Conflicting account

August 21, 1998

Your report on Phil Sabin's research into the mechanics of battle in the second Punic war unfairly criticises Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus for creating the impression that battles involving ancient Romans were "an unspeakably bloodthirsty affair, with literally thousands killed in minutes" (THES, August 7).

Kubrick concentrates on the deployment of Roman troops just before the battle and then on the opening phase of the fighting only. During this, the first wave of soldiers chooses to run rather than to stand and perish, which seems in line with Sabin's theory of self-preservation. Kubrick, having given a glimpse of the battle, then cuts to a shot of a fleeing horse. Only an inattentive cinemagoer would infer at this point that Roman warfare was all about instant carnage. When the film was released, the programme on sale at cinemas contained a description of the Roman approach to battle, pointing out that the Roman soldier, could fight at peak efficiency for only 15 minutes, "and all combat plans were based on this fact". I am sure Sabin would approve.

David Head Head of modern languages University of Northumbria at Newcastle

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