Battle of Asculum - battle report

As I mentioned before in my posts, there is an annual historical wargaming event in Hungary, called Historikum, that I have participated in several times. This time on Historikum together with other wargamers we managed to set up a large Pyrrhic vs Roman table. The total ammount of figures on the table was 761 and from that 124 were painted by me. According to the setup, the game was the refight of the battle of Asculum 279 BC.

The battle of Asculum was one of the major engagements between Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Roman Republic. In previous battles, the Epirotes made victories against the Romans, but had lost important experienced soldiers. After loosing many more warriors at Asculum, Pyrrhus stated "If I achieve such a victory again, I shall return to Epirus without any soldier". The term pyrrhic victory derives from this statement and it is used even nowadays. On the contrary the Romans suffered more casualities, but thanks to their effective recruiting system and huge pool of manpower, they could quickly replace their losses.

The Pyrrhic Army arrived first on the battlefield. Seven big sarissa phalanx blocks made up the center. Among them were Macedonians, Ambraciots, Molossians, Chaonians, Thaesprotians, Brutians and Tarantines. The phalangites were supported by light infantry from the back. To the left from the sarissa phalanxes were Aetolian, Aernanian and Atharnanian mercenary hoplites. Further to the left stood a whole division of Samnites - who despite beeing natives of the Italian Penninsula - joined the Epirote Army to fight against their most hated enemy: the Romans. The cavalry covered both wings of the army. The left wing contained Ambraciot medium cavalry accompanied by Tarentine and Lucanian light cavalry. The right wing had two units of Thessalian and Samnite horsemen supported by Bruttian and Tarentine riders. Pyrrhus commanded the reserve division himself. This division could deploy only after the second turn with a successfull command test, and contained the Royal Agema, 3 elephants and many Cretan archers. Actually Pyrrhus was on the battlefield before the reserve division and organized the array of his army. The "endless" lines of Epirote units made an astonishing view on the table.

The Royal Agema

The Samnite infantry division guarding the left flank of the phalanx

The Roman Army was a little bit bigger than a standard consular army, because it contained an additional allied legion. In total the Romans had 2 Roman legions, 3 allied legions and cavalry. Not suprisingly they deployed in quincunx formation as usual. A divison represented a legion in the game and a Roman divison had 2 units of hastati, 2 units of principes, one triarius unit and velites as skirmishers. 2 units of equites and 2 units of allied light cavalry were on both wings. The Romans never met Elephants in battle before Pyrrhus attacked them. They immediately tried to find a solution to counter the new threat. Before the battle of Asculum they made several armored wagon carriages equipped with long and sharp instruments. The wagons were moved by oxen and the crew used long scythes and javelins to repel the elephants. For our game my hobbymates painted some 3D printed wagons with ballistae on them to represent these oxen carriages. These could deploy after the second turn by a successfull command test.

Legions of Rome, deployed in quinqunx formation

A Roman division composed of 2 units of hastati, 2 units of triarii, a unit of triarii and velites as skirmishers

After both sides arrayed on the field, the battle begun with the slow advance of the Epirote phalanx, while their right wing cavalry struggled to move forward. Things happened faster on the Roman right wing. While the left side of his army waited for the enemy to initiate, the consul urged forward his cavalry on the right wing. He planned to destroy the Samnites firts and then attack the phalanx from the side. The Greek cavalry wanted to prevent this shame to happen and made a counter charge. However the Romans proved to be superior in this cavalry melee and quickly destroyed the whole Epirote left wing.

The Romans hesitated to advance further, because the reserve division of Pyrrhus was about to arrive on the battlefield and they were sure that the experienced Greek general will send the reinforcements to replace his destroyed left wing cavalry. Therefore they stopped their advance and arranged the ranks of the Equites after the exhausting combat.

By this time the Roman velites and leves skirmishers moved close to the Epirote lines and fought against the Greek slingers. During this, many young and skillfull javelinmen of the legions died.

Finally the reserve division of Pyrrhus arrived to the field. The 3 elephants and the Agema reensured the left wing of their army and then quickly moved forward to repel the equites in front of them. The animals successfully destroyed the enemy, only the allied light cavalry survived the combat. At the same time the Epirote cavalry on the right managed to charge the equites of the left wing. Fierce combat broke out, but the Romans were unlucky this time and their whole cavalry division was annihilated.

The consul saw this situation and ordered his legion on the left to establish a defensive position in order to stop the advancing Greek cavalry. Lucky for them, the oxen carriages arrived to the field and were sent to counter the fiersome elephants.

The Epirote cavalry tried to encircle the Romans

The legion on the left took up a defensive line against the cavalry

The sarissa phalanx was really slow due to failed command tests and struggled to reach the legions. The legionaries waited patiently and scanned the Epirote lines with their eyes searching for possible points to break through. One of the allied legions in the center had slingers as skirmishers instead of javelinmen. These slingers moved close to the Tarentine levy phalanx and threw projectiles. After a couple of shots the unexperienced Tarentines failed a breaktest and fled the battlefield leaving a huge gap in the phalanx. However the elite Macedonians quickly closed the ranks and corrected the mistake made by their ineligeble Tarentine allies.

Roman slingers and velites harassing the phalanx

The gap in the phalanx due to the cowardness of the Tarantine levy

The Samnites were impatient to hold the line with the slow phalanx. They felt too much hatred agains the Romans and could not wait to charge the allied legion in front of them. Maybe due to their intense feelings the charge was disorganised and only one unit could reach the enemy, while the others were in supportive position. On the contrary the well disciplined legionaries closed their maniples and received the attack of the single Samnite unit. With this the Romans could reach a local numerical advantage and easily beat their Italian foes. Seeing their friends' fate, the other Samnite units failed their breaktests and broke. The remaining units of the division started to flee.

The elite Samnite "Legio Lineata" charging the Romans

Intense fight between the Italian natives

On the Epirote left the Royal Agema charged a legion that advenced too close to them. Two maniples were ordered to repel the heavy cavalry, but did not succeed and had to retreat. After that as a second attempt they established a second defensive line and could stop the Agema, but many legionaries died. In the same time the elephants advanced towards the oxen carriages. The ballistae fired projectiles to the elephants but had almost no effect. To save the situation, the remaining Roman cavalry charged one of the elephants from the back and killed it. But the other two elephants kept rushing towards the enemy almost unstoppable.

The Agema charging the legionaries

The ballista could not stop the charging elephant

The legions started to approach the phalanx and rearrange the order of the maniples. One legion attacked the Molossian phalanx but the combat between the phalangites and the legionaries resulted with no gain for eiher side and the legion retreated to it's previous position.

This was the point when the day was over and we had to finish the game. The Romans might had a little advantage, bacause they dealt more losses on the enemy than vice versa. But there was no victory for either sides for sure and the possible further outcome could have not been predicted. In conclusion this game was an amazing experience.