GAMING WITH A SLAVE REVOLT ARMY FOR STRENGTH & HONOUR
Slavery is a modern political hot-potato, but sadly it is an institution which has existed in almost every society across the entire world at some time or other. Indeed, the ancient Empires were largely built upon the labours of an enslaved sub-class who , entirely understandably, wanted little more than the opportunity to live their lives in liberty. For some this could be achieved through manumission, granted by a grateful owner to slaves close to the familia, such as a private secretary or tutor, but for the vast majority there was little or no hope of escape from a brutal and often short existence. For such men and women, their only chance of liberty lay outside Roman law, through escape or through revolt. Such actions would see the former slave a fugitive yet for many a short period of liberty was better than a lifetime of servility and many took the opportunity to revolt when the chance presented itself. They had very little to lose.
One of the most leaders of just such a revolt was Spartacus. His forces or escaped gladiators and slaves took part in a revolt which rampaged through Italy between 73 and 71BC and saw Rome humiliated before it was eventually overcome in the most brutal manner.
Spartacus escaped from the gladiator school in Capua and led a small gang of runaways that made their base on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Defeating the local forces that were sent out to face them, they managed to gather a huge force of runaway slaves which certainly numbered in tens of thousands. They defeated two further consular armies sent to crush them and managed to smash their way through the professional legions that guarded the Alpine passes near Mutina. This victory was possibly their undoing as instead of escaping out of Italy they returned further south to continue their plundering of the wealthy Italian countryside. It was only with the arrival of Crassus and later Pompey that the tide started to swing against Spartacus. Spartacus’ army was finally caught and crushed at Silanus River in 71BC but his fame continues to this day. Many of you of course will be familiar with his story through the Stanley Kubrick film with the iconic Kirk Douglass, or possibly the more recent Blood and Sand series which ramps up the blood and flesh count for an even more visceral and titillating level!
The Slave Revolt Army in Strength and Honour is largely based around the revolt of Spartacus in what historians have called the Third Servile War, although it also works well for the smaller revolt on Sicily in the Second Servile War under Salvius fought between 104 and100BC. It would also work perfectly fine if you wanted to use it to go slightly before the time of the normal rules to reflect the first major revolt on Sicily, Catalina’s conspiracy at Pistoia in 62BC, or even a later potential ‘what-if’ scenario in the later period.
So, let’s have a look at the army list and see what we need in the core force. First of all, you have a choice of a unit of cavalry or a unit of ex-gladiators. Then two units of untrained slaves, a unit of trained slaves and some skirmishers. The big choice then is whether to go for a more mobile force or a harder hitting infantry force with the gladiators. This is the only opportunity to go with the ex-gladiators in the whole list and they are an attractive unit. With a Battle statistic of 4 they will be able to go toe to toe with the best Roman troops and a Discipline of 5+ means they will take all manner of punishment before they break. Combined with Battle Training and Warband characteristics their charge could be enough to win the day if well supported. Of course, in Strength and Honour most units are meant to represent several thousand infantry and only 200 or so gladiators escaped from Capua with Spartacus. Instead these are meant to be a cadre of gladiators with other determined veteran prisoners of war, veteran and desperate slaves who have been equipped and quite likely fought in a style not too dissimilar to the Roman legions themselves. The cavalry option however may also be tempting. Cavalry are a punchy and mobile unit in Strength and Honour with more tactical flexibility, and the Slave Revolt army can supplement these further with light cavalry or further cavalry options as their rare unit choices. The main drawback with cavalry is their lack of staying power, with a lower discipline score and a high likelihood of falling back large distances their impact can be rather hit and miss.
The untrained slaves are meant to represent older men, women and even children who have recently escaped. Unarmoured and largely unshielded they are armed with whatever tools and weapons they can find and improvise. From clubs and stones to agricultural tools and the odd captured weapon, they are hardly well suited to take on the might of Rome. On first glance the untrained slaves seem a rather unattractive compulsory choice in a core force. With a low Battle statistic of just 2, poor Manoeuvrability, and shaky at best Discipline they simply can’t be relied upon to hold up against regular legions. They still have their uses. As a Warband unit their charge can still clear away enemy skirmishers and offer a rear line of support for better trained Warband units to attack. On the flanks of other units they can provide valuable supports. Care will need to be taken as controlling any warband units is a less than exact art (For more on this see the blog post about the Gauls!) Crucially at a meagre 3 points each they all add to the Army Break Point and give the army a mass of troops that makes it harder to break. In rough ground their numbers allow them to become quite formidable defensive troops – at least while their Discipline holds! You will need to be extra careful however as we have found them very vulnerable when a rout takes place which will often sweep and disorder your supporting lines of untrained slaves away with it.
The trained slaves make a more reliable choice. Better armed and with a modicum of basic training or experience they are more formidable in battle and display more average Discipline. Again, they are not quite up to fighting regular legions in a standard battle, but well supported and getting the first charge in they can make a pretty good go of it. Their Battle Training characteristic allows them to provide a defensive function as well as an aggressive one. As they are a regular troop choice I suspect many generals will want to rely on them as their staple choice of troops. Against the poorer raw legions and levied legions of the Local Roman lists they will find themselves a welcome addition to the battle line. For other common units you could go for more Gallic and German slaves represented by additional units of warband as a slightly cheaper option to the trained slaves. These might be good if you wanted to depict the breakaway force under Crixus that was defeated at Mount Garganus.
Skirmishers are another valuable asset to strengthen the main battle line or to hold key pieces of rough ground. Used as supporting skirmish lines they can even make the untrained slaves a unit temporarily capable of holding their ground. Spartacus also made use of disaffected local shepherds who flocked to his banner. Adding further skirmishers or even a unit of slingers might allow you to try some different options and would be especially useful for holding rough terrain on a flank while harassing the enemy from a distance. Along with slingers you also have the potential for frenzied warbands and faster moving open-order warbands in the rare unit options. I suspect a Slave Revolt commander will need to choose between a dangerous cavalry force or a more aggressive infantry force, but may find a blended model is more flexible.
Controlling such a disparate mass is reflected in the rather mediocre 2 Command Points and 1 Generalship point that the army starts with. There is an option to increase the Generalship points and have someone like Spartacus leading the Gladiators forward. This certainly will make them a punchy unit, but you need to weigh that up and consider if you are better off spending 3 points on another unit of untrained slaves maybe to provide rear support and an increased Army Break Point throughout the battle. A wise Slave Revolt commander will definitely put a few Command Points into the Defence Pool. I’ve seen too many near victorious Slave Revolt armies suddenly crumble with an unlucky Discipline test and a surprise rout tearing a huge hole in their lines at the cusp of a glorious victory. This is always risky as the Discipline for most units in the army is average at best with the exception of the Gladiators little can be relied upon. With some decent auspices, hopefully, you can put a few Command Dice into other pools too. If you have opted for a cavalry centric attack maybe a point or two in the Movement Pool? If you are hoping that Spartacus will lead the Gladiators in a decisive battle winning charge to take out the opposing side’s general, or are reliant on fanatic warbands to charge to victory, you’d be foolish to ignore your attack pool!
Ruses can be particularly effective against the disciplined and steady lines of Rome. Taking advantage of a decent hill will confer a nice defensive bonus (and increase the ferocity of your charge). Better still if you can lure the Romans into attacking uphill and then hit them with a well-timed ambush or flanking force. Such tactics were used to great effect at Vesuvius in 73BC by Spartacus’s men who used vines as ropes to descend the volcano and attack the Roman forces in their rear. Don’t be afraid to fight dirty and make a drive for the enemy camp and baggage. With the extra numbers you have you are likely to have a considerable size advantage that will mean the Romans will need to be wary of their flanks, this is especially true if you opt to fight as a single depth line rather than doubling up your warband units. Remember the Romans will be nailing you to crosses along the Appian Way if they catch you, so fight tooth and nail for your survival and freedom!