Battle of the Siler River

Saturday, March 1, AD 2014

Something for the weekend.  The battle of the Siler River sequence from the movie Spartacus (1960).  I have always marveled at the skillful use of music as we see the Romans marching in their checkerboard formations.

The culminating battle of the Third Servile War, Crassus and ten legions, about 32,000 men, confronted the remnants of the slave army under Spartacus, approximately 50,000 men.

Our sources for the battle of the Siler River, like most of the Third Servile War, are poor and contradictory.  That the battle was bloody and that the Romans won are two of the three facts that we can be sure of.  The remaining fact that we can be certain of is that Crassus took the 6,000 survivors and crucified them from the site of the battlefield, up the Via Appia, to the gates of Rome.  Crassus probably viewed this as a publicity stunt to gain the consulship and it worked, Pompey, home victorious from a long war against revolting Roman settlers in Spain, being the other consul.  However, perhaps even some members of the Senate viewed Crassus’ cruelty to the survivors as excessive.  Crassus was denied a Triumph in Rome and had to settle for an Ovatio, very much a second class military honor.

The battle as depicted in the film is erroneous.  It has the Roman checkerboard formation which, while impressive looking in the film, had been abandoned by the cohort formations brought in by Marius.  The film is full of other historical howlers, par for the course for Hollywood.  Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was not a proto-Fascist dictator.  Spartacus, who is a shadowy figure because the source material is sparse (only Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and a brief section in Appian’s Civil Wars), did not simply march to the sea to escape Italy with his liberated slaves, but marauded throughout Italy, defeating several Roman consular armies in the process.  There was no  Senator called Gracchus, magnificently portrayed in the film by Charles Laughton, who led the  opposition to Crassus, and Crassus wasn’t interested in personal dictatorship in any event during the time he put down Spartacus and his slave army.  The list of substantial factual errors in the film could go on for considerable length.

However, all that is beside the point.  The film is a magnificent work of art, and it gets the atmosphere of the late Roman Republic right:  old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of military dictatorship, the movie presents all of these elements more clearly than any  classroom lecture could.

Of course it wouldn’t be a post on Spartacus the film without a clip of this immortal scene which has been endlessly parodied over the years, but which almost had me in tears when I first saw it as a boy.

Anyone who hasn’t seen this masterpiece really needs to watch it as soon as possible.


2 Responses to Battle of the Siler River

  • Under Romulus, the legion consisted of 3,000 foot and 300 horse. Thereafter, the number varied, until the reforms of Gaius Marius, who fixed it at 6,200 foot (61 centuries, the Headquarters century being a double one) and 700 horse.

    Of course, a legion was not always at full strength, and would often have only 50 or 60 men to a century.

    The cohort was primarily an administrative unit and the smallest to be detached for garrison duties &c It had its own cavalry wing, engineers, signallers and artificers. The tactical unit was the maniple of two centuries, three to a cohort.

    The Romans had no stirrups (a Mongol invention) and, accordingly, their cavalry were lightly armed and used to “cover and discover.” The tallest skeletons discovered are about 14 hands and the canon bones suggest a weight of no more than 500 kg. Contrast that with the mediaeval charger of 17 or 18 hands and weighing upwards of 1,100 kg. Their modern descendants are the Percheron, the Belgian and the Clydesdale.

  • “Of course, a legion was not always at full strength, and would often have only 50 or 60 men to a century.”

    Correct. I assume that disease would take a goodly toll of newly raised legions even before they got into combat, something that happened in all armies until the onset of modern medicine. Under the Republic new legions tended to be raised rather than replacements sent to veteran legions, since this opened up more positions for officers and ambitious politicians.