Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are more powerful than we can imagine.

The Encounter

The ocean expressed a lime green. The day was clear with a blue sky that was supposed to be a reflection of the water, but God had decided today was not the day for that to happen. Still, today had been deceiving in many ways. The ocean was rough, causing the vessel to rock back and forth with more momentum than usual. It was a constant irritant in the mind of those who crewed and operated the ship heading for shore. It would be a few hours but the ship was on schedule. They had crossed through the Philippines (from his majesty, King Phillip of Spain) and as a point of reference had shadowed the coast of China, stocking and trading goods for silk to bring to Japan. In many ways, the clear ocean was a relief since there had been fear the ship would hit a storm and capsize near the coast before they even made it to their destination. A lot of crewmen had thanked God for the safe journey and made their way through the day preparing cargo to be unloaded from their crates and barrels.
“How long until port?”, one of the idle passengers asked, his back leaning against the barrister of the ship with his arms crossed and head bowed.
“You mean Nagasaki?”, the other replied, leaning forward and looking out to sea.
“Yes”, Hans replied after a brief silence. He was a stern man, stocky in height, with fair ruffled hair after months at sea. He was dressed in the traditional way a civilian from Europe would be, more specifically the Holy Roman Empire. He was from Stuggart himself but that hadn’t stopped him at any point from wanting to travel, despite the objections from his father. In the long term, it didn’t matter really anyway. He had never seen the satisfaction in living an idle life in the city, the outside called to him. In the way the world worked, there were Kings and Queens, nobles, merchants and everyone else. They were endowed their liberties and in many ways he had to find his own as well, as was given to him by the almighty. It had caused him to travel and find somewhere else to go. A tight fitting tunic clung to his body and was a vast contrast to the trousers he wore, which flared out from the waist and cut off at the ankles where tights ended the journey to the feet; the trousers were decorated with strips on top of the fabric, the strips being a maroon on top of the green which it laid upon.
“You know why you’re here, I don’t need to remind you”, the other figure said.
“I don’t know Himmel, why don’t you tell me again?”, Hans replied irritated. The other man was a taller, slender, man who had clear blond hair, balding, and softer features. In many ways, he was also better looking compared to his stout and broad shouldered partner.
“This is my second journey to Nagasaki. Hopefully like the first time we can get trading rights over the Portuguese, those Catholic bastards”. Himmel glanced at Hans before looking out to sea again.
“So, this place sounds interesting from what you’ve told me. Are they really like what you’ve told me?”.
“Yeah, it’s nothing like you’ve seen before, you’ll see soon for yourself. They even look different to anything you’ve seen as well”.
“They can’t be that different, we’ve crossed some weird places”.
“Nope, these people are something else; more than anywhere we’ve been anyway”. He glanced to the side of Han’s waist.
“You’re not still carrying that thing are you?”. Hans opened his eyes and looked down to the sidearm he was carrying. It was a long blade, with an elegant conforming scabbard, accompanied by a slender handle that inwardly dipped twice to accompany two hands, cutting off with an almond shaped pommel. The blade itself was broad but tapered to an eventual point and thus formed a shallow triangle. Whoever had made it had put care into it and various anthropomorphic images had been carved into both the cross guard and pommel. The cross guard itself was a simple straight line that flared outwards towards the end and was accompanied by a beautifully etched ring. It protected the grip and stretched from one start of the cross guard to the other.
“It’s a bit outdated, I mean it is 1600. You could do better for yourself, there are better swords that do the job easier. After all, a bodyguard needs a useful blade”, he said, tapping the scabbard of his cutlass. It was a simple thing, a single edged cutlass with a rectangular knuckle guard that offered modest protection.
“You better know how to use that thing, I’ve seen a lot of hands get cut”.
“I’m not completely inexperienced, I have used it before”.
Hans opened his eyes and looked at Himmel while his arms were still crossed.
“Himmel, there’s a reason why you chose me to accompany you and it wasn’t to be a drinking accomplice. From what you’ve told me, this place sounds dangerous”. It hadn’t been a simple choice but the benefits outweighed the risk, the pay was good as well; he would never get anything like that working in Stuttgart or as a Mercenary in Italy.
“You might have to be, they drink as much as us as well”, both chuckled slightly. Himmel continued.
“You’ll do fine, I know the school you served; your father knew the teacher if I understand correctly. Just be careful and keep your head down when we get there. The land’s fighting a war at the moment but things apparently have calmed down since”.
Things hadn’t been great in Europe either. His grandfather had served in the siege of Munster and was one of the first to enter the gates and slaughter the Anabaptists as a Landsknecht. When Hans grew up, he would accompany his father various times as well as attend one of the more prestigious schools in Stuggart; purely by chance as his father knew the master from their time together. That experience had taught him to be competent. He wasn’t great compared to some fencers, but he sure wasn’t sloppy either. Apart from that, things hadn’t been as bad as they were 50 years ago; though that was obviously a matter of opinion; he had been a witness to what was going on in France, needless to say it was a bloodbath. Himmel had been right about one thing though, this land they were going to had been at war for some time. Apparently, it had been brutal, as stories made their way to Nagasaki during Himmel’s time there. He was even fortunate enough to hear about heaps of bodies, even seeing some severed enemy heads at one point during his travels in West Japan. That wasn’t anything new, Hans guessed. His grandfather had told him what they did to the head Anabaptists at Munster. Tortured to death and hung in a cage on top of Munster Cathedral for all to see. The rest were decapitated, hung, drawn quartered and the lucky ones were burned alive.  Both had seen their share of brutality in both the Kaiser’s Empire and the Netherlands (where Himmel was from).
“Also be weary, there’s a few bastards there who like to drink; a few good con men as well. It’s not so different from where we were”.
“You mentioned they had long swords as well”. Himmel stared at Han’s sidearm for a second.
“Well, they are long and they are swords”, both of them chuckled.
“You never did say what they’re like though, Himmel”. Himmel thought to himself for short while.
“Well, they’re kind of like your sword and mine. Like some sort of two handed messer. I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest; well, apart from a few cleavers back in France. Even then, this one’s more slender. I can’t really say anything more than that to be honest”.
“Sounds like a mystery”.
“Not as mysterious as bloody Liechtenauer!”, replied Himmel. Both men laughed before Hans turned and gazed at the clear but irritable ocean, the smell of sea salt fresh in his nostrils. Both stood in what seemed like a tranquil pause, looking aimlessly and waiting for their destination.  


The arrival of the carrack to Nagasaki had happened sooner than anticipated. Different vessels docked the city, some recognizably European with their cannoned hulls and single masts which displayed the cross of Christ, while others took on a different appearance. Some were simple fishing vessel, nothing out of the ordinary, and one could obviously see their basic utility. Others were something out of the bible. Various ships circled the dock, all of them almost hulking blocks with smaller sails. Each of them were laden with troops, carrying spears and wearing weird cone hats, which Hans had never seen before. From the looks of things they were stocking up to travel, probably to another part of the land.
“We’re here earlier than expected”, Himmel said out of nowhere. “Good thing as well, last time we had pirates”.
Hans paused in surprise for a second. “Pirates? What, like Barbars?”
“Nothing like them, they had ships like those ones. The bastards were loaded, we thought they were coming for us at one point, they didn’t; something must have caught their attention”.
The wait to disembark took a while, by the time they had it was afternoon; they had arrived in the late morning. Climbing down to the smaller rafts was a hassle but after a few minutes they managed with the crew, while a select number stayed on the ship. Though the water was still slightly ruff, the shores gave a clear blue rather than the unsavoury lime they had experienced at sea. The city was a peculiar place. The dock was a place made of small white buildings with thatched roofs. Behind those were narrow streets full of larger walled courtyards and businesses with firm triangular tiled roofs that curved to the centre point. In the centre was a narrow and squared building that towered, like a fortification on top of a mound, narrowing as it got taller, surrounded by trees. Han’s guess was it was some sort of fortress.
“That’s Shimabara Castle, it’s ruled by the Arima Clan”.
“It’s nothing like I’ve seen before”, Hans replied.
“Nothing you’ll see will be, these people are warlords;”.
“But it’s a city, yes?”, Han’s inquired, curious about the place.
“There’s no council here”.
“That absurd”,
“Why? our lands used to be like that”, he had a point. Some were still like that. Growing up, Hans was told stories about how great lords ruled over the land. Things were changing but there were still lords and they still held large amounts of power. The rafts finally made an abrupt halt, rocking the passengers forward and slowly each of them disembarked, Himmel and Hans exiting first. They walked a short distance on a wooden palisade before coming to the entrance into the main city, a peculiar looking man in robes waited there. He had a large bald spot with a ponytail sticking out on the top; like an island surrounded by ocean. He wasn’t the only one, a lot of males walking around had the same style. He wore a navy blue robe underneath a grey overtop that covered to his waste. It looked like a jacket but was thinly joined to the waist in the front, being sleeveless as an outer garment. The trousers it was connected to flared outwards towards the feet, concealing them. Around his waist was what looked like a white sash and mounted were two handles to holstered swords. They were long, slender and curved in a shallow manner. The man looked at both men and then said something in a language Hans could barely understand, slurring and barking the words at the same time. Himmel replied similarly, barking a series of alien words. Himmel had taught Hans the language before they came, they had enough time on the ship. He picked up something about documents and the reasons for arrival.
The official, that was according to Himmel, eyed Hans up and down and noticed his longsword. After some more conversing, in which Himmel had to shut Hans up, the man let them through.
“Sorry about that, he’s an official for the local lord. They don’t like foreigners”.
“And you tell me that now?”, Hans scoffed in reply.
“I had to stop you talking, it takes a lot for them to believe you’re my bodyguard. They don’t like the thought of us carrying weapons personally, though that hasn’t stopped us from selling to them”. He had a point, our trade from the Dutch wouldn’t have been as important had it not been for the cargo of firearms and silk they were carrying. Unless it was sunflowers, the Shogun didn’t want to know.
“Looks to me like they don’t want danger on their shores”, Himmel nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, they have a lot of Christians here. The last thing they want is to have them armed”.
“That’s a bit absurd given the nature of what we’re doing”,
“That it is Hans, my friend”. Both of them glanced back to see the official taking out an arquebus out of the barrel and inspecting it. After a brief scan, he nodded at both of the crewman who picked up the cargo and carried it to the nearest warehouse.
“It’s a strange world we live in”, Himmel said after sighing, putting a hand around Hans’ shoulder.
“Do they have anything good here?”.
“You’re gonna have to see for yourself as well, it’s called sake”, Hans stayed quiet before opening up.
“Is it good?”
“Define good”.
“You could say that”. Hans stopped and looked at Himmel.
“Just a joke, Hans. It’s made from rice”.
“The hell is rice?”
“Ah, you’ve got a lot to see. Remember that drink we had from the Balkans when we were in Vienna? It kind of tastes like that but like beer as well. Come, we’ll go and try it”.
“This place have a tavern?”
“Yes, just play it safe and we’ll be fine”. While they were walking, people stopped and starred. The Portuguese were one thing, the Shogun was used to dealing with them. The Dutch and Germans were another, in Japan they were a rarer breed. Peasants and merchants passing by idly stared at them, Japanese officials glared at them and refused to remove their eyes, all of them holstered swords at the ready.


The tavern was dingy but also warm, the weather being on good terms since it was summer. It was getting dark but it there was still remnants of daylight outside. Embers of light were being opened by torches and lanterns outside, bringing animation to the increasing darkness. A lot of the doors were sliding doors made of paper but some in the coastal city were typically wooden. The sake was good, it has a certain flavour to it which was reminiscent of fruit. Others had scents of a wheat like substance. Either way, it reminding him of the Rakia they had in Vienna except this one didn’t pack as much of a punch, though there was a different kind of push on the throat that took some getting used to.  Hans didn’t mind as gulped back to ingest it. There was conversing in the building and laughing; two Japanese men had joined them and decided to help themselves to sake as well; fortunately.
“They have to be officials”, Himmel whispered to Hans. They were funny ones at that. Many an occasion the Europeans had burst out in laughter.
They’re promiscuous, these Japanese, Hans thought to himself; more so than anything back home. The tavern was getting crowded, the owners and their family rushed back and forth to deliver jugs of sake and food to people. Hans had helped himself to some, the dumplings were delicious, some had sweetened meat in them and others took shape of doughy delicacies. More people walked in, it must have been a busy time of week. Most men looked alike and the robes; everyone wore robes here (apart from the few Portuguese, unless they were  priests who were hooded most of the time as they made their way to the large cream church). Hans felt like he stood out, though unlike earlier people didn’t take much notice of him now. To them, he was just another foreigner from a land they had never visited. One of the officials they were with gulped their drink and suddenly fell back, crashing into a taller man with frizzy hair. Then, there was commotion. After a brief conversation, the barking got louder and increased as both men began to feverently argue.
“What’s going on?” Han’s said.
“The man’s honour’s been infringed on, our new friend spilled sake on him and he wants compensation; it’s not happening”. Suddenly, the man looked at Hans and Himmel. He barked a few sounds from his mouth but both stayed unmoved.
“I don’t think he likes either of you”, said one of the Japanese men they were sitting with.
“Why is that?”, queried Himmel in Japanese.
“He says you’re a foreign devil”.
“Tell him we’ve done nothing to wrong him, his friend did that”, Hans said to Himmel who relayed it back to the red nosed man who was clearly intoxicated. Himmel replied.
“He says you are a great liar and you will be hurt for your lies and dishonour”. The tavern abruptly went silent, everyone was starring at what was going on. The man barked some more inaudible words at Himmel before shouting in a fit of rage. Himmel reached for his cutlass but Hans stopped him.
“I’ll take care of this one”. Hans got up but before he could take action, the samurai had flipped the small table.
“Shi ga matte iru!”, the man yelled, drawing his sword while pushing his hips back to fasten the draw. Hans had no problem where this was going. He drew his longsword. The samurai assumed a stance, widening his feet and lowering the blade to his waist, holding the grip with both hands; the blade directed towards Hans. Hans stepped his right foot forward, also widening his stance and carried the weight on his front foot, with his blade slightly extended. Both paused, gauging each other’s reactions. The Samurai was the first to act. He flicked the sword upwards as a feint, causing Hans to engage with a block, before swinging down. Hans quickly hoped back while parrying the blow downwards. Accidentally, his leg hit the chair behind and nearly tripped but managed to regain composure before his opponent could do anything. Again, there was a lull; shouting sounded in the background. Everyone hung to their swords, not sure what was about to happen. The samurai switch his stance to an upper one, holding the grip next to this face and grounding himself again. Hans assumed the same footwork as before, this time putting the weight on his back foot, now the right. The samurai came at him again, slicing down with a downward blow. Hans parried the blade to the right and stepped in with the right. Pushing the sword aside, he closed in quickly and thrusted the man’s chest. The blade went through and with some struggle, Hans withdrew it. The man dropped instantly, laying on the floor dead.
“You thrusted him?” Himmel shouted above the murmuring in the room.
“We’re not in fucking Christendom anymore, Hemmel!”, Hans shouted back.
Shock dawned on most faces, anger grew on a few others. As instant as the corpse hit the floor, several men drew their swords. Himmel arose, drawing his cutlass with his right hand. Nevertheless, three of the men on the opposite side of the room went for Hans. Not wanting to be cornered Hans fled out of the building, barging through several people. They may have threatened him but holding a weapon and being pursued, no one was stupid enough. Running to the open street, Hans made sure to move about; the last thing he wanted to be cornered. All three warriors sprinted after him, taking similar stances to the samurai he just killed. Han’s weighted himself equally on both feet. All three rushed to attack him. From holding the sword behind, he swung the blade around, making sure to create wide arcs in the air and cone of defence. All three backed away, unsure of what to do. Hans made sure to keep swinging, deterring anyone who dared come any closer. The moment one warrior tried to flank him, he backed away pivoting both his feet and swinging his blade. What seemed like a lifetime passed, his arms began to feel weighted as the adrenaline decreased, he couldn’t keep it up forever. Suddenly, one of the warriors was struck through the neck with a clean swing before being thrusted through the back. The man screamed in agony as he fell to the ground; unsure of whether to clutch his back or neck. His cry silent as he gargled blood, the dark red gurgling from his mouth. Distracted, both men acted indecisive; one faced Himmel, the other switching between both men. This convenient distraction provided an opening, Hans rushed to the indecisive one. The man, noticing Hans, pointed his sword at him. Hans sidestepped to the right, sliding his sword on his opponents and in the bind wined the blade, flicking it to the right as it stepped to the left. The sword cleanly to away, he swung upwards and landed a clean cut to the head; whether dead or alive, the man fell. Realising he was outnumbered, the final person left fled. No person dared approach either survivor.
“You okay?”, Himmel said to Hans after wiping his blade with the fallen man’s robe.
“You told me to keep my head down”.
“Told you they didn’t like foreigners”, Hans wondered if the pay had been worth it but before he could, Himmel directed him elsewhere.
“I know an inn we can stay in until this blows over”.
“You better be right since you lied about this”.
“What are you talking about, I saved your ass”.
“Thank god”. Both men laughed and walked down the street, making sure to holster their weapons while they did so. A few people had gathered around since the event had garnered attention but took the role of passive observers, no one dared to do anything.


I was born in specialty ,
Growing up to not fit in,

I keep travelling to find what I’m
looking for,
Though I do not know what I want.

I see nothing but everything sees me.

I grasp nothing, I refuse nothing.
I receive but I do not keep.

When you search for it, you lose it.
When you aren’t looking for it, you find it.
When you want it, it’s never there.
When you need it, it’s always there.

An echo whispers in the horizon,
On and on in one place as the world moves around me,

The hummingbird sings softley, I happen to hear it. That’s okay.
A flower happens to smell, I smell it. That’s okay.

The ocean waves to be recognised.

The brown leaves fall to make way for the new.
A thousand blossoms bloom from a hundred trees.

Within the HEMA community, at various lengths explanations have been given about the absence of treatises to do with combat, more specific forms of Martial Arts, in the Roman World. For a vast Empire and a culture which endured for nearly 2000 years, there is little information in the way of showing how warriors individually fought. This is not to imply that an absence of evidence is an evidence of absence. We have a wide range of Strategic Treatises from the Imperial Period up to the Komenian Period in the 11th Century; these often highlight the changing circumstances the Empire experienced and the means in which it dealt with those circumstances militarily. However, in many ways this illustrates a premise that is taken for granted when it comes to the matters of the Romans, mainly a presupposition about combat; with the explanation that the Empire relied heavily on strategic combat for coherent units then any sophisticated techniques. This is largely something which will be revised in conjunction with the evidence that we have. The purpose of this article will be to assess the evidence that we have in showing that though there is an absence of treatises on Roman Martial Arts,  individual forms of combat were very much evident in the Roman world. Section 1, Issues and Presumptions of Material, will illustrate the inconsistencies of how people have assumed Roman Martial Arts took place and how Roman sources, the ones which do survive, need to be cautiously interpreted. Section 2, The Nature of Duelling in the Roman/Eastern Roman World, will show that duelling took a judicial form during Gladiatorial Games however with the exception of this, was confined to a military role. Finally, Section 3, Roman Treatises, will attempt to explain the absence of such material and how it may have become absent, in comparison with Western Europe in the Medieval Period.


  1. Issues and presumptions of material and wider context

It is often assumed that in the world the Romans (and later Eastern Romans) inhabited, there was a lack of context to the writing of any information when it came of combat. In a sense, this is correct both on a logistical and simply and socio-economic basis. For the majority of the Empire’s existence, there was a reliance on a large amount of manpower, being:

  • Conscription in the Republican to Late Republican Period,
  • A Professional Army after the Marian Reforms (with a main body of Auxiliary troops) during the Imperial Period.
  • A period of Professional Armies in the Late Roman Empire (for sons of serving veterans and soldiers), with aspects of conscription in periods of emergencies (and only expanded to include son of peasants, as opposed to town-dwellers). In the Eastern Roman case, this usually consisted of professional soldiers.
  • The Thematic System from the 7th Century, whereby men were recruited as semi-professional soldiers based on the reward of coin and land. This was also supported by the contingents of small-professional regiments called Tagmatas.
  • The Tagmatic army from the 9th Century onwards that consisted of professional regiments, with a decreasing role of once larger Themes.
  • The Komnenian period which relied solely on mercenary regiments and Tagmatas until the Sacking of Constantinople in 1204.
  • Post Latin Empire after 1261, which relied on mercenaries and city militias due to a lack of funding

The periods illustrate an immensely diverse set of periods too broad to cover in this article, however for the purpose of this article these are simply indications. What it indicates is an extended period of time in which a large amount of manpower in proportion to the population of the Empire (or Empires) was either trained or armed martially; which reached 442,000 during the 1st Century.[1] With this in mind, it is understandable why a culture so heavily militarised such as Rome would take for granted a lack of documents recording any Martial Arts. To get a better perspective, one must make a comparison with Europe in the High/ Late Middle Ages.

The earliest record we have for European swordplay is I.33 which is produced at some time around the 1320’s, the next manual which is Fiore’s treatise (The Flower of Battle) dates 1404. During this time there are various factors which contribute to the increasing literacy of Martial Arts. The increase of literacy in Europe in the Late Medieval Period coincided with a greater stride to distribute written literature.[2] This may coincide with the economics caused by the Black Death, which is said to have wiped out an estimated 45-60% of the European population[3]. The death toll, which in some places such as Italy amounted to 75-80%,[4] meant a loss in a large portion of the population and therefore the necessary knowledge that comes with Martial Arts. For many, that also meant the preservation of certain Martial forms which were falling out of popularity or were no longer used. Mair (1517-1579) illustrates this in his treatises, stating the reconstruction of Martial Arts which no longer existed; therefore the creation of treatises come into play when orally passed information can no longer be taken for granted. From these prospects, one theme links in conjunction with all these factors being the commonality of passed down information, both due to illiteracy and because it was common knowledge to the people living at this time. Therefore, it was not necessary to note down information that was taken for granted. It is therefore understandable as a common skill for the illiterate.

In the Roman case, one would be tempted to draw a similar conclusion. For an Empire/Empires that were so militarised it makes sense that it would not a necessity to write down information that was simply taken for granted. However, this provides inconsistencies in various cases that would suggest otherwise. For example, surrounding Empires who were as educated as the Eastern Romans noted down their expertise. A surviving example we have is the military treatise of Munyatu’I-Guzat which covers cavalry techniques and another treatise archery, dated from the 13th Century. Even earlier, the Agni Purana covers Indian Martial Arts in its work, dating from the 8th Century. Not only would these cases be non-existent if the similar case was compared to the European one, it is inconsistent when seeing Western European cases being compared to the Roman ones. Indeed, the Romans even in the Dark Ages displayed a literate population; though small, was larger in proportion to other European Kingdoms and Empires until the 13th and 14th Centuries, especially with a constant time-frame of capable and well-educated officers, scholars, clergy and bureaucrats.[5]

The comparatively high literacy and scholarship of the Roman World (both in Antiquity and the Medieval Period) also displays the obsession the Romans had with recording everything. For example, our knowledge of Classical educated Latin (and it’s pronunciation) survives in 18 volumes of works on practical usage of Latin, such as Comenius’ ‘Vestibulum’ and Orvis Picus, the main summaries for these can be found in works such as W.Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina and Bennet’s work The Latin Language: A Historical Outline of its Sounds, Inflections and Syntax. In all things, the Romans were obsessed with introspectively discussing and noting down their works and more importantly the methodology of those works, as a way of emulating the Hellenic fashion and displaying their definition of what encompassed Culture and civilisation. A similar case can be applied to Martial Arts as well.

The evidence we have is minimal for the Roman/Eastern Roman case, however there are indications that such Martial Arts existed and were documented. The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus is a fragmentary 2nd Century AD Greek Wrestling manual that existed at the time of Roman Rule in Egypt, well after the fall of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. This emphasises a lineage and tradition of wrestling that was adopted by Roman institutions and encouraged; something which would have continued well after the Justinian Period and may have even integrated with Ottoman Folk wrestling styles after the end of Roman influence in Anatolia. Other works are mentioned however are either lost or no longer exist. For example, Pliny the Elder states he wrote a manual on the use of the javelin and mentions that persons engaged in other contests of quoiting, running, leaping, wrestling and boxing. When quoting the javelin, he states “Those who use the javelin are well aware how the horse, by its exertions and the supple movements of its body, aids the rider in any difficulty he may have in throwing his weapon”.[6] This indicates Pliny’s firm understanding of the biomechanics linked to the Javelin by connection between rider and horse; the issue is a lack of technical detail that exists in the Javalin manual that no longer exists. Others such as Julius Caesar are also said to have patrician families to train his best gladiators, which indicate certain families promoted their own style of Martial Arts that may have been well documented.[7]  These indicate a complex and diverse mix of Martial Arts that existed in Antiquity and most likely were inherited by the Eastern Romans after centuries of assimilation. This probably took the form of different styles that were amalgamated and, with the as over-reliance of the military, institutionalised.

Other works such as Vegetius, comment on the use of the Roman Legionary in combat. Vegetius states that legionnaries “were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords….. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armour. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is general fatal.”[8] However despite the technical detail given, Vegetius seems to be following a tradition that was commonplace throughout the scholarship in the Empire; a harkening back to classical warfare and the “triumphant” past of the Empire, something writers such as Tacitus frequently did with comments on the political role of the Senate.  His descriptions are based on the Roman Military from the mid to late Republic and the Early Empire, a far distance from the Late 4th Century Vegetius lived in. Furthermore, Vegetius has neither military experience or ever seen any Roman soldiers in action and like many Roman sources, complies material from all ages, regardless of the statements made.[9]  According to his own statement, the sources used were Cato the Eldar, Cornelius Celsus, Frontinus, Paternus and the Imperial Constitutions of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian. This conforms with a tradition that was evident also in the writing of Roman Military Manuals which, with exceptions of works such as the Strategikon of Maurice which provide a realistic insight into the Roman military due to codifying experience in the Balkans and Persia; manuals before and afterwards would follow the tradition of idealistically harkening back to a more classical form of warfare. For example, Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise drew heavily on earlier Hellenic authors such as Onasander and Aelian, and therefore does not draw on realistic experiences the Eastern Roman Army faced in the 9th Century.[10] This illustrates such limitations that come to the fray when discussing Roman sources.

With the information stated, in what form did the Roman Martial Arts take shape? And if there is a clearly recognisable way to see a Roman ‘tradition’, how did that take shape?


  1. The nature of dueling in the Roman/Eastern Roman world

The context of duelling takes multiple dimension in the Roman and later Eastern Roman world.  As will be discussed, this covers a wide period that is both vast and dynamic.

2.1 Judicial Duels

Judicial duels took a pseudo-legal role in the Imperial era of the Roman Empire until the 5th Century, which took to form of Gladiatorial combat. After all, in many ways a Gladiator was bound entirely by their legal standing: in the words of gladiator’s oath as cited by Petronius “He vows to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword” (Satyricon 117). Furthermore, gladiators, whether voluntary or non-voluntary were legally enslaved because it involved their potentially lethal submission to a master.[11] In Roman Law, anyone condemned to gladiatorial schools was considered to be under the sentence of death unless manumitted, which was seldom absolute.[12] However, those who did achieve manumission were prohibited from performing as to do so would endanger their life.[13] This displays how gladiator games took form until their demise. Though death was considered the proper outcome for combat in the earliest games, this came to halt in the Augustan period due to gladiators exceeding supply and the increase in popular demands for “natural justice”. This is also evident by Emperors such as Caligula and Claudius who refused to spare popular but defeated gladiators, which slumped their popularity. Nevertheless, a Gladiator could be spared if they fought well.[14]. However, contrary to popular belief, it was rare for the crowd to decide whether or not a gladiator should be spared.[15] Suetonius comments how in a Gladiator games by Nero, no one was killed “not even noxii (enemies of the state)”.[16] By the 5th Century however, Gladiatorial games had declined compared to their popularity in the 1st Century AD, from a combination of both Christianity, which perceived such games to be murder and a product of pagan sacrificial rituals, and a decrease in popularity in favour of other events such as public hunts and chariot racing. In terms of a comparison with Judicial duels in Western Europe during the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, this conforms to a mixture of both entertainment and an enactment of law which at times was done as a public spectacle.

Gladiatorial games however seem to the be the only context in which judicial duels take place, the similar case of judicial duels in the Medieval/Early Modern period being quite alien to the Romans. Culturally, dueling outside the confines of what was socially acceptable was not the norm and certainly not valued in the Roman World. To do so, both in the Roman and Eastern Roman worlds was a symbol of the uncultured. Put simply, dueling solely for judicial reasons was seen as a product of the barbarian and what the Romans perceived to be as an uncivilised system. The Roman legal system provided a framework that clearly supplemented any means in which to settle disputes; in this case it was through the common law (and later civil law) that modelled itself on the Hellenic model of oratory skills, rhetoric and debate. According to Rosenstein the Romans: “believed that their system had developed over generations through the accumulating wisdom of their ancestors, not through a single act of legislation” and that provides a firm basis when the Roman political system is looked at.[17] This is not to suggest violence in Roman society was absent, indeed there are countless amount of cases. However, there had always been a social/cultural standard in which a Roman would be expected to conduct themselves when dealing with legal matters.

Also, within the Roman world  there emerged a clear divide between the civilian and military sphere during the Empire. Even beforehand when citizens were conscripted to serve the Republic, and later when the rural populace were conscripted in times of emergencies, there is always the distinction that combat did not take a legal dimension. This was ideally linked to the idea of the Politeia, the idea of a civic community where polity was the embodiment of the people’s will. In other words, it took the form of the “Republic” in the classical sense. An Emperor or King could be a “Republican Emperor/King” if they were ones to embody the living community, and as a result society would operate via a social contract. Cicero wrote similar ideals in his work Res Publica and emphasises the higher obligations of the person, in comparison with the community and the application of stoic thought by applying law to all people at all times.[18] In many ways, the ideal behind civic and political identity was Roseau-like and indeed, Roseau was heavily inspired by this ideal that had been evident in Antiquity. In the 6th Century on the frontier with Persia, Roman troops mutiny in north-eastern Anatolia. The priest of the city the soldiers were stationed in appealed to their faith in God but when not listened to, he asked them instead to appeal to their politeia and was successful in doing so.[19] This illustrated a clear identity when it came to civic/political identity, one which differed to a military one. The political and civilian framework, supported by an inherited legal system, satiated the need for determining legal matters via duelling. What is clear is with the exception of duelling for entertainment in accordance to Roman law, judicial duels were alien and would not have been experienced by inhabitants of the Empire throughout its lifetime.

2.2 Non-judicial duels     

From the previous section, it is clear that the Romans did not engage in duelling for judicial reasons, and such a context was seen to be out of the ordinary. However, that does not imply that duelling itself would not have been alien to a Roman, either as a social function or a military one. After all, like their Hellenic predecessors in events such as the Olympics, the Romans and Eastern Romans would have engaged in Martial Sports as a social function in conjunction with preparing for war. It is clear that these continued on, well into the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire who inherited these Martial Institutions. At the Battle of Dara in 530, one of the personal assistants of Bouzes, one of Justinian’s Generals,  duelled two Persian champions and succeeded due to his practice in the wrestling school.[20] According to Court Historians, Basil is said to have won a wrestling match against a boastful Bulgar in the 9th Century.[21] There is a continuity of theme that illustrates dueling was seen as the norm in military conflicts in the Roman World, or at least on campaign where it was expected such Martial Arts would be used. Such use could serve practical functions. Skylitzes narrates that the Emperor John I Tzimiskes proposed to Sviatoslav I of Kiev to decide the outcome of their battle in single combat; arguing that the death of one man would settle their dispute.[22] This demonstrated that, contrary to the West, dueling were not a part of a Chivalric culture and either aimed to undermine the morale of the opposing army or to save the lives of the soldiers on both sides.

Indeed, in the Roman Empire before Christianity, there was a mentality of gaining glory and one’s honour for the legionary on the field of battle. This was because Roman soldiers were bound by their Virtus which was the specific virtue that represented a soldier’s valour, manliness, excellence, courage and general honour. To do so was to perform outstanding deeds in battle that would lead others to glorious victory. In Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, he comments how two Centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo who, due to personal rivalry, charge the Nervii in the heat of battle and support each other before falling back. It’s safe to say their deeds not only accustomed the rivalry between both centurions but also played the role of preserving honour and encouraging others. This applies more importantly to dueling; as well as a way of undermining enemy morale, victory via dueling could also succeed in enhancing a person Virtus. In the lost history of Claudiu Quadrigarius, Titus Manlius, a legionary tributne, was challenged to single combat by a Gallic Champion and, not bothering with elaborate swordplay, hit the Gaul with his shield repeatedly and threw him off balance. As the opponent stumbled back, Manlius stabbed him in the chest, shoulder and then decapitated him. In 222 BC, Claudius Marcellus dueled Viridomarus, King of the Gaesati at the battle of Clastidium. After contemplating retreating his army, he was challenged to single combat. Being a renowned duelist, he accepted and charged at the king; thrusted his lance (which pierced Viridomarus’ cuirass), impacting him with his horse and dealt multiple blows that killed him. In 217 BC, Roman consul Gaius Flaminius rode to death, at the battle of Lake Trasimene, wearing a helmet adorned with a long haired scalped he had acquired from  a Gallic chief. Indeed, headhunting and taking the scalp of enemies was a sign of prowess for Roman warriors. At the eulogy of Lucius Caecilius Metellus, one of the objects that marked him out was having been a warrior, bellator, of the first rank. Though acts of subordination were certainly punished, such as Manlius who was executed by his father for breaking an order not to engage in combat, Romans of all classes were obsessed with proving their worth as warriors, which was not only encouraged but recorded and commemorated.

After the Battle of Manzikert and the loss of a large pool of manpower resulting from civil wars and military setbacks, Emperors such as Manual I seems to have adopted Western customs such a dueling and jousting; even participating in jousting himself due to his enthusiasm.[23] However, even in this sense, the Eastern Romans were reluctant to duel in a social context. Alexios by the time of the Crusades, was well aware of the attitudes of Western Knights and when challenged to single combat by one of them ‘seeking adventures’, was quick to avoid confrontation and not adopt their chivalric practices.[24] Indeed, duels stayed in the confines of campaigns. For example, in 1139 in a battle between the Eastern Roman army and the Turkish Danishmedids around Neokaisareia, a Eastern Roman Emperor requesting his nephew John to hand his horse over to a distinguished Italian Knight. In this case, John did not like the order and instead challenged the Knight to single combat.[25] Though judicial in nature, over possession of the horse, we do not know if this was chivalric in nature; though it does point to some Western influence in the Eastern Roman Army.

What does become evident, is how chivalric duelling becomes aware in the Eastern Roman Army. This becomes an trend which shows a mixture of admiration and an integration of customs from the mercenary Tagmatas that served the Emperor. The case of John shows a hurting of John’s pride. Nevertheless John’s case is a unique one that may have had more to do with rivalry that illustrated tension between the Eastern Romans and Crusaders. In other cases, duelling is both non-personal on the battlefield and is confined to Western Mercenaries. According to the Niketas Choniates chronicles, the Eastern Roman Army was besieging the Cicilian fortress of Baka. Constantine, an Armenian nobleman who was inside the stronghold, insulted John’s wife with obscenities.[26] Moreover he challenged  any Eastern Roman troops to a duel. After hearing this abuse, John ordered his generals to find an opponent for Constantine among his soldiers. After a duel with swords, Constantine was slain with no real change in the siege. This also demonstrated the use of duelling that was still limited to a military environment and despite the custom of social duelling in Cilicia (as a result of the First Crusade), in this case a soldier was chosen to duel who was presented with gifts afterwards, rather than John fighting himself.[27] It implies that whereas Western practices had certainly impressed the Eastern Romans, duelling in the Western sense was not adopted and this suggest interaction between the Eastern Romans and Western Mercenaries was limited. For the majority of Eastern Romans, duelling was a matter entirely settled on the battlefield.


  1. Roman Treatises

Duelling was expected to be commonplace in some circumstances, contrary to the belief that the Romans did not partake in single combat. However, this does provide the dilemma of availability, particularly in the realm of usage. A large number of Roman manual on strategic matters exist, which go into careful detail, however a minuscule amount provides some idea of how a Roman soldier may have technically fought at any one time. Put simply, why are there treatises for strategic but not individual combat? For this, other examples would need to be looked at which provide a basic theme towards the end of the Roman Empire in antiquity.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the epitome of what embodied the ideal Roman politician. In his life (from 106 B.C to 43 B.C) he was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order and is of the greatest orators and prose stylists in Roman history. With this in mind, it is surprising to find that a large number of his works exist, both on letter writing and philosophy. For many scholars in the Early Middle Ages, his works was considered the master of Latin prose as well as the epitome of articulating oneself in writing. Augustine of Hippo credited Cicero’s lost Hortenius for his eventual conversion to Christianity in his work Confession and was greatly admired by Early Church theologians, especially on natural law and innate rights. His works, and thus information on the Late Republican Period, have been preserved is also due to the use of his work in letter writing, which was used as a framework to correspond in the Medieval Period and later was manifested further in the Renaissance with the re-emergence of Classical works.[28] It is for this reason that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Cicero’s works were deemed “rightful pagan” and therefore could correspond to Christian theology and doctrine. For the clergy, stateman and aristocracy, Cicero works found a practical use which provides the basis for letter writing today.

In a similar case, the status of Roman military manuals were preserved due to their usefulness for those who needed military guidance or to emulate tactics in the art of war. Vegetius’ De Re Militari became a popular manual on warfare in the Middle Ages despite some information becoming unsuitable for later time periods.[29] For example, the work became important in the late Carolingian period through Hrabanus Maurus (856 AD), who used the text for his own manual De Procincta Romaniae Militae.[30] Similarly, the work was preserved through the Medieval period as a way of practically applying military tactics on the battlefield. With this in mind, it is applicable to see military manuals as of a higher importance than ones which deal with technical combat. For a general or nobility who sought to utilise works on combat, having information on how to applying tactics on a strategic level, logistics, engineering, siege works etc, was far more valuable when going on campaign. Treatises which deal with individual combat in this context would bear little application on the use in state affairs. Specific techniques may not conform to the same equipment and weapons of the time period, meaning for warriors going to war there would be large inconsistencies. This also would have discrepancies in a feudal environment, which did not fit into the same structures as those of the Roman Empire. It would not be until the 11th Century when the Empire, out of necessity, adopted pseudo-feudal practices as a means of survival.

In parallel with Western Europe, it would be simple to conclude that there was a greater emphasis on the importance of strategic manuals, rather than technical ones. In various cases, similarities can be observed in parallel with the Eastern Roman Empire despite the differences mentioned. The growth of Christianity resulted in the burning of many pieces of valuable literature, such as the remnants of the Library of Alexandria at the end of the 4th Century. Furthermore, numerous works were probably destroyed as a result of war and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 in which the Library was Constantinople was destroyed. In that time period, there existed a greater literacy in the Empire compared to Western Europe until the High Middle Ages as well as a multitude of works which are no longer available to us. For the argument that there was a lack of technical works on combat, this falls flat due to the tradition of Roman writings which continued in fashion until 1453. Therefore, one cannot conclude that the absence of such writings give way to a more generalistic or simplistic way of fighting. For example I.33 shares many similarities in its stances and biomechanics as the depictions on the ‘Byzantine’ Ivory, of stances and warriors engaged in combat. By the tenth Century, the Holy Roman Empire came to be one of the Eastern Roman Empire’s enthusiastic clients; especially when Roman noblewoman Theophano became the wife of Otto II in 873 and military contact became more extensive, especially with the use of mercenary troops by both Empires.[31] To the Historian, this gives way to an institutional structure of Martial Arts that was both sophisticated and practiced when not on the battlefield.


  1. Conclusion

In the atmosphere of lacked treatises and the evidence we have, it is easy for one to conclude that this implies a simplistic Martial Art; applied only to the battlefield. However, the Romans amalgamated and adopted a means in which to duel and engage in individual combat. The difference to Western Europe is a matter of context. Though dueling in Western Europe (depending on the location) was used as a legal and social mechanism to solve disputes, such mechanisms was alien to the Romans. Though Gladiatorial fighting can be seen as a means of judicial dueling based on the framework of Roman common law, in other contexts dueling was seen as acceptable practice only in the form of both sporting (as with Basil I and wrestling) or more importantly as a military application. To do so was to serve a function of both undermining the enemy’s morale and also as a way of preventing bloodshed. In the pre-Christian Empire as well, it sought to enhance a warrior’s Virtus which was achieved in battle and, more importantly, individual combat. Even with the influence of Western Europe during the 11th Century and the Crusades, duelling still stayed as an entirely military affair. Outside of the battlefield, Roman law satiated any disputes through the Hellenistic tradition of rhetoric and types of laws; which also was linked to the Greco-Roman political and civilian idea of the politeia which created a firm divide between civilian and military affairs. Nevertheless, Martial Arts and duelling served a function in the Roman world that was both dynamic and sophisticated, as well as institutional, and any knowledge  of how this played out is unavailable due to a lack primary source material existing anymore. As a result, it will be the work of experimental archaeologist who will attempt to reconstruct Roman Martial Arts based on the evidence we have.



Primary Sources

Constantine Paparrigopoulos, History of the Greek Nation, Db, 121

Delphi Complete Works of Pliny the Eldar, (Delphi Classics: UK, 2015), Chapter 65

John Skylitzes, John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057: Translation and Notes, Ed  John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010)

Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annuals of Niketas Choniates. Ed, Harry J. Magoulias (Wayne State University Press, Detroit)

Procopius, History of the Wars, Ed Lillington-Martin , 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013  Book 1, Chapter 13

Source: Book 1 “Not to cut, but to thrust with the sword”, De Re Militari: The Classic Treatise on Warfare at the Pinnacle of the Roman Empire’s Power (LEONAUR: UK, 2012).


Secondary Sources

B. Poliakoff, Michael, “Wrestling, Freestyle” from Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present, eds. David Levinson and Karen Christensen (Santa Barbara Inc, 1996)

Charles Hamilton, Albert, The Spencer Encyclopedia (University of Toronto Press: London, 1990)

Fagan, Garrett, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011)

Febvre, Lucien and Henri-Jean, Martin,  The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (Verso: London, 1997)

Futrell, Alison, A Sourcebook on the Roman Games (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 2006)

G.R Watson, The Roman Soldier (Aspects of Greek and Roman Life) (Cornell University Press, 1993)

J. Andrew Borkowski and Paul J du Plessis, Textbook on Roman Law (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005)

Kaldellis, Anthony, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 2015

Lintott, Andrew, Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion (New York: Oxford university Press, 2008)

MacMullen, Ramsay, How Big was the Roman Army? KLIO (1979)

Mouritsen, Henrik, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic ( Cambridge University: Cambridge, 2007)

N.G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (Medieval Academy of America: Cambridge USA, 2013)

N. Luttwak, Edward, The Grand Strategy of the Eastern Roman Empire (Harvard University Press, 2009)

N.P. Milner, Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool, 1993)



Benedictow, Ole, ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever’, History Today Volume 55 Issue (3 March 2005)

Alex Rodriguez Suarez, The Western presence in the Eastern Roman Empire during the reigns of Alexios I and John II Komnenos (1081-1143), (King’s College: London, 2014)

Bernard S Bachrach, ” A ‘Lying Legacy’ Revisited. THe ABels-Morillo Defense of Discontinuity.” Journal of Medieval Military History 5 (2007)

Timothy Dawson, The Walpurgis Fechtbuch: AN Inheritance of Constantinople, Arms and Armour, Vol. 6 no. 1, 2009, 79-92,


Audio Sources

Daileader Philip , The Late Middle Ages, (The Great Courses: Washington DC, 2007)



[1] Ramsay MacMullen, How Big was the Roman Army? KLIO (1979), p. 454.

[2] Lucien Febvre and Martin, Henri-Jean, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (Verso: London, 1997).

[3] Ole J. Benedictow, ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever’, History Today Volume 55 Issue (3 March 2005).

[4] Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages, (The Great Courses: Washington DC, 2007).

[5] N.G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (Medieval Academy of America: Cambridge USA, 2013), pp. 1-2.

[6] Delphi Complete Works of Pliny the Eldar, (Delphi Classics: UK, 2015), Chapter 65.

[7] Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic ( Cambridge University: Cambridge, 2007) p. 97.

[8] Source: Book 1 “Not to cut, but to thrust with the sword”, De Re Militari: The Classic Treatise on Warfare at the Pinnacle of the Roman Empire’s Power (LEONAUR: UK, 2012).

[9] G.R Watson, The Roman Soldier (Aspects of Greek and Roman Life) (Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 25f.

[10] Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Eastern Roman Empire (Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 305.

[11] Alison Futrell, A Sourcebook on the Roman Games (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 2006), p. 157.

[12]J. Andrew Borkowski and Paul J du Plessis, Textbook on Roman Law (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005) pp 11-12.

[13] Ibid, p. 95.

[14] Alison Futrell,, pp 144-145.

[15] Ibid, p.101.

[16] Fagan, Garrett, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011), pp. 217 – 218, 273, 277.

[17] Ibid, p. 257.

[18] Andrew Lintott, Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion (New York: Oxford university Press, 2008), p. 233.

[19] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 2015).

[20] Procopius, History of the Wars, Ed Lillington-Martin , 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013  Book 1, Chapter 13.

[21] Michael B. Poliakoff, “Wrestling, Freestyle” from Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present, eds. David Levinson and Karen Christensen (Santa Barbara Inc, 1996), Vol. 3, p. 1193.

[22] John Skylitzes, John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057: Translation and Notes, Ed John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010) pp. 307-308.

[23] Constantine Paparrigopoulos, History of the Greek Nation, Db, 121

[24] Alex Rodriguez Suarez, The Western presence in the Eastern Roman Empire during the reigns of Alexios I and John II Komnenos (1081-1143), (King’s College: London, 2014) p. 233.

[25] Ibid, p. 237.

[26] Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annuals of Niketas Choniates. Ed, Harry J. Magoulias (Wayne State University Press, Detroit),  pp. 22-25.

[27] Alex Rodriguez Suarez, p. 234.

[28] Albert Charles Hamilton, The Spencer Encyclopedia (University of Toronto Press: London, 1990), p. 434.

[29] N.P. Milner, Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool, 1993), p. xiii.

[30] Bernard S Bachrach, ” A ‘Lying Legacy’ Revisited. THe ABels-Morillo Defense of Discontinuity.” Journal of Medieval Military History 5 (2007), P. 182.

[31] Timothy Dawson, The Walpurgis Fechtbuch: AN Inheritance of Constantinople, Arms and Armour, Vol. 6 no. 1, 2009, 79-92, p. 87

The issue with HEMA

The issue with HEMA

Ever since the “HEMA is dying” period that struck the community, it has bought to my mind another subject. Unlike the prior mention, this one is going to have specific backing with source material.

Before I begin, I want to clarify: I have a Masters in History. This isn’t to seem stuck up or show some game of one-upmanship. Through my studies, that you can only get with a Masters, you learn specific things about History; ways to interpret sources, how reliable they are and you begin to see History as a weaved intricate pattern, everything mixing in with everything else and these aspects (if they can even be called that) can’t exist without one another. You can’t exclude anything from anything else and everything plays in this pattern; it’s something so difficult to describe in words.

Alas, there’s something that has been bothering me quite a bit with the community. It’s not anything specific or anyone but more the mentality to approaching HEMA is general and interpreting context. Get ready for it….

HEMA is too scientific.


Yes, you heard me correctly.


Within the community there is this mentality of applying things scientifically. “Should I swing to this many degrees, within this angle to get this?”, “should I apply X, Y and inevitably I’ll get Z?”, “If I attack from this position within this measurement of time, will I get this result?”, “should I copy the treatise exactly in this position to overcome the bind like this?” The short answer is these question are irrelevant.

Let’s put aside the fact that it’s a Martial Art, not a science (which creates issues in itself) or the frailty of artistic depiction, even within the treatises due to the dimensions being placed or the wording, even when it has nothing to do with the techniques. Fiore does this a lot and that coincides with the method of legitimising oneself, for example naming predecessors or successors which follows a very ingrained legal tradition. From what’s said, we don’t actually know the extent other than what Fiore says. In many ways, it’s salesmanship, “If you want to know how to learn the ultimate martial art, come to me and I will teach you”. Martial Arts do this nowadays, how else are you going to sell a fighting form if not on the premise of self-defence?



Let’s put that aside and get to the basics when it comes to interpreting History, and it’s essential difference between itself and Science. Science is built on the premise that all knowledge is not only universal and accessible, but is based on replicating results. For example, if I do X and Y I will get Z in the majority of cases, if not in all cases. That has implications for the way people perceive certain things. In today’s age it would be discredited to think that people, for example, lived without a head and that is a valid point (to an extent, research has shown that the stomach is the only part of the body that is not subsistent on the brain operating).

History, in a nutshell, is the assessment of change through time. What this means is the study, art, discipline (whatever you want to call it) is non-scientific. In fact, it’s anti-scientific; it’s a group of assumptions about events that no longer exist that the majority of academics more or less think happened. That is based on sources but firstly; those sources might not be reliable and secondly; to actually learn about the sources isn’t to simply look at them. Think of it like reading a book by Tolken or Pratchett, you aren’t just looking at a bunch or words, you’re looking at a bunch of words from a whole other reality because the people at the time saw reality like that. The way people look at things changes through time and the fact the majority of people perceived the world in such a way means their reality needs to be taken for granted.

Let’s go back to using techniques as an example. Often it’s taken for granted that doing a technique in such a way is so obvious, it’s even scientific. Body mechanics mean the body can move in such a way, right? Well, yes and no. The concept of science didn’t exist at the time, there was no idea of a set of universal principles so the interpretation of how people saw the world also needs to change.

So, how did people see the world say in 16th Century Italy or Germany (which didn’t exist as countries)? Without getting bogged down in context (which could take a whole book), there are several indicators. There are practitioners, like Agrippa, who look at things specifically to do with measurements e.g. if I lunge, I need to do this according to this precise measurement. However these aren’t scientific, they’re based on mathematical principles. It’s no coincidence the 16th Century is the time of the Renaissance and that means a revival of classical learning which went beyond scholarly opinion. Techniques you see rapier practitioners doing are also used on things such as architecture. This is based on the principle of the ‘perfect measurement’. For example, if I measure a brick as the length from the longest finger to the wrist, that is the perfect measurement, the same goes for measuring the lengths of walls for architecture, which were usually by multiple amount of length for a certain body part. Since, according to classical learning the body indicates the perfect form, this is a justifiable reason in the eyes of those who are doing the measuring. Saviolo does this with Rapier lengths and advices that the whole length should stretch from ones hand to their opposite shoulder (something borrowed from the Spanish tradition).  Even then, a lot of this derives from philosophical principles of Aristotelian thinking. People may argue that Aristole was the basis of scientific thinking phiolosophially, but in many of these cases these are misjudged. A lot of it is related to spirituality and that also applies to other cultures which may seem “scientific”. For example in India (considered today Geographically), mathematicians were able to calculate the age of universe and, in conjunction, calculate it’s span. That seems very scientific, however in it’s context it is a spiritual endeavour. The reason for doing so falls in the context of Hindu spirituality as in the religion the Universe destroys itself every 3 million years and is reborn. This is the case with many scientific basics in Antiquity, even those as emperical as Aristotle who theorised in relation to Platonic philosophy.

Then there’s the practice of Alchemy and the Occult which came before Science. Unlike Science, Alchemy works on the principle that there are certain esoteric forms of knowledge that can only be grasped by a few learned men and these come from God or the Universe. It may use mathematical or philosophical principles but only as a means to acquire said mystical knowledge. A good example is the knowledge of turning any material into gold in the Holy Roman Empire and the desire to find the eliquer for immortality in China, which resulted in the discovery of gunpowder. This is why a lot of alchemy writing is either highly riddled or so worded as to be incomprehensible. Well, the same can be applied with some practitioners who wrote in in poetry when referenceing swordplay. There’s all these descriptors and creatures and symbols and all of these share that similarity with other practices; leaving the reading highly confused. Indeed, many practitioners would throw fits if they discovered ‘common folk’ (such as Fiore) practicing their martial arts and these were specifically designed for certain readers, they weren’t inclusive writings and this is basically the definition of an occult. Even when techniques are obvious, the context behind them is not. Going back to Fiore, the moves performed as indicative of an experience swordsman because the moveset is assuming that the reader already knows what they’re doing. Again, Fiore does not aim his work towards the common fencer and advices that the peasantry not read it. This is hardly the universal thinking we have in mind today.

Another example is numerology, the study of numbers and how each numerical value has a specific symbolic or legal meaning. This derides largely from Jewish spiritual thinking that was also very legalistic, indeed that’s why the amalgamation of different numbers would result in something spiritual or access to certain spiritual knowledge that couldn’t be attained by others. That’s why if you’re going to read the bible, learn numerology. A good example is Fiore, Fiore has 12 basic stances for a two-handed sword and arguably one is filler material, why? Because there were 12 disciples at the last table, there are 12 months in the year etc. This was widely held in Medieval and Early Modern Western Societies, that such numbers held sacred properties that could access oneself to higher knowledge of the divine and it’s seen everywhere at the time; it’s not simply symbolism. To many, a combination of certain numbers (if used foolishly) was enough to summon spirits.

Science as a thing didn’t exist. If you spoke to someone about it at the time, they would look at you weird. Indeed, assuming so would be seen as an act of idiocy (unless theologically justified). To an extent it didn’t even matter due to the basic premise of ressurection.



What I’ve just said can be applied to reconstructing. Hayden White’s “Metahistory” is really good if you want to read about this issue. He uses the example of a Historical reenactment of a festival and uses different levels to represent different understandings.

On a superficial level, one would look at it and say “wow, this is how the things actually used to be in the past”. On another, one would see the criticisms but through those come to their own conclusions, but those conclusions themselves can be detrimental to reconstructing the event or art.

By the end, the position to take is one that varies according to perspective that White uses to frame how people look at History. Is it of satirical Rankian thought? Or tragic Marxist thought? Don’t worry if you don’t understand what these mean. The point is even to provide a framework is an issue within itself and all people can do is put piece together like a forensic puzzle, which is basically what history is. However, what it also shows is our perspectives on History and those of the people that lived through the time period are different and that in itself defies the reality. In many ways, that has a detrimental effect on the way people thought, felt and performed physically every day. This isn’t only in the context of diet, nourishment etc but also in the culturally specific place itself.


Interpreting: Using a historical Example.

“But Nicholas”, you may ask. “What of Biomechanics? Everyone can only hit in certain ways, right?”. Thanks for reminding me about that. Yes and no, let’s use an example that’s become prevalent when looking at fighting in History; emotions. Lindybeige (Lloyd) did a video about this and how human don’t really want to kill each other, or from a look of terror one is unable to kill. The reasoning was that based on the statistics for US soldiers who shot-to-kill in World War Two and the Vietnam War, people didn’t want to kill their enemy; also, all there are cases, such as Che Guevara who couldn’t execute people at the front because the look of terror on their faces showed the dominating person had one (unless they are a psychopath). I will show various cases and issues with looking at a ‘universal’ idea of emotions to show why this point is problematic.

Before I begin, for a long time there has been a dichotomy between ‘constructionists’, who believe that things are culturally specific and things are uniquely different everywhere, and ‘universalists’, who believe that certain principles are universal no matter where in the world you go. At the moment, we have gone past this but it provided the basis for much discussion in the 20th Century and a lot of the academic work that’s outdated still does. In fact, in many ways it’s frustrating how slow research reaches the public eye because all the theories being applied to HEMA in the way people fight emotionally and psychologically are outdated. In short these are inductive approaches which attempt to take the complexities of the past and confine them to a few generalising subjects, such as “all wars are caused by religion” (an extreme example but one still quoted). I will briefly look at three case studies as an example of this.


Case one: fight or flight

The favourite that everyone likes to bring up is “fight or flight”, which is a theory coined by Joseph Ledoux that is linked to the wider understanding of a ‘two roads to fear’ theory. Basically, a stimulus passes down the amygdala within 12 milliseconds where a rapid decision is made by the higher cognitive functions whether the perceived thing is a threat. This instils the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, either the body stands down and returns to normal or gears itself up for survival. It’s a two path road; one involving the subcortical region of emotions which on the evolutionary scale is very old and the other a cortical region where cognition occurs.

I don’t want to get into too much detail because it’s very long but Ledoux’s theory has either been disproven since it was made, or has been modified. For example, the amygdala has been shown to not be especially sensitive to visual stimuli. Also, there’s the question whether there is a ‘fast road’ via the amygdala or if there’s any temporal difference at all in the emotional response triggered by emotional stimuli. From further neuroscientific studies, it’s clearer that the amygdala is not responsible for ‘quick and dirty’ functions but instead is more like a switchboard from which various inputs are distributed and from that we get fight, flight, flee, befriend, submit and quisling (where one becomes so dominated they associate themselves with the dominator, like Stockholm Syndrome).

Even then, this theory is being shown to be discredited the more research we do into how the brain works. Indeed, a lot of new theories such as neuroplasticity; the brains ability to form new neuro- pathways in one’s lifetime. It also begins to shift the paradigm of the brain as a constant with specific parts doing specific things, to a network of pathways which all are contingent on each other. For example, in previous experiments where the amygdala was removed (such as patient SM), there was no fear in exposure to rpevious fears such as snakes and spiders and other typical fear inducing experiences. However, with the destruction of the Amygdala they experiences in their early life, came other aspects such lack of recognising depth when it came to personal space, having difficulty ascertaining the trustworthiness in others and lack of recognisition of negative emotions. What it showed was that certain parts of the brain no longer simply have certain functions and the brain will often form newer pathways to reconcile any damage. In other words the hardware of the brain changes during the lifespan of the person, based on experiencing whether they be traumatic, cultural, psycadelic. All of these leave traces in the architecture of the brain. More importantly, it shows the brain itself is susptible to change, something unprecedented in Neuro-science. This shows that things aren’t so universal and even the brain, what we’ve seen as a constant is now becoming perceived more and more as something tangible, which is having an interesting and existential change for the Scientific community.


Case two: Facial recognition

Another one is facial recognition, as demonstrated by Lloyd in the video mentioned earlier to do with ‘a look of terror’. That is the work of Professor Paul Ekman who was regarded as a dominant figure in neuroscience in the 90’s and early 2000’s but not so much now, in fact his work has become a subject of much frustration among many academics. His theory was that certain emotions could be universally demonstrated by certain facial expression. This was related to Darwinian thought when it came to evolutionary theory. I mean, when someone smiles they’re happy, right? Well, not really.

His experimentation consisted on getting models to pose for long periods of time with certain expressions, representing certain emotions and he would take pictures of these. He applied this to people in Central America also applied a similar principle to by using certain cultural facial types for the Dani in West New Guinea. Another was used by showing disturbing scenes in a cinema to both an American and Japanese audience, and those results found for example that the Japanese were more prone to smiling when they did experience disturbance.

In short, these results were not only inconsistent but incredibly bias. The people in Central America often had linguistic issues when interpreting certain facial features and had problems interpreting the facial features themselves. In the case with the Japanese members, many of them smiled due to knowing they were being experimented on, which destroyed any validity to the experiment or any prospect of replicability. It wasn’t the case that certain emotions can be shown by certain facial expressions, indeed research has shown being angry or being happy doesn’t mean you have to look like those emotions.

In terms of the Dani, there was no only no empirical proof to display these emotions in the people being studied but also certain linguistics we have couldn’t be translated into concepts that were understandable.


Case three: Anthropology, the Icelandic Sagas, the Maori and relating it to History

When looking at emotions in past, questions need to be asked such as; where are the centre of emotions located in the body, such as the heart? The brain? The gut? Are they located in the body at all, do they come externally? Also, there’s the issue of how they work. Do they boil and hyperventilate until they explode? Do they possess a person for a certain period of time and then subside? Is the person seen as responsible at all for their emotions? These are all valid points and apply to different cultures.

In the Icelandic Sagas, there’s descriptions protagonists swelling up. When in the Brennu-Njals Saga Thorhall Asgrimsson finds out about the murder of his guardian, ‘his body swells up, blood flows from his ears, and he faints’. A 12-year-old in the Laxdaeta Saga is ‘swollen with grief’ every time he thinks of his murdered father. Is that a sign of emotion? It would be difficult for us to imagine, though there’s good historical evidence to suggest people didn’t literally ‘swell up’. However they are valid indicators of how the Vikings saw their feelings articulated. In many cases, these play a more important role than utterances. In this case, emotions took a life of their own and possessed people once they were named. This indeed is a completely different image to how we would see emotions today.

Another case is that of the Maori. Jean Smith, an Anthropologist, did a study into how the Maori experienced self and Experienced emotions. She shows that Maori tribes, when constantly at war with each other, perceived emotions entirely differently. If a Maori warrior showed physical signs of fear before a battle, such as trembling, it was said he was possessed by atua, a kind of spirit that had been angered by the infringement of tapu, a canon of social rules. There was a ritual for ridding oneself of this possessed state: the warrior had to crawl between the legs of a standing Maori woman of superior social status. The organs of the woman, especially the vagina, had special powers which could free the warrior of atua. If the warrior crawled between the woman’s legs without shaking then he was freed of atua, and went off to battle liberated by fear.  But if he still shook, the ritual cleansing was judged a failure and the warrior could stay at home unpunished. Apparently no one thought it was possible for someone to be afflicted with atua during a battle; and so we can assume that Maori warriors did not feel fear. From this, we can see that the fear of the Maori warriors is one that locates it outside the body. Fear originates not in the ‘soul’, or the ‘psyche’ or the ‘brain’, but instead in a transcendent sphere of tapu norms and higher beings.

This shows us what Barbara Rosenwein (an professor on the History of Emotions) would call ‘Emotional Communities’, whereby different groups in certain societies have different Emotional Norms and Values that differ from each other and over either overarch with other groups or differ completely (and this can often cause conflict within oneself if these values conflict too much). These are hardly universal but at the same time aren’t unique. I agree with her conclusion that there are things which are ‘hardwired’ however how those ‘hardwired’ things are articulated is like drinking an ocean with a fork.


A quick note about Neuro-placidity

In the previous section I mentioneh is thd Neuro-placidity, whice study conducted on the brain that shows that within a person’s life based on their experiences, new neuro pathways are formed. This can range from traumatic experiences such as abuse or war, to religious beliefs to psychadelic experiences with drugs.

As Jan Plamper has shown, this has caused a conflict within the Scientific community because the brain for a long time was though of as a constant with perfectly definable sections and features and the research conducted has bought this assumption to doubt. The brain is no longer a constant but is suspetible to change through time, uniquely for each individual. This brings into question whether these can be measured reliably.


Historic Examples. Case 1: the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century

For a Roman Soldier in the 2nd Century, there are testimonies about the way a Legionnary perceived their body and how it was to be used, from the Historian Sara Elise Phang. The Roman perception of the body in the Empire, for Legionaries, was one of a tight bow or ballista; the bow needs to be tightened all the time until it is let loose and this carried on into their daily lives. In other words, a legionary would tense up themselves very rigidly until they ‘let go’ like a tight bow being released. So if reconstructed, attacks would start often with a lot of tension on the body followed by a quick, explosive, cut or thrust. It would have meant a lot of tension for the individual. This is clearly different to what’s said today where it is shown that we should relax the muscles; even that in itself is an Eastern teaching which was imported to the West in the 1950’s and 60’s with famous Martial Artists like Bruce Lee.

Historic Examples. Case 2: Central African Martial Arts

In what is considered Angola today, there was the porecursor to Capoeira which was called N’golo (pronounced Engolo). Even the older form of Capoeira is called ‘Capoeira Angola’. In this martial art, there was little use of the hands and an emphasis on kicks, headbutting, dodging and atheltic/ aerobatic abilities. Before I start, I want to emphasise that this did work. A lot of people assume that such Martial Arts Aren’t practical however masters who practiced in Central Africa, and then in South America, were reverred fighters who often took a bloody toll on their opponents and they often fought multiple opponents at the same time. Unlike Capoeira now, this was accompanied by a machete in Brazil however kicks still played an important part, and Masters went to war doing this.

This is intrinsically linked with how Central Africans perceived their bodies in relations to ther religious experiences. Essentially, as with many African Religious beliefs, reality was understood like a cross in which above was the land of the living and below was the land of the dead. In this context, the land of the dead was opposite to the land of the living and the spirits of the ancestors inhabited this. For example if a person practising N’golo was very good, he was said to inhabit the spirit of his ancestor. In this religious belief, Ancestor spirits could possess bodies and therefore provide a bridge between the living and the dead. If a master was spectacular at this art, there were testimonies of him being possessed by a master who lived hundreds of years ago. This was a bridge between the living and the dead and was known as Kalunga. With this in mind, if a practitioner were to make a certain twist with his head or walk on his feet he would summon and manifest the spirits of the underworld as a result. This is the reason why a lot of capoeira is done on the hands and emphasises kicks.

This also applies to other African Martial Arts which take on anthropromorphic qualities and mimick the behaviour of animals, such as in Sudanese Wrestling or Central African headbutting.

This brings a completely different context of martial arts, one which should be respected. In comparison with European Martial Arts, the concept of biomechanics as we understand it becomes unrecognisable as does the concept of centered balance and distance to the enemy. It brings in a different perception to the body based on religious/spiritual beliefs which have an overriding result on the martial arts is conducted.


Historic Examples. Case 3: Ancient Egyptian Tahtib and combat

In Egypt, North Africa and in places like Ethiopeia and the Sudan, there exists a form of stick fighting called Tahtib, which originates from Ancient Egypt. There is the living tradition which has been translated into a folk dance that exists today and Historic tradition which is seen in depictions such as the illustrations from the sarcophegus in Abbis Abba.

In both these, there is a gearing towards spear play however the interesting aspect of the combat is all the blows taught are to the upper body. There are no blows directed below the shoulders or waist. This is also seen in the depiction of water-polo which is either head or upper body shows, but not beneath the upper chest. This is also apparent in the Equipment Ancient Egyptian soldiers used. There are no depictions of Ancient Egyptian soldiers wearing metal helmets an in many cases there is no head protection at all. Even the most important figures such as the Pharoh only wears a felt-leather cap. Even then, there’s a priority more on armour when it becomes prevalent and little on the skull which people would assume is the most important part of the body. I mean, it’s vital right? Why not wear head protection?

Again, as is the case in N’golo, there is a religious/spiritual dimension which isn’t taken into account. In the Ancient Egyptian Religion, the heart was seen as the centre of intelligence, emotion and spirituality in the body; similarly to how we would perceive the mind today. As a result, there is no effort to protect the head as well as the chest and this explains why blows to the lower body wasn’t encouraged or depicted in Tahtib, which was used as training for soldiers as a way of physical fitness and for spear usage. It may have differed in combat however from this it is evident that this had an effect on the way the Ancient Egyptians perceived their bodies an that had a direct effect on how that applied to the Martial Arts they practiced.


Conclusion, what do these cases show and how can they be related back to HEMA?

If you’re interested in more, I’d suggest reading Jan Plamper’s “The History of Emotions” which covers all these case studies and Barbara Rosenwein’s “Generation of Feelings” which talks about ‘Emotional Communities’.

The issue, relating back to HEMA, is it shows things aren’t as universal as people think they are. If human emotions, that people think are universal, aren’t then so are the perceptions of the body and the so called ‘biomechanics’. It becomes the case that not everyone swung in the same way because there’s only so many ways you can swing a sword.

I’m going to take a page out of Barbara Rosenwein’s work, “A community of Feeling”, and say that the current trend for emotions is that some things are hardwired but articulating what those ‘things’ are is like trying to drink the ocean with a fork; so it’s neither a constructionist nor universalist.

The same can be applied to Martial Arts. Yes, the body can only move in so many ways but that’s not as important as people say it is. It’s not about the fact the sword is swung downwards but how it’s swung and each culture does swing downwards but has its own way of doing so, whether Italian or Persian. That’s the important part; it’s neither universally scientific, or culturally specific that it becomes meaningless.

Just because it’s a swing downwards doesn’t meant it’s the same everywhere. For example, in Middle Eastern Traditions there is an emphasis on the ‘wrap around the head’ before going into a downward stroke both due to the design of the scimitar/ sabre but also because it culturally suits the style as well as the weapon; use determines function. A British officer in the 19th Century could pick it up and use it but due to its culturally used wouldn’t use it as well and it might end up being detrimental to the officer.

When we look at for example, the duel between Andreas (a bath slave who had stepped forward) and the Persian Champion at the battle of Dara in 530 AD, Andreas crashed into the Persian Horseman with his own, floors him and slits his throat with a knife. Are we to assume that he did it in the same way a knight would have in the 14th Century? The answer is no and the fact there’s no descriptions for doing so is problematic in itself. In fact, if it wasn’t for manuals descriptions of combat would suck due to the way fighting styles are taken for granted. When an observer sees a warrior do a downward cut, all we know is the person has done a cut downwards and it’s either hit or hasn’t; that’s the issue with source material, it doesn’t tell us how. However, from the evidence we do have, it’s guaranteed that within each culture (and sub-group) it’s going to be different.

In other words, there are some things which are hardwired but how they are articulated is an amount that’s beyond comprehension and come out looking different. There is literally a innumerable amount of ways one can perform one attack as the huge variety of cultures, empires and societies have shown.


More Importantly

In HEMA, the ‘art’ part is the one that often gets pushed out. According to the Oxford Dictionary, art is “Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or teachnical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beuty or emotional power”.

In this context, is it not easy to see how Martial Arts vary, sometimes drastically? That it’s not simply a case of saying “x and y equals z”? More importantly, it’s a matter of seeing the art for what it is, art, and like itself it differs from piece to piece. If this were a conversation a scientist would focus on the words being said, an artist the sound. Both are opinions on how to approach the issue but, more importantly, both are as valid for doing so. The Historical mindset of how someone thought their body and emotions worked are as valid as someone who wants to strike in the shortest amount of time. Is that not what’s important? And is that not makes the Martial Arts beautiful?


The real conclusion   

So after all this rambling, what is the point of this? Well:

1) People often look at HEMA too Scientifically and apply anachronistic principles to it. That’s not only non-historic but doesn’t look at things in their context. Science is useful as a tool to gain an understanding but people often treat it as if it’s a way of life and that’s really not its intention. Science can’t be a way of life. It’s actually counterproductive and needs to be stopped.

2) As a result, people often take what’s called an ‘inductive’ approach, which means that they think History can be summed up by a few universalising principles, we see it all the time. Religion, politics, and wars are something that someone might point out. However in History, they’re not simply those things. To the people living at the time, they’re so much more than those things where the categories we placed become meaningless. Indeed, these people would have taken those steps in the first place. In other words, coming to those conclusions is what someone in the 19th Century would have thought, so it’s about a century outdated.

3) People use the two points in HEMA. “Of course they did it like this”, they will say; or “Of course they hit like this” but firstly, we don’t know that and secondly, learning that means having to learn the life these people lived. What is the concept of even throwing a downward strike in the eyes of the 14th Century practitioner? Answer is we don’t know but the content and sources gives us some indication and so do the way perceived their bodies and reacted emotionally.

4) Different interpretations of the body in History has a detrimental effect on how people used their bodies and that has a direct effect on the Martial Arts they practiced.

These would have been somewhat in the mind of the practitioners at the time, this was the world they lived and took for granted.

Sometimes I think that gets lost on us.


Books as a reference:

Jan Plamper’s “The History of Emotions”.

Barbara Rosenwein, “Generations of Feeling”.

Sara Elise Phang, “Roman Military Service: Ideologies of Discipline in the Late Republic and Early Principate”

Hayden White, “MetaHistory”.

TJ. Desch- Obi, “Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World”.

I was asked today a question that made me think very long and hard by a work colleague.

We were eating and he said “if you were to go back in time nad talk to yourself, what would you tell them?” After thinking for a while, I finally answered “don’t worry about things”, things will work out. Don’t worry about who you’re with or whether things will go the way you want them too. But then another thought occured, one I didn’t anticipate. How do you not worry? How would I put into words a way to my younger self to not worry about what will happen? Then it struck me and is the reason I’m writing this now.

Maybe you’re not suppose to know.

It’s weird to think about but it’s informed me in this life and out of all the thngs we do, we don’t really know how to not worry. It’s just something we do and that led me on to think further. We have this thing where we want to keep track of everything and be in control, be conscious all the time. But we can’t, it can’t be done; like trying to describe how we close our hands, we just say “well, I just did it”. It’s like trying to drink the ocean with a fork and in a way, it’s beautiful to think about. The whole Universe had this continous rhythum that we’re not just a part of but are. We’re not separate from it so we can’t be different from it, and part and parcel is going with it.

Life is so strange, we do things and we do them because it has significance in our lives. We build bridges, help the enviroment and topple governments, but really we leave these marks that often do more harm than good. The Bridge rusts, our help destroys more than it helps and that government we toppled turns into a dictatorship. In a way it’s shown me that we’re likely to do harm as well as good and it’s likely we’ll do neither.

A lot of people aspire to say “I want to do this” or “I want to build this company” or “I want to make a million pounds” and they do or they don’t, but after that they leave such a heavy mark and aren’t satisfied anyway because it’s the journey that was satisfying them, so they become depressed and part and parcel of depression is believing the premise things are always going to go up like a continous graph and it doesn’t.

I used to think that the world was a place that was moving around me and I was observing it being moved, like it was some sort of a theatre and, unlike everyone else, I wouldn’t leave a mark. Now Ive figured that there’s nothing wrong with that, actually it’s significant. I’ve realised we hurt the Universe as much as we help it and are likely to do neither. Seeing the world move and observing it isn’t a bad thing, the greatest heroes make discoveries and solutions based on observations as well as doing; and the brilliant thing is when you see through everything and see how it’s a game, you can get lost in it again. I mean, people look at the temple and see through it all but when you do, what’s the harm in singing along and buying second hand souvenirs? You bring up the game and are a part of it and the only way to do that is to be really with it. Except, rather than striving for it you’re just doing it. There are no words to describe how with it you are.

So, if I were to ever tell anything to my former self I wouldn’t. However, if in the situation I would say “just keep going and focus on what you’re doing and keep doing it and when you do it, be with it without hesitation”.



Hollow Wood

A leaf falls into the pond.

The swift wind in the breeze,
Weaving in the warm glow.

The visions that we immerse ourselves in,
We make ourselves to be made of.

To go to sleep and never wake up,
To wake up having never gone to sleep.

Before I begin as a disclaimer: it is not my intention to cause any controversy but simply provide insight, based on my own experiences, affairs through my life as well as current affairs and other people’s experiences and how they understand the world around them. I want to say I have a well-balanced perspective on subject, without coming off a pretentious or condescending. I’d like to think with the educational background I have, it’s affected the way I critically analyse subjects.

For me, the issue of race has always been weird and convoluted one and I’m lucky to be at a position, intellectually and emotionally, where I am at the capacity to understand it. Race has always been a subject that I’ve been somewhat confused about and to this day, struggle to understand it in terms of the controversy, feelings and harm it causes. I want to emphasise this is not out of ignorance or the sense of privilege or being ‘better than anyone else’ (whatever that means). Throughout my life, it seems to have always stood out in some way or another. Growing up as a Greek Cypriot in a diverse area, it would always provide a unique perspective on matters that seemed to deviate, and mediate, between different perspectives and that’s a lot to do with cultural, historical understandings and simply how I was treated.

An important aspect to emphasise as well is, importantly, I grew up in London which I guess was an education in itself as much as a geographical location. It’s not simply a matter of being in a diverse area. Growing up, terms like ‘black’ and ‘white’ were never emphasised and were always seen as something predominant in America. People from different ethnic backgrounds rarely ever referred to themselves as ‘Black’, ‘Brown’, ‘Asian’ or ‘White’ and these only became relevant as I entered adulthood from my teenage years. In Britain, communities have always taken pride in their ethnic backgrounds without generalising, and always been contextual; people would always refer to themselves by their country of origin rather than skin colour or ethnicity. Nigerian, Ghanaian, Caribbean, Pakistani, Indian, Turkish, Irish, English, Scottish, Kenyan, Congolese, Tartar, Egyptian were what people would say (and many other locations). It never occurred to me that generalisations like these existed the way they did, for example, in the USA. In fact, within Britain the opposite effect has occurred today whereby people are beginning to stubbornly say “I’m British” or “originally my parents were from x but I’m from London”. For me, that always had a way of deconstructing things and meant it was easier to create dialogue and access people’s testimonies and cultural experiences. The main point is things would always be looked at, and emphasised, contextually. I mean the only time it was ever referenced was in jokes and banter but even then, it never serious or consequential. That’s always provided an advantage because it stops any attempt to force generalise on a base level.

Most importantly (and on a single note) within Britain compared to the USA, divisions emphasised have always been class rather than race and that forms a better idea of how prejudices are mounted in the UK. People have always been discriminated more for their working class background and even then, things are ambiguous to say the least. In many situations, ethnicity often intermixes with class however as more people from ethnic backgrounds diversify out of areas like East London (where people are predominantly African and Caribbean), that link will start to degrade and eventually weaken. It’s already been witnessed now with better opportunities. On that note, there are prejudicial cases such as institutional racism in the police still, and ‘random’ stop and searches however my hope is eventually these will die out as London’s police begins to represent its population.

Being Greek Cypriot I guess also provided a unique perspective on things. There’s always been a stereotype that Greeks consider themselves unique players in the world and there’s some validity to that historically. Perspective wise, Greeks culturally consider themselves a continent unto themselves when I was growing up; the border between East and West. We were never ‘White’ but at the same time never ‘dark’; we were always considered ‘olive skinned’. Historically, with Ancient Greece, the Hellenistic Empires, the Eastern Roman Empire and being under the Ottomans (which really depends, being Greek ethnically is still a very recent concept), made us stand out as was the case with many Eastern European countries, especially in the Balkans. Being part of the Ottoman Empire, during the slave trade and colonialism (apart from the ‘Magna Greca’ idea which lasted until 1923 with genocide on both sides and even then it was within a small geographical area, as well as the Second World War) meant we were never really part of that history and, in a way, were isolated. In that context, we were never considered part of the ‘West’ as countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy are; though we were somehow venerated in them. Even my parent’s backgrounds emphasised that point further. My mum grew up in the north of the Congo where her father owned a series of supermarkets (before the civil war broke out in the 1960’s). Even that, the fact there were Greeks in the Congo (as in many different areas of the world such as Australia) was a product of colonialism and being what would be considered an ‘ethnic group’; a middle party that was neither for or against in the European empires. The Greek community in that sense was always an economic and mercantile group (similarly to Jewish communities in history).

It struck a paradox that enabled me to mediate between different groups of people culturally and ethnically. It also struck me growing up as a teenager. In secondary school, I was often mocked for being Greek from English, Irish, African and Caribbean backgrounds (with examples such as being the basis for homosexuality in history). In situations such as those, it’s easy for people to fall back on their backgrounds as a clear form of identity in situations of uncertainty and that’s what I did. In many ways it meant I wasn’t the centre of a large group and that enabled me to go between groups and get to know different people; empathising with them. I think that’s ultimately important; it was a way of making me a middle party, a social nomad who could travel and associate himself with all different kinds of people; who could humour, charm, debate, argue, mimic and create dialogue. To be in such a position meant getting such an insight into how other people feel and their perspectives, and gave a vast amount of social freedom to pursue and interact. Even today it is still relevant, though with over-sensitivity to ethnicity it is more difficult to open those dialogues (but still possible).

With what’s occurred or happened in the United States, it is easy for any person to turn to the matter and say “well, why don’t they just sort out the matter?” or “why don’t blacks get the independence they deserve?” and I say it’s not that easy. In the United States, it’s not a simple matter of people getting on their own feet, in many cases it’s physically denied by state institutions, the police (due to institutional racism, macho culture and competition with targets) and on a local level. In the UK, racism has always been confined within a class issue and, through 19th and 20th century history, was more imposed by the wealthy and higher strata’s of society; support for ethnic minorities often came from working and lower middle class backgrounds. Indeed, lower class racism stemmed from the United States during the Second World War and was imported along with American products. In that sense, in the United States, race is a literal issue and not just academic contemplating, political correctness or a matter of over-sensitivity. The division between ‘black’ and ‘white’ is felt on very serious terms and constantly pushed onto people (who may not want those definitions pushed onto them). There are constant questions as to how to solve the crisis with a lack of perspective or insight; with a lack of innovation or creativity. People seem to treat the issue of race like a puzzle whereby all the pieces are available and it’s simply a matter of moving the pieces in correct places. However, I would say there is no puzzle; this is a problem that requires new solutions.

Put it this way, on a very personal note, with everything I have learnt about ‘Black’ people in history it both frustrates and infuriates me that people could be treated harshly for such a long period of time, even after slavery. The nerve to have this injustice and be treated this way still is something to get angry about. Of course, with context, the situation is a lot more complicated. However the general and continual theme of treatment and inequality is not a promising one. Throughout history, people who have been oppressed have risen up, formed their own countries on the basis of freeing themselves. For example, Greece constantly emphasises “Freedom or death” and many countries follow this theme in Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East. With everything I have learnt about the treatment of Africans and Caribbeans, if I were in their situation I would have either risen up (which isn’t surprising since for example 9 out of 10 slave ships revolted and there were constant uprisings in mainland America), founded my own country or moved if I had the opportunity. In many cases these were hampered by strong forces and lack of education (due to segregation). Given the violence towards these ethnicities, it is understandable that sentiments are strong and, given the USA, it seems the idea of founding an equal society and the American dream has failed. Even the term ‘black’ was made by ‘the white man’ (just like the term ‘Indians’). For people who consider themselves ‘black’ it is a game that was lost the moment it started. It was a fixed game.

I could continue but I don’t feel the need to and, to an extent, it’s not going to solve anything. My aim is to constructively come up with a solution to this problem. The issue is that both terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ have a problem whereby they over-generalise large groups of people. In that way, these terms are social-constructions, they are inventions, they are illusions, they have no application to reality unless they are enforced so. My solution would be to disintegrate that. However, this isn’t a matter of simply being politically correct or ‘not talking about it’; both issues don’t address race directly or constructively.

The solution would be to bring ethnicities into tangible terms and the answer comes through science. DNA tests have enabled people to come to terms with what areas of the world they originate from. This would give the opportunity to do that for 10 million people. If people reconciled the identities taken from them historically, it would provide a means for contextual dialogue. Put simply, it would no longer be a case of saying ‘black’ or ‘African American’. It’s now a matter of well, which part of Africa specifically? Africa is a continent with a diverse range of cultures and to categorise it as one identity is quite frankly insulting. I’m surprise this definition has existed for so long. If this works, it would no longer be the case for people to say otherwise; instead they will say “well actually I’m Ghanaian-American”, or “Mozambique American”. For those with different origins, it would be an opportunity to say “well, I’m from a mix of different backgrounds; Egyptian, Congolese and American”. By doing this, you are denying fuel for the fire and not abiding by this language game; a language game built upon forcing huge groups of people under one term in the name of segregation and oppression. That doesn’t make sense.