Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


After a recent enlightening discussion on the Lost Battles yahoo group, I was helped by the excellent and knowledgeable fellows there to finalise a test OOB for a refight of Heraclea.  The other night I managed to get the battle finished, and now it's time to flex the fingers and write up the report.

I'd decided to try making both sides surprised, putting a stream across the roman baseline, and giving the Romans first move to reflect Plutarch's account of the battle which can be found here in his life of Pyrrhus (16 onwards being the relevant sections).

I went with the numbers Plutarch gives as having set out on the trip across to Italy even though some may have been lost in the storm.  As regards Pyrrhus'somewhat reluctant Tarentine allies, it seemed best to make their foot generic heavy infantry rather than Macedonian-style phalangites to accord with the passage in Polybius (18.28.10).

(As for Pyrrhus he employed not only Italian arms but Italian forces, placing cohorts of these and cohorts composed of men from the phalanx in alternate order in his battles with the Romans.)

I went with 4000 Tarentine foot, enough for one levy heavy infantry unit, which is a slight reduction from the 6000 that Jeff Jonas proposed in the very useful OOB he did for his Warhammer Ancient Battles scenario, here.  If you are reading this Jeff, your scenario was a great jumping-off point, so thank you very much for posting that.

For the Roman forces I went with four legions plus allies to allow Laevinus to outnumber Pyrrhus' men (as Justin's Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogas reports he did) without things getting ridiculous. 
Here then are the orders of battle.


The 3000 men of the advance guard become 1 veteran phalanx unit and 1 average phalanx unit.
The 20,000 foot he brought over with him become 10 average phalanx units.
4000 Tarentine foot and 1000 Tarentine light horse (both figures basically plucked from the air) become 1 levy heavy infantry unit and 1 average light cavalry unit.
3000 heavy cavalry become 4 units of veterans and 1 average unit.  Pyrrhus is attached to his guard as an inspired leader.
2000 archers become one unit of average light infantry.
500 slingers and 20 elephants become one unit of Indian elephants with skirmish support.

The total fighting value of the approximately 30,000 foot, 4000 horse and 20 elephants is 80.


The 27,000 or so heavy foot of the four legions and allies becomes 14 average legionary units.
The 10,000 or so light foot become 2 units of levy light infantry and about 2000 camp guards.
The 5000 or so heavy cavalry become 5 units of the same.
Laevinus is rated as an uninspired commander.

The total fighting value of the approximately 35,000 foot and 5000 horse is 78.

The zones were set at 800 metres across, giving an attack limit of 4.  Just to explain the 'surprised' rule in Lost Battles, the main differences between a normal deployment and a surprised one are that surprise limits the number of units that can deploy in a turn to four, with heavy infantry and elephant units counting as two units in the first turn, and the army fighting value for command generation purposes is limited to the units actually on the field at the start of the turn.

So then, to the action!

As you would expect, both sides send forward skirmishers and cavalry on the first move.  The Romans concentrate troops in all three central zones, with Laevinus and two units of Roman cavalry in the rightmost.  Pyrrhus responds by sending three cavalry units and a light infantry unit forward: the former force to counter Laevinus; the latter to protect the key zone in the centre.  

Pyrrhus' light infantry feel a little exposed...

The second turn sees Laevinus roll a 1 for command, giving him a miserable 2 commands plus 1 exemption to work with.  He spends 2 to deploy four legionary units in the centre, and uses his exemption to launch a cut-price attack on Pyrrhus' zone, scoring a hit.  In return, Pyrrhus double-moves some phalangites and two more units of cavalry to secure his presence in the centre.  In the attack from his own zone he shatters one unit of Roman cavalry and leaves the other spent.

Towards the end of turn two Laevinus begins to get a trifle nervy.

Laevinus rolls another 1, giving him 4 commands and an exemption.  He brings on another 4 units of legionaries and retires with the spent cavalry behind the safety of their shields.  Due to an accounting error he does not have enough commands to bring up support for the velites... 

"Why did I not count up my on-table fighting value correctly?" laments Laevinus.

...which proves costly as Pyrrhus now launches attacks in the centre and the centre-right, shattering both units of velites/leves. He declines to advance in the centre, but does advance the cavalry of the centre-right.

In the distance the phalanx begins to mass in the zone behind Pyrrhus.

Laevinus now gets a decent roll for his commands, brings on another two units of legionaries, and sends two units of equites into the far left wing zone, threatening to encircle the cavalry that advanced after defeating the Roman light infantry.  Pyrrhus pulls the cavalry back at a cost if three valuable commands, and elects to make an outflanking move of his own on the other wing.

We should have stayed here all along, grumble the cavalry. That way our support might have caught us up.

Laevinus now brings on two more units of legionaries in the centre left and his last unit of cavalry to defend the rear from the marauding Pyrrhus.  With a few more commands at his disposal his men are encouraged enough to score four hits on the phalangites on the Pyrrhic left, leaving the entire zone spent and dangerously close to ruin.

Determined attacks by the legionaries throw Pyrrhus' infantry off balance. 

An uncomfortable experience for the cavalry as the maniples move into line.

With his infantry line in danger of folding, Pyrrhus' earns again his storied epithet, 'the One'.  He decides that he will attack this turn and try to bring on reinforcements on the next.  It is a gamble, but his men do experience some success on the left.

The phalangites take a deep breath and pray that reinforcements will arrive soon...

Laevinus urges his men foward to break the phalangites opposite them, but they cannot score any shatters.  Elsewhere they have more success as the centre and centre left all score hits.  The consul now brings on his last undeployed units (the triarii, naturally!) to support his beleaguered cavalry in their efforts to ward off Pyrrhus' attempt at encirclement.  The cavalry score a hit on Pyrrhus' supporting veterans, and suddenly even these fellows are starting to feel the pressure.  Their reply though is magnificent: two hits; and knowing that the Thessalians have begun to come up in support, Pyrrhus does not feel the need to exchange cloaks and headgear with anyone quite yet.

It has come to the triarii...

Around this time Pyrrhus is faced with a problem: after rolling another 1 for command he can only bring up troops to support one part of his line.  The left or the right?  He chooses the right, and relies again on his staunch phalangites to hold on for another turn on the left. 

Laevinus is not idle - his men on the right shatter a unit of phalangites, continue to score hits elsewhere, and outflank the Pyrrhic centre-left.

Oh, dear. 

Things are not much better for Pyrrhus' infantry here, either.

Pyrrhus is able to bring up some fresh reinforcements in the left and the centre, including the long-awaited elephants, but it is now the right that is in trouble, despite its earlier reinforcement.  There is some encouragement though: all the units in the the Roman centre are now spent, and Laevinus' zone on the Roman left has only one fresh unit remaining.

I think we've seen you fellows somewhere before?

On turn 8 Rome begins by shattering a unit of phalangites and completes the 'spending' of Pyrrhus' centre and centre-right, but without being able to do as much damage as Laevinus would have hoped.  Pyrrhus is still unscathed, and the rest of the infantry line totters but holds.

Pyrrhus' line on the verge of collapse.

With the Thessalian cavalry now up in the line, Pyrrhus gives them their head and in a dramatic attack they shatter the stubborn triarii: the rear of Laevinus' lines is now exposed!  Elsewhere the attacks are prosecuted with vigour, but the disorder in the ranks prevents a breakthrough.

Those Thessalians are worth their weight...

It is now the Roman's turn to stall.  They can manage no shatters, but they do score a hit on the elephant unit, which brings them back into contention on their right.  Now though they are surrounded, and it does not look as promising as it once did.
Don't look behind you, gentlemen...

On turn 9 Pyrrhus attacks in the centre, using as many combat bonuses as he can.  The breakthrough is made, and with more than four Roman units shattered and the central zone with enemy to front and rear, the morale roll sends the rest of the units in the zone packing.  The centre, and with it the Roman key zone, has been won.  Now, all they need to do is shatter one more unit... but they cannot manage it.

Moving first on the last turn, the Romans finally cause a shatter and a morale failure on the Pyrrhic right.  Only the veteran cavalry stand, but they too are shattered in the next attack, and so a breakthrough by one side in one part of the line is matched by the other in another.  Laevinus however is unable to score a shatter on the zone opposing him, so the Pyrrhic army still has a chance to win the day. 

The situation at the of the Roman move in the tenth and last turn.

With all depending on breaking Laevinus' zone no combat bonuses are spared.  Two hits are scored, and Laevinus, summoning all his powers of inspiration, attempts to rally his men.  Two hits... and two rallies!  He succeeds, his men remain on the field, and the battle is a draw.

After such a dramatic battle, with so many changes in fortune, a draw seemed to be a good result.  Honour was satisfied on both sides.

When it came time to count up the points, I found that Rome had won a close battle on points by 84-68.  Rome probably won the game in the last turn when it routed the Pyrrhic left; but Pyrrhus might have won it back had it not been for the heroic performance of Laevinus in rolling two glorious 11s, in defiance of the odds (though obviously in accordance with the will of the gods).

A great game, finished in fine style! 


  1. nice game- loved to read it, pls post some more !!


  2. Wow! Sounds like the real battle with all the swings of fortune. That one really could have gone either way!


  3. Thanks gents - it really did have a lot of swings of fortune. I almost quit and started again after the shocking Roman start, but I didn't, and it really shows the quality of the system that the Romans could still come back from that.


  4. Hi~ Are those Roman figures from Xyston as well?

  5. Hello; no - the red-shielded Romans are Chariot 15s which are available from Magister Militum in the UK and the blue-shielded fellows are Strategia e Tattica figures. The SeT figures are my favourite 15mm Romans, but they no longer seem to be available, sadly.

    If you want any more info, ask away!

  6. Fascinating read but I would question your figures for this battle. There was only one consul present at Heraclea which means one Roman consular army of two legions. I would put the figures on both sides at about 25,000 each, with the Romans having perhaps a slight numerical superiority.

  7. Hello, and thanks for dropping by.

    You're right, that's certainly one way to interpret the information, but remembering that a consular army is only 18,000 or so infantry and another 2-3000 cavalry, for the numbers to work (ie, for the Romans to outnumber Pyrrhus, as in Justin's epitome) it would require Pyrrhus to have lost some 7000 - 9000 men on the crossing over and to not have collected any Tarantine or other allies prior to the battle.

    While not a perfect fit, I think Laevinus with a double consular army is the better explanation given the scraps of evidence we have but I do not claim to any special knowledge :)

    One of the good things about Lost Battles' comparative methodology is that you can try out a battle with different figures and see how it goes.

    Cheers, and thanks again for your comment!

  8. On figures, I can find no historical references that support a single consular army in Italy being more than two legions in strength prior to the Marian reforms. We know there was only one consul at Heraclea, therefore there must have been only two legions. However, consular armies could have varied in strength according to the objectives they were assigned for and there are numerous examples of overstrength single consular armies of up to approximately 28,000 if the estimates of Scipio's invasion force of Africa are to be believed. Therefore, I think a good bench mark for Laevinus's army at Heraclea would be the strength of the consular army of Sempronius Longus at the start of the second Punic War which was just over 26,000 in strength.

    As for Pyrrhus, since he had what seemed to be all his cavalry and elephants at Heraclea, we can assume his storm losses were light, at most 5 per cent of his effectives. However, I think Jeff Jonas's estimates are unreliable and I will say why. Jeff adds Pyrrhus's advance force to his invading field army of 25,500. This advance force was some 3000 men assigned to garrison Tarentum. As you say, he also adds a Tarentine contingent of 6000. Firstly, in relation to the garrison force, contrary to Jonas's assertion that he had this with him at Heraclea, I find it more likely that Pyrrhus would have reinforced his garrison at Tarentum to strengthen the defences from a possible attack from the Roman Praetor Barbalus operating in Samnium as Garoufalias rightly says and also to prevent any sort of rising by the Tarentines against him, since the ancient authorities make it clear that his forced mobilization of citizens among other measures had been met with considerable unpopularity, increasing support for the pro- Roman party in the city. If you were Pyrrhus, would you leave your base ungarrisoned in such circumstances? It doesnt make military sense.

    In relation to the Tarentine presence on the battlefield, I think that many people have made the mistake of overestimating it. Even if Pyrrhus had extended recruitment to lower property classes I think it highly unlikely that he was going to risk bringing large numbers of unenthusiastic, part trained troops of untried and dubious quality into the field at Heraclea. In fact the ancient sources seem to indicate that he was very selective in taking what he thought to be only the best recruits with him which suggests a small percentage. That the Tarentine presence at Heraclea was minor may be confirmed by the fact that there is no mention of the Tarentines in the surviving accounts of the battle, although these are admittedly very brief. However, that there was some token Tarentine presence on the battlefield may be attested to by the dedicated inscription in the temple of Zeus at Dodona which mentions Pyrrhus’s victory over the Romans by the Epirots and Tarentines.

    I think an estimate of around 25,000 would be much more plausible for Pyrrhus's army at Heraclea, which would then be proportionate to the larger estimates of around 40,000 for Asculum, whilst also providing a marginal numerical superiority for Laevinus's Roman army at Heraclea, which accords with the testimony of Justinus.

    If we work backwards from the battle of Asculum, where we are told that Pyrrhus had 16,000 Greek infantry with him from his invasion force and add to this the 4,000 casualties said to have been attributed to him by the reliable Hieronymus at Heraclea, his cavalry strength of 3,000 and a small contingent of about 2,000 Tarentines we can arrive at this figure of 25,000 men. Based on this lower estimate, I would therefore propose the following hypothetical break down as a more realistic alternative to that in your own scenario and that of Jeff Jonas:

    8 phalanxes of 2,500 men (each of 10 speirai or syntagmas) comprising of 2 Macedonian, 1 Ambraciot, 1 Chaeonian, 1 Molossian, 1 Thesprotian, (all pikes), 1 Tarentine Hoplites and 1 Aetolian Peltasts, a unit of 2,000 archers/slingers and the 3,000 cavalry.

    Steve C.

  9. Hello Steve, thank you very much for your post. I think you may be on the right track here, but I do have some reservations.

    I don't have time to write a reply tonight, but I will do so at the earliest opportunity, so please check back and continue the conversation.

    Best wishes,

  10. Hi again Steve,

    While I don't have a problem with the possibility of the Romans fielding a force larger than 2 legions but smaller than 4 (Aelius Paetus for example recruited a further legion to add to his army in 201 BC for a punitive raid into Cisalpine Gaul, though this was made a separate command), I find it hard to agree with your estimate of Pyrrhus' numbers.

    I don't think that he would necessarily have felt compelled to leave a garrison of his own troops at Tarentum (see Plut. 22 for when he did decide to leave a garrison at Tarentum, which indicates Tarentum was still up for the fight even after Asculum). He had been invited to southern Italy, and he had more allies than just the Tarentines. He also seems to have been fairly happy to outrun his supply lines, so I suspec that his attitude was to take the fight to the Romans and Tarentum could take care of itself while he did that. The most important consideration for me is he needed all the troops he could get, as we can see with his initial reluctance to engage at Heraclea.

    Plutarch tells us that he was a hard taskmaster, and that he "called the [Tarentine] men to arms, and was stern and inexorable in his enrolment of them for military service" which does not sound like he picked only the highest quality troops to me.

    So I prefer, on balance, to stick with the higher estimate for Pyrrhus' army - which is not to say you are wrong, of course, only that I tend to prefer the higher number!

    Basically, the Roman army is then formed by opposition to this. Perhaps relying on Justin's Epitome is a little flimsy, but as it has the Romans outnumbering Pyrrhus the best fit is for a double consular army, but only under the command of one consul.

    This is all pretty speculative of course, but unless Pyrrhus' losses in the crossing were higher than we have factored in, I can't see him having less than about 30,000 foot and 3,000 horse with him at Heraclea.

    I will think over your argument some more, and try to read Garoufalias if I can find him. I don't know if the legion in Samnium was necessarily going to be a threat to Tarentum by itself; it was probably more to keep Samnium in line, but as I say I have not read his argument.

    The point I find you make best is that we have 16,000 Greek foot at Asculum, which would fit your calculations very well. I'll take a look at Dionysius and see if I can get anything more from that.

    Many thanks for your thoughts, and I hope you will comment more!

    Best wishes,


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