Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Forgotten Army: Part 1.

Byzantine Horse - Tagmatic and Thematic kavallarioi of the
10th-11th centuries.

Seeing what 'Jacko' of Painting Little soldiers is doing with his 'Ancients' has... incited, I think, rather than inspired ... me to look to my own 'Ancients' Armies, something I have not done for years. And more years. Certainly not since beginning this blog.   So I thought I'd make an examination of my 15mm 'scale' inventory the subject of this and one, or maybe two, follow up articles.

Patzinak (Pecheneg) horse in the service of Byzantium.  These
originated as basic horse archer figures, but some
have acquired shields and javelins.  More later...
During the late 1970s I developed an interest in the Byzantine Empire, particularly the time of Justinian the Great, and his general, Belisarius.  Upon my expressing this interest to the 'TOY Soldier' outfit in Sydney, Australia (whilst placing an order for some Napoleonics, I think), they sent me a sample figure - an 11th Century skutatos.   Not my preferred choice, but I liked the figure enough to look into the history of 10th and 11th Century Byzantium, and think - yeah I could go for that.  From about 800 to 1050 was a period during which the Byzantine Empire was far from declining.  Basil II Bulgaroctonos became something of a hero figure, for mine.  And, for the second quarter of the 11th century, who could resist a commander with the name of George Maniakes?
Patzinak nobles based as Heavy Cavalry.
So I bought a whole swodge of figures.  What to do for a rule set?  The  (Wargames Research Group)  5th and 6th Editions were frankly discouraging: long, slow, complicated and, to my mind, a poor return on temporal (let alone monetary) investment.  WRG Seventh was a vast improvement, but still had two major problems for mine.  One was the large margin for knowledge of the rule set; the other, the constant updates, corrections, amendments and general faffing around.  With a volatile rule set, and a gaming period that isn't my favorite anyway, the games weren't especially enjoyable, even though I think I won more than I lost.
Varangian Guard.  The original figures had axes, but as the
'Axe-Bearing Guard' was (I believe)more a feature after
 about 1070 (with the recruitment of expatriate Anglo-Saxons
 following the Norman Conquest) I replaced the axes
with modelling wire spears.
DBA (De Bellum Antiquitatis), and more especially, DBM (De Bellis Multitudinis), were a godsend. Before DBM hove over the horizon, my Byzantines had been sitting in their boxes neglected already for several years.  It did mean some reorganisation - especially the skutatos units and the 'super-heavy' kataphraktoi.  The double basing and shape of these formations had been based on the nearest approximation that could be reached to those described in the Praecepta Militaria attributed to Nikephoros (II) Phokas, c.960.
The leading light horse are hyperkerastai horse archers
drawn from the cavalry regiments.  Often used as a flank guard.
You would think two elements wouldn't have a prayer facing
horse archer armies, but they did OK.
But DBM very soon ran into the same major difficulty I have always had with 'Ancients' in general, and WRG in particular: they will mess about with the rule set.  Sure, problems will slip through the play testing and development, but before making the mad dash to 'fix' the thing one must, I feel, ask oneself: 1. what the thinking was behind the existing rule (I'm not talking "What were you thinking??!!" here); and 2.  to what extent is this a problem?  
Trapezetoi - Byzantine lance and javelin armed
light horse.  Probably fairly unhistorical by the end
of the tenth century.  But I used the one allowed
element anyway.  I have far too many of these!
Eventually becoming disenchanted with DBM (and frankly bored with stereotypical pick-up games), I slipped out of playing Ancients altogether.  I won quite a few more than I lost, especially with my Byzantines (over a period of nine or ten years following a narrow defeat one Easter weekend in the early '90s, I never lost to a Roman army).  But wanting a historical opponent army (as is my habit), I lit on the Bulgars of c.1000.   They have to have been the unluckiest army I ever fielded.  Their win-draw-loss record of 2-2-14 sounds bad enough, but looks way worse when you learn that their career began with a draw then a win.  

Let's have another look at the Varangian Guard, eh?
Flank marches failed to turn up; the spearmen would collapse in a heap at the very mention of a knight; the 'superior' light horse, getting tore into a bunch of scraggy 'fast' enemy light horse, got simply torn apart... have you ever seen a completely fresh command get dismembered and collapse in half a bound?!  I have, more than once with this army,and it ain't pretty.  It happened to my Byzantines once, but I forgave them...  
A part-finished skutatos unit badly in want of repair!

Then there was the occasion my left-hand Bulgar command, threading its way through a maze of small hills, got stuck there.  My fault: I had them in line instead of columns.  Not that should have mattered too much.  But half way through, my command dice went: 1,1,1,3,1,1,2,1.  A sequence like that haunts you: you just don't forget.  So, by the time this lot cleared the hills, the battle was over: lost.

Group shot of my skutatoi/toxotai units. Two of them have
menavlatoi elements added.
Mind you, the rest of the army fought magnificently.  That it took at least those eight bounds to defeat them at odds of two to three argues a fine performance in adversity.  That occasion was not the only that happened, neither...
Blue 'Regiment' (don't know what other name to give it).  
As it so happens, a lot of the figures I used for Bulgars were reasonably suitable for using as Abasgians - Georgians.  Another 'irregular' army, I think the presence of archers, especially in worthwhile numbers, made a difference.  Perhaps surprisingly, the horse classed as 'fast knights' seemed to do better than 'superior cavalry' when irregular.   Although my Georgians suffered the odd defeat, it performed far better than the Bulgars did. And that is a pity, because I kinda prefer my first choice.
Red Regiment.
So much for past history.  Suffice to say that these guys have hardly been out of their boxes these ten years at least.  I have toyed with FoG, but what I've seen of that rule set doesn't even begin to inspire me to carry out the prep work necessary.
I think these guys are Akritoi (I stand to be corrected on this).
DBM treated them as 'Auxilia', the historicity of which type
I have my doubts (not so much the loose rough-terrain type,
as whom they placed in that category).
Having said all that, I still regard DBM (and DBR, too, though with more hesitation) as conceptually as fine a rule set for 'Ancients' as one is likely to run across.  But it was ruined by too much 'rules lawyering', too many amendments (many ill-considered), a couple of serious, but easily fixed design flaws, and a large section of the 'playing public' who, I think, didn't really understand what the designers were getting at.  The element based system as distinct from unit based had in the early days the effect of developing long battle lines of considerable robustness.  But you will get the type of war gamer who will 'play the loopholes'.  As it happened, I kept the units you see in these pictures, as part of these battle lines quite often, and they worked well enough for me.
Heavy and light foot.  The General behind the nearest unit
looks like my Gheoghios Maniakes.  In the distance,
Dmitrios Psychopathes... Sorry, can't resist this sort
of thing... 
To the figures themselves:  they will need a fair bit of touching up and repair work before they can really take the field once more.  The spear/pike armed skutatoi came with very short spears.  Except for a very few, I lopped off the upper part of the spears at hand level, and replaced them with ordinary pins.  To make them more 'spear' like, I squashed the points to make spear points.  Of course the surface area to be glued was very tiny, so the spears break off easily and frequently.  Now that I have better tools for the purpose, the temptation is to do away with the pins, carve away the bottom and of the spears, and drill a small hole to accept modelling wire spears.  The few I didn't change, kept their short, but thicker spears, were given small, round shields made chads punched from sheet plastic.  These were the menavlatoi.
Sphendonistai - slingers.  Had I already read when I painted them
the Praecepta Militaria, I would have placed them in pale shades
of the heavy regiment colours.  
 The slingers (sphendonistai) came with shields: they kept them.  But the pose looked equally appropriate for javelinmen (akontistai).  So several lost their slings and got javelins made from shirt pins (which I carefully collected whenever I bought a new shirt!).
Slingers and staff slingers.  
I think at this point, it is time to break off this posting, and resume later on.
(To be continued)


  1. Very interesting, I've recently been pondering what to do with my old 15mm ancients and decided to rebase them for "Hail Caesar" and a square version of DBA3.

    I look forward to seeing more of your Byzantines.

    1. There's certainly plenty more to come! I think I might just stay with DBM, which rule set I think has quite good solo play potential. In those situations, a bunch of Bulgars getting lost among some bosky Balkan hills will simply be amusing... Of course they won't be called Bulgars, any more than the Empire of Ionople will be called Byzantine... :-)

  2. Nice army and one of my favourites. There are some good figures available in 15mm e.g. TTG (don't know what they are called now) whose poses and details exactly match the WRG book drawings. The Essex figures are good as are the Museum Miniatures particularly the cavalry. Which ones do you have?

    1. Most of my stuff is Tin Soldier from Australia (I think I miscalled it Toy Soldier in the article...) - at least the Byzantines are. Of those figures I think the Pechenegs are the best. I've made my own alterations to many of the figures.

      In a later posting I will show some very nice - 'gracile' is the word that springs to mind - Essex Bulgars. At least they were bought as Bulgars, but I found them to be quite suitable for Georgians. Unfortunately I bought only a dozen figures each of heavy and light horse. The rest were Huns and and bits and bobs of indeterminate origin that I picked up second hand.

  3. One of the teachers at my university is a researcher of all things Byzantine and he had a specific class for that part and time of the world which I took and enjoyed greatly. Despite that, I am somehow less interested in the medieval/ancient warfare; I have a small collection of 6mm figures and a bunch of Esci/Italeri Imperial Romans. I have DBA on hand but never felt the urge to try any of the DBx variants; my own grid-based wargame had a few test runs but I think it would be worth returning to, probably on a chess board with the 6mm collection.

    1. I have to admit that Ancients/Mediaevals is not my favourite wargame period either, though I do enjoy the history of that region of the world from 500AD onwards. I have in translation Anna Comnena's 'Alexiad' and Michael Psellus's 'Fourteen Emperors, and years ago read Procopius's History and about half of Theophylact... I sometimes wish I knew enough Mediaeval Greek to do a novel-like rendition of the Alexiad similar to Robert graves' treatment of Procopius. and Suetonius. But Like you, I find the war gaming appeal falls short somehow.

      I think I would have enjoyed your teacher's class as well.

      I think I will persevere with DBM, but with the amendments I think ought to have been made and omitting the ones that I consider misguided. It has this virtue: it is a rule set I know!

  4. I think that Dark Ages are fascinating as a wargames period. The Byzantines have every troop type from cataphracts to axemen and fight against Arabs, Bulgars, Sassanids, Vikings, Normans, Turks, Vandals etc etc (across 500 years-not at any one time). What more could you want?

    1. Actually, it was something like those very reasons that drew me to the Byzantines in the first place. I don't think it is so much the period itself that I find unappealing, far from it, but has something to do with the rule sets, or maybe some of the people who play them. It's not something I can put my finger on, exactly.

      Now that you mention this, I think it will be worth revisiting it in a future posting.

  5. I remember these, great stuff Ion! Big battle DBA 3.0 might be worth a crack too. That will be the final version of these rules I think- so long in development and authors too old to do another.

    1. I'll keep an eye out for it. But reviewing these chappies is a bit sobering. They need a fair bit of repair work. And my eyesight is nowhere near what it was...

    2. Ion, you may indeed enjoy DBA 3.0, and possibly BBDBA. I feel the core concepts have considerably improved over say DBM, taking away much of the frustration I at least had with the rules.

      I'm not sure BBDBA is tuned for competition play, as there is no points system, but I don't see that being a problem at all. If anything it should encourage historical refights.

      You will find a few articles on my ancients website should you be interested.

  6. Fine looking armies and some great memories I'm sure. Ancients were a main stay of my wargaming from the earliest days until recently.

    For some reason while I like HOTT, DBA and Big Battle DBA well enough, I never liked DBM at all. Too many minor gotcha's I think.

    1. I'm actually quite fond of my Byzantines, and regret their lack of use. But it is a problem with the rule sets that have kept them under wraps. In a way, my hoiking them out of their boxes was a piece of nostalgia. I must look into BBDBA, though I rather suspect that my double based katapraktos and skutatos units won't 'fit'. I'll have to investigate that,

      Otherwise, I'll rewrite DBM for my own (solo) purposes, which will simply mean tidying up some of the fudgy rules (especially those concerning single element moves, which, quite frankly, are often impossible to measure accurately, and therefore offer ample room for sharp practices).

      I'll use those for my Wars of the Clover games as well. My Airfix Romans will remain a DBA/HoTT army...

    2. Ion, a standard DBA 3/29 Thematic Byzantine army provides for two stands of 6Cv, which is double based cavalry.

  7. A nice 'find' Ion. They all look smashin'.