Champions and Tradition: Single Combat in the Age of Belisarius


Roman cavalry, 6th cent. AD. From Ancient Warfare magazine

The sixth century AD witnessed a revival of the practice of single combat by Roman champions, usually officers of considerable rank and prestige, but these men were often of non-Roman origin or descent. To what extent did their native warrior traditions influence the revival of single combat?


The Roman Tradition

The Romans traced a tradition of single combat back to the very foundation of their city. Romulus was the first Roman duellist. He killed king Acron of Caenina in single combat and then captured the little Latin town. Another legendary duel, or rather battle of champions, between the three Roman Horatii brothers and the three Alban Curiatii brothers, resulted in the absorption of Alba Longa by Regal Rome.

Historic single combats in the Republican period were rarely decisive but still important because they demonstrated Roman virtus (valour and excellence) and the favour of the gods. The defeat of Gallic, German and Spanish warriors of chiefly rank, served to encourage the Romans and to dismay the enemy. However, the incident at Nola in 89 BC is particularly notable as an example of a decisive single combat. The defeat of a Gallic champion by Moorish cavalryman in Roman service, caused the Gallic mercenies employed by Samnite rebels to panic and flee. This exposed the Samnites, who in turn fled, and were cut down in their thousands as they attempted to enter Nola through a single gate.

The Roman sources typically distort the reality of these duels by nearly always having a tall and mighty enemy champion stride (or ride) into the no-man’s land between the rival armies to abuse the Romans and challenge any who are brave enough to fight him. No one will. Eventually a young Roman officer, usually the scion of an aristocratic gens (clan), apparently small in stature and inexperienced in hand-to-hand combat, can take no more of the enemy’s taunts and accepts the challenge. However, in keeping with the Roman tradition (or cherished fantasy) of discipline, he does not rashly rush out at the enemy, but first seeks the permission of his general to fight. Then, in typical David and Goliath style, and sometimes aided by the intervention of the gods, he vanquishes the arrogant barbarian.

Despite the clichéd elements in the accounts of single combats won by the tribunes Titus Manlius Torquatus on the Anio (361 BC) and Marcus Valerius Corvus in the Pomptine Marshes (349 BC), there can be no doubt that they helped inspire the Romans to important victories over the Gauls. Moreover, their feats in combat ensured their reputations for virtus and hastened their rise to the highest military and political offices.

Of course, not all Roman duellists were relatively junior military tribunes. For example, Marcus Claudius Marcellus was consul, the chief magistrate of Rome, when he slew Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati at Clastdium in 222 BC. Marcellus claimed the spolia opima, that is the greatest spoils (arms and armour and sometimes the head) taken by a Roman leader from an enemy king or general in single combat.

Sometimes we do hear of a Roman leaving the battle line to insult the enemy and deliver a challenge to single combat, for example Antistius Turpio at Munda in 45 BC. This is probably indicative that the Romans were far more active in issuing challenges than the sources admit. If the Romans really were so disciplined, commanders, from the Elder Torquatus in 340 BC to the Caesar Titus in AD 70, would not have had to issue orders against unsanctioned duels and acts of bravado in combat.

Single combat was generally practiced by nobles but there are some examples of duels fought by ordinary Roman soldiers. Interestingly, the cavalryman Priscus, who accepted the challenge of the Jew Jonathon at Jerusalem in AD 70, is the only Roman recorded to have lost a single combat in the Regal, Republican or Early Imperial eras. What is more, this duel reverses the usual David and Goliath scenario: Priscus is the experienced and formidable Goliath figure but as he charges towards his apparent victim, he slips and the small Jonathon seizes the opportunity to kill his momentarily defenseless opponent.

The brief fight between Jonathon and Priscus seems to terminate the Roman tradition of single combat. While there is no doubt that there were countless one-on-one combats involving Romans and their opponents, it is not until AD 422 that another certain example of a formal single combat presents itself. In that year Areobindus, a Roman general of Gothic extraction, fought a battle of champions against a Persian ‘immortal’ somewhere in Mesopotamia.  The duel seems to have been proposed by the Sasanid Persian king Bahram V, who wished to avoid a full-scale pitched battle. When Areobindus won the single combat (thanks to his lasso), Bahram concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Areobindus’ feat became famous but seems not to have spurred a wider revival of the old tradition of single combat (see Cowan 2017). That came a century later.

The Revival of Single Combat

Single combat of the classic Roman type, that is an apparently junior and inexperienced Roman accepting the challenge of a boastful enemy champion, reappears in the skirmishing leading up to the battle of Dara in July AD 530. The cavalry on the left wing of Belisarius’ army won a skirmish against cavalry from the right wing of the Persian army:

Seven of the Persians fell and the Romans gained possession of their bodies. Then both armies remained quietly in position, but one Persian, a young man, riding up very close to the Roman army, began to challenge all of them, calling for whoever wished to do battle with him. And no one of the whole army dared face the danger, except a certain Andreas, one of the personal attendants of Bouzes. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.28-30)

The Thracian general Bouzes commanded the cavalry on the left wing of the Roman army. Procopius asserts that Andreas was simply a servant, “not a soldier or one who had ever practised at all in the business of war, but a trainer of youths in charge of a certain wrestling school in Byzantium [i.e. Constantinople],” and who had the honour of being Bouzes’ bath attendant (Wars 1.13.30-31). Considering his background in unarmed combat, skill as a horseman, and because he was fully armed and armoured, it seems unlikely that Andreas was a simple servant. It is probable that he was a senior member of Bouzes’ bucellarii. So-called because of their biscuit ration (bucellatum), the bucellarii were military retainers employed by wealthy officials and generals. They are sometimes described as private bodyguards, but the bucellarii also swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor and were placed at his disposal.

This man alone had the courage, without being ordered by Bouzes or anyone else, to go out of his own accord to meet the man in single combat. Andreas caught the barbarian while still considering how he should deliver his attack, and hit him with his spear on the right breast. And the Persian did not bear the blow delivered by a man of such exceptional strength, and fell from his horse to the earth. Then Andreas slew him with a small knife like a sacrificial animal as he lay on his back, and a mighty cry was raised from both the city wall [of Dara] and from the Roman army. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.31-32)

Unlike most of the famous Roman duellists of old, Andreas did not seek the permission of his commander to fight. (Quintus Occius Achilles is a notable example of a Republican Roman officer who did not seek permission to accept a challenge, but the duel was not fought in a battle situation.) When Andreas returned to the Roman battle line, Hermogenes, the deputy of Belisarius, forbade him to accept any more challenges, but Andreas was not able to resist when a second Persian champion rode out. He was a bigger man than Andreas – the David and Goliath theme again – and we can assume he was of senior rank.

The Persians were deeply vexed at the outcome and sent forth another horseman for the same purpose, a manly fellow and well favoured as to bodily size, but not a youth, for some of the hair on his head already showed grey. This horseman came up along the hostile army, and, brandishing vehemently the whip with which he was accustomed to strike his horse, he summoned to battle whoever among the Romans was willing. And when no one went out against him, Andreas, without attracting the notice of anyone, once more came forth, although he had been forbidden to do so by Hermogenes. So both rushed madly upon each other with their spears, and the weapons, driven against their corselets, were turned aside with mighty force, and the horses, striking together their heads, fell themselves and threw off their riders. And the two men, falling very close to each other, made great haste to rise to their feet, but the Persian was not able to do this easily because his size was against him, while Andreas, anticipating him (for his practice in the wrestling school gave him this advantage), smote him as he was rising on his knee, and as he fell again to the ground dispatched him. Then a roar went up from the wall and from the Roman army as great, if not greater, than before; and the Persians broke their phalanx and withdrew to Ammodios, while the Romans, raising the paean, went inside the fortifications. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.33-39)

One wonders how exactly Andreas managed to sneak out again to confront the second Persian warrior. We hear no more of Andreas after this feat. Procopius – who, as a member of Belisarius’ staff, may have witnessed the duels – does not tell us if Andreas was punished for disobeying Hermogenes’ order.

Andreas’ two victories certainly boosted the morale of the Roman army, but it is probably coincidental that the Persians withdrew after the death of their second champion. The duels were fought late in the day (cf. Wars 1.13.25) and because a general engagement had not developed (contrast, for example, the battle that erupted after Valerius Corvus’ duel in the Pomptine Marshes), the Persians would have intended returning to their fortifications before nightfall. They came back to Dara the next morning, and were defeated in a pitched battle.

The Vagaries of Single Combat

In AD 535, a Roman victory in single combat did persuade an enemy army to quit the field. When the Moorish chief Iaudas plundered Numidia, Althias, the comes foederatum (commander of allied troops) based at Centuriae, realised he could not confront Iaudas in open battle: he had only 70 Huns under his command. Althias reckoned that if he occupied the easily defended spring at nearby Tigisis, the only major source of water in the region and where Iaudas and his thirsty army would have to halt, he could force the Iaudas into a battle of champions. If Iaudas won his army would drink; if Althias won, the Moors would hand over their booty and captives.

Iaudas, a powerful man and experienced fighter, was emboldened to accept the terms because of Althias’ lack of stature and slim build. Spurring his horse forward, burly Iaudas hurled his spear at the Roman commander, but with lightning speed the much slighter Althias caught the missile with his right hand! “This filled Iaudas and the enemy with consternation. With his left hand Althias instantly drew his bow, for he was ambidextrous and [presumably having ditched the spear] hit and killed Iaudas’ horse. As he fell, the Moors brought up another horse for their commander, upon which Iaudas leaped and straightaway fled. The Moorish army followed him in complete disorder.” The Moors abandoned all of their booty and captives as they raced to catch up with their chief, and “Althias won a great name in consequence of his deed” (Procopius, Wars 4.13.11-17).

Excepting Iaudas’ unfortunate steed, Althias’ victory was bloodless. As in the earlier age of Roman single combat, Roman champions of the sixth century AD did not lose duels, but they did not always survive them.

In the spring of AD 542, near Faventia (see Procopius, Wars 7.3.22 for the location), the army of the Gothic king Totila was vulnerable to attack as it made a difficult river crossing. The senior officer Artabazes urged his fellow-commanders to attack the Goths, but they refused. The Goths completed their crossing unopposed and advanced to confront the Roman army. A Goth named Valaris then spurred forward and challenged any Roman who would dare to single combat. Artabazes was still simmering with rage and immediately accepted the challenge:

So they rode their horses towards each other, and when they came close, both thrust their spears, but Artabazes, anticipating his opponent, delivered the first blow and pierced the right side of Valaris. The barbarian, mortally wounded, was about to fall backward to the earth but his spear, resting on the ground behind him and being braced against a rock, did not permit him to fall. (Procopius, Wars 7.4.23-26)

Artabazes, still being carried forward by his horse, slammed into Valaris’ spear. It went through his cuirass and drove up through his body up to his neck, where it severed an artery. He died three days later (Wars 7.4.26-29). The victories of Roman champions in the single combats of the Republican era prefaced victories in battle, but this was not always the case in the sixth century AD. Despite his victory, the accidental mortal wounding of Artabazes thoroughly dispirited the Roman army (its morale would have been low following the recent retreat from Verona), and it succumbed to panic when surprised in the rear by a detachment of 300 Gothic cavalry.

At the battle of Thacia (autumn AD 545), the Roman general Ioannes (John), son of Sisiniolus, defeated the renegade guardsman Stotzas in a single combat in the no-man’s land between their armies:

As soon as the fighting was about to come to close quarters, both rode out from their armies and came against each other. John drew his bow and, as Stotzas was still advancing, made a successful shot and hit him in the right groin. Stotzas, mortally wounded, fell there, not yet dead, but destined to survive this wound only a little time. (Procopius, Wars 4.24.10-11)

One would have expected this to have inspired and heartened the Roman army; that was certainly the usual result of a successful single combat in the Republican period. And perhaps it did, but it also enraged Stotzas’ Moorish allies to such an extent that their furious charge put Ioannes’ smaller army to flight and the general was captured when he was thrown from his horse. Stotzas lived long enough to learn of his execution.

A Roman Tradition Revived?

Althias was probably a Hun. Artabanes, a Persarmenian deserter, won fame for challenging one thousand chosen Persians at the battle of the River Hippis in AD 549 (Procopius, Wars 8.8.23-25). The origin of Ioannes is unknown, but Artabazes and Anzalas were Armenians. The latter defeated Coccas, one of Totila’s officers, at Busta Gallorum (AD 552):

Coccas had a great reputation as an active fighter, rode his horse out and came close to the Roman army and uttered a challenge, if anyone was willing to come forth against him in single combat… Immediately one of the guardsmen of Narses stood forth against him, a man of Armenian birth named Anzalas, who was likewise mounted on a horse. Coccas then made the first attack and charged his foe in order to smite him with his spear, aiming the weapon at his belly. But Anzalas, by suddenly turning his horse aside, caused the charge of his enemy to be futile. By this manoeuvre he was placed on his enemy’s flank and he now thrust his spear into his left side. Coccas fell from his horse and lay there a dead man. Whereupon a tremendous shout rose from the Roman army. (Procopius, Wars 8.31.11-16)

Anzalas, Artabazes and Althias came from the edge of the empire or from beyond its frontiers. Were they the inheritors of the old Roman tradition of single combat or were they inspired by native warrior traditions?

Coccas, killed by the Armenian Anzalas, was not a Goth. He was a Roman deserter and his name is Thracian; he was from the interior of the Roman empire. Was his challenge inspired by Gothic practice or because he knew of the old Roman tradition from his service in the Roman army? Andreas of the double victory at Dara was a native of Constantinople, the New Rome, as was Martinianus, another noted duellist (Wars 7.23.2; unfortunately, Procopius does not describe any of his duels). These two men are likely to have been familiar with the Greek and Roman heroic traditions. Despite the paucity of evidence for single combat from the later first to early fifth centuries AD, the Romans always remained aware of the tradition. For example, in c. AD 260 the emperor Gallienus challenged the Gallic usurper Postumus to single combat; Postumus declined. At the battle of Mursa in AD 351, the rival Roman commanders Romulus and Menelaus (aptly heroic names) met in what may have been a single combat rather than a chance one-on-one encounter.

In his excellent book Soldier and Ghosts, Professor J. E. Lendon considers the traditions of heroic leadership and single combat in the Greek and Roman worlds. He notes the similarities of the heroic leadership of Caesarian centurions, such as Baculus and Pullo and Vorenus, and the tribunes of the Roman army in the fourth century AD:

The tribunes of Julian’s army, like the centurions of Caesar, had a much higher chance of being killed than the men they led…This habit of heroic command was to last into the sixth century, where it flowered again into a tradition of challenge between the lines before battle. (p. 302)

Even if men like Althias and Artabazes drew on non-Roman warrior traditions, these were entirely compatible with, and complimentary to, Roman practices. Despite their ethnicity, Althias and Artabazes were exemplars of Roman virtus.

Further Reading

J. E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2005)

R. Cowan, For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare (updated paperback ed. Frontline, Barnsley 2017)


Originally published in Ancient Warfare 4.3 (2010). Click here for a pdf of the illustrated article.


The popular image of the Highlander is dominated by the Jacobite clansman: the kilted warrior, brandishing basket-hilted sword and brass-studded targe. However, this tartan-clad romantic icon has had a longer life on shortbread tins than he did in reality.Until the late seventeenth century, Highland chiefs and their gentlemen retainers charged into battle fully armoured. They loosed arrows from bows and cut their enemies down with axes and two-handed swords.

1. Mungo Murray

Tartan icon: Mungo Murray c. 1683. Copyright Ross Cowan

It was not poverty, nor a rejection of modern technology, that made them retain their medieval arsenal. The traditional weapons were brutally effective in close combat, and their use was central to the hierarchical structure and heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Thus aristocratic warriors put aside their guns and duelled with bows and two-handed swords and their bards sang of the most dreadful and glorious deeds. As the rest of Britain entered the modern era,  Highland Scotland was still in a heroic age.

This His Enemies Confess

This Homeric world was fostered in the halls of lairds and chiefs, where bards, harpists, pipers and other musicians provided entertainment and education. Men like the MacMhuirichs, hereditary bards and historians to the Clanranald, and Iain Lom, bard to MacDonald of Keppoch, were at the top of the bardic tree.

Red Book of Clanranald

The Red Book of Clanranald, a MacMhuirich clan history. Copyright Ross Cowan

MacDonald poets never tired of boasting of their clan’s descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, while the Campbells claimed not only Diarmid of the Fenian cycles as their ancestor, but also King Arthur.

Lacking illustrious forebears from Irish and British myth, the MacLeans invoked heroes from the historic past. ‘Fierce Red Hector of the hard-fought battles’, killed fighting for the Lord of the Isles at Harlaw (1411), was one such exemplar. When Lachlan Mor MacLean of Duart hewed the enemy with a battle-axe at Glen Livet (1594), his choice of weapon was probably influenced by the knowledge that Gilleain, the thirteenth century progenitor of the MacLeans, habitually carried an axe.

12a Jack

16th cent. jack. Copyright Ross Cowan

On account of his plotting and violent expansionism, Lachlan Mor was a divisive character in his own lifetime, but his courage was never in doubt and he figured as a paradigm of valour in later Gaelic and Scots literature. He was one of the few chiefs in Argyll’s army to emerge with distinction from the debacle at Glen Livet (1594), and his deeds were prominent in reports compiled by Robert Bowes, the agent of Elizabeth I in Scotland.

While the rest of the Highland army fled in disarray, Lachlan Mor’s contingent held firm, and he even captured the standard of the Earl of Huntly. According to Calderwood’s history, ‘MacLaine has played one of the most valiant men that ever Highland man played… Having a jack upon him [a fabric coat reinforced with metal plates] and two habergeons [mail shirts], with a morion [helmet] and a Danish axe, he perceived Huntly’s standard, played so valiantly with the axe, that he slew four or five until the time he came to Huntly’s standard, and sticked the horse whereupon the bearer rode, and next cut him in two at the waist and bore the standard away. This his enemies confess.’

4. Glen Livet

The battlefield at Glen Livet. Copyright Ivy Cowan

Bards on the Battlefield

Bards accompanied raiding parties and armies and harangued clan warriors before battle. Martin Martin, a Skye man who toured the Western Isles in the 1690s, explains how a bard would find ‘an eminence from whence he addressed himself to all of then standing about him, putting them in mind of what great things were performed by the valour of their ancestors, raised their hopes with the noble rewards of honour and victory, and dispelled their fears by all the topics that natural courage could suggest.’

It was also the duty of the bard to find a good vantage point from which to observe a battle, and to witness and record the glorious deeds of his clansmen. Iain Lom did so at Inverlochy (1645). His song about the battle elevated Alasdair MacColla (a MacDonald) to the status of a Gaelic demi-god. ‘Alasdair of the sharp cleaving blades’ ensured the slaughter of a despised enemy: ‘well was the ground manured… by the blood of Campbells.’

MacColla’s skill in arms at the subsequent battle of Auldearn resulted in another panegyric, but in 1647 he was killed in Ireland and the hero worship was replaced by lament. Iain Lom was devastated when confirmation of the rumour of Alasdair’s death came from a harpist returning from a tour of the bardic circuit in Ireland.

Iain Lom was not merely an observer of combat. He fought in the skirmish at Sron a Clachain (1640), where he saw  Angus MacDonald, the Keppoch chief, mortally wounded. Lom’s grief was intense, but he never lost his appreciation for the glory of victorious combat. His poems and songs revel in the graphic details of sword fighting. Limbs are severed and sinews are cut, skulls are cleaved and crushed. Blood flows copiously and marrow leaks from broken bones.

5. Sron a Clachain

Sron a Clachain, Killin. Copyright Ross Cowan

Poetry was not the preserve of professional bards. Donald MacIain (another MacDonald) was a noted warrior-poet. Victor of the skirmish at Carinish and participant in the resulting full-scale battle between the MacDonalds and MacLeods at Coire na Creiche (1601), MacIain commemorated the latter engagement in verse: ‘Ill-luck befell the men of long locks… Clan Donald was responsible for their overwhelming.’ In another composition he regrets having gifted ‘three heroes’ to his unworthy son-in-law – a MacLeod! The three heroes were a coat of mail, helmet and sword. The sword was probably of the two-handed variety. Gaelic tradition recalls that MacIain’s own blade was called The Brindled Peregrine.

Warriors and Clowns

This was a warrior’s world, but only the well-born could be warriors. The glory of combat and profits of plunder were for chiefs, fine and daoin-uaisle (clan gentry), and their retainers.

The Highland straths and glens sustained considerable populations, but the majority of manpower was tied to the land. The militarism of some clans was underpinned by a servile class known as bodaich (serfs or, pejoratively, clowns). The contempt of the daoin-uaisle class for the bodaich was expressed in Gaelic poetry, which is virtually the only source for their existence. Iain Lom noted that the noble line of Angus Og of Glengarry was not tainted by bodaich ancestry. As late as 1746, the fugitive Jacobite officer Iain Roy Stewart was appalled that Strathspey bodaich were involved in the hunt for him. They were ‘evil serfs without honour or worth’. Hector MacLeod, another Jacobite, depicted bodaich as fit only to cleanse the battlefield and bury the dead.

The contempt of the clan gentry extended to their Lowland Scottish opponents. Angus MacAlasdair Roy, the bard of Glen Coe, was dispirited that well-born Highland warriors were ‘felled by bullets fired by cowherds’ at the battle of Dunkeld (1689). The lowly ‘cowherds’ were soldiers of the Earl of Angus’ regiment, later known as the Cameronians.

Warbands and Armies

EPSON scanner image

Grey Colin Campbell from The Black Book of Taymouth

‘Grey’ Colin Campbell of Glenorchy, was a powerful chieftain. With lands extending from Lorn on the West Coast to the east end of Loch Tay at the very heart of Scotland, he could have raised a large army from his tenants and dependents, but when conducting a war against rebellious MacGregor vassals in 1570, he preferred to reinforce his daoin-uaisle and retainers (a corps greatly diminished by the revolt of the highly militarised Clan Gregor) with Cameron mercenaries.

The Camerons proved impossible to control, spending more time plundering the estates of Grey Colin’s neighbours than in hunting MacGregors. The command of proud and arrogant gentlemen from disparate clans was always difficult; they tended to obey only the captain nominated by their chief and were quick to take offence from outsiders. However, ‘broken men’, that is outlaws and those exiled or runaway from clans (perhaps including the normally despised bodaich), were easier to cajole. In 1669, MacLeod of Assynt recruited 400 broken men and formed them into a regiment.

Difficulties of command and the desire to have forces composed of the ‘right sort’ of men, meant that most clan battles were small-scale affairs involving scores or hundreds of warriors. The battle of Glen Fruin (1603), where 400 MacGregors and allies outmanoeuvred and defeated 800 or 900 Colquhouns, Buchanans and Dumbarton burgesses, was a notably large engagement. In 1604, Robert Campbell of Glen Falloch (a grandson of Grey Colin) cornered a band of MacGregors on the slopes of Ben Toig. The forces involved in this skirmish were more typical: 60 MacGregors against Robert’s 200 ‘chosen men’, drawn from the gentlemen of the Campbells, MacNabs, Camerons and Clanranald. Sometimes, however, a great chief could raise a large army from his clan, feudal vassals and those obliged to serve him by bonds of manrent.

7. Glen Fruin

Glen Fruin. Copyright Ross Cowan

In 1594, acting on behalf of James VI, the young Earl of Argyll mustered an exceptional army of 8,000 footmen. Many were heavily armed and armoured in the classic Highland style, but the host proved unwieldy and was put to flight by a much smaller force of cavalry led by the rebellious Catholic Earls of Huntly and Errol.

Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, chief of a smaller clan but an influential man on account of his personal charisma and all-important feats of valour (such as using his teeth to tear out the throat of a Cromwellian officer in 1654), was able to gather 1,200 men to oppose the MacIntoshes at the Fords of Arkaig in 1665. Even at this late date, one quarter of Cameron’s force was armed with bows.

The weapon still had the edge over muskets in ‘rate of fire’. Donald MacIain’s famous destruction of a larger force of MacLeod raiders at Carinish (1601), and the successful withdrawal of the MacDonalds from the slopes of Sron a Clachain (1640), was accomplished by superior archery, and Cromwellian soldiers were greatly troubled by Royalist Highland archers directed by Ewen Cameron at the battle of Tullich (1652). The use of the bow in this late period was also influenced by its manly and heroic associations. It was a key weapon in what scholars now call the Gaelic panegyric code. It seems that Archibald Campbell of Craignish, was well-aware of that code.

Heroic Weapons

‘Expert at breaking castles asunder’ was one of the many epithets bestowed on Alasdair MacColla by Iain Lom. However, MacColla’s success in capturing Covenanter and Campbell strongholds was mixed and when unable to take Craignish Castle by storm, he abandoned the siege (1646). Throughout the three week siege, Archibald Campbell, tutor (acting laird) of Craignish, conducted a spirited defence. He led numerous sorties against the besiegers and challenged MacColla to single combat.

MacColla declined. He perhaps recalled how the morale of a Highland force collapsed when its commander, Alasdair MacDonald (son of the famous Sorley Boy), was seriously wounded in single combat against Captian Merriman, the renowned English officer (Dunluce, 1585).

2. Longbow carrier

Highland archer, late 17th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

Unable to tempt Alasdair MacColla into a battle of champions, Archibald Campbell determined to kill him from a distance. While MacColla was directing an assault against the castle, Archibald appeared on the battlements and loosed an arrow from a bow. It struck Alasdair in the lower body and, according to a Gaelic tale about the siege, ‘caused greater laceration coming out than going in’. Alasdair then decided to abandon the siege, memorably declaring, ‘That is the sharp castle of whelks, the wind itself is the only thing that will keep up a constant fight with it.’

After three weeks of siege, Archibald may have exhausted his supply of powder and shot, but it seems likely that his use of the bow was influenced by the heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Similarly, when Hector MacLean of Lochbuie hurled a javelin at dragoons at Knockbrecht (1689), it was probably a symbolic gesture intended to attract bardic attention. His men fired muskets prior to following their chief in running charge with drawn swords.

Highlanders adapted quickly to firearms and Lowland Scottish gunsmiths developed distinctive weapons to appeal to Gaelic gentlemen. Some sixteenth chiefs even deployed light artillery in battle, but the gun was never considered a truly heroic weapon. Mastery of the musket did not require the same levels of skill and strength demanded by the bow, and unlike swordsmen, musketeers did not fight ‘breast to breast’ (Iain Lom). This explains why in the famous Highland charges at Killiecrankie (1689) and Prestonpans (1745), the clan gentry dropped their expensive firearms after firing a single volley and then set-to the more glorious form of combat with their swords. One suspects, however, that the armour-bearers who customarily attended clan gentry immediately gathered up the discarded guns.

The seemingly irresistible Highland charge was finally halted at Culloden (1746) by a combination of rough terrain, artillery, musket volleys and disciplined bayonet drill. ‘The Lowlanders’ fire / Showered shot around our faces / That spoiled the swordplay, more’s the pity.’ Such was the lament of Iain Roy Stewart, Jacobite, poet, despiser of the bodaich, and last of the lairds of battle.

Appendix: Arming for War in the Age of Forays

From the collapse of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles in 1493, to the skirmish between Athollmen and Frasers at Aultnagoire in 1698, some part of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was embroiled in clan warfare. James IV could have been the man to fully integrate the Gaelic-speaking regions into the Kingdom of Scotland, but he and his principal Highland allies were slaughtered at Flodden in 1513. The power-vacuum left by the dissolution of the Lordship, James’ death and succession by a minor, propelled the Highlands into the Age of Forays.

With no effective central authority, Campbells, MacLeans, MacKenzies, the feuding branches of the once mighty Clan Donald, and a host of lesser clans sought to expand their lands and influence. Political and religious discord in the rest of Scotland (acute since the Reformation of 1559-60) allowed the Highlanders to conduct their affairs with little interference. James VI’s attempts to disarm and demilitarise the clans had limited effect. High casualties in the British Civil Wars of 1637-50, and the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland (1650-60), did hinder military activity within the Highlands, but a generation of recovery allowed the clans to reassert their strength.

Highland hunters

Highlanders, c. 1660. Copyright Ross Cowan

The battle of Mulroy (1688) and the first Jacobite Rebellion (1689-90) were the last hurrahs of the medieval-modes of Highland warfare. MacDonald gentlemen brought their yew bows to Mulroy and MacLeod bowmen mustered at Dalcomera (1689). Many of the notable chiefs and lairds at Killiecrankie, including Cameron of Lochiel, fought in armour. Some still used two-handed swords and battle axes. The efficacy of ‘archaic’ arms and armour is demonstrated by the subsequent battle at Dunkeld: Lowland soldiers found that halberds were more effective than muskets against the armour and targes of Highland gentlemen.

The distinctive two-handed sword popularly, but erroneously, known as the claymore, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler).

13. Two-handed sword

Two-handed Highland sword, early 16th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

The English, who had much experience of fighting Highland and Hebridean mercenaries in Ireland, knew the two-hander as the ‘slaughter sword’. Clan historians took great pleasure in recording – and no doubt exaggerating – the number of kills achieved with the weapon. The Manuscript History of Craignish recounts how Ronald Campbell of Barrichbeyan avenged his brother’s by slaying 16 Shaws with his two-handed sword (1602). Another Campbell tradition accorded no less than 23 kills to the two-handed sword (albeit of Continental rather than Highland pattern) of Patrick Campbell of Inverneill in a skirmish against the MacGregors at Killin (1623).

The slaughter sword was superseded in the 1630s by the basket-hilted broad- or backsword (the latter being the favourite of Alasdair MacColla), but Rory MacLennan, the Bannerman of Kintail, bravely defended his standard at Auldearn with a two-handed sword in 1645. Some of MacLeod of Assynt’s broken men carried bows and two-handed swords in 1669. Along with bascinet helmets and full plate armour, the two-handed sword was noted among the unusual equipment of Charles II’s ‘Highland Host’ militia in 1678, and the weapon reappears in the hands of some chiefs in the Killiecrankie campaign of 1689.

Some two-handed swords were converted into basket-hilted swords. For example, a MacGregor two-hander used in the rout of the Colquhouns at Glen Fruin (1603), was cut-down and re-hilted in 1745 for a MacGregor who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie. Other two-handed swords were retained as heirlooms. When Richard Pococke visited the Isle of Tiree in 1760, he discovered that the inhabitants still handed down ‘from father to son the large two handed sword and the helmet of the family.’

Originally published in Military History Monthly. Click here for a pdf.

Milvian Bridge AD 312: Supplement

Supplementary material to accompany Milvian Bridge AD 312: Constantine’s Battle for Empire and Faith (Osprey: Oxford 2016).

The Battlefield Today

Amazon reviewer Glock22C, who works in the area of the proposed battlefield, points out that apart from the cycle path mentioned on page 90, “the only place open to public is the aforementioned medieval Tor di Quinto now a well-known restaurant with a panoramic view of the battlefield.” The reviewer also notes the error in the caption to the aerial photograph on page 64, which should be amended to ‘The Milvian Bridge region in 2011, illustrating modern development at Farnesina/Foro Italico’. Finally, the reviewer suggests that Tor di Quinto is located in the wrong place on the bird’s-eye-view maps (BEVs). However, in the BEVs, Tor di Quinto does not refer to the medieval tower (distinguished elsewhere in the book as Torre di Quinto, e.g. the map on page 67) but serves as a general area indicator, following my base map, the IGM Città di Roma 1:20,000 survey of 1950:


Perhaps a different font should have been used to make this distinction clearer. My thanks to Glock22C.

Extra Maps of the Battlefield Area


Costa’s sketch map of the battlefield at Tor di Quinto, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 46-65. After G. Costa, ‘La battaglia di Costantino a Ponte Milvio’, Bilychnis 2 (1913), figs 2-3


The undeveloped Tor di Quinto area in 1839, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 66-69.


Detail from Toebelmann’s map showing his preferred battle site at Saxa Rubra, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 61-62. After F. Toebelmann, Der Bogen von Malborghetto (Heidelberg 1915), taf. 1

A pdf of this supplement can be downloaded here.