The Pendragon Chronicles – Vol. 5 – Foederati

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For the very first time in the COIN series, in Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, you will be able to take control and use for your own the pieces of another faction… How so? Through the very unique feature of Foederati, that typical Late Roman practice of hiring potential or even erstwhile enemies in exchange for land or subsidies. Let us explore this further:

It often comes as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the period, but the Late Roman Empire welcomed, mostly voluntarily, very large numbers of barbarians within its borders, both as soldiers – to the extent of constituting at times a significant, maybe even a dominant, fraction of Roman Imperial armies – and settlers. These could be the result of a request from a group, usually fallen on hard times in their homeland, or the result of a successful war waged on a border tribe or an invader. In later years, some particularly large and powerful groups were able to force the hand of imperial authorities to a large extent, receiving official status within the empire through no real Roman initiative at all… These groups were covered by various legal statuses, whose subtleties are often lost to us now, of which Laeti and Foederati were the main ones. For the purpose of the game, and based on what seems to have been the predominant form in Late Roman Britain, the game uses the term Foederati to designate all barbarians in Romano-British employ, no matter their exact origin or status.

As early as the famous pamphlet of the Briton monk Gildas, written around the year 500, where the “Proud Tyrant” (named Vortigern in other sources, which is really the same meaning in the Brythonic language) hires Saxons (or maybe Jutes) to fight against Irish and Pictish raiders, only to see them rise in bloody revolt, the importance of the Foederati system in introducing Germanic elements in Britain has been recognized. Recent archaeology has demonstrated the presence of German groups, including warriors, sometimes with mixed Roman and Germanic equipment, in various locations across Lowland Britain from the second quarter of the 5th century, locations largely inconsistent with a pattern of invasion. Modern historians now believe that Romano-British authorities largely drew from imperial precedent to bring numerous groups of Foederati, mainly of Germanic extraction – just like in Continental Europe at the same time –, to fight their foreign and local enemies, be they encroaching Picts or ancient rival tribes from across the river… In time, cohabitation and collaboration led to phenomena of acculturation, where the respective Germanic and Romano-Celtic cultures influenced each other, leading possibly to assimilation. one way or the other…

Obviously, we all know that, ultimately, this experiment turned very bad for the Britons, with the Germanic – or Germanized – populations eventually taking over much of Lowland Britain. Gildas and other chroniclers speak of the revolt and betrayal of the Saxon mercenaries foolishly invited by naïve or corrupt rulers, and how the island was then ravaged “from sea to sea”. Modern historians have identified a number of likely instances of military strongmen of Germanic origins taking over Romano-British polities, probably by a coup. But they also found examples where such polities endured for decades, even more than a century thanks to their strong and presumably loyal Foederati forces, where neighbouring cities and tribes were going under the Saxon tide. It is thus a nuanced picture that we must represent, one where necessity and expediency vie with prudence and hindsight…

In the game, Foederati can be brought in play either through a Feat – “Invite” – which is common to both Briton factions, or by various events. This means that Foederati groups may appear even if none of the Briton factions desire it, reflecting the ultimately parochial nature of Romano-British politics in Late Roman Britain… The Invite Feat bears no cost – which in itself can be very attractive for often cash-strapped Britons – but requires an available stronghold site in a friendly controlled region, meaning either an empty site, or replacing one of the active faction’s own stronghold: this represents the gift of lands and settling of families for the invited warriors. Foederati can be either in Dux employ (marked by the red side of the Foederati marker, hence their designation as “red Foederati”) or Civitates employ (flip side of the same marker, hence “blue Foederati”). Once in play, no matter how they were brought in play, Foederati Warbands and Settlements are considered to be pieces of the faction controlling them in all regards, unless otherwise specified.

A Blue Saxon Foederati Settlement with its full complement of 3 Warbands defends the region of Trinovantes and its Civitates Town, while 2 Red Saxon Foederati have come down the Roman road from Parisi to join a Dux Cavalry unit to Intercept Saxon raiders in Catuvellauni.

A Blue Saxon Foederati Settlement with its full complement of 3 Warbands defends the region of Trinovantes and its Civitates Town, while 2 Red Saxon Foederati have come down the Roman road from Parisi to join a Dux Cavalry unit to Intercept Saxon raiders in Catuvellauni.

Nonetheless, they also retain their nationality (Saxon or Scotti) which means that they can use their national abilities when in Home terrain. This makes Foederati often the best tools to fight independent barbarians of the same nation in their preferred terrain! Foederati Warbands, while not quite as powerful as the Dux’s Cavalry units, are also strong units which can use road movement, and so can constitute a significant upgrade to Militia for the Civitates before they can raise Comitates in large numbers, and a decent complement to the Dux as its precious supply of Cavalry declines…

Another subtler but potentially very significant impact of hiring Foederati is that every Warband in Briton employ is one less Warband available to its national Faction, since they come from the same – finite – pool. That can be quite significant, especially for the Scotti who have only 12 Warbands in their pool to start with… In a sense, in times where all Factions’ military resources are stretched to the limit, every Foederati Warband has double value, since it is both an addition to your forces, and a subtraction to your enemies’!

However, the picture is not all flowers and roses, and there is obviously a number of downsides and risks associated with the use of Foederati

The first thing is that, while Inviting Foederati bears no immediate cost, one still has to pay them eventually, and that usually takes place during the Annona Phase of each Epoch Round: each Foederati Warband should receive 1 Resource, which is immediately turned into Renown for their national (barbarian) Faction. Since the Annona Phase is the very first step of each Epoch Round, i.e. takes place before the Victory Phase, this means that a barbarian may very well reach its victory threshold and win thanks to an Annona payment, especially as the amounts can be very significant (it is not uncommon to see up to 9 or 12 Foederati Warbands from one barbarian nation on the map)!

Also, any Foederati Settlement counts for meeting the victory conditions of their national Faction (typically, a  minimum of 4 Settlements on the map is required to win), which again can be a huge boon, especially for the Scotti. Note that a strategy of drying up the Scotti Warbands pool by making all 12 of them Foederati would give them victory in a maximum of 4 turns (at least 4 Settlements on the map and Renown > 45), probably less…

Now, a controlling Briton faction does have the option of not paying some groups of Foederati – or be compelled to do so by lack of Resources –, but any such group immediately rebels, throwing off its Foederati affiliation (i.e. returning to the control of its national faction) and plundering the space to compensate for their lost wages. As you can see, hiring Foederati can become very expensive over time as Annona has to be paid at every Epoch (unlike most regular Troops that only need to be paid when mustered or trained), with the risk of handing over barbarian Strongholds and Warbands on a platter to their national faction if their wages cannot be provided, meaning that what is often a short-term fix can turn into a long-term nightmare…

Of course, if the Foederati Warbands die in combat before the Annona comes due, nothing needs be paid, which can lead to Foederati being used as cannon fodder. However, there is a long term cost of hiring Foederati even if they all get killed promptly: the land given to them and their families – the Stronghold site given up for their Settlement as part of the Invite Feat – remains unavailable permanently, or at least as long as the Settlement survives…

The last big downside of Foederati is the large number of events that require the presence of a Foederati piece to be triggered: of course, not all of them are negative for the Britons, as Foederati may turn into regular army units or adopt the dominant Romano-British culture, but the unshaded versions can be pretty momentous with numerous rebellions, takeovers or conversions being in the cards. Of these, the most dreaded is Adventus Saxonum, the Saxons’ Pivotal Event, where up to 3 Saxon Foederati groups may revolt and immediately set upon the local Britons…


So, knowing all of the above, and with historical precedents in mind, why would any sane Briton ever use Foederati? Quite simply, just like your historical counterparts, because most of the time, you can’t do without them… As with many things in the COIN series, it is all a matter of circumstances and timing, and knowing when the emergency outweighs the risks. And remember, Adventus Saxonum can only occur once!

As we have seen above, Foederati may provide the nuclei of barbarian installation on the island; in our next instalment of the Pendragon Chronicles, we will look at the other means by which barbarians may settle in Britain.


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One thought on “The Pendragon Chronicles – Vol. 5 – Foederati

  1. This game looks so far like the best reincarnation of COIN system 🙂 One thing I don’t like are the roads depicted on map. They look anticlimatic and too modern. I hope it is not the final graphic design.