Infamy: centurions and standards

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Ben Nelson
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Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Ben Nelson »

Hello all, this is my first post here - impelled by excitement at the forthcoming Infamy! rules.

Really loved listening to Rich discuss with Henry Hyde the development of these rules on the recent Battlechat - entertaining and thought provoking at the same time. It all sounds great, especially the attempt to bring out the different cultures, not only Roman v. barbarian, but Britons v. Gauls v. Germans v. Iberians.

I haven't delved into the academic literature on the Roman army for years now, but I was for many years a Latin teacher, toiling through great chunks of Caesar's Gallic Wars with long-suffering teenagers. I suppose that has led to a bit of tactical snippet collecting in Paddy Griffith style. That leads to two thoughts:

First, I get the whole Roman drill versus barbarian 'psyching up' contrast, but don't we need still to remember that Romans, especially Roman centurions, could engage in a fair bit of heroic chest-thumping as well? I think this particularly true for the Caesarian period. For example, in De Bello Gallico VII.12, when the Roman troops, seeking to occupy Gorgobina, had to deal with a sudden uprising of the townsfolk who were emboldened by news of Vercingetorix's imminent arrival, it was the centurions as a body who drew their swords and occupied the gates until their men could escape the trap. Then of course there was the unforgettable centurion Petronius, hero of many an unseen translation exercise, who amid the disaster of Gergovia threw himself upon the enemy in a final sacrifice so that his men could retreat back over the palisade (De Bello Gallico VII.50). I know Big Men are important in all Lardy games, but this seems to be more than just command; this is an attitude on the part of centurions that is more like the world of Gallic and Germanic champions than we might care to believe.

Second, is there much thought yet about the role of standards, or 'signa'? I've noticed in a lot of Caesar's battle descriptions, the 'signa' are one of the first signs of morale that he looks for. If they are neatly spaced, then the units are properly shaken out and the battle line is in good order; if they are bunched up, then things aren't going to go well. It almost reminds me of accounts of Renaissance warfare, where the morale of enemy units could be judged by whether their pikes were getting entangled with each other. The 'signa' also played a crucial role in marking out the battle lines, to such an extent that they were often used as a synonym for the battle line -in fact, many English translations don't even translate every instance of 'signa' as 'standards', but simply as 'the legionary battle line'. It just strikes me that these sorts of details might open up possibilities for mechanisms concerning the 'signa' that could add a lot of period flavour.

Anyway, just a few thoughts; really looking forward to after Salute 2020!

Richard
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Richard »

Thank you so much for breaking your duck with such an interesting post. I must admit that my interest in Rome began as a seven year old in Latin lessons and the opportunity to 'spy' on people from what seemed like another world.

We have indeed thought about the role of the signa, although not quite at the level that Caesar refers to in the sections of text that you are relating. More in the sense of the valiant Signifer who, when the men hesitated on the coast of Briton, threw himself and his signa forward knowing that the men would follow.

At the level we are gaming, with a force of less than a century in size, the 'Valiant Vexillarius' will have a key role to play in keeping the men motivated.

Ditto, I also agree entirely about the role of the centurion as a larger than life inspirational leader who didn't just command, but led by example and skill at arms. That's very much a design aim that we are currently working towards.

By the way, is there a version of Caesars Gallic Wars in English that you think superior to others?

Rich

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DougM
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by DougM »

Incidentally, one of the not infrequent complaints by Caesar, was that his men were much too enthusiastic and kept rushing into combat against orders. Which sounds much more like the behaviour commonly associated with 'Barbarians'.

It has to be said he was a superb self-publicist, (unrivalled till W.S. Churchill in my opinion), so reading his Gallic Wars is an interesting exercise in discernment.
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Ben Nelson
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Ben Nelson »

Yes that's true Doug, you see a lot of that. Of course Caesar likes to 'big-note' himself, as we say in Oz, but many of these references must key into some reality; we know how competitive Roman military culture was, especially after the Marian reforms when the legions were increasingly untethered from the traditional Roman class system and the self-promotion of the great generals was replicated, through awards and 'mentions in dispatches', right down to the lower ranks as they sought to cement personal loyalty to their general as the patron, and not the Republic. This would have built on more ancestral Roman traditions of military prowess - in the early Republic, there were a number of stories of Roman champions engaging in single combat.

Rich, I was delighted to hear your early Latin lessons helped to kick all this off! I'm not regularly teaching it any more, but I found the boys in particular felt drawn to Latin because they could join Caesar in chasing Gauls up and down hills rather than learn how to order meals in a French restaurant! It was great as a teacher-wargamer as well: I haven't systematically studied Caesar for ages, but it was fun to find myself setting a passage for translation and then ruminating on the tactical features included in it. Regarding translations, I haven't looked at many really, and they're probably fairly equal to each other. However, the Loeb Classical Library is always useful, as they have the Latin text on one side and the translation on the other. Even if you only have the slightest traces of school-Latin left, you can always scan the text to see if interesting words like 'signum' are being used even if they don't appear in the translation.

I love that story about the aquilifer in the invasion of Britain! It's great that you're thinking through the military prowess of the Big Men, not just their command abilities. You're probably right - my comments about standards and the battle line don't really apply to such a low level. Caesar does often talk about the legionary standards being of importance as a rallying point for other troops - cavalry and light auxiliaries - so I wonder if that could be something to explore.Talking of battle-level rules, have you ever looked at Aurelian by Sam Mustafa? Some really ingenious mechanisms, as you would expect from Sam, and he only tries to cover a limited period: the 3rd century crisis, same period covered in Harry Sidebottom's books.

mellett68
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by mellett68 »

Ben Nelson wrote:
Tue Nov 12, 2019 8:54 pm
You're probably right - my comments about standards and the battle line don't really apply to such a low level.
I think there could still be an interesting role to play in the smaller scale battle. In terms of big men you're likely to have a Centurion, one or more Optio plus Tesserarius, if that's represented as a rank. It doesn't seem too far-fetched that the Signifer would be present with the rest of the command and, if so, be a rallying presence in the battle. It's easy enough to imagine a force as the head of a century or a detachment on a mission of enough importance to require the Centurion's presence.

I would be interesting to consider the signifer or more senior standard as a big man in himself rather than an attachment to the force commander as in Sharp Practice. Possibly a rallying force with range rather than a figure who can command groups and a target for capture by the enemy, causing morale to tumble.

I'm still learning so apologies if I've misunderstood any of that. I'm certainly not clear on how the command structure falls below the named three, into the tent group. It appears as though the senior member of the tent group is de facto in charge but did they gain rank for this position?

Very interesting thread Ben, thanks for sharing.

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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Richard »

I'm not yet convinced about the Tesserarius acting as a Leader in battle. I'm also pretty certain that a Contubernium had an NCO in the context that we would think of today. I know that Goldsworthy is big on this but I am minded on the German military up to 1914, where the Corporal's only duties were relating to rations and accommodation issues with zero input in combat. The Platoon Sergeant's role was a dispenser of discipline and keeping the men in order in battle but not making any command decisions. To my mind this is the Optio. The only command decisions were made by the officer commanding the platoon who, oddly commanded around the same number as a Centurion. That's how I see the command structure in a century.

However, I do also see other roles for the Vexillarius who I see was a more likely chap to be present than the Signifer as this is (probably) a mixed force that today we would describe as a Kampfgruppe. This would be more associated with morale and rallying, but not as a "remove x points of Shock". I see it as more hands-on that that.

Mellett68, please don't apologise. We are all learning here.

Ben. Thanks for that. I'm very impressed that you taught Latin in Oz. You'd think the locals would try to crack English before moving on... :o

mellett68
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by mellett68 »

Richard wrote:
Thu Nov 14, 2019 12:14 pm
This would be more associated with morale and rallying, but not as a "remove x points of Shock". I see it as more hands-on that that.
I completely agree with that, I think there's an interesting role to play there which may help to highlight the potential for fervour on both sides, as Ben mentioned initially. I hadn't heard of the Vexillarius but it seems a good fit for that role.

I'm leaning towards the same impression you've got about the Tessarius, it seems like it was more of a duty given to some officer or senior NCO while in camp than a specific rank. I'm wondering if it was a bit of an 'officer of the day' style position.

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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Captain Reid »

The tessarius was a full time position like the optio, signifer or cornicern - and in fact of all those positions the optio was the most like an appointment in that the centurion seems to have got to pick his optio, though he was probably lumbered with the rest. However the tessarius' duties seem largely to do with record-keeping and overseeing the watch rather than a battlefield role (though he may have had one, if he did, it's never mentioned so far as I can see).
s big on this but I am minded on the German military up to 1914, where the Corporal's only duties were relating to rations and accommodation issues with zero input in combat. The Platoon Sergeant's role was a dispenser of discipline and keeping the men in order in battle but not making any command decisions. To my mind this is the Optio. The only command decisions were made by the officer commanding the platoon who, oddly commanded around the same number as a Centurion. That's how I see the command structure in a century.
I'd agree entirely. Great analogy.
However, I do also see other roles for the Vexillarius who I see was a more likely chap to be present than the Signifer as this is (probably) a mixed force that today we would describe as a Kampfgruppe. This would be more associated with morale and rallying, but not as a "remove x points of Shock". I see it as more hands-on that that.
I think the vexillarius would accompany rather larger groupings then you seem to have in II. A vexillation would typically contain a number of cohorts and so would have a number of standard-bearers in addition to the vexillarius My impression is that if any standard bearer was present with a force of II size then it would be the signifer of the century that made up its core.

However, I'd agree that while the optio's role could be seen as organisational and perhaps shock-removing, the signifer (or vexillarius if you prefer) seems to have been both a focal point to rally around/form up on or inspirational - in the sense that losing the standard was a huge disgrace and to be avoided at all costs, so if he wasn't budging the unit would hold on longer, and if he advanced the unit would be more inclined to go with him.
It appears as though the senior member of the tent group is de facto in charge but did they gain rank for this position?
The decanus, as he's sometimes referred to - though I'm not convinced this is necessarily a term used during the period in question, though it may have been - was almost certainly an immunes and may well have had some kind of responsibilities in camp for his tent-mates. But I doubt his battlefield role was any different to a normal member of his unit. More a lance-corporal without battlefield authority, if you like. Certainly, as the tessarius seems only to have had administrative duties rather than a command function, it's hard to imaging a decanus having any command role.

I think that in many ways the Romans of the time were operating very differently to modern command structures and especially in terms of commanders:rank and file. If in WWII the basic unit of manouevre was the squad or section, then for Romans it was really the century (which we'd tend to equate numbers-wise with a platoon or company). Where we might send a platoon, they'd send a cohort, or at least a couple of centuries.
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Ben Nelson
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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Ben Nelson »

Haha Rich, yes, managed to distract a few away from cricket, footy, sandpaper etc to learn the finer things in life. In Melbourne in recent years there's been quite an increase of students pursuing Latin through to Year 12.

Really interesting to hear of all the discussion of ranks lower than centurion; shows up how much I still need to learn, especially when you haven't focused on such low-level units before. The parallels with modern ranks are thought-provoking, but I still wonder whether centurions bulked larger for the Romans than the equivalent modern rank. I don't enough about the Imperial period, but under Caesar at least. This discussion got me re-reading Caesar's account of the Battle of the Sambre River against the Belgae, where he was caught by surprise. When he comes to rally the hard-pressed 12th legion, he notes that all the centurions of the 4th cohort had been slain, the signifer also, and the signum lost (De Bello Gallico II.25). It almost sounds like a WWII battle description when we talk about officer's casualties, but it is only one rank he seems interested in - centurions, apart from the signifer.

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Re: Infamy: centurions and standards

Post by Captain Reid »

The centurion class were in many ways Caesar's 'constituency' when it came to politics. So he did have a reason to emphasise their conduct. However it's significant that Josephus and others, with no such political agenda, focus heavily in the centurions when it comes to significant moments in battles.

The centurion as tactician is never mentioned (presumably because their 'tactics' were really basic drills, which it looks like Rich is modelling). The centurion as 'potential VC winner' is always the focus. I think it's Goldsworthy who makes the point that the Roman attitude to war was different to ours in that incompetence as commander was forgivable, bravery merely expected but aggression always praised.

The anecdote of Caesar concerning Pullo and Vorenus is, to me, telling. Here are two candidates for centurion leaving their posts without orders and recklessly engaging a superior number of the enemy merely to show off ('prove who was bravest'). In any modern army they'd surely have been on a charge, heroics notwithstanding. But their 'spirit' seems to have counted for more than enough to outweigh any other considerations.
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