Roma

 

Something for the weekend that contains the Ides of March.  Roman marching music as the Roman army deploys during the battle of the Silarius River, the decisive engagement of the Third Servile War, where the Roman legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus defeated the slave army under Spartacus.  As usual, the movie Spartacus (1960) got the details wrong.  By the time of the Spartacus slave revolt, the Roman army had long abandoned the checkerboard formations depicted, even if the Romans ever used such formations in battle.

When reading Roman history, it is good to recall that most ancient historians had little to no military experience.  Such was the case with Livy, and we depend upon him for many battle accounts of the early and middle Republic.  During this time period the basic maneuver element of the Roman legions was the maniple, consisting of two centuries, each maniple having between 120-200 men. It is alleged that the Roman legions deployed in checkerboard formations with maniple sized gaps between each maniple.  Now it doesn’t take much military experience to realize that maintaining such a formation on a battlefield would have been ferociously difficult, and probably require much more drill than the often hastily raised volunteer legions of the early and middle Republic received.  Such gaps would also have been tailor made for the enemy to launch endless flank attacks on the opposing maniples.  Unlikely in the extreme.  I suspect the checkerboard formation was purely a parade ground formation for inspections, with the maniples arrayed in that manner to allow inspecting officers to easily keep the maniple they were inspecting straight in their minds.  It would be an easy, and erroneous, conclusion for a non military historian to assume that such a formation was also used in battle.

Under the Marian reforms the cohort, six centuries, between 400-600 men, became the basic unit for the legions.  Roman historians of the first century BC who had a lot of military experience, Caesar and Sallust for example, depicted Roman legions deploying in three lines of heavy infantry, with the most veteran infantry in the final line, ready to strike the decisive blow.  Light troops were deployed in the front lines, with cavalry on the flanks.  It was a simple formation, and it usually worked for the Romans.

And Caesar, did he serve in the Third Servile War?  Likely, but we have no record of it.  He was a military tribune at the time, and during the Gallic Wars he did encourage his troops fighting Germans by noting that the defeated slave army of Spartacus contained a high percentage of Germans.  Ah ancient history, an attempt to put together puzzles with most of the pieces either missing or gnarled by the dogs of time.

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One Comment

  1. I don’t think it’s a battle formation. I think it’s a maneuver formation meant to facilitate the transition from column of march to line of battle. Probably made the tactical disposition of maniples prior to battle easier too.

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