The art of swordsmanship in the Eastern Roman Empire at 14th-15th centuries


The art of swordsmanship in the Eastern Roman Empire at 14th-15th centuries

Fresco of 15th century of St. Theodore bearing a long sword. The fresco exists at the Monastery of St. Michael the Panormitis at Simy Island.

By Andrea Baduin from his book ‘The offensive weapons of Byzantines at the period 1204-1453

With interventions on the martial arts from George E. Georgas

The fight manuals of the 14th and 15th centuries which written from the German fencing masters but also the Arabian fight books of 12th century were very useful for the research. Also used for the research, the Byzantine archives of the diplomatic relationships between the Romania (Byzantine Empire) and the Western kingdoms.

From all of those books, manuals, archives, imperial military manuals, German fight books, Italian fight books, pumped a huge amount of information about the weapons were used at those centuries in Balkans and the East Mediterranean sea but also how they used them.

The melee weapons of the Byzantines at the 14th-15th centuries were many. However the charming art of the sword has a special place at the heart of the Greeks, from the Homer epic poem until the modern history of Greece and we speak about them.
The types of swords

There are too many types of swords, which in the passage of time and according the scheme and the use for which they were intended, there were took many names. However divided in two broad groups:

The type of xifos

St.Theodoros of Tyros who slay the dragon. Holy icon of 15th century. Byzantine museum of Athens.

These types of sword group are straight and long with two edges along the blade and with acute or obtuse edge. They have handles that finish in a sphere, which serves to balance the weight of the sword, and blades typically have a rib (fuller) to the longitudinal shaft which ensures their greater lightness and resistance to impact.In the handle mounting point with the blade is the guard / hand guard,a crossbar with two arm bars to protect hand . Those type of swords can be used for strikes, cuts and thrust attacks.

The saber type

They are wide and curved (like sickle) unilateral edged blade and a handle asymmetrical, without sphere, often sharp curves towards the side of the blade. Sometimes the back ( non- sharp side) of the blade widens the last third and forms an edge, called zelman (jelman). The sword is the standard weapon of the cavalry and used for receding cuts and strikes. Among the many variations of these basic types, mention two :At first the rapier , a long blade sword with a thin lancet (in some cases up quadrangular cross-section ) blade and often without guard . Then the pallash, an ancestor of the saber with fine and straight -edged blade unilateral and symmetrical and straight handle, like that of the xifos , but without the sphere. In the West a sword with the same characteristics were known as falcione (falchion).

Μartyrdom of St. Dimitrios-unkown icon maker of Chantakas Crete,15th century

Other types

The authors of the Palaeologue dynasty era use a wide variety of names to identify swords, starting from fasganon (φάσγανον), aor( ἄορ) and xifos(ξίφος) names that already found in Homer to pass to akinakis (ἀκινάκης)of Herodotus and the machaira (μάχαιρα) and the romphaia (ῥομφαία),very common names in the Old and New Testament and often cadets in religious or non- text content . Even though these terms were originally used to identify specific types of weapons , the secretariat mainly used arbitrarily and often considered synonymous.Also exist a mysterious type of sword named, sword staff. They can only make assumptions about the shape of the sword staff which was at the saddle of Digenis Acritas, maybe it was a type of lance or even a rapier. Watching a weapon of this type is saved at the War Museum in Constantinople can anyone observe that the complete absence of guard give an idea of how can was the sword staff.

The rapier that exist in War Museum of Constantinople

The German weapons

St. Dimitrios from the monastery of Helandareon.The icon made at 14th century. Look at the sword it has a type R pommel is shown affixed to the end of a hand and half or two handed sword of the later Medieval period.

 During the last centuries of Byzantium, saved several samples sword of 14th and 15th century , bearing the symbol of the wolf engraved on the blade. This emblem – proof of origin from a region of Germany which produces high quality weapons Also used on swords local production after presented as genuine. On the basis of manuscripts and Holy icons information , shows that the average length of the handles between 10 and 15 cm , including sphere and the bumper . With rare exceptions, do not appear in the iconography handles to grip with both hands and it shows that the Byzantineswords intended essentially for cavalcade use, in which one arm should always be available to hold the reins. In order to stay the hand free to hold the bow or spear , swords could be hanging from the wrist thanks to a leash held by a ring suspension .

Byzantine sword, the warrior use it with two hands

Holy icon of St. George in Serbian monastery. The Serbians fought  with the same way with Byzantines.

The curved sword (the saber)

From the 13th century and the following appears in Byzantine iconography with increasing frequency a type of sword characterized by curved blade with a single edge length of 70 cm to a measure, which came from the Central Asian region . The saber was a weapon designed for horseback battle, and used for oblique cutting blows. The existence of a single edged allow the strengthening of the back of the weapon , to achieve stronger blows. In some cases , the upper edge of the ridge forms a second ridge , called zelman (jelman), thanks to which the tip of the blade could be used in both directions .

In Byzantine literature , the most accurate description of a sword is in his Chalkokondyli , which compares the modern weapons of central Europe with those of the Turks , Italians and Greeks.notes that , while the Germans and Hungarians used straight and sharp swords (the long swords) for thrusting attacks, Turks took advantage of the immense (καταφορά) power of flagrant strokes with unilateral edged swords for causing deep wounds.

Whenever we have further proof from the hand of Chalkokondylis, that Lichtenauer’s system had the basic aggressive start the thrusting attacks. Read what Chalkokondylis wrote:

‘…ξίφει Παιονικῷ βληθεὶς κατὰ τὸ στῆθος, δορατείῳ τραύματι. τὰ γὰρ Παιονικὰ ξίφη σχεδόν τι δή, καὶ τὰ τῆς Γερμανίας ἁπάσης, ἐληλαμένα τυγχάνει ἐπὶ μήκιστον καὶ ὀξέα, οὐ μέντοι τοιαῦτα οἷα καταίροντας κόπτειν ὅτι καὶ ἄξια λόγου, ὡς τὰ βαρβαρικὰ καὶ Ἰταλικά. τὰ μὲν βαρβαρικὰ τοιαῦτα (Τούρκων δέ ἐστι ταῦτα), βάρος ἴσχοντα πάμμεγα καὶ ἐφ΄ ἑνὶ ἔχοντα τὴν τομὴν, καταβαίνουσί γε μάλιστα δὴ πάντων τῶν ξιφῶν ὧν ἡμεῖς ἴσμεν δεύτερα δὲ τούτων τὰ Ἰταλικά, Ἑλληνικά ποτε γενόμενα. τὰ δὲ Γερμανικὰ καὶ Παιονικὰ μακρὰ μέν εἰσι καὶ στρογγύλα, τετράγωνα, τὴν τομὴν ὀξέα, ἐς ὀξὺ δὲ πάνυ λήγοντα δόρατος ἐπιφέρουσι τομήν, τοῦ ἐφ΄ ἵππου κατεπερείδοντος αὐτὸ ὡς ἐς τὸ τοῦ δόρατος σχῆμα.’
Λαόνικος Χαλκοκονδύλης, Ἀποδείξεις ἱστοριῶν, σ. 334. 12-22. σ. 335. 1-2
At the same time an Italian observer notes that the swords of the Turks were not suitable for thrusting attacks :
‘…gladios magnos non sine mucronibus
quoque, quibus tamen cessim potius et aptius quam punctim petere hostem possint aut soleant, gladiosque item minores habilesque et ad quotidianos usus.’
Lampo Birago, Strategicon adversum Turcos, σ. 696. 168

Chalkokondylis also believed that the sabers used in the old times at Byzantium. But from iconography , however, it seems clear that until the mid-14th century , the most popular swords in the Empire were the two straight edges . An Italian text of 1455 states that the curved swords (semitaras) was known to the Greeks by the name spatas.

We also know that the «stradiotti» – direct heirs of the military Byzantine tradition – who was in the service of the Venetians in the late 15th century in Italy , using also «scemitarre» very strong edge .Their oplomachia survived and adopted within the European fight schools and (especially in German school) who assimilated the techniques of curved swords in the form of dussack.

Romios mercenary ‘stratioti’

Many Romioi (Ρωμιοί – Greco Romans) mercenaries except that they served the Italian city-states , also served the German emperors , while one of them the Matthew Spanoudis became count and a knight of the Holy Roman German Empire. The title is given from the emperor himself, Frederick the third . This was surprising since the Greek mercenary was Christian Orthodox and not Catholic !

Mercurios Boua’s coat of arms

He was not the only one. Mercurios Bua has his own coat of arms which given from the German emperor himself Maximilian the first at 1510 for his military services. Understandably we can assume that the Greek oplomachia passed to the army of the imperial Germans.

Crocodeilos Kladas coat  of arms

The same influence was having also the Italians since mostly of those Greeks mercenaries served the Italians. Such as the Crocodeilos Kladas that he fought on the side of the Venetians against the Ottomans . In 1408 became a Knight of Venice and later emigrated to Kefalonia island , while his family and his warriors constantly fighting the Ottomans for another 100 years.   All these warlords had a special place in the West. They had a strong army and their war art was highly respected by all.Therefore it would be short-sighted and sterile , to say that the art of war that they did, who was none other than the Byzantine martial art of the Acrites (border wardens) who survived through the centuries , not affected the Italian and German martial art.

The Use

Whatever form they had swords could be used in various ways .Theodore Paleologos counts among the most important weapons and recommends the use of both a long sword and a smaller type of sword and a dagger. Theodor Palaiologos had great influence from the Italian knights.
Although the Latins doubted the abilities of the Byzantines in the battle with the sword , but in the Byzantine chivalric novels there is a wealth of data on the techniques of swordsmanship .

For example :

‘…πρὸς οὓς συντόμως τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνθυποστρέψας σπάθην,/ τὰ κοντάρια ἔτεμον παρευθὺς ἀμφοτέρων.’
Διγενὴς Ἀκρίτης (Grottaferrata), σ. 200. 6, 633-634

Και αλλού: ‘…σπαθέαν μίαν μὲ ἔδωκεν εἰς τὸ χεροσκουτάριν/ καὶ ἦτον ὁ γέρων δυνατὸς καὶ τὸ ἄρμαν του καινούργιον/ καὶ μοναχὸν τὸ κράτημαν [μ’] ἀπόμεινε εἰς τὸ χέριν·/ τοῦ σκουταρίου τσακίσματα ἔπεσαν ἔμπροσθέν μου.’
Διγενὴς Ἀκρίτης (Escorial), σ. 48. 1248-1251

In the above passage is obvious to use the buckler shield called χεροσκουτάριν.

…καὶ ἐκεῖνος μὲ ἐπέβλεπεν, ἵνα σπαθέαν μὲ δώση,/ καὶ ἐξηστρεφτὴν τοῦ ἔδωσα ἀπάνω εἰς τὸν βραχίοναν/ καὶ τὸ σπαθίν του ἐξέπεσεν κ’ ἡ χείρα του ἐκρεμάστην.’
Ό.π., σ. 48. 1270-1272

…τὸ σπαθίν του ἐγλήγορα σύρνει ἐκ τὸ θηκάριν./ Μὲ τὸ μαντὶν ἐστόλισε τὸν ζερβόν του βραχιόνα,/ γυμνὸν ἐκράτει τὸ σπαθὶν καὶ πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐκτρέχει.’
Ὁ πόλεμος τῆς Τρωάδος, σ. 520. 10014/10016 (The last verse is a direct translation of the French original).

Archangel Michael
Moreover , the rigor with which represented swords in Byzantine art in itself demonstrates the interest that existed for these weapons . In some representations , for example , the manner illustrated in which the fingers are positioned above the hand guard: This detail shows that the artist knew that a portion of the blade lacked edge . This region near the handle , which the international terminology called ricasso, served to be kept firmly on the weapon during the battle .

The emperor’s sword wandered in the procession of the coronation , was a symbol of imperial power and always stood beside the King , who accepted foreign ambassadors with this hand .The sword was also the symbol of the judiciary and for this reason appears in many action scenes behind Herod and Pilate .

The oath on his sword was considered sacred to the inauguration of four judges, Emperor Andronikos III ordered to carry the Gospel and the imperial sword .Sources mention extremely sharp swords , which sometimes seems to have almost supernatural capabilities.

In his Nestor Iskander for the conquest of Constantinople chronicle, he gives a lot of shock descriptions of a sword which able to cut in two peaces the rivals .For example , General Rangavis cuts in both a Turk from shoulders to bottom with a sword. Nestor Iskander, Povest ‘o Tsar’grade, p. 55 , no. 39 .

Tell me therefore another way of performing such a hit , but one diagonal stroke that the German terminology is called ‘ strike of Wrath ‘and in older literature called ‘ hitting of the father ‘. And yes it is the Zornhau! Or with a strike form above (oberhau) which in holy icons and in manuscripts the creators give the potential guard to execute this powerful strike.

According to the same source , Constantinos Palaiologos the last emperor of medieval Greeks, kills himself over 600 Ottoman Turks during the last battle near Golden Gate before he fell with all his Varagians guards (they were English knights) and his personal palace warriors . Ibid , p . 87 , no. 77 .

So easily you can see what equipment had the Byzantines in the dusk of the Empire, heavy armors of German or Italian types and also similar offensive equipment (long swords, rapiers, etc) . Why was something different, our (Byzantine) martial art ?

George E. Georgas is the founder of the Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’. He is certificated fencing instructor of the Hellenic Fencing Federation and also national referee of the Hellenic Fencing Federation at the epee. He is instructor of Meyer Freifechter Guild with the rank of Fecther and he is the Guild Unterhauptman for Greece. He is also member of Learn Sword Fight (Gladiatores). He is in the Administration Council of the ‘Pammachon’. He is also instructor of weapon fighting of the Association of Historical studies ‘KORYVANTES’. He is studying the ancient Greek and Byzantine warfare, such as the use of rompaia, spathion and paramirion types of swords and other weapons such as the spear. He is also give stage fighting lessons to the theatrical team ‘The Blue Rose.’


2 thoughts on “The art of swordsmanship in the Eastern Roman Empire at 14th-15th centuries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s