‘The sword at Prokopon guard’: The name of a Byzantine Fencing Guard uncovered.

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By George E. Georgas, fencing coach, HEMA and Pammachon instructor

It is known that no Byzantine swordsmanship manual has been found yet. Despite that, using the method of experimental archaeology we have made huge progress on the way the warriors of the Byzantine Empire fought. This accomplishment is very hard compared to the study of the Italian and German manuals. Among our sources are medical Byzantine books that inform us about the Byzantine martial arts, books written by Byzantine and other historians and writers, and Acritic Epics. Our major sources are the Byzantine manuals of high strategy and tactics.

Until now we had found guard terminology in only a few, although we proved that the terminology of the German school of fencing and its method was known to the Byzantines of the 15th century according to the book of the German fencing instructor Martin Syber. Despite that, our research continued and our scholar, Mr. Dimitrios Scourtelis, discover something important in a Greek 10th century book. The book is called the Suidas Lexicon or the Sudas Lexicon.

The book is estimated to be written by someone called Suidas or Sudas, probably a member of the Church that had devoted his life to the study of literature, in Constantinople during the 10th century. Another theory is that the author is unknown and Suda is a corruption of a Latin word meaning ‘Fortress’.

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This Lexicon is in reality an encyclopaedia of the 10th century. It contains 30.000 entries. In this medieval encyclopaedia, the author records a fencing guard and lets the reader understand the technique executed from that guard.

Man in Prokopon" guard. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 500 450 BC
Man in Prokopon” guard. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 500 450 BC

The author writes: “Ο δε οργισθείς κατά του βασιλέως πρόκωπον έχων το ξίφος” Κώπη (oar. Not to be confused with κοπή, the edge) in the Homerian language, is the sword’s grip. Consequently, the swordsman mentioned tilted his sword, while still in its scabbard, to make the sword “prokopon”, meaning the grip would be towards the front, so he would be ready to unsheathe it and strike. In other words, this is an offensive guard while the sword is still in the scabbard, from which the swordsman can attack.

Hoplites in "Prokopon" guard. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 500 450 BC
Hoplites in “Prokopon” guard. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 500 450 BC

Obviously this is reminiscent of an attack common in a Japanese fencing system. The paradox is that in European fencing manuals of the 14th century describe neither this technique nor this guard. Even in MSI 33, in a guard similar to the one described in the Lexicon, the sword is out of the scabbard. There is an explanation for this. The scabbards and the way the swords were sheathed were totally different from that of the western warriors, while even the swords of the Byzantines were different. To the contrary, in Byzantine hagiographies, frescoes and paintings, we can often see this, up to now nameless, guard, called ‘prokopon’. It is clear (from the original text) that this guard and cutting technique apply to straight, double edged swords, called xifos (or Spathion ) by the Byzantines, while they referred to curved sword as Spatha (saber).

From the other hand a stand alone recommendation does not authorized the existence of a guard and its technique that it provide.

Mr Spyros Bakas from the Archaeological Institute of the University of Warsaw, has pointed out that the technique can be also found in various ancient authors. For instance, Euripides notes “o δε ξιφος πρόκωπον εν χεροιν εχων[1], Lucianus notes “ τον Τηλεμαχον απειλειν φονευσειν προκωπον εχων το ξιφος[2],Herodianus notes “εχω προκωπον την δεξιαν[3] and “εχοντες αυτά (τα ξιφιδια) προκωπα προπηδώσιν[4],  while Aeschylus notes “ξιφος προκωπον πας τι ευπρεπιζετω”. The term is also referred by Aelianus[5],and Athenaeus[6]. Furthermore, in the Byzantine era , Gregorius Nyssenus refers to the term as follow “προκωπον τε και γυμνήν οιον τινα ρομφαια[7], Philes Poeta notes “ξιφος προκωπον η χειρ λαμβανειν[8], “ων την σπαθην προκωπον[9], “η την σπαθη προκωπον ως νητρον φερει[10], “τη προκώπω σου σπάθη[11], “προκωπον ει φεροι ξιφος[12], Philo Mech notes “προκωπον το εγχειριδιον ποιησαι[13] . The term is also referred by Constantinus VII Porphyrogenitus[14] and Joannes Antiochenus[15] . Photius Lexicographus in his dictionary work mention the term as “Προκωπος: έτοιμος, πρόχειρος[16].

[1] Euripides Trag. Orestes, 1478

[2] Lucianus Soph, De domo, 30.8

[3] Herodianus Hist, Ab excessu divi Marci, 7.5.4.10

[4] Herodianus Hist, Ab excessu divi Marci, 7.6.8.7

[5] Aelianus Soph. Claudius, Fragmenta,70.12

[6] Athenaeus Deipnosophistae, 11.114.24

[7] Gregorius Nyssenus Theol, Contra Eunomium, 2.1.4.7.

[8] Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 2.65.50

[9] Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 3.2.7

[10] Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 3.113.16

[11] Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 1.213.33

[12] Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina Inedita, 76,238 & 133.1

[13] Philo Mech. Parasceuastica et poliorceteca, 93.47

[14] Constantinus VII Porphyrogenitus Imperator Hist, De insidiis, 118.29

[15] Joannes Antiochenus Hist .Fragmenta: 187.43 & 211.6

[16] Photius Lexicographus, Scr.Eccl.Theol: Lexicon,455.16

Research continues and soon we will have more Byzantine terminology.

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