A decade ago, Multi-Media published the third and expanded edition of my Secret History of the Sword. Here’s one of the more popular chapters from this book!
by J. Christoph Amberger
The term Renaissance–rebirth–implies a second installment of previous phenomena, in this case, of the culture and art of Greco-Roman antiquity. And when it comes to swordplay, the Renaissance was indeed a rebirth rather than a new beginning—as can be illustrated by one particular technique that represents the assumed superiority of Renaissance fencing systems over the ancient systems–the famed Coup de Jarnac.
(This is, of course, the tradition. Bataillard’s summary of the official documentation only mentions that the fighters used thrusts more than cuts and that Jarnac managed to repeatedly strike his opponent behind the ham.)
Sir Alfred Hutton ascribes the Coup de Jarnac to the influence of an Italian fencing master, Capitano Caizo, who “judging from the nature of the instruction which he imparts to his pupil, must be an adept in the precepts of the renowned Achille Marozzo.”
This much-touted maneuver supposedly originated during the famous duel in which Guy de Chabot, Lord of Jarnac, fought his opponent, François de Vivonne, Lord of Chastaigneraïe, with sword and buckler in the presence of Henri II on July 20, 1547. To vanquish the superior opponent, Jarnac feinted a head cut, drawing up his adversary’s shield, then dropped the blade under the left leg of Chastaigneraïe, hamstringing him. Chastaigneraïe, too stubborn to admit defeat, refused help and bled to death on the field.
But what Hutton regards as a manifestation of sophisticated Renaissance sword techniques appears to have been known to gladiators in the outskirts of the Roman Empire as early as the second century A.D.
Lucian (c. 120-190 A.D.), the satirist from Samosata on the Euphrates, is one of the wittiest and sharpest observers of his period. He started out as an apprentice sculptor, then turned to rhetoric and traveled through Gaul and Italy as a lecturer and instructor. Lucian settled in Athens. He later fell on hard times that forced him to accept an administrative post in Egypt.
Nowhere in my fencing and swordplay library—not even the rambling displays of erudition of Sir Richard Burton—have I encountered a mention of the following passage, which in a few sentences introduces us to some basic tactics and techniques of Mediterranean swordplay in antiquity. In my opinion, Lucian’s description once and for all blows all those fencing historians out of the water who claim that early fencing systems were inferior or less developed than, say, Renaissance rapier schools.
In Lucian’s dialogue “Toxaris,” two Scythian friends–Toxaris and Sisinnes–from what today is the Crimean Peninsula, are in the process of traveling from their home country to Athens, because of Toxaris’ “desire for Greek culture.” Their ship puts in at Amastris, a Black Sea port in Pontus, Asia Minor, in what would be modern Turkey. Here, they are burglarized and left destitute, unable to continue their travel or to return to their home country.
For a few days, the young men eke out a miserable living by hiring themselves out to carry lumber at the port. One day, however, Sinsinnes encounters a procession of “high-spirited, handsome young men” in the market place. These had been enrolled to fight single combats for hire and were to carry out their combats on the next day.
Sisinnes wants to fight for the prize so his friend and blood brother can continue his journey. From their last money, they buy tickets. And after…
…watching wild beasts being brought down with javelins, hunted with dogs, and loosed upon men in chains, the monomachoi (gladiators) entered, and the herald, bringing in a tall youth, said that whoever wanted to fight with that man should come forward, and would receive 10,000 drachmas in payment for the encounter. Thereupon Sisinnes arose, and, leaping down, undertook to fight and requested arms. On receiving his pay, the 10,000 drachmas, he promptly put it in my hands, saying: “If I win, Toxaris, we shall go away together, with all that we need; but if I fall, bury me and return to Scythia.
While I was lamenting over this, he was given his armor and fastened it on, except that he did not put on the helmet but took position bareheaded and fought that way. He himself received the first wound, an under-cut in the back of the thigh, dealt with a curved sword, so that blood flowed copiously. For my part, I was already as good as dead in my fright.
But he waited until his opponent rushed upon him too confidently: Then he stabbed him in the breast and ran him through, so that on the instant he fell at his feet.
Himself laboring under his wound, he sat down upon the body and his life almost left him, but I, running up, revived and inspirited him. When at length he was dismissed as victor, I picked him up and carried him to our lodgings. After long treatment he survived and still lives in Scythia, with my sister as his wife; he is lame, however, by his wound.
Curved-bladed swords in the Greek context
Lucian describes the sword used by Sisinnes’ antagonist as curved-bladed (kampulos)–thus predominantly a cutting weapon. The fact that he highlights the curved weapon in the hands of the prize fighter could indicate that Sisinnes himself may have wielded a straight-bladed weapon, maybe the classical phasganon/xiphos–the straight-bladed and double-edged cut-and-thrust sword of Classical Greece.
Curved swords were rare weapons in Greece. Most prominent among them is the kopis, a cutting sword often associated with the machaira, but with a convex cutting edge of the blade, much like the Iberian falcata or the modern Ghurka kukri. The machaira, on the other hand, is a single-edged, pointed war knife slung from a baldric or belt along with the xiphos. Its heavy, curved blade was large enough to make it the ideal weapon for both infantry and cavalry. It was also used for sacrificial and domestic purposes. Another Greek curved sword is the harpé. Its prominent characteristic is a large spur on the concave cutting edge of the blade. The Romans called itensis hamatus or ensis falcatus. It also appears as a sacrificial weapon.
Of course, the Mediterranean cultures in the second century A.D. are neither truly Greek nor truly Roman in the sense of classic scholarship. Particularly Asia Minor, where this particular fight took place, was a true melting pot of Hellenic, Italic, Oriental, Celtic, and Semitic cultures.
Gladiatorial shows originally were a Roman phenomenon, more or less alien even to the Greeks. Amastris, located in the region of Pontus, had a strong Greek tradition and population, but had been part of the Imperium Romanum for a long time, adopting and adapting to Roman administration and culture.
Roman-style circenses even in provincial transit ports such as Amastris probably featured the same types of gladiator as the main arenas in Rome. Accordingly, the weapons used by monomachoi in Amastris could have conformed to Roman rather than Greek traditions. The only hint Lucian provides in regard to the weaponry and consequently the type of gladiator encountered by Sisinnes is the curved-bladed sword–which corresponds to a passage in Juvenal’s vitriolic satires:
nec murmillonis in armis nec clipeo Gracchum pugnantem aut falce supina.
The Murmillo’s equipment contained both the round targe as well as the falx supina (lit.: “recurving sickle”), a Roman fighting knife with a concave cutting edge.
Sisinnes and Toxaris are Scythians, a warlike people from what today would be Southern Russia. The sword played an important role in Scythian religion. Earlier in the text, Toxaris swears by “the Wind (Anemos) and the Sword (Akinakis)”, wind being the source of life, the sword being the cause of death. (6)
The characteristic Scythian sidearm is the akinakes or acinacis, which had been the predominant Central and West Asian sword from at least the seventh century until the second century B.C. Frequently illustrated in Achaemid Persian and Scythian art, the characteristic P-shaped mount of the akinakes (which allowed the wearer to suspend the weapon from a wide belt on the right side) continued to be used on Sarmatian and Sassanian long swords and is eventually found on Sui and Tang [Chinese] dao.
>The short akinakes had a straight, double-edged blade 34-45 cm (14-18″) in length and was used until the second century B.C., when it was gradually replaced by the long, single-edged iron sword of the Sarmatians.
Herodotus (c. 485-425 B.C.) reports on the ancient Scythian Ares cult that closely involved the sword:
In every district, at the seat of government, Ares has his temple; it is of a peculiar kind and consists of an immense heap of brushwood, three furlongs each way and somewhat less in height. On top the heap is leveled off square, like a platform, accessible on one side but rising sheer on the other three. Every year a hundred and fifty wagon-loads of sticks are added to the pile, to make up for the constant settling caused by rains, and on the top of it is planted an ancient iron sword, which serves for the image of Ares. Annual sacrifices of horses and other cattle are made to this sword, which, indeed, claims a greater number of victims than any other of their gods. Prisoners of war are also sacrificed to Ares. (8)
Toxaris and Sisinnes, of course, are “modern” Scythians who may be no longer aware of the symbolic backgrounds of their ancestral religion. (Toxaris’ failure to recognize the symbolic unity of the Scythian war god and the sword he swears by may be indicative of this cultural alienation.) But still, from the fight described by Lucian it appears that Scythians remained formidably proficient with their sidearms.
Anatomy of a wound
As little as we know about Hellenist fighting techniques, one could assume that the basic stance of fighters in a life-and-death situation would be facing each other. Sisinnes’ refusal to wear a helmet preordained his head as the most worthwhile target area for his opponent–who probably feinted a head attack, drawing up Sisinnes’ shield, then dropping his blade in pronation into the low line and cutting upward behind the left leg. (9)
The first crippling injury dealt in the fight is an under-cut to the back of the thigh. Depending on the configuration of the blade, the wound would have been caused by slicing (a modern saber-style blade) or by chopping or tearing (facilitated by the kopis or harpé configuration). An undercut to the back of the thigh, however–even if it could have been helped by the angle of the kopis’ cutting edge–is a sophisticated and complex maneuver that requires absolute blade control, speed, balance, and timing, as well as an excellent knowledge of vital points.
>The muscles on the back of the thigh (in Lucian: ignuan) are an important target in both empty-hand and edged weapons systems. Also referred to as hamstrings, this package is made up of the biceps femoris, thesemitendinosus and the semimembranosus, which attach to the pelvis and lower leg, not to the femur. They are responsible for straightening the hip and bending the knee. A blunt blow to the belly of these muscles will partially paralyze them, temporarily weakening the leg. A strong enough blow can even affect the underlying nervus ischiaticus. These muscles provide a difficult target in edged weapons combat:
Under rare conditions, the hamstrings may be presented as a knife or bayonet target. Severing them produces immediate collapse of the leg and permanent crippling. (10)
According to the text, Sisinnes’ leg does not collapse. This may indicate that the hamstrings were not severed but only cut, causing a painful and heavily bleeding wound and impaired mobility. Given the nature of the injury, the footwork of Sisinnes must have been extremely compromised.
>Consequently, it is unrealistic that he may have evaded the next attack by side-stepping. He may have pivoted on his sound leg (assuming that he was right-handed his left leg would have been damaged) or evaded the blow by a body movement. This indicates that his opponent may have attempted a downward cut at the head, rather than a diagonal or horizontal cut.
>This evasive maneuver was sufficient to throw the gladiator off balance for a brief moment–another indication for a full-forge vertical cut aimed at the head that carried the gladiator’s point into a low line. Sisinnes immediately takes advantage of the resulting opening for what could have been a point-in-line. Lucian clearly differentiates two tempi or times of this action: The passive point attack (maybe executed by straightening the arm with the point in line) that results in a hit, and the “running through”–facilitated maybe by a lunge-like forward shift of body weight. The opponent dies on the spot.
The latter circumstance is particularly interesting in regard to the target area: Despite the widespread belief that any thrust is by definition lethal, only very limited vital points produce the immediate gratification of instant death. Sisinnes must have hit a vital organ, such as the heart, or a major artery and fully destroyed it by running the blade through.
“Toxaris” indicates that early edged-weapons combat systems were at least as effective and sophisticated within their respective hoplological contexts as 16th-century Italian rapier schools or the French foil techniques of the 18th century.
***This chapter was taken from The Secret History of the Sword.
1. Hutton, Alfred.The Sword and the Centuries, (London: Grant Richards, 1901) Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., (1973) 1980; p. 48.
2. The use of the term duel may be inappropriate in this particular context, since the fight actually took place in the presence of the sovereign–an arrangement incompatible with the paralegal character of the duel proper. The entire staging of the event indicates that this fight must have been closer to an ordeal or wager of battle.
3. See also Bataillard, Ch. Du duel, consideré sous le rapport de la morale, de l’histoire, de la législation et de l’opportunité d’une loi répressive. Suivi de combat et duel de la Chasteneraye et de Iarnac, Paris, 1829.
4. Lucian. — “Toxaris, or Friendship,” inWorks in 8 Volumes (transl. Harmon, A.M.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP and London: William Heinemann Ltd., [Loeb Classical Library], (1936), 1972; vol. v; p. 199f.
5. Juvenal.Juvenal and Persius (transl. Ramsay, G.G.),Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press [Loeb Classical Library], (1918) 1990, p. 175. (Iuvenalis Satura VIII, ln. 200-201): “Gracchus fighting, not as a murmillo, nor with round shield and scimitar“–scimitar, of course, being the well-intentioned anachronism to be expected by a non-hoplologist.
6. Lucian; pp. 164-65.
7. See also Richardson, Thom. “China and Central Asia,” in Coe, Michael D. (ed.)Swords and Hilt Weapons, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989; p. 176-77.
8. Herodotus.The Histories (transl. de Sélincourt, Aubrey), Harmondsworth, Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, (1954) 1984; p. 290. (Book IV.)
9. This technique, minus the shield action, continued to be used well into the late 19th century. It is illustrated best in Henry Angelo’s sequentially illustrated manual for cutlass and broadsword, as well as in late 19th-century sports saber techniques dealing with the thigh cut. The proper evasive maneuver for this attack is “shifting the leg” as described in a previous chapter.
10. Mashiro, N.Black Medicine–The Dark Art of Death: The Vital Points of the Human Body in Close Combat, Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1978; p. 78.