wargame was historically accurate, even if a majority of fellow hobbyists would chastised the depiction of terrain as well as depiction and determined numbers of troops.
Given the size of the forces and the nature of the terrain (however abstracted), there wasn't a lot of room for clever tactics and sweeping maneuvers. As the Germans are outnumbered, trying to break an army deployed in depth, and subject to surprise cavalry attacks against their rear, one could suggest that the result is pretty much determined. The barbarians would have to roll some very impressive dice in order to have a fighting chance.
As the "miniature" contest progressed, I could not help but wonder how the wargame might be played or experienced were a different set of rules used. Given the irregular nature of barbarian armies, I thought it somewhat odd that the warbands moved at a uniform rate. In other rules, I believe the pace of warriors is variable. When the battle lines clashed, a lot of dice were rolled and very little movement resulted over the course of three or four turns. To be sure, casualty and fatigue markers were "sold" at a rapid pace, but the battle lines remained static. It occurs to me that melees might (or should) involve some sort of indicative movement as the advantage swings back and forth. On reflection, it seems that this is represented in ARMATI by the placement of casualty and fatigue markers until such a point when the affected unit or units break.
Compared to other historical wargames I have researched, prepared, and played, Idistaviso falls somewhere in the middle. It was not terrific fun; it was not completely boring. It was a solo wargame that served to further my general knowledge of the engagement as well as provide a little entertainment during a cold, gray weekend in late March. The issue of historical accuracy, I think, has already been sufficiently discussed. Opinions will vary, of course, as to how well my research and representation addressed this topic. Opinions will also vary, of course, as to what readers think of my way of wargaming and my way of writing about it.
 My report on Metaurus was published in MWAN in 2003. (Approximately two decades prior, I had written a paper on this battle for an independent study project in college.) Reports on Pharsalus, Zama, and Chalons appeared in Miniature Wargames magazine in 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively. The narrative of my reconstruction of Sambre appeared in Lone Warrior in 2011.
I strive to follow the guidelines laid out in Battle Notes for Wargamers. On page 10 of this excellent book, Mr. Featherstone writes: "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 addition to the Basic rule book, I utilize Advanced ARMATI, numerous rule variants discussed and promulgated on the dedicated forum, and a few of my own ideas or scenario-specific rules, if these are needed.
 In Appendix 2 of his popular HAIL CAESAR rules, Rick Priestley comments: "In essence the size of the models in merely an aesthetic choice. Indeed, it would be possible to play with card counters or wooden blocks were one so minded" (174).
In addition to the sites oriented to wargaming Idistaviso (these were especially helpful with estimating the numbers engaged) and the Tacitus translation, I also checked out the appropriate army lists on warfloot.org. I am indebted to Luxor for compiling the Tacitan German 50 B.C. to 150 A.D. list, and to Mithridates for putting together the Provincial Garrison Roman 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. list.