A Review of “The Early Roman Empire” by Daniel Mersey

A Wargamer’s Guide to The Early Roman Empire
Daniel Mersey
Pen & Sword Military 2017
ISBN: 9781473849556

This title is one of the latest offerings from this excellent series of books which are intended to be a low-cost general introduction for existing wargamers to take up a new historical period, in what I can best describe as the spiritual successor to the Airfix guides from the 70s.


As anyone who’s read any of Dan’s many rulesets or articles will know, his style is light and to the point which makes it ideal for a series such as this with a lot to pack into a small volume. As with the rest of the series, this title is a fairly small format softback, containing 126 pages of fairly large type with no illustrations but a centre spread of eight pages of full colour photographs on glossy paper. As there’s no primer on what wargaming is, books in this series wouldn’t be particularly suited for somebody looking to get into the hobby for the first time. The books are priced at UK £12.99 / US $ 16.95 each and I picked my copy up from Mighty Ape for $19.99 but I notice it’s also available from Amazon.com.au and doubtless many other booksellers.

On to this title specifically:

The short introduction qualifies the period covered by the book (1st – 3rd centuries AD) and that the enemies of Rome will be discussed as well as Rome itself. A handy chronology of Roman Emperors is also included.

Chapter 1: The Roman Empire 27 BC – AD 284 (12 pages) – provides a concise summary of Rome’s military activities during the period covered by the book to provide some basic context of who Rome fought, when, where and why. At least some of the names should be familiar to anyone with even the vaguest interest in ancient warfare and it’s a good overview to help choose where to focus future reading.

Chapter 2: Armies, Organisation & Equipment (35 pages) – is the longest in the book by some considerable margin, covering the changing Roman army and her main enemies for the period. It opens with a table listing the troop types defined by the WRG Ancients rules HC (Heavy Cavalry), MI (Medium Infantry), etc. and describes the armour, movement and formation of each along with some additional notes. These troop type definitions are then used throughout the rest of the book. Nearly half of the chapter covers the organisation, equipment and tactics of all the different troops which could make up Roman armies, including specialist formations like the Orbis and Testudo. Rome’s key enemies (Britons, Caledonians & Picts, Dacians, Germans, Palmyrans, Parthians and Sassanids) then each receive similar coverage, although somewhat more briefly, with quotes from various modern and classical sources throughout. The chapter concludes with a section on painting the armies of the period (Roman and ‘Barbarian’), including shields, patterned fabrics and horses.

Chapter 3: The Key Battles (17 pages) – describes ten major battles between Teutoburg Forest (AD 9) and Emesa (AD 272). These aren’t necessarily the most significant battles of the period but instead showcase the diversity of Rome’s enemies and the nature of battles fought. Each battle has a historical synopsis and some rules-agnostic notes on recreating it on the tabletop.

Photo Section (8 pages) – is printed on high quality glossy paper with two or three photos on each page. Most of the photos are of painted 28mm figures but there are a few 15mm figures too. Unfortunately many of the photos don’t list the manufacturer(s) of the figures. The majority of the photos show individual units or groups of units but as with other titles in the series, there are hardly any photos of games in progress, which is a bit of a shame.

Chapter 4: Wargaming the Battles of Rome (10 pages) – provides some ideas on adapting existing rulesets (or creating your own) to best model this specific period. There are brief notes on how ‘barbarians’ tried to deal with the mighty Roman army; simulating different command and control structures; missile fire; the fighting styles of ‘warbands’ vs legion; speculation on the nature of auxilia and avoiding (or embracing) anachronisms. Really anything except the most abstract of rules should already include these concepts so I found them to be more of a checklist for evaluating rules rather then additional mechanisms I might want to add myself.

Chapter 5: Choosing Your Rules (19 pages) – rather sensibly divides this topic into massed-battle rules and skirmish rules. The massed battles section includes fairly in-depth coverage of ten sets of rules, with a focus on command & control mechanics. The rules are pretty diverse including some more recent titles like Aurelian, Kings of War Historical and To The Strongest alongside more established sets like DBA and Hail Caesar. None of the write-ups really mention the popularity of the set, which should be a key factor if you want to find regular opponents – WRG 6th Edition gets a lot of coverage but wouldn’t necessarily be the best starting point for a first time ancients player, for example. These ten sets are only scratching the surface of course and many gamers will no doubt be upset by the omission of their favourite(s) and off the top of my head, all of the following could have been included in an ‘honourable mentions’ list if there was one – Swordpoint, Sword & Spear 2nd Edition, Clash of Empires, Impetus, Warmaster Ancients, Field of Glory, Polemos SPQR & Art de la Guerre. The skirmish section opens by commenting on the limited availability of historical skirmish rules and thus the need to adapt fantasy sets. Eight titles (including a number of free downloads) are each described briefly and if the book were being written now, I’m sure Gangs of Rome would also feature here.

Chapter 6: Choosing Your Models (7 pages) – aims to provide details of possible sources for models of Rome and her enemies in 6mm, 10mm, 15mm, 20mm and 28mm scales. Rather then write a little about the relative merits of some of the key manufacturers, this chapter is largely a table of manufacturers with a binary indication of whether they make figures for a particular army. There is no discussion on the choice of figure scale, the availability of the models, quality of sculpting and casting, price, relative size, number of packs available etc. which would all be important to somebody looking to start a new project. For example, Warlord Games who have a globally distributed and extensive range of multi-part plastic kits and metal models are given the same coverage as Warrior, which are an entirely different proposition.

Chapter 7: Scenarios (20 pages) – contains five fully fleshed out ideas for games which are largely geared towards skirmishes or small actions. They include capturing a supply wagon, a clash of vanguards, a politically motivated kidnapping, retrieving a captured standard and a desperate (futile?) attempt for a cut-off force to return to their lines. Each scenario begins with a classical quote and overview followed by suggestions for the forces involved, setting up, victory conditions and rules considerations. All of these ideas would be applicable to many periods / genres so are a useful resource.

The book concludes with a list of suggested titles for further reading (3 pages) and a comprehensive index. The further reading titles are all military history rather than wargaming books and there are quite a few Osprey books included. The books all appear to focus on the topics most of interest to the figure painter and tabletop gamer, such as equipment, dress and tactics.

Overall, there’s a lot of historical and gaming material here for anyone looking to get into this period or to branch out into new armies or campaigns. I think it feels a little less complete as a starter guide when compared to the Desert War 1940-43 book I previously reviewed from the same series, but this is probably just a reflection of the scope of the topic rather than a limitation of this format. Recommended.

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this:
Skip to toolbar