The Battle of Pollentia
(6 April 402 AD)
A subordinate of Theodosius and a Roman foederati who had served with distinction under the Roman general Flavius Stilicho, Alaric was a powerful leader from a high-ranking Visigothic family known as the Balthi or "Good Men." The Visigoths had established themselves in Thrace, and were raiding extensively throughout Macedonia, Greece and Epirus, when the eastern Roman emperor sought to buy peace by naming Alaric the master-general of Eastern Illyricum. Using his new authority, Alaric reequipped the Visigoths from the imperial armories at Margus, Ratiaria, Naissus and Thessalonica. His success prompted the Visigothic chieftains to raise him on their shields and declare him the King of the Visigoths. Having exhausted the spoils of that region, the new King turned his people westward toward the riches of Italy.
Meanwhile, uprisings of the Alemanni in Rhaetia and Noricum had forced Rome to strip Italy of its veteran soldiers. With no Imperial army to protect them, the timid Emperor Honorius in Milan, and the Romans of the Eternal City contemplated the approach of Alaric's horde with dismay. Alaric's Visigoths moved through Pannonia and passed the Julian Alps in late 401 AD to lay seige to Auileia and occupy the provinces of Istria and Venetia. Stilicho appeared before the Emperor, urging him to remain within the fortifications of Milan, while he recruited an army beyond the Alps. Stilicho then crossed the Alps in the dead of winter, quieting the Alemanni in Rhaetia and regrouping the Imperial troops, as well as enlisting the aid of King Saul of the Alans. Calls for reinforcements were sent out to the Roman garrisons on the Rhine and the Danube. A summons was even sent to far Britain, where the Sixth Victrix, one of two legions garrisoning the northern frontier, set forth for Italy. A veteran legion, the Sixth was described by the poet Claudian as "that legion which is stretched before the remoter Britons, which curbs the Scot, and gazes on the tattoo-marks on the pale face of the dying Pict."
With the new year, Alaric was closing in on Milan, easily crossing the unseasonably low rivers that Stilicho had hoped would slow the Visigothic advance. Honorius panicked, and fled toward Arles, but was intercepted by Gothic patrols and forced to take shelter within the town of Asta on the banks of the River Tanarus in eastern Liguria. A Roman emperor was too great a prize to ignore, so Alaric shifted his host from Milan and put seige to Asta. His encampment was laid several miles to the south near Pollentia (modern Pollenzo), a Roman city on the west bank of the Tanarus near the junction of the road that links Asta with Augusta Taurinorum and the coastal town of Vada Sabatia. By rapid marches, Stilchio and his small vanguard was able to cut their way through the Visigothic encirclement at Asta, raising the spirits of the Emperor and bolstering the resistance of its defenders.
Thereafter, Alaric continued the seige of Asta while the Roman forces gradually concentrated and invested the Visigothic army, building strongpoints at key points and linking fortifications to restrict Alaric's field of operations. As the noose slowly tightened, the change of fortunes prompted the Visigothic chieftains to hold council to discuss their options. Rejecting a call to retreat, Alaric rallied his chieftains, recounting their past successes against the Romans, and telling them that a voice from a Sacred Grove had whispered to him that the Visigoths would capture the great city of Rome ("penetrabis ad urbem"). He ended the conference with the boast that he would find either a kingdom or a grave in Italy. Thus they resolved to continue the seige and to wait for an opportunity to give battle against Stilicho on favorable terms.
Cautious of Visigothic numbers and prowess and recognizing that his army represented the last reserves of the western Empire, Stilicho resorted to a strategem of war. Knowing that the Visigoths were devout (Arrian) Christians, he resolved to attack them on Easter morning (6, April 402 AD), guessing correctly that they would be engaged in prayer and not expecting an attack. The job of launching the surprise attack was entrusted to the pagan King Saul and his Alans, who formed the right wing of Stilicho's army.
Little is known of the details of the battle. In his De Bello Gallico, Claudian recounts that the Alans initial charge took the Goths by surprise, but Alaric's forceful leadership prevented a panic. It took some time for the Goths to deploy, hampered as they were by the Easter festival and by the presence of large numbers of dependants and camp followers. But Alaric was unshaken, and the Visigoths joined the fray with their spirits enflamed by the Easter sacriledge. Saul and his Alans charged again and again, until the Alan king was cut down in his saddle. This demoralized the Alans, who sought to leave the field, only to find their way to the rear barred. Stilicho had repositioned a Roman legion from his reserve line to bolster the Alans and prevent the Visigoths from falling on his now exposed flank.
Before the Gothic horse could press their advantage against the regrouping Alans, Stilicho committed his Roman and foederati foot to a heavy frontal attack. The Visigoths meet them in the field but were forced back into their camp. After bitter fighting at the barricades, the Romans and their allies cut their way into the camp, driving the Visigothic defenders before them. To their credit, Stilicho's troops did not pause for loot, but pressed the fight. After a great slaughter on both sides, Alaric rallied his surviving foot under the protection of his horsemen in the fields beyond and retired southward toward the Ligurian coast under the cover of night. In flight, the Visigoths were forced to abandon their dependants, including Alaric's own wife, as well as the great piles of loot that had been collected in Greece, Illyrium, Pannonia and Northern Italy since their victory at Andrianople.
News of the victory was met throughout the western Empire with great relief and celebration. Meanwhile, Alaric moved along the Ligurian coast eastward into Etruria to regroup his battered Visigoths. His escape, and Stilicho's apparent willingness to let him go, fueled rumors about the Roman general's friendship with Alaric that would later contribute to Stilicho's undoing. Meanwhile, Alaric's host lay seige to Verona the next year (403 AD), only to be defeated by Stilicho and allowed to escape once again.
The Opposing Forces
Alaric - Early Visigothic (II/65a).
Stilicho - Later Imperial Roman West (II/78a), as modified. Use the 4Bd option and substitute 1x3Kn for 3Cv (representing the hard charging King Saul of the Alans).
The Battle Map
The town of Pollentia and the river Tanarus did not seem to play a role in the battle and are not depicted on the battle map, but are presumed to be nearby.
Dark green areas represent bad going woods.
The grey area (160mm by 160mm oval) represents the Visigothic camp, which serves as the initial deployment zone.
Visigoths are defenders. Four elements of Visigoth foot are initially deployed within their camp. The balance of foot and mounted are held in reserve off table, and may be placed in the camp in subsequent bounds at the cost of 1 PIP per element deployed. The Visigothic horse can not be deployed until all foot elements are deployed. This represents the initial surprise of the Alan attack and the time required to arm and organize the Visigothic defenses.
Romans are the attackers and deploy normally. Historically, the Romans should deploy their Alans (1x 3Kn and 1x 2Lh) on their right flank, and keep an element of Blade in a second line or reserve.
Visigoths may defend the perimeter of the camp at +1 against enemies in good going. Note that the defenders must conform to the edge of the camp to gain the defensive modifier, and therefore will be unable to provide overlap support to their neighbors without crossing the barracades. Movement and combat within the camp itself is treated as being in bad going terrain with Visigoth 4Wb suffering a -1 penalty (rather than no penalty). The bad going penalty does not apply to troops at the perimeter barricades.
Visigoth defenders forced to recoil out of their camp are not automatically destroyed, but will move back to the open space beyond.
At the end of a bound, if there are more Roman elements in the camp than Visigothic, the Visigoths are demoralized, suffering a -1 modifier in subsequent close combats and treating all recoils as a flee result. Demoralized Visigoths rally to normal status in any subsequent bound in which there are more Visigothic elements in the camp than Roman.
Visigoths follow the normal victory conditions.
Romans can win with the normal conditions, or by taking the camp (no Visigothic defenders) while suffering fewer casualties than that of the Visigoths.
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Last Updated: Jan. 30, 2004
Scenario by Chris Brantley. Questions, comments, and feedback are welcome. Sent them to my attention at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.