Settle down to watch any sword and sandals movie and you’ll probably be treated to at least one huge set piece battle sequence. Warfare was a frequent part of life back in ancient times with civilizations like the Chinese, Greeks and Romans amassing huge armies and increasingly sophisticated strategies and weapons. But is what we’re seeing now, centuries later, really how these battles would have been fought?
Who Rows the Ships?
There are many iconic moments in the 1959 Oscars juggernaut “Ben Hur” but the slave ship battle scene did slightly goof. While it was not unknown for Roman ships to have artillery weapons on board, it was far more common for ships to merely ram into their enemies. Having heavy weapons that were not always reliable and could get wet did not lend itself to the Roman’s preferred tactics of hitting and running. Or ramming and sailing away. Ships often had bronze battering rams to punch holes in other vessels which was a much surer way of sinking a ship than trying to aim arrows or cannon balls at it.
Romans were also great fans of a device called a “Corvus”or “raven’. This was, in essence, a long board with a hook or spike at the end, resembling a raven’s beak. They would sail close enough to an enemy ship to drop the board across, forming a bridge that they could use to rush over and hopefully subdue the other side. Boarding vessels like this was a clever way of turning a sea battle, where the Romans were less experienced, almost into a land battle, where they excelled against most of their opponents.
Using people power to row the boats meant that they became very manoueverable and able to alter their speed quickly. This could only be achieved through discipline and working as a team. Therefore, Charlton Heston would probably not have been flexing his muscles on a Roman warship, as it was more likely to have been a team of trained soldiers that manned the vessels rather than slaves. The rowers could then also be used as a reserve attacking force if necessary and were guaranteed to be on the Roman’s side, unlike some disgruntled and disenfranchised enemy slaves.
Shield Wall Shambles
There’s nothing like seeing a spectacular battle reenacted on the big screen, especially when it’s a huge set piece featuring up close combat and hundreds of extras. The battle scenes in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 epic “Troy” tick all those boxes but how does it fare on the historical accuracy front? When the Greeks rock up on the shores of the Trojan beach, they run into opposition and almost immediately Brad Pitt calls his cohorts to form a shield wall. They seamlessly interlock their shields to form something that looks like a giant armoured insect and advance up the beach a few metres before breaking cover again and rushing the enemy. This is all well and good apart from the fact that shield walls were not in use at this point in history. The earliest mentions of them can be dated to around 800 or 700 BC with the Trojan war being set at least a couple of hundred years prior to that.
This is not the only shield wall oopsy to be found in the movies. The most famous formation, you know the one, is called the Testudo, or “tortoise”. This is where a group of soldiers essentially box themselves in with their shields on the outside and above them, giving them protection from missiles. It’s called “the tortoise” in reference to a tortoise’s shell, however, it may as well be a comment on the slow speed of the animal. This formation takes organization, time and space to achieve. Soldiers on a battlefield are not a synchronized team of flashmob-esque dancers, ready to spin into the correct location and position at a moments’ notice. And while the soldiers inside were protected by the shields, they had to move as a unit to maintain the shape, hence it was a slow and steady formation. It was also pretty common for these Testudo formations to be large enough to encompass high numbers of soldiers and even animals with supplies. The formations were so strong, in fact, that they could be walked or driven over so could be used as makeshift bridges but you never see that element onscreen.
All this is to say that the Testudo formation was generally used as a stationary object to protect access points or to hunker down and protect troops in siege conditions. So when you see a Testudo quickly forming or pushing forward in battle like in “Gladiator” or “300”, for example, in real life, it just didn’t go down like that.
My Kingdom for a Horse
It’s a common thing on the big screen to see mounted cavalry charging into battle, cutting poor soldiers down left, right and centre and then there’s also the horrible sight of flailing horse limbs as the animals themselves get knocked to the ground. Several soldiers on horseback are taken out by the same big lug at the Trojan beach battle in the movie “Troy” and in 1961’s “The Trojan Horse”, many, many mounted troops are shown. While horses would have made an appearance in battles at this time, they would most likely be pulling things or carrying just a few important people around. Actual ranks of mounted cavalry did not appear in the Ancient Greek military for many hundreds of years after the Trojan War was set. In fact, at that time, owning a horse was something only the wealthy could afford and it was seen as a huge status symbol. There was no way that people would throw their horses willy-nilly into a battle situation, especially as there was no real precedent for horseback fighting a thousand-odd years BC.
Hopping over to Ancient Egypt, another Ridley Scott epic, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, also makes these same mistakes. There are further anachronisms too, like handy modern stirrups for the riders to use and horseshoes on all the horses. Horseshoes were not a thing until at least 700 years after this film is set, although presumably it would be too cumbersome to remove them post-production. Stirrups do not make an appearance in recorded history until around 580 AD which is almost 2000 years after “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is set.
Mixing it Up
“Ready? CHARGE!” so yells the King or General or a horn gets blown and two huge lines of previously well-organised troops just rush head-on into each other. Everyone gets mixed up and miraculously only attacks their enemy as they are handily distinguishable by haircut, facepaint or shield type. Sound likely? Of course not. And that’s because it. didn’t. happen. You may be able to remember what the person to either side of you looks like for a few seconds but in the heat of battle you’d be hard-pressed to recognize your own mother before it was too late.
Even the layperson can see that two sides just colliding is not the best way to advance on the battlefield. Ancient era military tactics were just as sophisticated for the time as they are now so the soldiers would have been far more defensive and less likely to run straight to their deaths. To win a battle does not always mean killing every single person on the opposing side. Often, once a strategic advantage was won, the losing side could surrender, yield or run away. The battlefield was not usually littered with thousands of corpses.
In reality, the Romans used a more “stab and retreat” defensive tactic and were very into maintaining formations but obviously this does not make for as breathtaking a big screen spectacle as close-quarters desperate slashing. This is one of the most common tropes for any movie with a battle scene but it’s definitely one that’s been incorrectly popularised.
Let me throw some names out there for you – Minerva, Roman goddess of, amongst other things, strategic warfare. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war who was born fully grown and wearing a suit of armour. Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of war. Notice anything about who the ancient people prayed to about warfare? Yep, there seemed to be a lot of female deities that held high power positions in the warfare stakes. Now think about any film about warfare that you’ve ever seen. Apart from the occasional princess or noble lady pretending to be a man and sneaking into the ranks, how many times have you seen normal women represented as fighters on the screen? They’re usually hustling down passageways to shelter in caves or not being listened to by groups of older men. Well, as it turns out, women have been on the battlefield as leaders and fighters all over the globe approximately since time began.
There is recorded evidence as far back as the 17th century BC of Egyptian queen Ahhotep 1 having been instrumental in rallying troops during a battle. And archaeologists have frequently uncovered graves in Eurasia which showed warrior women buried alongside men. Some of these, found in Pokrovka, Russia in the 1990s have even been touted as the real-life Amazons, warrior women of Greek mythology. Patty Jenkins’ 2017 “Wonder Woman” movie brought to life the mythical version of a group of fearsome female fighters living on a protected island who stood as protectors of humanity. Obviously historical Amazons weren’t that amazing but the excavated graves of female skeletons with weapons have shown them to be much taller than average for the time, definitely lending credence to the warrior mythos.
Unfortunately, as much of history has been recorded by men and studied by male scholars, the role of women in battle has been viewed unfairly, incorrectly or sometimes ignored altogether.
300? Yeah, and Then Some
If you’ve seen Zack Synder’s 2007 pec-fest “300”, you’ll be aware that maybe it isn’t 100% historically accurate. If the variety of accents and the elaborately pierced and bejewelled enormo-God Xerxes aren’t an obvious giveaway, also be aware that it’s an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel which itself used history books as a springboard to create a story. Visually impressive though it is, do not rely on watching the movie as preparation the night before your history test.
While it is widely accepted that Spartan King Leonidas brought 300 of his best warriors to defend the narrow pass at Thermopylae, don’t forget that they picked up other fighters on the way. In the end, their army was estimated to number about 7000. Of course this was still a drop in the ocean compared to the invading Persians whose army was probably at least 100,000 strong. When the Persians eventually found an alternative route around the pass, the last-army standing they discovered was around 1400 men, over 4 times what popular culture has come to believe. The other groups involved in the fatal last stand other than the Spartans were Thebans and Thespians. King Leonidas apparently took men with existing male heirs to carry on their bloodline in the face of death and the 300 Spartans he took with him was actually only a small percentage of the available fighting force. The Thespians, on the other hand, lost about 700 men at Thermopylae which was nearly the entire population of fighting age men and effectively wiped out a whole generation.