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Most realistic movie depictions of ancient warfare
The most typical Hollywood depiction of a war scene in the ancient world is a frenzied mass of individual combats, each one ending in the death of one of its participants, with the 2 armies interpenetrating each other and no traces of units remaining.

So far few, but very few movie depictions of ancient warfare have shown fighting in formation and the tactical line reliefs that supposedly marked the fundamental character of ancient warfare.

Which movies are, in your opinion, the most realistic portrayals of ancient war?
My vote would have to go to the 2004 film Alexander. I especially like the Battle of Gaugamala far as Hollywood goes it cannot be beat!
(Since Alexander was taken Smile)
While far from perfect, the opening scene in HBO's Rome was at least a stab in the right direction. No, it didn't include a pila volley and didn't show any of the surrounding legion, but we at least got legionaries in hamata who fought as a unit. No instant wild melee. Then, when one guy broke ranks to pull some Gerard Butler nonsense, he was regarded as a nuisance rather than a hero. Same errant legionary then decked his Centurio, for which he was condemned to die.
Take what you want, and pay for it

-Spanish proverb
Indeed, the Hollywood Roman concept of the chaotic battle is firmly ingrained, though as pointed out by Alexander and Matthew, there are a couple of notable exceptions. It is unfortunate the budget constraints keep the HBO Rome from doing justice to several famous battles.

One more I would add is Kubrick's Spartacus. The march in of the Roman legions at the start of the final battle (a scene not in the script but which Kubrick insisted must be filmed) does convey the might, the majesty, and the discipline of the Roman legions. Unfortunately, the battle does eventually devolve into standard Hollywood Roman Chaotic, but, the opening looks good.

I might also note that it was said of Akira Kurosawa that his battles were confused without being confusing -- a directorial skill few other film makers have achieved.


David Reinke
Burbank CA
The scene from the HBO Rome series referred to by Matthew:


David Reinke
Burbank CA
Thanks. I wonder why Hollywood has hardly even bothered to make even the most superficial study into the mechanics of ancient warfare. A scene in which soldiers fought in an ordered formation could be just as impressive as the chaotic mass.

Most people who have never studied into ancient warfare would actually think that the Hollywood versions were realistic, which in practice wouldn't make any sense.
If ancient battles were really wild one-to-one combats, would victory always belong to the side which has more soldiers?
I don't see this changing, the reason being that people find formation fighting boring and the greatest sin in Hollywood is boring the audience. The first 3 minutes of the Hot Gates batle in 300 was actually pretty good. It conveyed the tremendous effort and strain of men trying desperately to hold the integrity of their phalanx, covering immediately after thrusting, using their shields to push, etc. But 3 minutes is about as long as that sort of thing will hold most audiences' attention, and they had to let it break up into individual fights. Let's face it, those of us who appreciate accurate archaic battle tactics are a somewhat tiny minority.

For much of the history of movies, people have been conditioned by depictions of modern (post 19th century) battle. In modern warfare the formation is there, it's just so widespread and dispersed that it's invisible to observers so what we see is small-unit tactics within the context of a much larger battle - Tom Hanks' little group of Rangers in "Saving Private Ryan", for instance, or Winters' paratroopers in "Band of Brothers." You only see the formations in those scenes of guys back in London pushing unit markers around on a big map.

The Gaugamela battle in "Alexander" was very well done, but it paid much more attention to the chaotic cavalry engagements than to the slogging battle of the phalanxes against Persian infantry. That's showbiz.
Pecunia non olet
The genius of HBO's Rome is that they tried to catch the battle from the common soldier's limited view - in keeping with the fact that the story follows two men who are not involved in grand tactics. Of course, it also allowed for a cost-savings as not so many actors/ extras were needed. The filming and the story-telling of HBO's Rome was done in such a way that there was excitement and suspense in the battle scene as the viewer had a chance to experience the battle from the view of Vorenus and Pullo in their respective places and roles in the battle. When Pullo charged out to in advance of his own Roman line, he was carrying too far the need for some brave soldiers to break those holes in the enemy line, which can then be exploited by their comrades. If he had broken an opening, but then allowed his fellow soldiers to help widen it, he might have instead gotten a reward from Caesar. He lost self-control and was punished for it.
Quinton Johansen
Marcus Quintius Clavus, Optio Secundae Pili Prioris Legionis III Cyrenaicae
As producer Darryl F, Zanuck opined: "There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic."

This is somewhat ironic, given his own film, The Longest Day, was very accurate. Now some might counter that Saving Private Ryan was far more dramatic. Perhaps, but in many ways I view Band Of Brothers as the attempt by Spielberg and Hanks to be both dramatic and accurate, thus making up for any deficits Pvt. Ryan may have had. To a very large extent I think they succeeded.

One can only wonder if some director might not achieve that same level of success (critical and financial) with a film or series set in the ancient world. I doubt Ang Lee's Cleopatra will be that film, but perhaps someday a director will surprise us.


David Reinke
Burbank CA
I did enjoy some of the battle scenes from TV movie/documentary Hannibal with Alexander Siddig especially the battle at Cannae where it started with the Roman lines advancing on the Carthaginians before breaking up into the usual series of individual fights but I remember one scene where the Romans are concentrating on pushing the centre of Hannibal's infantry lines & while they were busy pushing you could see the Libyan infantry assembling on the flanks for the famous envelopment. Although it isn't big budget & cheap CGI & it does have it's faults like when Hannibal has a conference with his commanders & tells them they will be going through France instead of Gaul & I am sure members of this forum would have a field day with the faults in costuming but it was enjoyable. Shot in Bulgaria. IMDB reference below.
I shall post screen grabs of some battle scenes from movie below. Apologies for quality.





Michael Kerr

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Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
I think it's also worth remembering that the Romans themselves loved stories about heroic soldiers taking on the enemy single-handedly - you had to do something pretty damn foolhardy to earn a corona muralis after all. Engaging in melee combat out of ranks was also an important part of displaying virtus to one's commander as well.

The opening of the HBO Rome series strayed slightly from Caesar's own portrayal of these soldiers, which I think is worth bearing in mind (apologies for the outdated translation):

'In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pulfio, and L. Varenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity. When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pulfio, one of them, says, "Why do you hesitate, Varenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes." When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Varenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after. Then, when an inconsiderable space intervened, Pulfio throws his javelin at the enemy, and pierces one of the multitude who was running up, and while the latter was wounded and slain, the enemy cover him with their shields, and all throw their weapons at the other and afford him no opportunity of retreating. The shield of Pulfio is pierced and a javelin is fastened in his belt. This circumstance turns aside his scabbard and obstructs his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowd around him when [thus] embarrassed. His rival runs up to him and succors him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turn from Pulfio to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Varenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pulfio brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.'

The HBO series invented a class/rank tension between them, but that could have been filmed as a stock Hollywood buddy movie scene.

The problem with the Spartacus depiction of battle cited above is that that kind of regimented warfare was a product of the mechanisation of warfare, as rifles had to be operated in a synchronised manner to be effective. Big regular rectangles moving around the battlefield Total War-style is really even less realistic than the mile-long line of men hitting each other's shields with their swords. For what it's worth though, my favourite on-screen depiction of Roman warfare is Pompey drawing out his failed battle in the sand in the HBO Rome - evocative as it needs to be. Sounds like I should try watching the battle scenes in Alexander, though...
Vorenus' quick dispatch of the no-good fellow at the campfire, while not a "battle", was probably pretty realistic. A pugio in the throat will put an end to most any conversation, I reckon.
M. Demetrius Abicio
(David Wills)

Saepe veritas est dura.
Quote:The problem with the Spartacus depiction of battle cited above is that that kind of regimented warfare was a product of the mechanisation of warfare, as rifles had to be operated in a synchronised manner to be effective. Big regular rectangles moving around the battlefield Total War-style is really even less realistic than the mile-long line of men hitting each other's shields with their swords.

Why would it be unrealistic? The Romans certainly did deploy their cohorts in rectangular formation, as shown in this article:
Hi, re my previous post & the BBC historical drama/documentary Hannibal, I looked at YouTube & found a clip of the battle of Cannae from the movie & thought it would be more interesting than the screen grabs.

Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
Quote:Why would it be unrealistic? The Romans certainly did deploy their cohorts in rectangular formation, as shown in this article:
There's no real contradiction in saying both were true. The Romans may have had an ideal conception of how a battle line should be put into place, but the reality of battle would have been much more confused, especially once units got into melee.

It's still anachronistic to show Roman armies marching around perfectly in step with each either though, as seen in HBO's Rome and in that battle scene in Spartacus. That's just how we've expected armies to look since the mechanization of warfare. Simon James and Sara Elise Phang have discussed this issue in length in relation to Roman discipline.

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