What Romans did in war

August 7, 1998

THROUGH films such as Spartacus and Alexander the Great, Hollywood has relentlessly pushed the image of ancient Roman and Greek warfare as an unspeakably bloodthirsty affair, with literally thousands killed within minutes.

Even allowing for artistic licence, this image bears little resemblance to what happened in the thick of battle, according to Phil Sabin, a lecturer in the department of war studies at King's College, London.

Focusing on the mechanics of battle in the second Punic war (218-201 BC) between the Romans and Carthaginians, when the whole of the western Mediterranean was at stake, Dr Sabin's study suggests that ancient soldiers prized their lives rather more than Hollywood has given them credit for.

Dr Sabin says: "The mechanics of massed heavy infantry combat is the central enigma of Punic War battles and of ancient battles in general. We know such clashes lasted for hours rather than minutes and yet casualties were relatively light - 5 per cent or less - in the period before one side broke off and the real slaughter began."

Dr Sabin's study of the war, which Rome won, draws on a wide range of sources including the works of Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Polybius.

He says that during conflicts the opposing armies set up camp between one and seven miles apart. Combat kicked off with light infantry and cavalry skirmishes between camps, until one side, perhaps fed up with the harassment, deployed its main battle line of heavy infantry. The opponent then "accepted the challenge".

Even after this, armies occasionally stood facing each other for several days without engaging. Dr Sabin says this was probably because neither side wanted to give up a favourable position near camp.

But the biggest problem for military historians is that it is impossible to envisage how, once engagement had taken place, opposing front-rankers could fight at arm's length or closer for well over an hour without far greater mutual casualties.

Another difficulty, Dr Sabin says, is that it is hard to imagine, once they were in that position, a non-suicidal way for one side to break off combat.

"If that occurred then all bets would be off - the retreating side would be chased and many slaughtered, most likely hacked or speared to death from the back," Dr Sabin says.

So what were the opposing massed front-rankers doing for all those hours at the start of "heavy" engagement?

Dr Sabin says: "I suspect the real reason for the long, drawn-out, but not initially bloody nature of the confrontations, was that a lot more time was spent by troops in throwing insults and missiles at each other from a distance of several yards. There were actually only brief flurries of sword-to-sword or shield-to-shield contact at this stage of the battle."

He also points out that javelin supplies would have been limited and the majority of them fended off by shields - further supporting the scenario of drawn-out confrontations with relatively light casualties.

Dr Sabin says that another reason to dismiss the massed hand-to-hand combat popularised by Hollywood is that it has actually played little part in warfare in the past three centuries, with only a tiny proportion of battle casualties being caused by the bayonet.

"We should not assume too readily that ancient troops were stout-hearted enough to charge blithely into sword reach of the enemy and stay there indefinitely, as the images of an enormous armed scrum or of an impossibly prolonged series of Hollywood sword duels seem to imply."

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