Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Hail Caesar: The battle of Pydna 168 BC

I had the chance to try out Hail Caesar the other night. There's an ongoing campaign at the club and one of the Roman generals was unable to attend due to being off campaigning somewhere in Germania (work trip). I was eager to step in and quickly set to planning a scenario. My opponent played Macedonians, so I settled on a re-fight of the battle of Pydna 168 BC.

The battle pitched two relatively even armies against each other. We played using the historical OOBs (using the Legio Wargames site plus Adrian Goldsworthy's book for reference), with each miniature representing approximately 250 men, for a total of 140 figures or 35.000 men per side. Almost all the Romans used in this game come from my collection, which I've painted nearly ten years ago but played with only rarely. Although the miniatures are early imperial legionaries, in this game they are fielded as republican Romans (a gap of some 200 years).

The night before the game there was a rare lunar eclipse, which turned the moon red. This nicely set the mood, as the actual battle was also preceded by an eclipse, which seemed to terrify the Greeks. As the Roman player, I took this as a good omen.

An ominous eclipse

Historically, both sides were willing to fight at Pydna, but the battle begun in a confused fashion as the forward sentries got into a skirmish for control of a runaway mule! The battle soon escalated as both sides rushed to get their battle lines in order.

Battle starts as the forward detachments wrest for control of the runaway mule

Except for the forward sentries, both armies would march onto the table to simulate the confused start of the battle. The Macedonians had three divisions - a light division composed of skirmishers, the main body composed of phalangites and a cavalry division. The skirmishers took the right flank while the cavalry marched on the left. The Romans fielded two divisions of legionaries (each representing two legions), plus a large conglomerate division of skirmishers, cavalry and a few elephants. The Roman legions deployed to the right of the river (centre of the board) whilst the skirmishers were on the right flank. Each legion was deployed in a historical Triplex Acies -formation (chequerboard).

The armies rush to deploy

Two legions advancing in Triplex Acies formation. The white crested guys in the back are triarii

A Roman scholar is at hand to record the battle and embellish the story where needed

Roman cavalry race ahead

The first few turns saw the Macedonians advancing spasmodically. The divisions had a hard time manoeuvring and the skirmishers in particular seemed reluctant to close with the enemy. Meanwhile, the Romans advanced gracefully and rapidly, with only the large patches of difficult ground slowing the legionaries. The result was that the Romans had advanced halfway up the length of the table and got their battle line in order before the Macedonians had got anywhere.

Macedonians deploy from column to line of battle

Bad elephant! Put the legionary down!

The Macedonians react to the outflanking Roman cavalry

While the main bodies were advancing, the skirmishers on the other side of the river were fighting their own private war. The Roman skirmishers made a good show of themselves, but they were being gradually worn down by the more numerous enemy.

Skirmishers fight on the "far" side of the river

As the armies began to close upon one another, the Macedonians drew their left wing cavalry back and arched their infantry as shown in the photograph below. Apparently, the Macedonians were concerned about their flank and wished to avoid envelopment. This suited the Romans just fine. My tactic was to push my skirmishers as far forward as possible to tie down half of the phalangites while I would strike hard and fast on the Macedonian right with both legions.

Armies square off - soon the lines will meet

However, the Macedonians started rolling good commands just before the Romans were in a position to strike. The Macedonians extended their line to protect their flank and, with great luck, rushed their skirmishers forward to outflank the legionaries.

Then the Macedonians launched their attack. Several phalanxes on the Roman right went on a wild goose chase by charging the evading Roman skirmishers. Two more phalanxes charged the elephant and legionaries. Things seemed to be going well for the Romans, as the elephant held its own and the legionaries retired in good order after inflicting some casualties.

The idea with the Triplex Acies formation of the Romans is to wear the enemy down with small detachments, outflank them and launch counter charges so that a local numerical superiority can be gained. I did all these things and the lead phalanx seemed screwed. Then the dice gods abandoned me. Somehow, the phalanx, which we both had written off as gone, managed not only to repel my attackers but to rout several of my units to boot! The Macedonians pressed their advantage and casualties continued to mount on both sides. After a valiant defence, my elephant plus some skirmishers in the centre were routed in whilst defending the rough ground.

Macedonians rush forward

The legionaries retire in good order, ready for a counter-attack

Melee rages in the centre. The Romans gain numerical superiority over the phalangites...

... but are repulsed

On the Roman right flank the phalangites try to catch the Roman skirmishers

The Roman left flank charges the thureophoroi hoping for a quick success

The silver lining of the debacle was that the Macedonians now had their formations dispersed and some of them were stuck in the rough ground. The Romans could be counted on to seize these opportunities and soon I had legionaries and skirmishers attacking the flanks of numerous phalanxes. In quick succession, several phalanxes were routed.

Finally, caught in the flank, the lead phalanx is routed

Success breeds success and two more phalanx are taken in the flank

Whilst the fight was raging in the centre, I had another problem to contend with. The Macedonian skirmishers were continuously peppering my flank guard with shooting from multiple directions. I tried to resolve the issue by driving them off, but failed to fight well enough to drive off the enemy's thureophoroi. As the skirmishers were getting bolder, I was forced to throw in first one and then another unit. Soon I was fighting for my life just to hold the Macedonians at bay.

The Roman left is crumbling

Stem the tide!

Meanwhile, things on the right flank were continuing favourably for the Romans. The cavalry clashed on the extreme right flank, with the Macedonians coming off worse and nearly having their whole division routed. My skirmishers were running rings around three phalanxes and peppering them with shot from all sides. This was mostly just a stalling action to keep the enemy infantry away from the centre, but casualties were beginning to accumulated dangerously for the Macedonians.

Roman right flank on turn 7

The fighting in the centre continued as vehemently as ever, although dusk was falling fast. The few remaining units of one of my legions were finally routed. The general of my army, consul Aemilus Paullus was seen fleeing the field with the last survivors. The other legion, commanded by Scipio Nasica, had plenty of fight left though, and proceeded to rout another phalanx before the growing dark forced the armies to separate. With that, the game came to an end (turn 7).

Both sides had suffered heavy casualties. Macedonian casualties were in the range of 30% whereas the Romans had lost about 50% of their force. The Romans still had plenty of cavalry and skirmishers to cover their retreat, but there was no hiding the fact that the Republic had been solidly defeated.

One more phalanx is routed before the fighting comes to an end


The game was certainly fun and dramatic. Despite the loss, I think that my tactics were pretty sound. Things seemed to be going well for me when I had half of the phalangites tied down with my skirmishers. However, when push came to shove my luck seemed to run out and I kept rolling badly. I lost despite the fact that I faced only half the enemy's line infantry with almost all of mine.

Things started to look up once the Macedonian formation became dispersed and I could use my numerous small units to charge their flanks. It was nice to see how this worked, as this was pretty much how the Roman formation was meant to function and why they managed to win the historical battle of Pydna. That said, I was left with the feeling that the Macedonian phalanx is a bit too tough in the game. The formation seemed to have all the advantages but none of the disadvantages (poor manoeuvrability, over-concentration of force, weak flanks) that it historically had. Despite these grudging remarks, I think the scenario worked out nicely and represented a plausible alternate history of the actual battle.


  1. Great BR Jaakko and I'm glad you liked the game, since for certain there's going to be opportunities to step in as a visiting general during our Mare Nostrum Campaign.

  2. Some fantastic conversions! How did you build the phalangites from the hoplites?