It is time to talk about why the Byzantines never wrote fencing manuals


By John Dandoulakis member of the Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’
BA War Studies, MA European & International Politics

It is common knowledge – and sense – for all HEMA practitioners and enthusiasts that a nation cannot possess a legitimately medieval/historical martial art, and in particular a distinct fencing method if this has not been recorded in primary sources: the Manuals.

And the talk of the town of course is none other than “byzantine hoplomachia” and its place among modern Historical European Martial Arts. And since HEMA is mostly associated with the northern European two-handed longsword, the question naturally arises: – How can there be a byzantine HEMA when Byzantines did not have longswords? Therefore the answer is simple. Byzantines/Grecoromans were always adopting foreign successfull military customs and weaponry. The same applied to the western longsword. Following the collapse of the thematic system in the late period, and since the Komnenian reforms, the Imperial Army attempted to assimilate western European heavy cavalry capabilities, yet only in appearance and not in their entire true nature, as we shall see below. Hence late Byzantine/Grecoroman higher military officials and the nobility were trained and used the longsword as a superior weapon of their era. It is also worth noting that in their thousand-years long history, Byzantines/Grecoromans used other two-handed weapons too, while the longsword was not alien to their culture: the spathion (σπαθίον) was an one-handed longsword, there is also sparse evidence of early byzantine two-handed swords, and finally the preferred weapons of the famous Akrites were the apelatikion (απελατίκιον), which was a massive two-handed mace, and the ravdion (ραβδίον), which was a two-handed staff.

Yet again: apart from a few written descriptions of duels and individual attacking moves in byzantine sources, and despite all the hagiography of military saints, there exists no written treatise or manual on the exact use of these weapons, but one can only safely argue that since, even in Western Europe, fencing manuals do not exist before 15th century, much like their contemporary European neighbours, Byzantines/Grecoromans had developed a similar fighting tradition and were in fact in communication among them.

Therefore the most tantalising question is this: – How can you have a “byzantine” fencing martial art when there are no byzantine fencing manuals? People today reasonably ask. And yet everybody knows that, statistically the Byzantines/Grecoromans fought the greatest number of wars of all medieval Europeans combined; and successfully for the larger part too. And of course, they used swords, spears, maces, bows and all sorts of weapons, but surprisingly no written evidence survives as to how exactly they used them. So how on earth did they do it?!

The answer to this apparent oxymoron is simple: Byzantine/Grecoromans never wrote manuals for individual combat because they… did not need them! Because, unlike medieval Western Europeans, and true to their ancient Greek and Roman inheritance, they fought in a disciplined fashion. Whereas instead, the Western Europeans – and up until the time of the Swiss pikemen – did not fight in discipline but, even the heaviest and strongest European knight armies, fought in an irregular (barbaric according to the Greeks) fashion.

Now of course, the above just mentioned point is also common knowledge. Why, however is it important to the “byzantine oxymoron” in modern HEMA? The Byzantines/Grecoromans possessed a highly sophisticated art of warfare, which was the culmination of all ancient Mediterranean civilizations. They had actually combined all the best aspects of pre-gunpowder warfare: Roman discipline and professionalism, Greek ingenuity and tactical cunningness, Persian armory and weaponry, Scythian/Hunnic/Asian Nomadic cavalry tactics. What byzantine warfare involved was far more advanced than personal valour, strength and the sheer volume of numbers that medieval Western European armies relied upon.

Even the main weapons that symbolise today western European and Byzantine warfare speak of this civilisation gap: Western and Northern Europeans used mostly heavy broad swords or the famous two-handed longsword. This weapon was devastating in the hands of a heavy armoured medieval knight who, even when fighting on foot, relied on the thrust of this powerful charge and who basically fought individually (he had to, in order to maintain his position and power in the medieval feudal system of politics) and not in close, disciplined maniples, as was the Grecoroman tradition. Hence the rise of the medieval duels, which later in the Renaissance developed into a kind of sport for the rich European aristocrats.

On the contrary the Byzantine/Grecoroman world was composed in an “ecumenical” manner, stemming from the “koina”of the “polis”, based upon an anthropocentric social setting which was based and gave importance to the cohesion of local communites. This was perfectly mirrored into the thematic system: each imperial region made up its own military units, made up of brotherly bonded individuals who had been trained to fight as a phalanx. It was not the locally restricted Athenian democracy of Pericles, it was something even greater: an “ecumenic” communally based democracy headed by a commonly accepted and accountable Emperor.

Therefore Byzantines/Grecoromans were trained hard to fight in discipline and used either spears or one-handed swords of various sizes, intended to be used in a close phalanx formation: the Grecoroman soldier always carried a shield on his other hand, a large scutarion if he was a heavy infantryman, or a smaller cheroscoutarion if he was a light auxiliary or an archer. Even heavy cavalry fought in strict discipline and close formation. When a military is thus advanced the emphasis relies less on individual strength and skill and more on discipline and drilling, because in close formation one man covers the weaknesses of the next, and he relies on the protection of his companions. Byzantine soldiers would never have had enough space to wield a two-handed longsword in such conditions. So the attacks were simple: thrust with spear or cut with the sword. Simple, fast and automatic: this is the basis of advanced disciplined warfare. Anything more than that was considered by the Byzantines/Grecoromans as impulsive and reckless and largely characteristic of the “barbarians”.

This is the reason why Emperors composed tactical manuals: they wrote the “Strategika”, professional treatises on warfare and strategy, which the Byzantines/Grecoromans had advanced into a science itself. Coming from their point of view, of what use could a “fencing manual” (which can only include elaborate moves for individual attacks) be to such a large professional corpus, as the Imperial Army was? Very little, if none at all.

 But… can it be a “martial art” if it was not intended for individual combat/duels? Well: A) one does not exclude the other. That is to say Byzantines/Grecoromans fought individual duels too, but that was in no way the basis of their warfare and military culture. B) For the Grecoroman world nothing can ever properly be “martial” if it does not include phalanx drills. C) It does include hand-to-hand combat, which also originates from ancient greek pygmachia. That is why it is today called “pammachon”. Because it involves an holistic view of warfare and martial arts.

Coming back to HEMA, the fact itself that in Western Europe fencing became a kind of “sport”, and the first Italian and German fencing manuals were written by the time the first regular infantry armies appear around late 15th century, is indicative of the fact that fencing mirrors a rather primitive method of warfare, rendered obsolete as Western Europe advanced, and was kept only as a nostalgic reminder of a legendary past.

-Jan Willem Honig, Warfare in the Middle Ages, London, Routledge, 2001
-Philip Sabin, ed., The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, 2007
-Ian Heath, Byzantine armies 886-1118, Osprey Publishing 1979
-Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic – People and Power in New Rome, Harvard University Press, 2015
-George Contogiorgis, The Hellenic Cosmosystem, vol. II, Athens, 2014
-Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, 1997
-Warren Treadgold, Byzantium and Its Army: 284-1081, Stanford University Press, 1998
-“Tactica” of Leo VI the Wise, 9th c. AD
-Epic of “Basilios Digenis Akritas”


2 thoughts on “It is time to talk about why the Byzantines never wrote fencing manuals

  1. Hi, John,
    I agree with your reading on why the Roman East did not develop the individual fencing manual tradition. Re the Latin West, I think the fencing manual tradition there has more to do with changing patterns of social mobility than “re-emergence” of infantry; for one, infantry never really went away, and the fencing manuals don’t actually teach infantry combat.
    We’re of course talking about different time periods, but I think the Western European fight manuals need to be seen in connection with a society where fighting and ruling were seen as inextricably linked, and the hierarchy of ruling was getting thoroughly mixed up thanks to a whole string of developments. I’d argue that this close link to changing structures in society is a further reason why the Roman East, where I don’t believe we have either the fighting-ruling identity nor the radical social changes, did not have an individual fencing manual tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jurg, thank you for your comment very much. Yes of course it’s exactly as you say it. I would only like to clarify that the “re-emergence” of infantry took place because of, and was inextricably linked to the changing patterns of social mobility which you refer to! Armies and societies were always interconnected vessels in human history, and that is a key element I try to explain in my article above.

    Liked by 1 person

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