In this scenario we capture some of the important events of 388 AD
Whilst the Emperor Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) was facing disaster in a futile Civil War in Italy (with the main part of the Roman forces taken from Britain never to return) the Franks crossed the Rhine in 388 AD.
According to Everett L. Wheeler in “Journal of Military History”, Oct 1998: “In some ways, Richardot more accurately portrays the Late Roman army than recent surveys in English.”
In 388 AD, the Franks launched a series of raids in an area north of a line running West/Northwest from Bavay through Tongres and Maastricht and ending at Köln/Colonia.
This line was actually a strategic road running from Boulogne, on the french coast, to Köln, on the Rhine. It was established by the gallic emperor Postumus around 260 AD.
Dotted with observation towers and fortlets, it turned the area north of it into a strategic glacis. However it was not a desert; it was a rich area, quite populated.
This time the Franks, led by Genobaudes, Marcommar and Sunnon raided far and wide, right under the walls of Cologne in the east, and as far west as north of Bavay, about 200 kilometers away, in an area known as the “Forêt Charbonnière”. Probably a forest where charcoal makers lived.
“They burst through the province of Germania (Germania Secunda) and once they were across the border, many mortals were slaughtered; they laid waste very fertile lands and triggered panic in Colonia”, says Sulpicius Alexander.
Colonia and the other fortified cities must have been full of terrified refugees.
Defense of the Empire in that area was in the hands of two men: Quentin and Nannin. Thses are french names and I suspect it must have been Quintinus and Nanninus
Nanninus’ HQ was at Mainz/Mogontiacum, on the Rhine, while Quintinus’ HQ was at Trier, protecting the rich Mosella river valley and the hinterland west of the Rhine. The Mosella valley was an important invasion route for the barbarians as the presence of numerous fortifications (burgi) attests.
Quintinus and Nanninus decided to regroup their respective forces at Colonia to try and catch the Franks laden with booty on the way back. The usual routine.
They missed them and the main frankish group went safely across the Rhine and back home.
But they left some of them behind: “The Franks left on roman soil a great number of them ready to pillage again”, says Sulpicius. According to him they were in the Forêt Charbonnière. That area as I’ve said is about 200 kilometers away from the Rhine.
The Romans could not pursue the Franks acros the Rhine while leaving a threat in their back, so they were forced to go all the way there to catch the Franks of the Forêt Charbonnière. There “it was easy for the Romans to confront them and many a Frank died by the sword in that forest”.
Fine. But meanwhile, of course, the main group of Franks back in their homeland with the booty, was having plenty of time to organize things. And organize they did..
After this unforeseen delay the Romans went back to Colonia. There, Nanninus, an old and experienced officer, prudently suggested to call it quits for this year. Quintinus, more aggressive and certainly less aware of the Franks’ strategy, insisted on crossing the Rhine and carry the war into their land.
Nenninus slammed the door and went back to Mogontiacum with his troops while Quintinus crossed the Rhine on his own.
There he experienced exactly the same thing Varus and Decius had experienced before.
After a two day’s march, he found deserted villages which he thoroughly and uselessly burned. Again, the usual routine. The Franks had evacuated the civilian population, taking refuge in the forest whose accesses were blocked by abattis.
“The roman soldiers spent a worried night under arms and at dawn they entered the forest. Around noon they were completely lost”.
Then what follows is probably a repetition of what Armininus did to Varus, and of what Cniva did to Decius: the Romans met everywhere “areas closed solidly with palisades”. Moreover they were peppered with poisoned arrows shot by mostly invisible or unreachable Franks.
It looks like the Franks literally herded Quintinius’ army where they wanted it to go. It was a plain which was apparently prepared for the occasion. “There the riders first fell into pits where man and beast alike plunged”. The foot soldiers bogged down in marshes that made their walking difficult, “fled trembling to the forest whence they came from a short while before (…) The legions were slaughtered. Heraclius, tribune of the Jovianii (a late roman elite unit) and almost all his command having been killed, very few managed to find safe refuge into the night and the hideouts of the forest”.
Tactically the Franks knew they were no match for a roman army in a set piece battle.
Their strategy was thus to draw them into their own territory, were terrain conditions and a careful preparation considerably evened the odds.
It cost them the loss of their rearguard in the Forêt Charbonnière. It may have been dispatched there precisely to draw the Romans away and give the main group of warriors enough time to go back home and prepare a defence organized behind what can be described a sophisticated field fortifications.
That is what I call, and Richardot before me, a lesson..
“Masters of tactics, the Romans were taught a strategy lesson by the Franks”, he concludes.
What if Quintinius, Magister Equitum per Gallias (and the man to whom Magnus had entrusted the care of his son) had not led his Army into such a trap? The history of Roman Gaul could have been very different, perhaps surviving as Gallia for longer. With more troops available could even Britannia have been saved and resored to Roman rule? At the very least the Jovian legion need not have been destroyed in such a manner. Fighting a massacre of Romans in a forest and marsh might not be so much fun for one side. So let us imagine that Quintinius and Nanninus had come to an earlier agreement. Nanninus was clearly a wise, experienced and successful commander. Perhaps he could have dealt with the forces in the charcoal forests alone whilst Quintinius and his men moved rapidly to intercept the Franks, laden with booty attempting to cross the Rhine and travel deep into the German interior. The Romans would then have caught up with the Franks in more open ground, reluctant to abandon their rich haul and without the time to construct the intricate and deadly trap recounted above.
A Scenario for Frank and Late Roman Armies. The battlefield should comprise a marsh and some wooded terrain. A river or stream, a tributary of the Rhine would be appropriate on a flank.
Special Rules: The Franks should be allowed to place a unit in hidden Ambush in at least one woods terrain (with bonus rule such as Clash of Empires Woodsmen if close order). The wood edge could be considered plashed forming a defendable obstacle for the troops inside.
The Romans should have a once per battle re-roll bonus such as a failed morale test to signify the Power of the Cross (Chi Rho) inspiring the men or the great discipline of the Jovian Legion.
Victory Points : Bonus VP should be awarded/ deducted for the capture/ loss of the wagon train laden with booty, slaves, supplies, livestock that the Franks have taken from Gaul.
Example Forces for Clash of Empires Rules