By George E. Georgas, Fencing coach, Pammachon and Historical Fencing Instructor
The Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’ is a school dedicated on swordsmanship. There are courses on Olympic / Modern Fencing, Classical Fencing of France School, German school of Fencing of Lichtenauer’s method and the more advance method of Meyer, Italian rapier and the Byzantine Hoplomachia which reconstructed with the method of the experimental archaeology.
The course of the Byzantine Hoplomachia named ‘Scholae Palatinae’ and it is not an easy task. The Byzantines did not let or not found yet any fencing manuals such as let the Germans and the Italians masters of arms. Furthermore the empire living period is huge and this makes the research more difficult. For this reason our course focuses on the late Byzantine period, the Palaiologean era because we found more sources. I have to say again that the research of this reconstruction is extremely difficult.
Thanks to the science archaeology and the science of history we found sources that help us al lot. For example from the Byzantines and Venetian authors who describes the fall of the City to the Ottomans. They had note that our last emperor brother had trained by Italians knights on swordsmanship. From the other hand the Byzantinologist and Historian Mr. Raffaele D’ Amato (from Italy) said that the Constantine Palaiologos before crowned emperor of the Byzantine Empire, he liberate the Peloponnesus from the Latins with three major forces. The local Laconian fighters (Tsakones, Spartans etc), the Arvanites and the German knights. The same unit of German knights became the Varangian guards of the emperor when he crowned, they follow him to Constantinople and they fall with him at the last battle. Those mercenary knights from the north were also trained the Medieval Greek soldiers and they used the arms and armors of the central Europe.
The drawing above is a drawing of Emperor Eastern Roman Empire John VIII Paleologos, King Sigissmund of Hungary and Danish king from 1424, made during the visit of Roman and Danish ruller to Buda. All wear plate armors. Now in Rotshild collection in Paris.
For years we suppose (including me) that the Byzantines of late period wear more or less the armors of middle period. This proofed as wrong by the science of archaeology. In a castle of Chalkida in Greece, the archaeologists found too many pieces of armors and weapons. The head archaeologist was from France and at the beginning he said that these armors belong to France knights who served to the Ducati of Attica. This was wrong as proofed by the archaeologist Mr. Kontoyannis.
Mr. Kontoyainnis found from Venetian records (books that noted the names of the soldiers who serve the Venetian republic) that the 80% of the equipment belong to medieval Greeks mercenaries who serve the republic of Venetia. The other belong to Bulgarian mercenaries, Germans, Hungarians, Spain, France, Scots and one from Russia. The armors were full plate armors, plate armors and brigantine and the weapons were long swords, bastard swords and other typical equipment of central Europe. Those armors are now in the Metropolitical museum of New York in U.S.A. and they are certificated as German origin. Off course they were made in Germany or Italy and they were used by the soldiers that I noted above.
Furthermore we have found a drawing of Emperor Eastern Roman Empire John VIII Paleologos, King Sigissmund of Hungary and Danish king from 1424, made during the visit of Roman and Danish ruler to Buda. All wear full plate armors and now it is in Rotshild collection in Paris.
Also there are too many frescos and Byzantines icons of the same period where the Saints have central European equipment. Those icons and frescos can be found all over the Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, F.Y.R.O.M and Rumania.
At 1919, a medieval book found in the Vatopedi monastery of the Holy Mount. It is a chronicle. The chronicle written by a monk with the name Ieronimos (but his true name was Petros Karchas high rank military officer of a band of Cretans fighters and knights who defend the Constantinople before the fall).
In this document Ieronimos give the story and the adventures of those Greek fighters who left the Crete and went to the Constantinople to defend the people and the empire from the Ottomans. The leader of the band was an 80 years old ex high rank officer of the empire and he lived in Chantakas in Crete. Crete was part of the Venetian republic. The Venetians let those warriors to travel to the City. The chronicle describes their equipment. They wear the typical Venetian equipment.
We have found to many information like those that I describe above, and then come the question, most high rank officers and some soldiers had the typical armors and weapons of the central Europe, then with what method we fought? Italian ? German ? Mixed? Something different ? For years we have no answers. I personally suspected that probably they follow the German method, because the Italian city states were under the German influence. Or they used a mixed method which always did.
And one day we found Martin Siber’s treatise. Matrin Siber was a German master of arms of 15th cent, he was not count in Lichtenauer Society but his method is almost the same. He uses the same techniques, guards, stances, time of combat etc. In his treatise he wrote that what he wrote were used in Germany, in Italy, in Greece (and in other kingdoms as well), so our hypothesis had a proof from a German master of arms of 15th cent. Because his treatise is a ‘zettel’ it is difficult to explain. The result comes from Meyer’s work many years later. Meyer explains the treatise and the method of Siber pretty well.
We do not stop there. Every martial art is growth also from the environment. We have the luck that in our team to have an architecture with PhD to the architectures of medieval castles, fortified cities, monasteries and villages. The Byzantine castles were narrow; the villages have narrow streets for better defense, the medieval monasteries the same. So, how a fighter with long sword can fight there? Off course he can not execute a Twerhau with Meyer’s method. So we start to test what techniques can work on those environments.
Furthermore because the duels were not allowed in the empire, except the duels before the battle between soldiers, the methods must be used in war. But someone fought different in duel and different in the battle. For this reason we start to test the techniques in phalanx formation or skirmishes. And here comes the Byzantine high strategy manuals.
There you can found material that we did not found in the fight books. For example in the manual of the emperor Leon the Wise, he give many details of how to train the soldiers. He speaks for ‘coaching’ and not for techniques. He suggest running, long distance strides, hunting, fencing with sticks, fighting on difficult places (rocky, mud etc) , evasion as the soldiers run and the other throws stones, he give also some games and how to fence safe with wooden swords and not with real, skirmishes with two vs two fighters where the one has sword and shield and the other long spear.
‘11. They must charge by two men to their opponents and then they must retreat and charge again using the tactic of parakontariou’
Tactics by emperor Leo the Wise
Off course the emperor did not say about techniques but as I said for ‘coaching’ and suggestions. Also give formations for protection of a VIP person etc And also he suggest the soldiers to training in armatura. Armatura was the ancient Rome method of fighting. The fighters are training on a wooden target for hours with wooden heavy swords and then with their real swords. So we are searching on Vegetius book. Vegetius did not say too much on this but we found by pictures from Johann Jacob von Wallhausens book Romanische Kriegskunst 1616 Frankfurt according to Vegetius. Off course Johann lived in 1600 many years after the fall of the empire. But his work has logic, and logic is a part of experimental archaeology.
Then comes another great matter. What about the footwork? Even the early master of arms does not enlighten us so much. The result comes as I participate in an Olympic Fencing seminar. Mr. Charis Tsolakis Professor of the Kapodistrian University of Athens and Metre du Arms (epee/foil) of Hellenic Fencing Federation when we spoke about epee / foil footwork, he suggest all of us to study the Greek war dances for understanding the tempo. At the begging I stun. I thought what he said now? What has to do the dance with fencing footwork and tempo? But then I start watch the 9 war dancing that we have. And I am impressing of what I saw. The war dances had all the footwork that a fencer need. Also they give the tempo, the slow, slow , fast rhythms that a fencer need to execute an attack, but also on some of this dances give some basic attacks and parries. Furthermore 3 of the dances are preparation before the fight. These dances give methods for muscle, joint and spiritual preparation. Those are the ‘pyrichios’ dances. Also I was stunning when I watch an old Cappadocian war dance with knives that the movements were almost the same with Meyer’s dagger!
The warrior –Saint is holding his sword in a stance that unlocks techniques of of Half-Swording
The Saint’s left hand is holding the scabbard in the same way described in the fencing manuals is remarkable.
Then come the stances and the guards. Here we are inspired by the iconography from frescos and Bibles. There are too many. The problem is that more of them are execution stances and not fighting stances, except of some frescos which gave the duel of David vs Goliath, the duel of St. Nestor with the gladiator in Thessalonica arena and others. Some are with one handed sword and shield (buckler or large) , some with saber and few with long sword or bastard sword. The most common is the high guard, and the half swording guards. The odd is that this half swording guards come from Mystra Peloponnesus. Because we have no living text of how they call them, we keep the German terminology translated in Modern Greek language to understand the Greek speaking students. But I suspect that they used easy terms of name, such as high guard, low guard, middle guard etc, but I have no proves yet on this. It is more intuition and how a common Greek can think. They had to train quickly a group of soldiers and then they were sending them to fight, so they can not train them with difficult terms and the system must be simple.
Until now we have the name only for two guards and one attack. The first is the ‘Prokopon’ guard. I though 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’.
Man in Prokopon” guard. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 500 450 BC
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.
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.
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 except of two (so far). Thanks to Mr. Borislav Krustev assistant instructor at the School of Historical Swordmanship MOTUS from Bulgaria found that this guard exists in two fencing European fencing treatises. The first written in 1459 by Hans Talhoffer and the second source is by Angelo Viggiani dal Montone which was an Italian fencing master of 16th cent. Viggiani describes his first ward as also a cutting directly from the scabbard.
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).
Hoplites in “Prokopon” guard. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 500 450 BC
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”, Lucianus notes “ τον Τηλεμαχον απειλειν φονευσειν προκωπον εχων το ξιφος” ,Herodianus notes “εχω προκωπον την δεξιαν” and “εχοντες αυτά (τα ξιφιδια) προκωπα προπηδώσιν”, while Aeschylus notes “ξιφος προκωπον πας τι ευπρεπιζετω”. The term is also referred by Aelianus,and Athenaeus. Furthermore, in the Byzantine era , Gregorius Nyssenus refers to the term as follow “προκωπον τε και γυμνήν οιον τινα ρομφαια”, Philes Poeta notes “ξιφος προκωπον η χειρ λαμβανειν”, “ων την σπαθην προκωπον”, “η την σπαθη προκωπον ως νητρον φερει”, “τη προκώπω σου σπάθη”, “προκωπον ει φεροι ξιφος”, Philo Mech notes “προκωπον το εγχειριδιον ποιησαι” . The term is also referred by Constantinus VII Porphyrogenitus and Joannes Antiochenus . Photius Lexicographus in his dictionary work mention the term as “Προκωπος: έτοιμος, πρόχειρος”.
 Euripides Trag. Orestes, 1478
 Lucianus Soph, De domo, 30.8
 Herodianus Hist, Ab excessu divi Marci, 22.214.171.124
 Herodianus Hist, Ab excessu divi Marci, 126.96.36.199
 Aelianus Soph. Claudius, Fragmenta,70.12
 Athenaeus Deipnosophistae, 11.114.24
 Gregorius Nyssenus Theol, Contra Eunomium, 188.8.131.52.
 Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 2.65.50
 Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 3.2.7
 Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 3.113.16
 Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina, 1.213.33
 Philes Poeta, Scr.Rerum Nat., Manuel: Carmina Inedita, 76,238 & 133.1
 Philo Mech. Parasceuastica et poliorceteca, 93.47
 Constantinus VII Porphyrogenitus Imperator Hist, De insidiis, 118.29
 Joannes Antiochenus Hist .Fragmenta: 187.43 & 211.6
 Photius Lexicographus, Scr.Eccl.Theol: Lexicon,455.16
The other guard is the ‘hold the romphaia in long distance’.
“.. and strong and well prepared. Cover well during the battle your head with shields. Your right (hand) should hold the romphaia in long distance. Your helmets and your breastplates and your iron armaments combined with the weapons we have that our opponents lack, are more than sufficient to protect you in battle. Stand, then, covered inside the walls, because those who are uncovered cannot easily approach.“
This is an excerpt from the book of protovestiarites (“Lord of the Imperial Wardrobe”) George Sphrantzes, close confidant to Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Roman Emperor, translated by G. Theofilos and printed in 1866.
Protovestiarites George Sphrantzes didn’t just hold a high office in the emperor’s court, he was also a warrior proficient in the weapons of his age. Thus, his writings have more credit that the writings of someone unversed in the art of war. Constantine XI Palaiologos, on the other hand, was a warlord that had taken part in countless battles and skirmishes, with a personal guard of 300 German knights.
The excerpt presented above is from his last speech before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, and among the advice he gives the defenders of the city, both Roman and foreign, on how to fight their enemies, is the following:
“In battle, cover your heads well with your shields, and with your right hand hold your swords out.”
The emperor not only advises about a guard used in battle, he also all but names it, since in German swordsmanship what he describes is called Long Point ‘Langort’ and in Italian swordsmanship ‘Posta Longa’ (in the two-handed sword). A very similar guard is given in an older manual, MS I.33, with sword and buckler, with the same name.
Since the emperor was talking to a multitude of warriors of different nationalities, described it simply so that everyone would understand him. There was no need for further advise, since his objective was not to train his men, all able warriors already, but to steady their resolve.
All we have to do now is to look to the manuals, like that of German swordsmanship instructor Martin Simber (that had come in contact with Greek swordsmanship instructors) and see how could someone fight from that “romphaia makra esto” (in Greek: Tην ρομφαία μακρά έστω) or Long Point guard, and to test it not only in duels but also in battle simulations involving many “combatants”.
The only named strike that we have found so far thanks to historian Mr. Nicolas Petrou (From England), is the ‘The strike of Divine Wrath’. This strike that comes from high guard and hit the target from above, we can see it in icons of Byzantine art and it has a symbolism. It symbolize the wrathful strike of justice with the result the destruction of the evil with the form of dragon or the infidel or the Satan himself. In Byzantine art it is executed by a Saint under the command of God to destroy the evil.
‘The strike of Divine Wrath’.St Theodore as he slay the dragon
The strike comes from the high guard where in German terminology named from the Day or from the roof. So it has the meaning that the strike comes from the Heaven. The Heaven as allegory is meaning the house of God and from there come something just.
So far we have found these and more as well but how you can combine all of that to a reconstructed system? I use the experience as fencing coach of how I can teach a new student. I have to teach him from the beginning. Learning his body, calm his spirit, shadow fighting e.t.c. Actually the same method I use as I teach German school of fencing. And I speak for coaching. But fencing is a sport. So I add to the education of all systems the Pammachon. Pammachon is a modern method of martial education founded by Mr. Costas Dervenis and it used by specific Special Forces of NATO (He conducted many seminars in NATO military bases, such as the presentation on close combat to senior NATO flag officers at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Center in Crete). One of the ‘keys’ of this martial education is to understand the weak points of the opponent guards and protect yours. It has to do more for tactics and not for techniques.
So with these pillars we reconstruct this that we call Buzantine Hoplomachia.
The reconstruction is very difficult but our research is continuing day by day.
We are thanking you all for your support