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.
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)