The Great Battles of History

Belisarius at Bay

Two Battles of the Gothic War

By Matteo Cioci

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This (unofficial) battle module for Mark Herman's and Richard Berg's Cataphract covers two battles of the Gothic War, fought between Byzantium and the Ostrogoth Kingdom for the supremacy over Italy. The war lasted 18 years (535 A.D. - 553 A.D.), and it led to the end of the Ostrogoth Kingdom and the ruin of Italy. The two battles are very unbalanced in numbers, but the special rules or the command superiority can easily turn the tide in favour of the initially weaker side. The source I used is Procopius' "Wars". Both battles were described fairly well in their development by Procopius, especially First Porta Pinciana.


Procopius, The Gothic War, Book I

Porta Pinciana (537 A.D.)

After the Byzantine conquest of Rome, the Goths under King Vitiges raised a big army and marched south, towards the city. After some minor fights against the enemy on the way to Rome (one of which was fought near the town of Narni), Belisarius, who was the Byzantine commander, decided to sustain a siege in the eternal city, because the Gothic army was far more numerous than his troops. The Goths built a lot of trenches around Rome, and started the siege. Belisarius, with a combination of luck and cleverness, succeeded in repulsing the gothic assaults and in some valiant sallies out of Rome's walls. The Goths were demoralised by all those defeats against a far less numerous foe. The roman citizens and the Byzantine army, instead, were very enthusiastic, and wanted to fight a decisive battle against their besiegers. Belisarius assented with some preoccupation, due to the great numerical disparity between his army and the one of Vitiges.

Belisarius went out of Rome with his army, across Pinciana Gate and Salaria Gate; then he sent some infantry and Moor cavalry towards a place outside the walls, called Nero's Field, where a great number of Goths were encamped, with the task of preventing them from linking with the main Gothic force, which stood in front of Belisarius' army. A force of raw Roman militia stood near that detachment, outside S. Pancratius Gate. Procopius describes the deployment of the two armies: the Byzantine cavalry stood before the infantry, because Belisarius wanted to fight a cavalry battle, while the Goths deployed with the cavalry on both flanks, and the infantry in the center.

The Byzantines caused lots of casualties among the Goths with their missile fire, but the enemy army was so outnumbering that it didn't rout yet.

At the same time, the Roman militia and the infantry before Nero's Field launched an attack against the Gothic camp; the Goths, surprised, ran away, but the Romans didn't pursue them, nor did they link up with Belisarius' army, because they were more interested in pillaging the enemy camp. The Goths reformed and counterattacked, repulsing the Romans, who routed inside the walls of Rome.

The Byzantines under Belisarius were collapsing in front of the solid and numerous enemy forces, and then they began to retreat; the Gothic right wing then charged and routed the Byzantine horsemen, who retreated behind the infantry. Even if some Byzantine soldiers fought bravely, the infantry collapsed shortly thereafter, and Belisarius' army returned inside the walls in bad shape. The Goths had won the battle.

Byzantine Deployment

All units face East.

Unit Hex(es)
Belisarius (OC) 4313
Martinus 4320
Sunicas [a] 4406
Longinus [a] 4114
Thracian Cataphracts 1-2 4418, 4420
Armenian Cataphracts 1-2 4408, 4410
Bucellarii Cataphracts 1-34412, 4414, 4416
Vandal LN 1-2 [b] 4422, 4424
M. Hun Foederati LC 1 4406
Isaurian MI 1-2 [c] 4413, 4115

[a] Procopius doesn't say who was in command of the Huns, so I used Sunicas. The Longinus counter represents Principius and Tarmutus, who were the two officers in command of the infantry.

[b] These units represent the cavalry contingents of Slavoni and Anti brought by Martinus and Valerianus as reinforcements some time before, plus some Byzantine mounted infantry.

[c] The Byzantine infantry was depleted because some of them were mounted (see above), and some other were standing before Nero's Field, controlling the Goths encamped there, and supporting the raw roman militia who were near S. Pancratius Gate.

Note: I deployed the Byzantine cavalry with intervening empty hexes because I think that Belisarius should have tried not to be outflanked by the more numerous gothic army. I also note that Belisarius will to fight a cavalry battle makes really sense, as was so outnumbered that he wanted to retreat fast if things went wrong.

Gothic Deployment

All units face West.

Unit Hex(es)
Vitiges (OC) [a] 5313
Teias [b] 5318
Repl 1 [b] 5309
Gothic HC 1-8 5302-5309
Gothic HC 9-15 5318-5324
Gothic LI 1-8 5310-5317

[a] Use the Totila counter

[b] Procopius mentions only Vitiges among the Gothic leaders, but I needed two more leaders for the wings, so I used Teias and Repl 1.


Use the Tricameron map. Ignore the stream.
Procopius doesn't say anything about the distance between the two armies; he only says that "the battle, which had begun in the barbarians' trench, ended near the ditch and the walls of the city" (Book I of the Gothic war, chapter 29). Procopius says that the Goths deployed near their trenches, but he doesn't specify if they were behind, beside or before them. Anyway, it seems that the trenches didn't have any important effect, because Procopius doesn't mention them anymore in his narration.

Leaders' deployment

Procopius doesn't tell us where the Byzantine and Gothic leaders were deployed, except for Principius and Tarmutus, who were with the Byzantine infantry. Players are free to deploy the other leaders where they want.

Retreat Edge

Byzantines: hex 3614 (Porta Pinciana)
Goths: Eastern edge of the map

Army Withdrawal

The Byzantine army withdraws when it reaches 32 rout points
The Gothic army withdraws when it reaches 40 rout points

Size and TQ Levels

Player Size TQ Pts Rout Ratio
Byzantine 59 79 41%
Goth 145 129 30%

Line Command Eligibility

Goths HC (ragged line possible)
LI (rigid line only)
Byzantines HC (ragged line possible)
MI (rigid line only)
LN (ragged line possible)

Faenza (542 A.D.)

In the year 541 A.D., the Goths elected a new king, Baduila, who was renamed Totila ("Immortal"). The previous king, Eraricus, who was searching for a peaceful setting between his people and Byzantium, had been killed by some Goths unhappy with this settlement. Totila wasn't of the same belief as Eraricus, and began to organize an army.

The Byzantine generals who were commanding the imperial garrisons in Italy (Belisarius was no more in Italy) assembled an army of 12000 soldiers and marched towards Verona, which was held by the Goths. The Byzantine command was shattered and divided by antagonism and egoism, much to the detriment of their strategy: they took Verona with a stratagem but they lost it soon, because of their indecision and passivity. The final result was that they retreated towards Faenza, where they encamped. Totila then marched against them with an army of 5000 men (they were all the warriors that he had been able to gather).

The two armies deployed divided by a river. Totila sent a small contingent (300 men, according to Procopius) across the river and behind the enemy camp, ready to ambush the Byzantines, then he crossed the river with his main force, and attacked frontally. As the two armies engaged, the Gothic ambushers marched towards the Byzantine back, and the enemy, caught between two fires, broke up the fight and fled.


All units face West.

Unit Hex(es)
Artabazes [a] 5505
Costanzianus [b] 5514
Alexander [c] 5509
Vitalius [d] 5519
Numeri MI 1-8 5506, 5508, 5510, 5512, 5514, 5516, 5518, 5520
Auxiliares LI archers (B) 1-55507, 5509, 5511, 5515, 5517
Auxiliares LI javelinists 1-25513, 5519
Armenian Cataphracts 1-2 5504, 5505
Heruli Foederati LN 1 5521

[a] Use the Dagistheus counter. See the Champion Challenge below, too.

[b] Use the J.Glutton counter.

[c] Use the Valerian counter.

[d] Use the John counter.

Note: there is no Byzantine OC, so the Byzantine leaders must roll a 0 or 1 if they want to give a line command. Note that if the die roll is 2-9 they are finished, as per normal rules. The Heruli LN can be given orders only by Vitalius. Artabazes is a contingent commander (see "Artabazes' death" rule below). Gothic Deployment

All units face East except where noted.

Unit Hex(es)
Totila (OC) 5014
Repl 1 5923
Gothic HC 1-7 5011-5017
Gothic LI 1 5923 facing NW

Special Rules

The Champion Challenge: Valari vs Artabazes
After the Goths had crossed the river, a gothic warrior, Valari, went in front of his army and provoked the Byzantines. Artabazes, an Armenian commander, accepted his challenge. Then Artabazes killed Valari, but not before being mortally wounded by his foe. He was brought behind the Byzantine line, and he died two days later. Valari is represented by Coccas, and Artabazes is represented by Anzalas.

Artabazes' Death
If Artabazes is killed in the champion challenge, or if he suffers 5 hit points or more, the Artabazes leader counter (represented by Dagistheus) is immediately and permanently removed from play. In this case, it does not count for victory point purposes. The Armenian Cats are now without a leader! If the other leaders want to give the Cats any order, they must make a die roll: if the result is 0 or 1, they can give them orders, if it is 2-9 they cannot. Historical note: Procopius says that the retirement of Artabazes from the battlefield, and the subsequent loss of leadership, had a negative effect on the Byzantine morale. We must consider that he wasn't a simple warrior, but a key commander.

Gothic Ambush
The Byzantines cannot attack the gothic LI in Hex 5923 unless it moves from its initial position.


Use the Tricameron map. The stream is considered a crossable river.

Retreat Edge

Byzantines: Eastern edge of the map
Goths: Western edge of the map

Army Withdrawal

The Byzantine army withdraws when it reaches 28 rout points
The Gothic army withdraws when it reaches 17 rout points

Size and TQ Levels

Player Size TQ Pts Rout Ratio








Note: these unusual rout ratios derive from the fact that the Byzantine army wasn't well led, and it was demoralized for the recent loss of Verona. For the Goths, this was really a win or die situation, not only as an army, but as a nation too.

Line Command Eligibility

Goths HC (ragged line possible)
Byzantines HC (ragged line possible)
MI/LI (rigid line only)

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Dave Townsend