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The Nature of Roman/Eastern Roman Martial Arts

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”.

Historical sword fighting in Antiquity and Medieval times: a review

Before I begin, just to clarify my position, I am a History student at a Master’s level; I have done a year of Historical European Martial Arts, mainly working on swords and shields and I study historical fighting in my free time. What I am writing about today is the nature of Ancient to Medieval European fighting that will clarify different principles and myths that surround sword and shield fighting (much of it being fabricated on television and films). What I aim to accomplish as an objective is to outline how sword fighting developed from Antiquity to the Late Medieval era and make the reader aware of the principles involved.


The principle of sword fighting or using a sword is the process of pulling and pushing: The sword is used to cut either forwards or backwards. For example, if you are cutting a steak and simply hack at it, it won’t cut through as well. To really get at it you cut the steak by going backwards and forwards in a motion with your knife. Sword fighting works on a similar principle. Many films and television series’ show long swords’ hacking through enemy armour but that is not possible. Most cutting consisted of landing a blow and then drawing the wound by either pulling out or pushing inwards and this is the basis of blocking, leverage, binding and striking.


Within Antiquity to the Late-Medieval era, the shield was the main weapon: Shields have often been stereotyped to just ward off blows however the shields of this time shows that this is was not viable. The shield is used as a main weapon while the sword is used in a supporting role to deliver the killing blow. We see this based on two prevalent aspects: size and shield handle.

Size: The large shield sizes indicate that they were used, like swords, as an extension of the arm. Therefore the shield plays a pivotal role in both re-directing strikes using biomechanical principles (e.g. turning swords away) to find vantage points. This also included using the shield’s edge to strike the opponent.

Handle: The handle becomes a key factor in how the shield operates at this time. For example, the arm strap (for formation soldiers such as hoplites) ensured the user was able to hold and control the shield more effectively. The single handle doesn’t offer this support, for example during the medieval period single handled shields were overlapped in a shield wall to compensate for the lack of arm control; it ensured the user was able to keep their shield up in formation and this is evident in Germanic, Viking and Saxon style combat. The single handled shield signals a transition to single combat and small skirmishes, which Scandinavian and German cultures were obsessed with. These gave birth to their own biomechanical principles.

For example, the Vikings and Germanics often utilised a ‘flapping door’ effect with their shields, in which the single handle enabled the shield to rotate both ways. This weakness was used to move around the enemies swing. It enabled greater flexibility and to simply use the weight and momentum of the opponents attack against them.

The exception to both formation and single fighting is the Roman style of fighting because it adapted both types of shield handling and attempted to mediate between both. This is evident from the vertical handle Roman shields had. This meant single handled shield mechanics (that are found with Viking shields) were applicable with Roman shields and it is no coincidence that the oval shield was issued to Roman auxiliaries over rectangular ones, because of its similarity to ‘Barbarian’ shields at the time. In many ways this represented the Romans combining Greek and Germanic styles of fighting together. In 212 AD Emperor Caracella declared all inhabitants of the Roman Empire citizens and this has a fundamental impact on combat style for the legions. As auxiliaries were not longer distinguishable from the legions integration meant the barbarian dominated Roman military integrated familiar weapons that the different Germanic elements were farmiliar with. By the 4th century, the short gladius stops being used in favour of the long spatha and the oval shield replaced the rectangular one. This signifies a transition from fighting up close to fighting “at arm’s length” that also meant fighting lasted for a longer period of time. This illustrates similarities in fighting between Antiquity and the Early Medieval period.

For example, both Roman and Viking fighting show the shield as an offensive weapon. The Roman’s oval shield’s narrow end meant it could be dug into the other person’s shield or be used as a ram, meaning the legionary could disarm his opponent, breach the distance and disable the combatant. In Viking style fighting, the size of the shield (from 80cm to 120cm) means the Viking would be able to ram the shield into his opponent’s arm and render him unable to use his sword.


During fighting, swords rarely ever touched: The size of shields and the techniques that developed around them meant swords rarely ever binded or crossed, if they ever did usually the weight of the sword would be used in a pulling or pushing motion to use the opponent’s weight against themselves. During antiquity, swords were usually too short and the shield had predominance over how warriors would fight. Even in Germanic cultures the sword, being notoriously tall, revolved around using the shield (which was passed down to Viking style fighting). Sword binding became recognisable with the innovation of sword hand guards (to incorporate long swords in disciplined formations). By the late Medieval and Early Renaissance period, swords became the stereotype we recognise today (the type X long sword, predominant from the 13th century onwards) and as a result the shield size decreased, which meant the user became more dependent on the sword to take over the responsibilities the shield once had.

The nature of formation fighting in antiquity and the Early Medieval period meant there was no need to bind swords. For example in these periods, sword handles  were much smaller and, until the late medieval period, hand guards were be wooden. This served as an advantage in two ways. Firstly, the lack of hand-guards indicated the hand was easily protected and rarely vulnerable; putting the sword hand outwards meant the possibility of a severed hand. Secondly, the wooden hand guard meant the opponent’s sword would get caught on it (if the hand was swung for) and that made it difficult to remove. This is especially evident with the small ‘half-bowl’ Roman hand guards that were designed for the opponent’s sword to get caught, for last-ditch protection (the fact it was also predominant in longer, cavalry, swords meant there was more of a risk of cavalrymen exposing their arms).

Shield Butts were not for pummelling the opponent: To put it simply, why pummel your opponent at arm’s length with a longer shield? In most cases, the shield was large enough to cover the whole body. To go in simply to punch the opponent with the shield butt was not practical, the enemy would simply go around the strike. The reason why this stereotype is so common is because of films and series’. Shield butts served the purpose of making the enemy’s sword get caught on the shield and made it harder for them to draw their sword away and that enabled the warrior to go in for the kill.

Sword fighting was a process of feeling: Different cultures have different terminologies for this but essentially it boils down to feeling the motion and mechanics of interacting with the opponent. This becomes prevalent with Antiquity and Early Medieval sword fighting. It is literally feeling the movement and physics of combating a foe and accustoming oneself to it. For example, Vikings would emphasise this in binding shields to practice moving and turning (something emphasised by the later treatises).