Review: History Channel's Warrior's Way
“Never judge a book by its cover.” I have no idea who first articulated these wise words, but I admit to pre-judging the History Channel’s new series “Warrior’s Way” unfairly.
An earlier post, which can be read here, was rather critical of an advertisement for the series ahead of the first episode's airing on UK television. In the post, an opening screenshot taken from one of the many recreated fight scenes in this history documentary was used to illustrate some of the faults with such recreations. I've since had the opportunity to watch the episode concerning the Romans that sparked my criticism and must report that it rather hits the mark.
Episode four from series one, "Iulius: First Citizen Warrior", focused its attention on Julius Ubius, a legionary of Germanic descent. In doing so, the documentary establishes the ethnic diversity of Rome’s legions and how the son of non-citizen can, in the right circumstances, gain their citizenship and serve as a citizen soldier.
The documentary is divided into four parts, the first of which, “Legions and Auxiliaries”, explains the difference and describes how young Iulius’ father joins an auxiliary cohort to serve Rome. Part two highlights basic training and the weapons of the Roman soldier as Iulius, now a citizen thanks to his father completing 20 year of service and being granted citizenship, pursues a career in the legions.
Part three “Strategy” starts in 52 BC to look at the Gaius Julius Caesar’s siege of Alesia but cuts straight to an opening shot of the Coliseum! Amazing, as the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre (popularly known today as the “Coliseum”) was started by the Emperor Vespasian in AD 70 some 122 years later! This highlights the problem with using stock footage and with editors who either have no idea of chronology or have a total disregard for historical accuracy; neither of which bodes well for the documentary’s credibility as history.
Later in this segment, we are introduced to Iulius’ attestation into the Roman army whereupon the following is shown while accompanied by a voiceover:
To be honest, elements in this screenshot seem familiar but the whole thing sounds a little too much like the US Army creed, and others popular in the US military. I have not been able to ascertain whether this is a genuine translation from a Roman sacramentum militare (military oath), but we do have the text of the oath recorded by Vegetius:
On a more positive note, in one scene Iulius is shown tying his helmet under his chin - brilliant! I also loved that contributors Eric Walters and Paul Gareth Gwynne both pronounced Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gallic forces at the siege of Alesia, in the Latinised form “Wer-kin-get-orix”. Unsurprisingly for a US broadcaster, most of the contributors providing the historical context of the story are from American universities, predominantly those with faculties in Rome.
Part four, "The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest", is where this documentary has been leading. According to our narrator, Jon Rand: "The Romans needed to adapt and quickly. They began to think and fight like the Germanic tribes." I think it is safe to say that that is exactly what did not happen. Led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, three legions, six cohorts of auxiliary troops (non-citizens or allied troops) and three squadrons of cavalry (alae) were ambushed and systematically destroyed by an alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius. Most of these troops lacked combat experience. The local conditions, the terrain and the stormy weather described by Dio Cassius, meant the Roman forces were not marching in combat formation. They had to follow rudimentary trails meandering among the Germans’ farmsteads, scattered fields, pastures, bogs and oak forests. As they did so, the line of march - already seven or eight miles long, including local auxiliaries, camp followers and a train of baggage carts pulled by mules - became dangerously extended. Dio Cassius also writes that Varus neglected to send out reconnaissance parties ahead of the main body of troops and that, "while the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once.” The Germanic warriors ambushed the Roman column, probably at several points along its length, hurling volleys of javelins from a distance. These preliminary skirmishes would have done much to demoralise an already disconcerted Roman force.
The nearest Roman base lay at Haltern, 60 miles to the southwest so, on the second day, Varus pressed on doggedly in that direction. On the third day, he and his troops were entering a passage between a hill and a huge swamp known as the Great Bog that, in places, was no more than 60 feet wide. As the increasingly chaotic and panicky mass of legionaries, cavalrymen, mules and carts inched forward, Germans appeared from behind trees and sand-mound barriers, cutting off all possibility of retreat. In open country, the superbly drilled and disciplined Romans surely would have prevailed, but with no room to manoeuvre, exhausted after days of hit-and-run attacks, unnerved, they were defeated in detail. Arminius knew the Romans could not quickly co-ordinate a reaction to his battle plan because he knew they had not adapted to thinking and fighting like his Germanic warriors.
The Re-enacted Battles Cue the obligatory re-enactment scene, which is where Warrior’s Way is largely let down. Creating background scenes appropriate to the period has become de rigeur in history documentaries. Unfortunately, liberties are taken with so many aspects: anachronistic costume because what is assumed to be the popular view of how a Roman looks ignores the fact that fashion changes over time. To use a Roman military example, if you are depicting soldiers from the Republican, the Imperial period, or the Late Roman period, then their clothing and equipment changed over the centuries and is distinctive of each era. If you are discussing the campaigns of Julius Caesar, then showing images of soldiers in segmented plate armour is not only inaccurate but the latter is a half century into the future. Turning that idea on its head, how seriously would you take a documentary on the First World War if it showed advancing red-jacketed infantry of the Crimean War some sixty years earlier!
Throughout the episode, the producers have intercut stock footage from earlier documentaries, and this is the root of the problem. The most obvious of these is “Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire”, a 2008/9 History Channel presentation made by Baltic Film Services based in Vilnius, Lithuania. This series is notable for copious fight sequences usually involving Rome’s enemies performing a pre-cursor of the “Highland Charge” crashing into the legionaries and the fight devolving into a “hack ‘n’ slash” meleé of individual combats. These are hackneyed portrayals where the Roman soldiers' collective discipline and training is simply forgotten for dramatic effect. There are several problems with this approach. The frenzied attacks by the “barbarians” simply demonstrate that the extras and stunt crew were fully cogniscent this was a stage fight and that they faced an “enemy” clearly not intent on killing them. If the latter were the case, i.e. an actual fight where serious injury or death was a real option, then they might have acted a little more circumspect. I am not saying that some warriors did not experience a form of “battle frenzy”, or were so confident in their fighting abilities that they would risk life and limb, it is just that most people would be far more cautious and avoid unnecessary danger. While dramatic for the uninitiated, the “hack ‘n’ slash” meleé is not a wholly accurate portrayal of ancient battles. Second unit directors need to have a rethink, perhaps guided by some expert advice?
That said, there is no reason to believe that the Roman soldier could not fight individual, one-on-one, combats, but their training emphasised team cohesion. A soldier breaking formation not only risked his own life but endangered those of his comrades. There is a real strength, physical and psychological, in working closely together.
Allied to this, a fully equipped, trained and disciplined Roman soldier would have been a formidable opponent. Facing one you would quickly realise that he was very well protected by his helmet, body-armour and large curved shield (scutum). Indeed, the Roman’s only vulnerabilities would have been his face (where the helmet’s overall protection is traded off to improve breathing and vision), his sword arm when striking at an opponent, and the lower part of his leading left leg. The large shield, if handled correctly, offered a superb defence and was immensely difficult to circumvent. Yet, time and again, the eastern European zeal for a “good punch up” depicts battles fought as one-on-one combats. Even worse, in many of these scenes the Roman soldiers have dispensed with their shields. Why on earth would anyone get rid of their best defence, the one item that enhances their chances of survival? Is it because the director shouts “Action!”?
Call the Fashion Police The other major failing of using stock footage occurs when directors or editors play fast and loose with the timeline. Unfortunately Warrior's Way suffers lamentably from this problem as evidenced by frequent depictions of Roman soldiers from periods unconnected with the subject at hand. One of the opening sequences clearly shows Roman soldiers dressed for battle in the Punic Wars (against Carthage) in the 3rd-century BC.
Fairly early on the viewer will witness scenes of early Republican soldiers marching past, which then cuts to legionaries of the 1st-century AD before showing footage from a documentary on Constantine I and the rival 4th-century AD armies clashing at the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. At best there is nearly five hundred years separating these men and, just as Tudor fashion is, well, unfashionable today, the clothing and equipment of the Roman soldier changed over time. Clearly much of the stock footage was taken from a documentary or series on the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage or, most likely, the story of Hannibal. The documentary is supposedly set in the years leading to AD 9, so to continually show early period Republican soldiers is inaccurate, misleading and plain wrong. This editorial time travelling is hard to defend.
The faux pas are not limited to inappropriate dress for the stated time. The screenshot right is of re-enactors, whom I believe are from eastern Europe, portraying Roman legionaries. Once again scenes featuring this group form the stock footage that regularly appears in documentaries on the Roman army. Sadly the quality of the group's equipment - their body-armour, shields, weapons and helmets - is quite poor. If we ignore the modern rivets, I am not aware of an exemplar Roman period helmet with a corrugated bowl of the style worn by this group. At the risk of being thought dismissive of their efforts, it should be born in mind that the footage was filmed some time ago and it is quite possible that the group were new to the re-enacting world. If so, then the historical accuracy of their equipment can be forgiven. A full panoply of good quality clothing, arms and armour is very expensive but given time, mistakes ought to be corrected and the poorer items replaced.
Another faux pas that persistently appears is shown in the two images below: stirrups! Spoiler alert - the Romans did not use stirrups. Stirrups were not introduced to Europe much before the collapse of the western Roman Empire, and in any case the use of the four-horned saddle meant they were not needed.
Yet, when recreating ancient horsemen, stirrups are all too frequently seen. This is quite understandable for a couple of reasons:
Cavalry have always been expensive to field. To recreate a Roman "spectacular" or even the base Roman cavalry unit, a turma of 30 horsemen, is similarly expensive and logistically challenging. There are too few Roman four-horned saddles for hire and too few riders practiced at using them.
The dearth of skilled riders causes alarm bells to ring for media producers in terms of liability insurances and for health and safety reasons. It is far easier, and cheaper, to allow today's actors, extras and riders to use modern saddles and stirrups which can be disguised.
Modern saddles are typically hidden with saddle blankets, but the resulting silhouette in no way recreates the Roman or other ancient treed saddle. As for stirrups, well, see above.
And finally, History Channel's series "Warrior's Way", and particularly the fourth episode "Iulius: First Citizen Soldier", is definitely worth watching. Bear in mind, however, that it is an entry level docudrama introducing the general viewer to the Roman army of the early 1st-century AD. It is not aimed at historians or the experienced Roman re-enactor. The narrative and input from the expert contributors is informative and balances the educational and entertainment needs of such documentaries. Yet, the criticisms in both this and the earlier post remain extant. Docudramas seem to be the favoured medium by programme makers and broadcasters to appeal to and maintain the modern viewers' interest. Well researched and good quality history documentaries, however, are all too frequently let down by poorly provisioned, cheaply made re-enactment scenes. As Romanists, it is easier to spot the errors and incongruities in our chosen field of interest. In doing so, however, one is then left questioning what mistakes programme makers are peddling to audiences in other historical arenas in which we are less qualified to comment. Regardless, such documentaries should spur us to be certain of our facts, update our knowledge with new information and stand ready to educate people that what the saw on television or on film may not be wholly accurate. Now there's a challenge.
1. Iulius’ cognomen (last name) indicates he was born to the Germanic Ubii tribe whose lands were in the area of modern-day Köln. Interestingly, when portraying a "Roman soldier", the author's name, Lucius Calpernius Pudens, was borrowed from said legionary's tombstone in Mainz which also states he was from the same tribe.
2. Part of the commentary stated an Auxiliary soldier would get citizenship after 20 years’ service but that this was “more likely for a chief than for a common soldier”. Maybe, but I am not convinced of the logic of this argument. If Rome needed soldiers, then extending citizenship more widely would go a long way to aid recruitment. Moreover, it was also stated that Auxiliaries gaining their citizen rights would “adopt the cultural ways…hairstyles, diet and dress” of the Romans. Again, I am not convinced. Auxiliary soldiers would have been equipped by the state so a degree of uniformity, such that it existed, would have encouraged early adoption of Roman “hairstyles, diet and dress”. The army had rules, so it is highly unlikely that, by the Imperial period, auxiliaries would have kept their tribal customs.
3. Eric Walters, PhD, Assistant Professor of Classics, History and Religious Studies at John Cabot University.
4. Paul Gareth Gwynne, PhD, Professor of Mediæval and Renaissance Studies at the American University in Rome.
5. Publius Quinctilius Varus was an experienced administrative official from a noble patrician family that was related to the Imperial family.
6. Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX. These three legions were never reconstituted after the Varian Disaster (Latin: Clades Variana).
7. Bordewich, F.M. (2006), "The Ambush That Changed History", Smithsonian Magazine.
8. Defeat in detail, or divide and conquer, is the military tactic of bringing a large portion of one's own force to bear on small enemy units in sequence, rather than engaging the bulk of the enemy force all at once.
9. The Turma! event in Carlisle in July 2018 was both a public spectacle and a piece of historical research. The aim was to expand the understanding of Roman cavalry equipment and the Hippika Gymnasia, the ritual tournaments performed by the cavalry of the Roman Empire to display their expertise and practice their skills. The event was the first to recreate a fully equipped Roman turma of 30 cavalrymen and horses.
10. A docudrama is a genre of radio and television programming, feature film, and staged theatre, which features dramatized re-enactments of actual events.