The ‘Strike on the Scalp’ in Acritic epics

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By George E. Georgas

The reconstruction of Eastern Roman Hoplomachia or Byzantine Hoplomachia is a very difficult task. As you know there are not found any existing fencing manuals until now, such as the German or Italian manuals. So we research according the experimental archaeology. Two of the methods are to study also the Byzantine literature and observe the Byzantine arts.

One of our sources is the Acritic Epic of Basilios Digenis Acritas. Digenis was a semi mythical person. He was a Byzantine warrior who protects the borders of the empire.
From this epic the researcher may found too much useful information about the equipment but also the martial art of medieval Greeks.

Here I give in public for you a fighting technique with mace and staff. The authors (because the texts come from two different books) describe it as strike to the head or scalp. The Germans call it ‘Oberhau – strike from above’.

…εξέθορεν εκ της ύλης, λύκος παμμεγεθέστατος, ώστε σχεδόν πάντες διαπτοηθήναι και εις ταραχήν εμπεσείν, ορμήσας δε κατ’αυτού ο Βασίλειος, και ρίψας εξ όπισθεν το βασιλικόν βαρδούκιον, έτυχεν του θηρίου κατά το μέσον της κεφαλής και τάυτην εδιχοτόμησε
(Συνεχιστής Θεοφάνους, Βασιλείου 14, 4-8)

‘…and come out from the wood, a great wolf, and almost all they feel agitation when they see it, Basilios charge against the wolf, and bringing back his great mace, he strike the beast’s head in the middle and he chopped it in half.’

(Theophanous, Basileiou 14,4-8)

Basilios Digenis Akritas. By Dimitrios Skourtelis
Basilios Digenis Akritas. By Dimitrios Skourtelis

In another book we have the following. Basilios has a duel with an apelati. Apelates were regular war bands. These warriors did not serve anyone, neither the empire neither the Saracens. The Acrites hunts them and they protect the roads from them. Here is a duel between Basilios Acritas and the Filopappos the Apelatis.

Εκεῖνος τότε ἠθέλησε νὰ σηκώση τὸ σπαθί του,
ἐγὼ ὀπισθαπόδισα μικρὸν ἀναπηδήσας,
μὲ τὸ ραβδὶ τὸν ἔδωσα στὴν κεφαλὴν ἀπάνω,
καὶ εἰ μὴ ταύτην ἔσκεπε διόλου τὸ σκουτάριν,
κόκαλον δὲ ἀπόμενεν γερὸν ἀπάνω εἰς αὔτην˙’
Ο Διγενής Ακρίτας νικά τον απελάτη Φιλόπαππο, Έπος Βασίλειου Διγενή Ακρίτα

‘He (the Filopappos) wants to lift his sword to strike me,
I step backwards with a small jump,
With my staff I stroke his head from above,
and if he did not protect his head with his shield,
my strike did not let any  strong bone on at his head.’
Digenis Acritas win the Filopappo the Apelati, Epic of Basilios Digenis Acritas

Both events give the same strike with a blunt weapon. At the first event Basilios kill the great wolf with his great mace and at the second he use a staff.

It is obvious that in the first event, Basilios strikes on single fencing time with out second intuition. He just gets the initiative (The Vor for those who follow German tradition of fencing) and he strikes the wolf on his head. It is logical because he fought a beast.

In second situation Basilios duels with a smart fighter. The author describe the event in literature way but a fencer can understand and he can produce this duel easily. The event can produce three different tactics using the same strike. The strike on the head.

The first situation is that Filopappos begins his attack striking from above, but Basilios react with a backward jump to avoid the attack and he stroke at his opening. So we have a contra attack but Filopappos parry Basilios attack with his shield.

The second way is the following. Filopappos begins his attack with a strike from above, Basilios jump backwards and as he had just evade Filopappo’s attack he stroke at his opening when Filopappos tries to find his balance again but Filopappos parry.

Finally we have also this. Filopappos want to lift his sword and strike, Basilios jump backwards and he strike to the opening. So we have an attack on the preparation of the opponents attack but Filopappos parry.

We can observe the fundamentals of fencing. Basilios open the distance, he evade the attack, and he stroke at the opening. And from the side of Filopappos, we have an attack and a parry in second intiution.

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