Ben Miller

Archive for the ‘Antiquity’ Category

Gladiator Combat in 19th Century San Francisco

In Antiquity, Dress and Fashion, Martial Arts, The Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on September 28, 2016 at 3:45 pm

“Fought with almost perfect realism…”



In 1893, the city of San Francisco played host to the largest demonstration, in terms of both audience attendance and actual participation, of historical fencing reconstruction in the United States during the entire nineteenth century. Billed as a “Revival of Ancient Graeco-Roman Games,” the event comprised both entertainment and actual martial contests, and included exhibitions of swordsmanship, javelin-throwing, discus throwing, Pankration (a combination of boxing and grappling), wrestling, chariot racing, lance combat, and wrestling on horseback.

Most notable, however, was the inclusion of “gladiatorial combats,” involving more than fifty participants, which sought to demonstrate, with historical accuracy, the famous encounters of the Meridiani, Retiarii, and Murmillones of the ancient Roman Coliseum—reproducing, as the Olympic Club annals put it, “the combats of imperial Rome with scrupulous fidelity and wonderful spirit.”

This massive display of historical fencing reconstruction was the brainchild of William Greer Harrison, the president of the San Francisco Olympic Club, and was further conceived and realized under the direction of Louis Tronchet, the club’s French fencing master, with the steadfast assistance of Tronchet’s thirty-three year-old American-born protégé, Emilio Lastreto.

The Roman revival at San Francisco lasted more than a week, from April 17 to 29, 1893, and was repeated several months later at the California State Fair at Sacramento. To attempt to recount or even summarize the “Roman Fair” in its entirety would require a small book, and is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, the focus here will be to examine what is known about the approach, training, and techniques used by Tronchet and his team of gladiators. Those interested in reading about the entire event may be directed to an 1895 article written by Arthur Inkersley for Outing Magazine, entitled “Græco-Roman Games in California,” which is available at the Journal of Manly Arts.

SFC-4-18-1893 - header


The San Francisco Olympic Club, which supplied the fencers that would take part in the Games, had a long history of promoting the use of antiquated weapons in its fencing program. One of its co-founders, Colonel Thomas H. Monstery, had offered instruction in San Francisco in dagger, lance, and other “offensive and defensive arts,” and was known to have occasionally held demonstrations with a variety of other weapons, including the rapier and quarterstaff. Although Monstery had departed San Francisco for New York around 1870, the fencing club that he had helped found continued to flourish, spurred on by the enthusiasm of its members.

During the late 1880s, the club thrived under the leadership of William Greer Harrison, an Irish-born author, playwright, athlete, and physical culture enthusiast. Harrison, who became the club’s president in 1886, was deeply steeped in the history and lore of the classical world, and this knowledge heavily informed his vision for the Olympic Club, which can be seen in an excerpt from the following essay, “The Spirit of the Club,” written by Harrison and republished in the Olympian in March, 1914:

“The Greek idea of the athlete—the absolute amateur—is in its essence realized in The Olympic Club.

“Greece and Rome, the latter borrowing from the former, established athletic training schools for the young men of their respective nations. Rome adopted the Greek idea, and for a time submitted to restrictions. The Greek athlete trained for endurance and speed. No pecuniary reward influenced his purpose…The Greeks refused professionalism in every form and conserved the amateur spirit to such an extent that there was no place for professionals.

“The Greek loved his work. He found a rythmic joy in his training. He realized the daily growing force of his spirit as the controlling agency in his physical training. He became, mentally and physically, in the highest sense efficient.

“There was no sulking with the Greek athlete when defeated. He had given to the contest the very best that was in him, and this the Greek people fully understood, and honored him accordingly.

“The noblest blood in Greece entered on even terms with the peasant in all the varied forms of athletic work. The watch-word of all the athletes was “For honor.” Rome in her youth attempted to follow the Greek in art and science and in athletic sports. But as the Empire grew by leaps and bounds it developed into a military usurpation of nearly all Europe and a large portion of Africa. Athletics ceased to attract. Each year some successful commander returned from the scene of his victory, bringing into Rome prisoners of war by the thousands. These prisoners were given choice of slavery or enrollment in the gladiatorial ranks. The gladiators were brave men, hating slavery. They chose to die as gladiators whenever the depraved taste of the Romans called for an exhibition of their prowess…

“The Olympic Club has preserved the Greek ideal. Again and again efforts have been made to win the Club to other phases of athletics but unsuccessfully. So long as the Greek spirit is maintained in the Club its position in the hearts of the people where it holds sway will not change…”

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

In 1888, Harrison engaged the services of the New York-based maitre d’armes Louis Tronchet to serve as fencing master of the club’s gymnasium. Tronchet was an exponent of the French school of classical fencing, and had graduated from the military academy of Joinville-le-Pont at the head of his graduating class numbering six hundred.

According to his colleague (and occasional rival) Henri Ansot, Tronchet dismissed “wild fencing” in favor of “the more classic style of fencing,” which soon “took the supremacy, under his correct and graceful style of tuition.” This style had evidently served Tronchet well, for in 1887 he defeated the noted New York fencing master Regis Senac in a prominent contest at Cosmopolitan Hall, while adhering throughout to a “faultlessly classical position.”

Tronchet was also a known expert at French savate, and offered instruction in cane self-defense for use in the street. He was also familiar with the Italian style of fencing. Tronchet’s protege, Emilio Lastreto, described his master as a “classical swordsman” who had made a careful study of medieval and renaissance swordsmanship.


Emilio Lastreto

Lastreto himself, often described as Tronchet’s “best pupil,” would also become an important figure in the reconstruction of gladiatorial combat, assisting Tronchet in nearly every aspect of the event. According to John P. Young, Emilio Lastreto was was an American-born native of San Francisco, the son of Luigi Felix Lastreto and Charlotte (Parrain) Lastreto. The young Emilio would become a linguist, a writer, an interpreter of Shakespearean roles, and eventually engaged in more “different kinds of fencing than any other amateur in the West…In the early nineties he gave a series of exhibitions at the Olympic Club with Professor Tronchet.” Later in his career, Lastreto would be described as “a fencer of national reputation,” and would win for himself “a number of championship medals.”


Olympic Club president William Greer Harrison, in his writings, described California as “a land of romance,” with its very name “of romantic origin,” formerly connected with the chivalrous tales of the Spanish knight, Amadis of Gaul. Harrison regarded his adopted state as “another Italy,” which “exactly” fit the “Virgilian description of the old Italy.” What better place, then, for a recreation of ancient Rome?

Mechanic's Pavilion

Mechanic’s Pavilion

For the site of his revival, Harrison chose Mechanic’s Pavilion, the first major indoor arena to be built in San Francisco. Built in 1882 on Union Square, it was an impressive structure, described by a local guidebook as “one of the largest, if not the largest, wooden buildings now standing in America.” Covering two and one half acres of ground, and with a seating capacity of close to eleven thousand, the building was touted as the “Madison Square Garden of the West.” The building played host to everything from fairs, concerts, masquerade balls, political gatherings, “velocipede schools” and skating rinks. It was also the setting of prize fights involving noted pugilistic champions, including John L. Sullivan, and had hosted the famous mounted combat between the swordswoman Ella Hattan (“Jaguarina”) and Sergeant Owen Davis.


The organizers of the Circus Maximus, in refitting the Pavilion to resemble the original Coliseum, took great pains (and considerable cost) in their attention to detail, the final expenditure tallying close to twenty-thousand dollars. When interviewed about this process by the Call, Greer Harrison commented:

“The only thing that bothers me is that it is not the exact counterpart of the arena of the original Roman Coliseum. That was 300 feet long, whereas ours is only 290. If I had this to do all over again I’d have a regular Coliseum built straight from the ground and corresponding to the real one in every respect. But I guess it will do.”

The Call also noted that, “The roof of the coliseum being painted blue gives a very fair representation of an Italian sky, and when the whole 250 electric and the ten calcium lights are turned on, the spectator begins to wonder if it is not daylight after all.”

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus



As previously stated, Louis Tronchet was given the task of reconstructing the gladiatorial combats that were to occur on foot, which would be performed by the Olympic Club fencers (combats on horseback, on the other hand, would be delegated to the expert riders of the Second United States Cavalry, Troop K, stationed at the nearby Presidio). For the Sacramento revival, gladiators would be portrayed by the fencers of the Sacramento Athletic Club. In January, a full three months before the event, the San Francisco Call noted that Tronchet was already busy training his team:

M. Tronchet, the fencing-master of the Olympic Cub, has already forty gladiators in training for the assault-at-arms…The combatants, distinguished by the color of their scarfs, will fight, to all appearances, to the death. As thrust and blow and parry are exchanged it is confidently expected that the interest of the spectator will rise with enthusiasm, particularly when victory inclines now to this side, now to that, white the ranks waver and reform and the gladiators, one after another, fall lifeless on the sand of the arena. (S.F. Call, 1/19/1893)


Maitre Tronchet and Lastreto with their San Francisco gladiators. Tronchet is kneeling on the left; Lastreto is standing behind him. Standing front and center (with shield) is Maestro Pietro Lanzilli.

The Sacramento

A photograph that includes some of the Sacramento gladiators

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

The Wave observed that Tronchet’s swordsmen “exhibit, already, decided cleverness and dexterity, and enter with zest into the rehearsals.” As the months passed, Tronchet would add additional members to his team, swelling the total number of gladiators to fifty-three; his meridiani alone would comprise forty-one fencers. The latter group also culled members from the nearby Italian Athletic Club on Bay Street, including one Maestro Pietro Lanzilli, a local Neapolitan fencing master, and graduate of both the Scuola Magistrale and Scuola Militare of Rome. Tronchet’s assistant, Alfred de Smet, and Jewish-American fencing professor (also gymnastic instructor at the Olympic Club, and a noted wrestler) Arthur Kelter would also eventually take part.


Above: The San Francisco gladiators

Above: The

Above: The Sacramento gladiators

Although the event was being billed as a “circus,” it was evident from the outset that the fencing would be anything but circus-like. Numerous references in journalistic accounts make it clear that historical authenticity was considered a priority in the realization of these combats. Tronchet, Lastreto, Greer, and the leadership of the Olympic Club were all learned men—some of them scholars—and the evidence suggests that they took their work very seriously, feeling that the real “magic” in these combats—and hence the attraction for the public—would be their degree of realism and authenticity. Although it was noted that Tronchet—already well-studied in medieval swordsmanship—was engaged in research to reproduce his combats as accurately as possible, accounts of the Roman revival never mention which sources he studied. However, in performing a bit of historical detective work, two particular sources seem likely.

desmetOf the three gladiator types selected by Tronchet for representation, one was the Meridianus, or Meridiani, an obscure, lesser-trained gladiator, destined to fight at noon, and similar in attire to the more well-known Samnite. The only original sources in which we have been able to find mention of the term Meridiani are the works of Seutonius, and Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, which describes many aspects of the gladiatorial games. Nineteenth century literature contains very few references to the Meridiani–with the exception of a few dictionaries, as well as Alexander Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans (1872). Knowing this fact, it seems obvious that Tronchet was either indeed researching ancient sources, or was studying some of the few rare books published in his century that referenced such sources.

A number of details indicate that, at least in some respects, Tronchet’s reconstruction of gladiatorial combat may have been (though it is difficult to say with certainty) more accurate than that which would later be attempted during the early twentieth century–first, by Maitre George Dubois, and afterwards, by Hollywood fencing masters for use in motion pictures. Unlike these later attempts, Tronchet’s retiarii used a seven-foot trident wielded like a polearm (rather than as a missile weapon), and hurled their nets completely at their opponent, rather than throwing them still in hand, and then retracting. Both aspects of Tronchet’s reconstruction were closer to historical reality.

Tronchet demonstrates two-handed defense with the cane

Tronchet demonstrating two-handed defense with the cane

In March of 1893, the San Francisco Call informed the public that,

The gladiatorial affairs of the arena are not being neglected. The practice in swinging the pike, the staff and the halberd and getting around lively in fluttering togas and flat-bottomed sandal, is going on in great style. How to handle a helmet, thrust on a gauntlet glove, whack off a man’s head and smile sweetly on a vestal virgin all in one round are being learned with that rapidity with which the Olympic Club boys can master anything from polo to Circus Maximuses, while other folks sit around and grumble at the kind of world it is, getting no real enjoyment out of life. (SF Call, 3/25/1893)


And again, in April:

Yesterday afternoon was devoted to perfecting the retiarii and myrmillones in their gladiatorial duties. Concerning this part of the entertainment it is pretty generally opined that some one is going to get hurt. The savage energy with which the retiarius usually prods at his enemy in this mimic contest bodes no good to the unlucky wight who fails to catch the blow on the apparently very small shield he carries to defend himself with. Taking it all round, though, it will be a most realistic contest… (SF Call, 4/17/1893)


Caesar’s Imperial chariot, the net and trident used by the Retiarii, shields, helmets, swords, and pieces of armor used by the Meridiani and Murmillones, javelins, and the cesti used in boxing.

Indeed, a number of accounts attest to the great attention to detail shown by the organizers with respect to both techniques, clothing, and weaponry. Outing Magazine noted that, “a complete array of Roman dresses, weapons, armor and chariots had to be provided, so that seven thousand dollars was spent in the purchase of properties.” Another article in The Wave observed: “One brilliant characteristic of the spectacle was the quality of the accessories. There was nothing pinchback about it…Togas are expensive luxuries, and so are helmets, tridents, and short swords, especially when they are compounded of veritable metal.” As the Argonaut of April 24 enthused,

The originality and effectiveness which mark the entire performance is not more remarkable than the exactness and precision with which the details have been arranged. The designing of the costumes must have been a tremendous labor. Every detail of the gladiators’ armament has been studied from pictures and sculptures, that no fault in the historical accuracy of their make-up might detract from the vivid realism of the scene. Mr. Harrison and the Olympic Club may congratulate themselves on the success of the venture. It was a credit to the managers, to the club, and to the city.


A report written prior to the Sacramento revival gives some insight into the training methods used by Tronchet and his captains:

The gladiators who are to slay each other in the arena of the colliseum were raining blows upon each others’ shields and armor, making such a racket that people on the street thought a new boiler shop had been started up. Wooden swords are being used at present to prevent accidents, but when the show takes place and the men become proficient with their weapons, the regulation heavy steel short-sword will be used. The net and trident retiarii and myrmillones were also at practice under the direction of their Captain, Charles Gorman. They are becoming very clever at throwing the net, handling the “fork” and also the sword. The javelin-throwers were “plugging” at a bale of hay for exercise, the discus-throwers were also hard at work, and here and there could be seen the wrestlers, boxers, runners leapers and others all at work. (S.D.U., 8/11/1893).

In looking at numerous accounts of both the training leading up to the event, and the actual combats themselves, it is clear that the gladiators used a combination of rigorously rehearsed techniques, as well as improvisation. The Annals of the Olympic Club recounted that Tronchet and Lastreto “rehearsed a series of 240 moves for three months; yet their combat had all the thrill of an impromptu bout.” In fact, despite such careful rehearsal, a number of unexpected accidents (such as weapons breaking in the midst of combat) would require the gladiators to improvise to a great degree, and the record shows that the audience was quite impressed by the skill and techniques demonstrated in these improvisations.



As April 17th finally arrived, thousands of spectators packed Mechanic’s Pavilion, which had been transformed into a near-perfect replica of a Roman Circus Maximus. One attending journalist noted the strange contrast between some of the 19th century spectators and the participants attired in the style of ancient Rome:

A young lady in leg-o’-mutton sleeves, a revived form of poke bonnet, parted hair, small waist, white gloves scented with a cunningly compounded perfume of orris and violet, looking through a lorgnette at a gladiator, armed with a small shield and flat short-sword, whacking and jabbing at a pikeman with a trident and a net, is a sight not usually to be met with even at a century end which, for lack of novelty, has to resuscitate old fashions of dress and old forms of Roman holiday sports. But in the arena itself there was no inappropriate intrusion of the nineteenth century. Here was Rome, and Rome enough…upon the sand and the sawdust, Caesar’s loyal subjects, and thirsty henchmen, and captives, and slaves, danced, and fought, and triumphed, and died as became Romans and Romans’ captives in the brave days of old.


After a Grand March, and huge parade and display of pageantry, the various combatants gathered before Caesar:

SFCall-4-11-1893The gathering and grouping of the gladiators has been taken from Gerome’s famous picture of this awful moment, when, with swords, and pikes, and tridents uplifted, the brawny captives — men of iron muscle and superb physique — make their gruesome salutation to the emperor: “Hail Caesar, those about to die, salute thee!” …The throng of gladiators, with their round iron helmets, their strange armor, their three-pronged tridents, short broadswords, and long pikes, their upraised, muscular arms, their strong, athletic figures, are a wonderfully accurate copy of the group in Gerome’s painting. As one looked at them, the sharp ends of pikes and tridents splintering the light, the melancholy refrain, “Morituri te Salutant,” dying away in the high tones of a tenor voice, one could not but be struck by the careful realism of the scene. No tableau could have been more artistically planned, more accurately carried out. The spectator, seeing real gladiators greeting the emperor with the famous salutation, could, for the first time, realize what this scene must have been. (The Argonaut, April 24, 1893)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Outing Magazine noted that,

The gladiators were followed by the president of the club [William Greer Harisson], as Magister Arena, with a staff in his hand. Under his direction they grouped themselves in front of the Emperor’s box and sang the Ode of the Gladiators, written expressly for the club by Mrs. Douglas Adam. It consisted of four stanzas, entitled, Salutation, Life, Love and Fate. Each stanza ended with the pathetic words, Morituri te salutant-“those about to die salute thee!” Singers stationed at either end of the arena echoed the refrain in a very effective manner.

The gladiators’ “ode,” written “expressly for the occasion” by Mrs. Douglas Adam, was set to music by opera director W. H. Kinross. The lyrics were printed in their entirety in the August 14, 1893 issue of the Sacramento Record Union, and are shown below:



The forty-one Meridiani were the first to fight. Outing described the combatants thus:

The Meridiani were a kind of light-armed gladiators who fought in the Roman arena at midday, after the conclusion of the combats with wild beasts. They wore simple tunics and no body armor, carrying only a round buckler, a helmet with a visor and a short sword.


Painting of the 1893 Circus Maximus for Outing Magazine

The combat between the Meridiani was a massive spectacle, a full-scale battle pitting twenty gladiators versus another twenty. It was described by the Call as a “general slaughter,” and by Outing as “a clash of sword on buckler.” As the gladiators paired off, one was slain after the other, until only two remained:

C. A. Strobel

The single combat between the captains of the two bodies of meridiani was one of the grandest spectacles ever witnessed. C A. Strobel and I. F. Morris were the performers. They fought as though their lives were really at stake, and the killing was enacted in such a manner as to simply stagger the spectators. They battled desperately until both had lost their helmets and shields, and then one broke the other’s sword by a vicious blow. This left the disarmed fighter at his opponent’s mercy and the latter was not slow to take advantage of it, for he plunged his sword into the other’s breast cruelly. (SDU, 9/18/1893)

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine


Outing Magazine explained:

This agreeable interlude was succeeded by boxers using the cestus, a terrible weapon, consisting of a series of thongs bound round the wrist and hands, and rendered heavy and dangerous by the addition of bosses of metal.

The Call noted, however, that “the ‘cestus’ instead of being of any hard material will merely be of rubber.”

On alternate evenings the Pancratium, or Greek contest of boxing and wrestling combined, was exhibited. This was a most deadly combat, in which every kind of violence, except biting and kicking, was permissible.

The Argonaut included the best description of the mounted combat:

SFCall-4-27-1893Six horses from the Presidio, mounted by six gallant soldier boys, rouse a storm of applause by a gladiatorial combat. Three go to one end of the arena, three to the other. The herald blows a clear, long blast on his trumpet, and away, like a tempest, scattering the dust and sand, go the horsemen, to meet in mid-arena with a clash of sword striking on shield. The fight is fast and furious, the unsaddled horses, plunging and rearing, unseat their riders, and the brave barbarians from the Danube’s reedy shores bite the dust. The short-swords flash in the light that pours in slantwise over the edge of the awning, and all Rome gives forth a joyous cry to see the red blood flow.

Such combats were not without their dangers, as the Chronicle noted that on the night of the 19th, a horseman “did a backfall” landing in the arena hard enough “to split open his sheet-iron vest.”

On the 21st, the Chronicle also reported that, “Before the grand climax, two of the gladiators removed their helmets and fought with clubs wielded in both hands. Just what the combat is styled is not on the programme…” 



Outing recounted this combat as follows:

Glad_Retarius_2-19-1893_SFChronAfter the mounted contests came the combat between the Retiarii and the Mirmillones. This combat was exceedingly popular among the spectators at the Circus or Amphitheater of Imperial Rome. The Retiarius wore a helmet, but no body-armor; he carried in his right hand a trident, and in his left the rete, or net, from which he took his name. His object was to entangle his adversary in the folds of his net, and, before he could extricate himself, to pierce him with the prongs of his trident. The Mirmillo, who was commonly opposed to the Retiarius, wore greaves, a breastplate, a helmet provided with a visor, and a metal or leathern sheath upon his right arm.

In his hand he carried a short sword. If the Retiarius made a bad or unsuccessful cast with the net, he ran off pursued round the arena by the Mirmillo (who was also called a Secutor, or pursuer), and tried to gather up his net for a fresh cast. I do not know what the result of the combats between Retiarii and Mirmillones usually was in the Roman amphitheater, but at the Olympic reproduction, the Retiarius almost invariably succeeded in keeping off his adversary, whom he finally enmeshed and dispatched.

The Mirmillones wore a Gallic helmet, with the figure of a fish as a crest, and are supposed to have been originally Gauls.

The Call further described the tactics used by the opposing sides:

Tronchet's "Myrmillone" pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

Tronchet’s “Myrmillone” pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

The retiarius, armed with net and helmet, endeavors to entrap his adversary with the former, either by flinging it over his head or wrapping it round his legs, the while he jabs at him with the trident. The smaller and supposedly more active myrmillon has all his work cut out to spring and duck out of the way of the net, his object being to seize a favorable moment to run in and stab his opponent, the trident being an awkward weapon to guard with. Soon all lay dead save two, and these engaged in desperate conflict, so realistic was the scene that when the vanquished felt the fatal thrust and uttered a choking gurgle as he fell, one lady in the large audience fainted. She soon recovered, happily. Meanwhile the victor, placing his foot upon his prostrate foe, looked up at the Emperor’s box. In an instant all the women thrust their hinds out, thumbs downward. Pollice verso! So the victim was given the coup de grace and sent to his long home. Vae victis!  (S.F. Call, 4/18/1893)

Another account mentions the occurrence of an accident between two fencers that gave rise to a dramatic and successful improvisation:

Charles Gorman

Charles F. Gorman

The gladiatorial contests were given in a most realistic manner—one in particular between a net and trident man against a myrmillone. In this case the retiari’s trident was cut in twain by his opponent, but he continued to fight desperately with the stump of his weapon until he was finally exhausted and then slain. These characters were enacted by Charles Gorman and John Berger. (Sacramento Daily Union, 9/14/1893)




Tronchet, as a Murmillone

The gladiatorial portion of the event was concluded with a single combat between the two leaders of the Murmillones, Tronchet and Lastreto–the very combat for which they had rehearsed “a series of 240 moves” over a period of three months. Somewhat shockingly, several reports indicate that the men were using sharp blades. The San Francisco Chronicle recounted:

They fought with the sharpest of swords, and had they not been extremely quick and scientific in their guarding and attacks, one or the other might have been seriously injured at any time. It was by far the most realistic performance in the great show.

While the use of sharps may seem shocking or foolhardy to a modern reader, the evidence indicates that Tronchet and Lastreto had done as much before, holding fencing demonstrations before large audiences, while each wielding a sharp épée de combat. One particular reason for their use of sharps in the Circus Maximus may have been for the execution of a theatrical effect used to conclude the combat: hidden on one of the men was a specially concealed bladder filled with fake blood, that would burst upon being pierced.

The most detailed account of this combat was committed to print that September, when Tronchet and Lastreto reprised their combat for the opening of the Sacramento Circus Maximus:

Emilio Lastreto (on left)

Tronchet and Lastreto repeated their single short-sword combat, and worked the audience up to a high pitch of excitement. This is one of the most interesting and realistic performances ever witnessed in Sacramento, and gives the audience something of an idea of what the ancients considered sport. The men appear to fight desperately, and it seems as if only the dextrous parrying with shield and sword saves their lives dozens of times. But presently one is seen to tire. His blows become weaker, while those of his opponent come thicker and faster, staggering him. The doomed man defends himself feebly, but finally drops his hands, the other gladiator instantly stabs him in the breast. Blood begins to flow down the man’s body, and those of the audience who had been wearing smiles (so sure were they that only a show was going on) began to look serious. Another cruel cut over the heart and the gladiator falls, while the victor places his foot upon the prostrate form and salutes the Emperor. (SDU – 9/9/1893)

At one San Francisco performance, the fight between Tronchet and Lastreto–and its “bloody” effects–were so vivid that a journalist noted:

“In the last gladiatorial fight to a finish, it was so realistic that when the warrior fell and theatrical blood was seen on his body a woman screamed, and Mr. Harrison had to make him get up and bow to show that he was not dead.” (S. F. Call, April 19, 1893)

"Caesar, Livia, and Page." From the Sacramento Programme.

“Caesar, Livia, and Page.” From the Sacramento Programme.


In later years, the Olympic Club Annals noted that the Circus Maximus was “the most notable event in which the fencers of the club ever participated.” Despite this fact, and the event’s immense popularity, the Circus was ultimately a financial failure–owing, no doubt, to the incredible expense incurred by its production. As a result, in the months following the event, club President William Greer Harrison resigned his position. However, the respect he commanded among club members continued to endure, and in 1899, bowing to popular demand, he ran and was once again elected as President of the Olympic Club.  Also, despite its financial failure, the Roman revival would long live revered in the memory of San Franciscans. More than thirty years later, one former spectator reminisced:

“Do you remember the Circus Maximus? Say, that was one of the greatest sports events ever staged, bar none. Some day, you want to look up old-time records and newspapers and read how a week-long carnival of sports was held in San Francisco. Every sport, boxing, wrestling, running, field athletics and others was represented. The event was a wow! Too bad we have nothing like it now.” (The Olympian, September 1925)


Gladiatorial reconstruction in Italy. From “La Scherma Attraverso i Secoli,” Milan, 1905.

In the subsequent decades, other individuals such as Maitre George Dubois, Milan fencing masters, and Hollywood fight choreographers would attempt to reconstruct ancient gladiatorial combat as well–though none, perhaps, in such a grandiose manner as executed by Tronchet and the Olympic Club fencers. Later in life, Emilio Lastreto himself fondly summarized his memories of the grand event:

Lastreto, in later years

Emilio Lastreto, in later years

More picturesque than [all other events], was the occasion of the reproduction of the Circus Maximus, under the direction of Mr. William Greer Harrison, as president of the Olympic Club, when the combats between the short-sword and buckler fighters, and also “the net and trident men,” or “retiarii” were fought with almost perfect realism.

And thereby was it demonstrated that these athletes who had made a careful study of the foils had thereby become able swordsmen of the ponderous muscle-requiring styles of Rome and of the lighter and more dexterous schools of the Middle Ages, and these fencers won more glory for the Olympic Club in those two memorable weeks in April, 1893, in the old Mechanics’ Pavilion, than did the crack athletes of any of the other branches of sports. And thus will it ever be, for, in all the realms of athletics, swordsmanship is the nonpareil.



Theodore F. Bonnet, Annals of the Olympic Club, San Francisco (San Francisco: Printed by the F.H. Abbott Co., 1914).

William Greer Harrison, “The Spirit of the Club” in The Olympian, March, 1914.

Emilio Lastreto, “Fencing,” in The Making of a Man (San Francisco: H.S. Crocker, 1915).

Official Programme. The Olympic Club Fair and Circus Maximus; revival of ancient Graeco-Roman games, Caesar’s Court, a Roman holiday, to be produced and the fair held in the new Olympic Club building, on Post Street, from Monday, April seventeenth to Saturday, April twenty-second, MDCCCXCIII [San Francisco, 1893].

Official Programme. The circus maximus of Caesar Augustus, reproduced by the Sacramento Athletic Club at the California State Fair, Sept. 4th to Sept. 16th, 1893 [Sacramento, Calif., 1893].

H. Ansot, “The Metamorphosis of Fencing” in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 144, December 1894.

Arthur Inkersley, “Græco-Roman Games in California,” in Outing Magazine, February, 1895, 409-416.

John P. Young, Journalism in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Publishing Co., 1915).

San Francisco Daily Call.

San Francisco Chronicle.

Sacramento Daily Union.

The Argonaut.

The Olympian.

The Wave.

Ben Miller, “Classical Fencing Defeats “Wild and Irregular” Fencing: The Tronchet-Senac Contest of 1887,”, May 31, 2016.

Ben Miller, “A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930,”, August 16, 2016.


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense… Really?

In Antiquity, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on March 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm
L'illustration_July_21_1888 CROP

The Floquet-Boulanger duel, L’Illustration, July 21,1888

Almost everyone has heard the expression, at one time or another, that “the best defense is a good offense.” Today, this adage has made its way into the modern consciousness, and is often quoted in books on the martial arts and “practical” self-defense, of which the following is only one recent example:

“In realistic combat situations, the best defense is a good offense.” [1]

Although the origins of this expression are uncertain, since the 1930s, the quote has mainly been attributed to the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. [2] However, the statement can be found in print as far back as the nineteenth century [3], and some authors have gone so far as to attribute the sentiment to George Washington, who wrote in 1799,

“Make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, are the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence.” [4]

The sentiment may well seem to hold true—at least to a degree—in “combat sports” such as modern boxing, MMA, Olympic sport fencing, as well as (ostensible) martial arts tournaments involving Karate, Taekwondo, Kendo, historical Western/European martial arts, and other contests simulating a combat with glove-covered fists or blunted weapons, wherein the body is able to absorb blow after blow, and wherein the life of the participant is not in serious danger, should he or she be hit. Likewise, as George Washington suggests, aspects of the philosophy may also hold true in the context of military operations, wherein the lives of large numbers of individual soldiers may be sacrificed en masse for the sake of a winning strategy.

However, the idea of “emphasizing offense over defense” becomes extremely problematic when applied to the martial arts, or to individual armed combat. Except in the rarest of cases, the human individual, as a holistic being, does not have the luxury of sacrificing a limb or a major organ in the pursuit of victory—that is, if they wish to maintain the ability to defend themselves, and to be of full service to their family, to their nation, to humanity, and to themselves. Nor, of course, does the average martial artist or combatant have the luxury of sacrificing their own life during the course of a fight.

The truth of this fact has been proven time and again in countless instances throughout history, and, as shall be shown, has been eloquently opined on by some of the greatest martial artists who ever lived.

The aim of this article is not to disparage offensive tactics or techniques (which, indeed, are an integral component of any martial art), but rather, to put them in their proper context by illustrating the dangers that can arise when giving such tactics and techniques priority over one’s own defense and personal safety.

The Floquet-Boulanger Duel

An excellent real-life example that illustrates the perils of emphasizing offense over defense is the Floquet-Boulanger duel, in part because the episode is so well-documented.

To briefly summarize this incident, which occurred in 1888: the French General Georges Boulanger had publicly quarreled with, and insulted, Prime Minister Charles Floquet, who was ten years Boulanger’s senior. Floquet promptly challenged the General to a duel with swords. The latter accepted, and the two promptly arranged a meeting on an estate at Neuilly-sur-Seine, frequently used as a dueling ground, and only a short distance from Paris.


General Georges Boulanger and Prime Minister Charles Floquet

Contemporaries noted that General Boulanger was expected to have the advantage due to his youth, vigor, and considerable military experience. However, of the ensuing combat, a French correspondent to the New York Times reported that

“General Boulanger tried hard to kill M. Floquet, flinging himself upon him again and again. He made a lunge at M. Floquet’s left breast, but only slightly touched the mark. Gen. Boulanger then received a wound in the throat, which put an end to the encounter. The wound was a severe one…”[5]

Illustrated London News - based on a sketch drawn by an eye-witnesses in 1888

Floquet defeats Boulanger, as pictured in the Illustrated London News

A similar account in the Illustrated London News clarified:

“Boulanger, who had rushed wildly at his opponent, received a serious wound; M. Floquet had quietly raised his sword, and Boulanger, stumbling forward, got it in his throat. The seconds, by common consent, stated that General Boulanger’s wound made it impossible for him to continue to fight.” [6]


The final action of the duel, as pictured on the cover of Le Monde Illustre

A more detailed French account, appearing in L’Univers Illustré, noted that Boulanger attacked Floquet immediately at the outset of the duel with “extraordinary ardor,” and continued to do so multiple times. However, rather than impaling himself, Boulanger was defeated by a simple parry-riposte:

“M. Floquet parried, and with a quick riposte, hit his adversary in the upper anterior part of the neck. The blade penetrated several centimeters into the tissue; the result was very abundant bleeding.” [7]

Whatever the precise manner of Boulanger’s defeat, the accounts were unanimous: the General had aggressively, passionately, and repeatedly attacked Floquet, who had remained cool and on the defensive.

Further insight was provided by Colonel Thomas H. Monstery (1824-1901), a fencing master who had served under twelve flags, and had survived participation in somewhere between 53 and 61 duels [8]. Consequently, during the late nineteenth century, he became regarded by the American press as an authority on dueling. When asked about the Floquet-Boulanger duel, Monstery replied:

“Gen. Boulanger…from what I learn by the papers, brought about his defeat by his lack of coolness and consequent fury of attack. He rushed blindly on his foe, losing all sight of prudence and skill in the desire to inflict injury. For an expert swordsman to overcome such an attack is an easy matter. He has only to wait coolly for his antagonist to leave an opening and then sail in . . . Between you and me, I think Boulanger was in great luck. A man who employs the tactics he did in the presence of a skillful swordsman will be killed in nine cases out of ten.” [9]

Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Monstery’s views on mindset and tactics are by no means unique, and have been echoed numerous times by some of the greatest martial arts masters of past centuries—from both Europe and Asia. In particular, masters of the past have warned against attempting to overcome an adversary through fury, passion, and aggression. For instance, in an addendum to Johann Liechtenauer’s Recital on the Longsword, a medieval author notes that a person who fences “wittily and without all wrath” will “seldom lose.” [10] Likewise, Don Jeronimo de Carranza (1539-1600), the founder of La Verdadera Destreza (the Spanish school of swordsmanship), stated in 1569:


Jeronimo de Carranza

“The vulgate, although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship, is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill and commits vulgarity in his manner and actions.” [11]

Nearly two-hundred years later, Zachary Wylde, in his treatise on the use of the smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling, stated in 1711:

“Let not Passion, Fury, nor Choler, which are absolute Enemies to skill, in no Case prevail, if you do, it will destroy your Judgement.” [12]

Again, in the nineteenth century, Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, wrote,

“Being in a passion, [such swordsmen] are not masters of them themselves; and if the adversary is only cautious and cool, the passionate man will inevitably fall on the other’s sword.” [13]

Authors of treatises on dueling with sharp swords continued to express such sentiments up until the early twentieth century. In 1901, the Hungarian Army Cavalry-Lieutenant Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry wrote in his book Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“If you want to survive a duel with sabres, you must first defeat your uncontrolled urges.” [14]

These statements are thrown into further light with knowledge that the very word “fencing,” used to encompass armed European martial arts for more than six-hundred years, comes from the word “defence”:

fencing (n.) mid-15c., “defending, act of protecting or keeping (something) in proper condition” (short for defencing) [15]

Likewise, throughout the vast number of fencing treatises and advertisements that existed in centuries past, instructors referred to fencing as the “noble science of defense,” the “true art of defence,” or simply “self-defense.” [16] As far as the very definition of Western swordsmanship is concerned, the emphasis has always been on defense, rather than offense.


Miyamoto Musashi, self-portrait in later years

Nor must it be thought that the sentiments expressed above were the domain of the West alone. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), widely revered as one of the greatest Japanese swordsmen of all time, and a survivor of more than sixty duels and countless battles, noted in his Thirty-Five Instructions on Strategy:

“The mind should be neither solemn nor agitated, neither pensive nor fearful; it should be straight and ample. This is the state of mind that should be sought after…in this way you make your mind like water that reacts appropriately to shifting situations.” [17]

Likewise, in their notes on his teachings (Notes on Mind, Energy, and the Body in Strategy), Musashi’s disciples elaborated,

“It is important to place yourself in a state of calm and to work out your way of mastering your own mind and work on the manner in which your vital energy emanates from you…If you are capable of mastering your own mind by placing yourself in a state of calm, you will be able to see clearly what is happening in your opponent.” [18]

Plate from the

Plate from Art of the E’mei Spear

Martial arts masters from China—a region regarded by many as the original fount of the Eastern martial arts—also emphasized these principles, and expounded upon them in great detail. An early Qing dynasty treatise by Cheng Zhen Ru on the use of the spear devoted an entire chapter to “calmness” and another to “mind mastery,” stating:

“It is easy to use techniques, but difficult to gain control over one’s own mind…the flame in the heart must not burn. The four elements must be calm from within oneself.” [19]

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

The Bubishi, otherwise known as the 19th century “Karate Bible”, but with roots stretching back to 16th century China, stipulates that “the mind must be calm but alert,” and advises the practitioner to “remain calm when facing your opponent.” [20] In a classic Chinese treatise penned in 1881—said to contain much older techniques from centuries past—the boxing instructor Li Yiyu (1832–1892) condensed his martial principles into a “Five Word Formula,” the very first of which reads as follows:

“1. The mind is CALM. If your mind is not calm, it will not be focused, and each movement of your hands, be it forward or back, left or right, will not be in any definite direction. Therefore your mind should be calm…Over time, you will reach the point in which you can say ‘[the adversary] is under my control and I am not under his.'” [21]

Such wisdom is clearly universal, and extends to both East and West.


Boulanger’s Tactics


“Labour to parry well, rather than to hit at random, by too much ambition or heat of passion.” – A. Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771


General Boulanger

One might well ask what was going through Boulanger’s mind when he decided to use the tactics that he did during his duel with Floquet. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wonder.

Approximately three years after the combat, the following remarkable article appeared in the pages of the London Standard, recounting Boulanger’s visit to a fencing instructor only a few hours before the duel was scheduled to take place. According to this account,

“Before the meeting, the General, who had never fenced since his cadet days at St. Cyr, was persuaded to take a lesson from a famous swordsman. The moment he stood on guard his instructor saw that he knew nothing about fencing.

‘You don’t know how to parry,’ he said to the General.

‘No,’ was the reply; ‘I charge.’

‘Then you will spit yourself.’

‘Tant pis. I have never had time to learn the simplest parade [parry], and it would be absurd for me to try to fence in the regulation manner. I shall charge as I did just now.’

He had previously run himself on to his opponent’s sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [22]

Représentation du général Boulanger à cheval (extrait d'un document électoral)

Representation of Gen. Boulanger “leading the charge”

Twenty-six years earlier, the French swordsman Baron de Bazancourt (1810–1865), in his 1862 Secrets of the Sword, had recounted a similar conversation—one that the General would have done well to learn from:

“May I ask one more question?” said one of my friends. “I have often heard it said that if you don’t know much about fencing the best thing to do is, as soon as you come on guard, to make a sudden rush at the other man before he has time to collect himself.”

“Well,” I replied, “if you wish to make sure of being incurably spitted, that is the most infallible way to set about it.” [23]

Given the timing of this publication, Bazancourt may well have been thinking of the duel between Dillon and the Duc de Gramont-Caderousse, which also occurred in 1862. Dillon’s second, the more experienced Colonel de Noé, had advised him to use defensive tactics, by first commencing with a false attack, and then hitting his adversary with a counter parry-riposte. However, Noé recounted,

“Dillon followed my advice at first, but he made a flourish. The Duc had then only to thrust and poor Dillon fell a corpse.”

The Daily Telegraph observed,

“Dillon, like many other inexperienced fencers, relied on his mere physical strength and on the impetuosity of his assault, and…the Duke, hard pressed by a furious albeit clumsy foe, was forced to thrust where he could, and to thrust home.” [24]

The fact is that the consequences of such tactics could be disastrous, especially in a combat with sharp weapons.

Le duel Boulanger Floquet , a Neuilly , gravure d'aprés Destez 1888

Aftermath of the Floquet-Boulanger duel, after an engraving by Paul Destez, L’Univers Illustre, 1888

The following details of General Boulanger’s injuries were related by Dr. Labbé, the well-known surgeon who attended him immediately following the duel, and vividly illustrate the very serious consequences that could result from such tactics—even in duels with the relatively light, thin 19th century dueling sword:

“The point of the sword…[penetrated] on the right side, about the level of the hyoid bone. At this moment, the General having bent down, the point of the sword was directed downwards, wounding the anterior and superficial jugular vein, which caused profuse haemorrhage, which, however, was soon arrested, and the wound was dressed antiseptically. There was also some effusion of blood about the wound. It is probable that the phrenic nerve was also wounded, as immediately afterwards serious trouble of the respiration, accompanied with violent pains about the level of the insertion of the diaphragm, occurred. These were followed by several attacks of oppression. During the night following the day of the duel the patient suffered so intensely from pain in the chest, so agitated, that recourse was had to a subcutaneous injection of morphia, which relieved the pain and quieted him. Thirty-six hours afterwards emphysema made its appearance on the right side of the neck, which would prove that the point of the sword had penetrated into the larynx, or trachea… Till now the general reaction has been moderate, and the wound has healed up; but, fearing a lung complication, Dr. Potain was yesterday called in consultation, and this gentleman detected a slight congestion at the base of the right lung. The bulletin of this morning states that the patient is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, but the four doctors who are in attendance are reserved as to the issue of the case, as it is impossible to foresee what complications may arise.” [25]

Following his recovery, Boulanger’s conduct during the duel was much criticized. His political career dwindled, and he later spent his life in exile in Belgium and Great Britain. As Monstery suggested, however, Boulanger was still in “great luck”–he had survived the duel. Not all swordsmen who tried the same approach fared so well.

In 1898, a duel between Signor Cavallotti and Count Macola took place near Rome, in the villa of the Comtesse Cellere, and was captured in a series of photographs. The chosen weapons were sabers. Cavallotti was on his thirty-third duel, and Macola his sixteenth. According to a journalistic account, Cavallotti

“strongly attacked his opponent, his head bent forward, and attempted to deliver cuts to the flank. M. Macola broke the attack, extending his arm. During the second engagement, the same tactics were used by both sides.”

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and Macola (on left)

The duel ended when,

In the third and final engagement, during a furious charge by M. Cavallotti, M. Macola, his point always in line, stopped his opponent on the mouth. The point penetrated and immediately caused an abundant hemorrhage. The doctors attempted tracheotomy, in vain. Cavallotti died in their arms, without being able to utter a word.” [26]

The fatal outcome.

The fatal outcome of the Cavallotti-Macola duel.

Three years later, Fels-Eöry would appropriately write in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“There is no more dangerous manner of attack than when one charges, full tilt, at his adversary, to which we can truly say, that only his enemy’s sword will be capable of arresting him, onto which he will fall.” [27]

The Cavallotti-Macola duel is yet another vivid example of the disastrous consequences that can befall a martial artist when offense is given greater priority over defense during an actual combative encounter with sharp weapons.


Problems in Training


“The same Awe ought to be paid to the Foil, as to the Sword, whose Representative it surely is. Nothing ought to be attempted with the one, that would be feared with the other…” – Captain John Godfrey, 1747

To return, briefly, to the Floquet-Boulanger duel: this particular combat raises another issue that is relevant to all martial artists: namely, the disparity between the conditions of training and that of actual combat.

As noted in the Standard’s account, during his duel, Boulanger had resorted to the same aggressive tactics that had actually failed him during training:

“[Boulanger] had previously run himself on to his [fencing instructor’s] sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [28]

As recounted previously, Boulanger charged his fencing master, was promptly hit with a blunt training weapon, but, ignoring the ramifications and feedback received, decided that he would continue to use those same tactics in actual combat. Essentially he neglected to treat his training weapon seriously (failing to envision what the same outcome would be with a sharp weapon), and neglected to modify his tactics accordingly.  The history of fencing is filled with similar accounts, wherein aspiring swordsmen resorted to strategies, previously used with foils or blunted swords, which became fatal to themselves when used with sharp weapons.

MonsteryEngravingDuring the 1870s, Colonel Monstery, himself a veteran of dozens of duels, observed such a trend in the American fencing world, in which contestants emphasized offense over defense in the attempt to “score a hit.” Monstery derisively referred to such contests as “poker games”—that is to say, “jabbing with the blade” formed the chief method of attack, while the defense was ignored. [29] Such tactics often resulted in double or simultaneous hits to the two combatants. Monstery publicly warned that if such practices were to persist, “it is only a matter of time for [fencers] to become proficient in this sort of cheating, and to ruin the art of fencing in the United States for ever.” He explained,

“There is only one safe practice to follow in foil fencing. This is to imitate as closely as possible the contest with the naked point. No one but a maniac would take thrust for thrust from an adversary with sharp points, unless, indeed, he were a very inferior swordsman, who wished to take some sort of revenge by piercing his enemy’s shoulder, at the price of a mortal wound through his own lungs…The consequences of simultaneous blows with sabres cannot fail to be disastrous to both parties. In an actual sabre duel, their delivery would require two maniacs instead of one.” [30]

More than three hundred years earlier, the German fencer Joachim Meÿer had expressed exactly the same sentiment in his treatise on the longsword:

“It is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against [the adversary’s] strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants’ brawl.” [31]

Plate from manuscript edition of Meyer's treatise

Plate from manuscript edition of Joachim Meyer’s fencing treatise

During the late medieval era, around 1409, the fencing master Fiore de’i Liberi (1340s-1420s) noted the disparities between contesting with blunt weapons and engaging in actual combat with sharps, and described how contestants modified their tactics accordingly:

“Also I, Fiore, told my students who had to fight in the barriers that fighting in the barriers is much and much less dangerous than fighting with cut and thrust swords in zuparello darmare (arming jacket) because to the one who plays with sharp swords, failing just one cover gives him death. While the one who fights in the barriers and is well armoured, can be given a lot of hits, but still he can win the battle. Also there is another fact: that rarely someone dies because he gets hit. Thus I can say that I would rather fight three times in the barriers than just once with sharp swords, as I said above.” [32]

Fiore’s comments certainly echo Monstery’s, and prove that this issue is indeed an old one.


Martial Art or Martial Game?


In 1691, fencing master William Hope (1660-1724) observed similar mistakes among swordsmen training with blunted weapons. Although Hope was somewhat coy about his own combat experience with sharps [33], his books on the art of fencing give great insight into the techniques and approaches of his era, and echo many of the martial points of other masters which we will examine. In his writings, Hope speaks of the “assault,” later defined as “the exercise with blunt weapons, representing in every respect a combat with sharps, in which we execute at will all the maneuvers of the fencing lessons.” However, in his observations, Hope makes it clear that not all participants were wont to treat the assault as a “combat with sharps”:

“When People Assault, it is commonly with Blunts, and when an Ignorant, who undervalueth the Art of the Sword, and trusteth all to his own Forewardness is desired by an Artist to shew his Natural Play, he very well considering that he can receive no prejudice by his being hit with a blunt fleuret [foil], Rusheth and Rambleth still forewards (let him receive never so many Thrusts) until he either hitteth the Artist with one of his Rambling Thrusts, or otherwise cometh so close, that the Artist must inclose with him, and he thinketh, if he hath given the Artist but one Thrust (although he himself should receive three or four in the time they are playing) that he hath carried the Day, and quite run down the Art of Fencing, whereas if they were either to play with Real Sharps, or with Fleurets having a quarter of an Inch of a point beyond the button, I make not the least doubt, but their rambling would be a little slower…” [34]


Such gamesters were variously referred to as “blunderers,” “ignorants,” “irregulars,” and “ferrailleurs.” Joseph Roland, who preferred the latter term, was unsparing in his criticism:

“Indeed, a man must be an idiot to call this fencing;——since, in a serious affair, he would, by such conduct, rush headlong on his own destruction.” [35]

Hope wastes no time in prescribing a solution for how to deal with such “ignorant” fencers:

“To prevent this inconveniency, if I were to play with an Ignorant for a Wager, I would play alwayes with pointed [sharp] Fleurets, and then in GOD’s Name let him Ramble his Belly full; For in that case I would know a way to come at him, which might perhaps cause him repent his Forewardness.” [36]

This sentiment of Hope’s would find further realization during the nineteenth century, when fencers practicing with the épée de combat (the dueling sword) adopted the point d’arrêt (“stopping point”), a one to three pronged point with small protruding spikes, which would typically cause pain to the fencer being hit, thus encouraging a more defensive mindset, and better preparing the fencer for actual combat. Although, during the twentieth century, the point d’arrêt was discarded by modern Olympic sport fencers along with the advent of electronic scoring apparatus, the point d’arrêt remains in use today among certain circles of classical fencing traditionalists. [37]

Point d'arrets, from an old catalogue. Source: Benjamin Arms

Various point d’arrets, 19th century. Source:

Despite such training methodologies, as well as numerous warnings, it is clear that many combatants (Boulanger being an obvious example) went on to use suicidal tactics in actual combat—either out of ignorance, lack of control, so-called “nerves,” or the fact that they had become used to pursuing such tactics while engaging safely with blunts. Thus, some authors and fencing masters wrote of the need to be prepared for such tactics applied to actual sharps, and to know how to fence accordingly. Fels-Eöry, in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel, includes a section on “Advice For Utilizing Mental & Physical Powers,” in which he explains:

“…Every good and capable fencer should watch out for simultaneous cuts (doubles), which consistently result in the ugliest of cuts.

While fencing in assaults, we experience a lot of double-touches. These result either from real attacks occurring simultaneously, or from poorly utilized ripostes while defending.

But these double-touches occur even more frequently in dueling.

Not overcoming obsession, anger, and hatred: these manifest in forsaking all defense, and attacking one’s opponent wildly.

How easy it is, with calm parries and mindful demeanor, to disarm such opponents.” [38]

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

These same issues can be observed in the historical development–and subsequent devolution–of Western boxing. Originally, in previous centuries, boxing had been practiced in Europe and America as a bare-knuckle martial art intended both for self-defense and the settling of disputes. It included a variety of techniques such as striking, grappling, and tripping, as well as defenses against head butting and eye gouging. The following passage, from Thomas Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence (1790), explicates the eighteenth century martial approach to boxing:

JackRandall_ART BY T. JONES - ENGRAVER UNKNOWN“I wish it to be universally understood, that I recommend the practice of Sparring, as if in real action. No manoeuvres, no attitudes ought to be adopted, unless experimentally, but what would be introduced in an actual fight.” [39]

The following technique, attributed to the celebrated fighter Daniel Mendoza, gives an idea of how eighteenth century bare-knuckle techniques differed from those that would later be used in modern boxing:

“A blow on the bridge of the nose with one of the large knuckles, if given either by striking straight, or striking the chopper, slits the nose from top to bottom.” [40]

Such techniques were not to last. By the late nineteenth century, the focus and objective of boxing had largely shifted to winning at gloved competition—even though the “art” was still often taught under the pretext of “self-defense.” The new sport of boxing gave rise to many changes—including a less conservative guard position (which relied on the use of large, padded gloves to shield the body and head), the use of a horizontal (rather than vertical) fist when striking, and a whole new host of techniques that were only effective when executed while wearing gloves. Colonel Monstery, in one of the last American treatises devoted to pure bare-knuckle boxing, describes (with derision) many such techniques—which he forbade at his academy, due to the fact that they would be useless or ineffective in an actual self-defense situation. Monstery catalogued these techniques as:

“1. Whipping; 2. Cutting; 3. Palming; 4. Round blows…” [41]

Monstery elaborates on the technique of “cutting”:

“Cutting is the common way of striking used by natural and unscientific boxers. If tried in a fight with the bare hands, it does not hurt like a true blow in the line of power, and it exposes the knuckles to injury in giving it. In glove sparring it is a malicious way of striking, as it forces aside the padding of the glove, and the blow comes with the edge of the hand, made harder by one fold of leather… Nevertheless, cutting is the most popular of all sorts of hitting in public sparring matches. A cut is a smart slap, and makes a loud noise, wherefore uninstructed audiences generally applaud a loud cut. A true blow, however heavy, makes no noise with the gloves, and is only noticed by its effects.” [42]

The "Right Hand Counter" in How to Box, 1882

The “Right Hand Counter” in How to Box, 1882

Such techniques would go on to dominate the ever-evolving sport of modern boxing—derisively referred to as “sandbagging,” by one ageing veteran named William Madden. In 1885, another author explained that modern boxing had become

“the mere shadow and semblance of what it was formerly. Fifty years ago sparring with the gloves was regarded chiefly as a means to an end. The teacher of it instructed his pupil, not with a view of enabling him to use the glove prettily, but how to use his fist with most effect…Tthe far greater part of those who now take lessons do so purely with the desire of excelling in competitions with the gloves. Half the men who win the most honours and prizes in these competitions have never struck a blow with the bare fist since they were at school, and are little likely to do so till the day of their death. Accordingly, the spectators at an assault of arms, which is now the favourite occasion for a display of pugilistic science, no longer try to imagine what each blow would be like if the glove was off when it was delivered. They count the hits, not for what they represent, but for what they are; and thus often a loud-sounding slap with the half-open glove is applauded as a most telling stroke, while the neat ‘upper cut,’ which would tell ten times more heavily in a real battle, passes comparatively unnoticed and possibly unseen except by a few.”  [43]

The preceding passages and examples make clear that when any martial art shifts its intent and focus from the reality of combat to the requirements of success in a game, it becomes watered down to become only a shadow of its former self; indeed, the notion that success in competition can be equated to success in an actual armed encounter, is, at best, delusional.

The Survivor of One Hundred Duels


“Now being Sixty-three Years of Age, [I] resolve never to Fight any more, but to Repent for my former Wickedness.” Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728

Portrait of Donald McBane

Portrait of Donald McBane

Another authority worth consulting on this issue is Donald McBane (1664-1730s), a highland Scot who took part in, by my estimation, close to one hundred duels. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, McBane also served throughout much of Europe, participating in sixteen battles and fifty-two sieges. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion. Thereafter McBane retired, and proceeded to write a memoir of his life, along with a detailed fencing treatise containing sections on the broadsword, smallsword, rapier, dagger, quarterstaff, spear, shield, double-handed ax, and knife. Surely, considering his immense experience, it is worth knowing what McBane had to say on the subject of offensive versus defensive mindset. In the pages of his treatise, McBane notes:

“Commonly those People who are unskill’d do thus, they think (and indeed with Reason) that they must not let you Attack, because they do not know how to Defend as they ought, for the Defencive part is the most difficult, therefore they drive on you with great Fury, (whils’t they have Strength) to put you out of your Play, but once that is over they are at your Mercy.”

McBane thus brings up an excellent point: a good defense is only possible with training and experience. It is for that very reason that unskilled swordsmen (referred to heretofore as “peasants” or “ignorants”) often resort to rash and overly aggressive tactics. Because they are lacking in defensive skill, choosing to constantly attack the adversary may seem like the only viable option.

Plate from McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

McBane also indicates that inexperienced swordsmen were apt to use these tactics in actual combat with sharps, even at the risk of eventual suicide:

“Some men care not (at least don’t think of it, being only intent upon hitting their Adversary) if they receive a thrust, if it be not immediately mortal, so that they can but give one, but this may properly be called Rashness, or Fool Hardiness.”

Following is an account one of McBane’s many duels, in which he describes how he dealt with such wild aggressiveness. In the combat described below, McBane used a smallsword, while his adversary used a heavier broadsword:

“We drew, and after two or three turns, he making a great stroak at my leg, I slipped him, and Thrust him through the Body before he could recover himself; finding he was Wounded he struck furiously, and [I] giving way he fell forward; I seeing that, [thrust] him in the Leg, lest he should Run after me as before. I then commanded him to give me his Sword, which he did…”


Plate from McBane’s treatise, showing the spear versus the sword and targe

In the pages of his treatise, McBane offers the following pertinent advice to the aspiring swordsman:

“Command your Temper and you will do much better, than if you give way to your Passion; and if you do Command it, and are Engaged with a Person who can not, you will have very much the Advantage of him, for his Passion will make him Play wild and wide, and consequently exposes himself to be Hit very often, wheras your thoughts not being in Hurry and Confusion, you may Defend your self with ease and judgement, and take an Advantage readily when ever you have a mind, you are the more capable of doing this, because your Strength, Mind and Spirit are not Spent or Exhausted.” [44]


A Samurai’s Perspective

An Eastern opinion on these issues may be found in the writings of Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), a celebrated samurai of the Bakumatsu period. Initially a leader of ronin (masterless samurai), Tesshu would go on to join the personal guard of the Shogun, and would later help to negotiate a peace that would lead to the Meiji Restoration. During his youth he participated in thousands upon thousands of contests with some of the best swordsmen in Japan; at age twenty-four, he engaged in more than 1400 matches within a single week. In his letters, Tesshu addresses many points regarding the offensive and defensive mindsets, such as the following, written on Jan. 5, 1882, wherein he discusses notions of “True and False Swordsmanship”:

Yamaoka Tesshu

“When [swordsmen of other schools] confront an opponent, they immediately get agitated and attempt to defeat the other swordsman through a hot-blooded frontal attack. This is a grave mistake…when they can no longer depend on physical power due to age or ill-health, their inadequately formed techniques will fail them—it is as if they had not studied swordsmanship at all, a needless waste of effort. This is false swordsmanship. Students of the Way must awaken to this principle while training harder and harder.” [45]

In his book Lives of Master Swordsmen, author Makoto Sugawara noted that “Swordsmanship with bamboo swords…produced various techniques far removed from those required in fights with real swords.” [46] In another letter, penned in November of 1884, Tesshu describes, how, historically, such tactics became popularized:

“In the past the practice of swordsmanship in all schools was understood as practice with a wooden sword and no protective armor. However, about one hundred years ago most schools began to use helmets, gloves, and chest protectors. The reason for this change is that protective gear enables trainees to act with less inhibition and allows them to apply the techniques with full force—this is the sole advantage.”

1867-69. National Library of New Zealand.

Japanese soldiers fencing, ca. 1867-69 (National Library of New Zealand)

Tesshu provides further instruction that is relevant to any martial artist using arms:

“Contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor are quite different from modern matches. In such contests, there is much more reserve because of the fear of injury; even a skilled swordsman is in danger of being struck.

In the case of contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor, that condition alone necessitates a proper frame of mind. If one is not careful, it is very dangerous…hot-blooded swordsmen who rely on physical strength and attack as if they are still wearing protective gear will quickly be injured in a contest with wooden swords. Reflect upon this deeply and there will be no need to worry about injury.” [47]

Such disparities in combat conditions, and the confusion that could arise in matches conducted in protective armor, were thrown into sharp relief during the following episode from Tesshu’s career, involving a demonstration before the emperor. As the fencing was “rather subtle,” the emperor missed Tesshu’s decisive hit, prompting the following exchange:

“If we use live blades,” Tesshu said with perhaps a certain amount of sarcasm, “Your Majesty will be able to see when a point is scored.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No,” Tesshu assured him. “A slight cut will draw blood and Your Eminence will get a clear view of the action.”

The emperor declined. [48]

Tesshu3Tesshu would go on to found the renowned Itto Shoden Muto Ryu school of swordsmanship –which he regarded not so much as a new creation, but rather as a “restoration” of old martial principles. His system was informed by fudo-shin, the “imperturbable mind” developed in the course of Zen training. In a letter about the martial arts, written in 1883, Tesshu elucidates on the profound concept of “substance,” which he defines as “the inner quiet of mind, free from individual failings.” Tesshu advises,

“Recklessly striking and thrusting will not prevail over an opponent’s mind. The lack of calm in one’s own heart causes agitation to arise from all quarters, thus preventing mastery of the opponent. Know that this occurs for no other reason but one’s lack of substance. Depending on chance and lucky breaks to win never results in true victory. True attainment must be accomplished within the quiet of one’s mind.” [49]


The Art and Science of Defense


“It takes great courage and skill to take out an adversary with a calm mind. True masters establish a balance between their lives and their art to a degree that their lives become as much a product of the art as is the art a product of their lives…Diligent training cultivates an inner calm that enhances one’s instinctive ability to counter any offensive.”Bubishi, 19th Century

We are already well-versed in examples of disastrous combats in which the participants neglected their defense in favor of a purely offensive strategy.

Now let us ask the reverse question: what happens when true defensive tactics are used by highly skilled combatants who have mastered their art and science?

One such example from history can be found in the career of Jean Louis Michel (1785 – 1865), widely considered to be among the greatest swordsmen of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all time. As one author of the period described him,

“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” [50]


Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

As referenced above, Jean Louis Michel’s most famous exploit as a swordsman was his participation in a “mass” regimental duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. The incident began when French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled, and a regimental duel was arranged. Within forty minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession.

Examining the accounts of this combat, one is struck by the defensive, rather than offensive, tactics employed by Jean Louis. His first combat was fought with Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment, and is described in the following passage:

“[Maestro Giacomo] Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all [Ferrari’s] flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder…”

Illustration of Jean Louis's regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Illustration of Jean Louis’s regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Following is a sample of passages describing Jean Louis’s subsequent encounters with additional fencing masters:

“Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.

“His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.” [51]


Jean Louis Michel, in later years

Although this event is an excellent illustration of the successful employment of defensive tactics, it must be admitted that Jean-Louis’ opponents, though fencing masters, were nevertheless clearly outclassed by their adversary.

One may, then, well ask the question: what happens when two masters, equally matched, both employ such defensive tactics? We can find no better example than the Pini-Malato duel.

Athos de San Malato, 1901

Baron Athos de San Malato, 1901

This “remarkable duel,” which lasted more than two and a half hours, took place in 1904, and was fought by Cavaliere Eugenio Pini and Baron Athos de San Malato. Both were among the most celebrated Italian fencing masters of their generation. Pini, a “phenomenon among fencers,” was a luminary of the Livornese school of fencing, while San Malato, according to fencing scholar Egerton Castle, had fought forty duels and was “one of the finest fencers in the world.” [52]

Journalists noted that the duel between the two, which was well-attended by more than sixty people, was one of the longest that had taken place in France, and was declared a “wonderful exhibition of science,” and an “exhibition of remarkable swordsmanship.” San Malato, according to one account, “made his attacks with the rapidity of lightning,” while Pini moved with “the spring of a panther.” Pini was wounded twice, about 1.5 hours into the duel, in the arm and on the nose, yet due to the minor nature of these wounds Pini insisted on continuing. More than one hour later, the combat was terminated when San Malato could no longer continue, due to his hand being excessively blistered by the hilt of his sword, thus rendering him at an unfair disadvantage. [53]


Maestro Eugenio Pini

Maestro di Scherma Eugenio Pini

Though it may seem incredible to the average person that a duel with deadly weapons, fought in earnest, could last for a duration of several hours, the fact is that the Pini-Malato duel was not unique in this regard. Examples of other such combats are uncommon, but do exist. For instance, the renowned Italian fencing master Agesilao Greco fought a duel in Naples that lasted three hours [54]; in 1900, the Comte Albert de Dion and M. Saint-Alary fought a duel lasting more than an hour and a quarter [55], as did Benito Mussolini and Francisco Ciccotti in 1921 [56], as well as San Malato and M. Pons in 1881 [57]; in 1873, two French swordsmen fought a “skillful” duel in Pennsylvania that lasted more than one hour [58]; and in 1891, Count Bertazzoli and Signor Calderoni reportedly fought a rencontre with daggers in Lugo, Italy, that lasted forty-five minutes. [59] In his saber dueling treatise, Fels-Eöry explains the reasons for the disparity in lengths of duels:

“‘Two bad fencers’ clumsy and foolhardy cooperation always results in both getting gravely injured in a short amount of time.’ In this case it’s safe to say that the [outcome of the] duel is entrusted to luck… An abrupt end to a sabre-duel usually bespeaks two vehement parties who can’t fence; because a contest between two good fencers is generally arduously long…

A good fencer, against a bad one, will exert the greatest of care, which takes time. The weaker fencer will act in this knowledge, if he’s acting strategically and soundly, knowing that he will not get suddenly injured, and, knowing that, he will not suddenly injure.” [60]

The Pini-Malato duel was, of course, not your average combat, considering both the experience and extremely high skill of its two participants. Yet it serves as a model and example of what can be achieved at the higher levels of swordsmanship. Both Pini and Malato accomplished something remarkable—not by killing or seriously maiming the other, but by preserving their own lives; by both surviving a sword combat that lasted continuously for two and three-quarters of an hour.

Jack Dempsey’s Final Word

As much of the preceding article has been devoted to the subject of armed combat with potentially deadly weapons, let us now turn back to the subject of unarmed combat.

As stated previously, since the 1930s, modern texts have mainly attributed the quote “the best defense is a good offense” to the boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.  It is, then, perhaps worth looking at what Dempsey himself actually had to say on the subject.

Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey, circa 1935

In 1950, Dempsey published a treatise on his method of fighting, entitled Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. In Chapter 18, Dempsey addresses the issue at hand, and, in point of fact, does not say that the best defense is “a good offense.” Instead he states:

“The best defense in fighting is an aggressive defense.”

Clearly aware of the quote that had been falsely attributed to him, Dempsey proceeds to elucidate:

“Each defensive move must be accompanied by a counter-punch or be followed immediately by a counterpunch. And you cannot counter properly if you do not know how to punch. That does not mean that ‘a strong offense is the best defense.’ That overworked quotation may apply to other activities; but it does not apply to fighting. It does not apply when you’re pitted against an experienced opponent. You may have the best attack in the world; but if you’re an open target—if you’re a ‘clay pigeon’—you’ll likely get licked by the first experienced scrapper you tackle. YOU MUST HAVE A GOOD DEFENSE TO BE A WELL-ROUNDED FIGHTER. AND THE BEST DEFENSE IS AN AGGRESSIVE DEFENSE.” [61]



In perusing these many passages, some readers may be tempted to presume that the aim of this article is to suggest that offensive techniques and tactics have no place in the martial arts at all, or that when engaging in combat, one should simply do nothing but defend, and wait for the adversary to attack. However, that is absolutely not the case.

Combative situations can vary greatly. The tactical considerations, for instance, between a one-on-one combat scenario (such as a duel) and a battlefield, or a street encounter involving multiple opponents, may differ. Against an attacker with bare hands, one may also be willing to take greater offensive risks than one would in an encounter with an adversary wielding a knife or a potentially lethal weapon, wherein a single mistake can result in death or serious injury.

It should also be noted that all of the classic martial arts treatises quoted throughout this article contain offensive techniques as well as defensive. A prime example is Miyamoto Musashi, who frequently emphasizes the goal of ending the combat as quickly as possible—by striking first or attacking on the adversary’s preparation. Another example is Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy, who warned, “To parry well is of great service, but it is nothing when you can do no more.” [62] We may also look again to Colonel Thomas Monstery, quoted heretofore several times. Monstery, in his treatise on both armed and unarmed methods of self-defense, writes of numerous offensive techniques—such as methods of attack, how to seize the initiative, how to take advantage of the adversary’s mistakes, and pressing the attack. For instance, in Chapter 10, in his “Advice on Street Encounters,” Monstery states:

“Always try to get in the first blow in a chance encounter. Parley with your enemy, and watch him till you see that you will be assaulted. Then give the first half-arm left-hand blow at his nerve system, and follow it with a full-arm right-hander at same place. I have generally found that I could finish such a battle in the one round.” [63]

Above: Image from Colonel Monstery's treatise on bare-knuckle boxing, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

Image from Monstery’s treatise.

How, then, are we to reconcile such advice with a mindset that emphasizes defense? The answer is, that even when attacking, one’s defense is still the primary consideration. Self-preservation, according to these authors, must always be kept in mind—even when executing offensive techniques or tactics. One can find many specific examples illustrating this throughout Monstery’s text. For instance, in his section on unarmed self-defense (bare-knuckle boxing), Monstery instructs:

“The left hand is the only one used in feinting. The feint with the right is too dangerous, as it takes away the guarding hand.” [64]

Likewise, in his section on armed self-defense with a stick or cane, Monstery instructs the pupil to


Cane defense in Monstery’s treatise.

“keep his hand high in striking, and to end his blow with the point lower than the hand in all high cuts. This is important, for two reasons: 1st. It makes a perfect blow, and compels the enemy to come to a perfect parry. 2nd. It leaves the hand in a position to guard against the return blow. If the hand is low, the return blow is sure to catch you, as the upper body and head are open. This makes the danger of striking at an enemy’s legs, as the hand must be low to strike at them.” [65]

Here, as in many other examples throughout his text, we can see that even when instructing in offensive techniques, Monstery is still giving great importance and consideration to one’s defense. Regarding offensive techniques applied to the sword, we can find similar admonitions in the treatise of Donald McBane, such as:

“Never over Lunge yourself, because one or other of your Feet may slip, and you can’t recover yourself to a Guard so soon as you should, and may be Hit in that time…” [66]

In their excellent article “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” Dr. Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford examine numerous historical records of wounds resulting from combats with sharp weapons. One of the most obvious conclusions to be drawn from this article is the absolute unpredictability of how wounds can affect the victim. Included are recorded cases of combatants surviving (and remaining active following) halberd-chops to the head, sword-thrusts through the torso, severed jugular veins, and half-severed limbs. Swinney also notes, in his own experience as an ER physician, that

“I have met and treated countless individuals who remained capable of fighting or fleeing for minutes to hours after sustaining significant neck and chest injuries…I have met a number of patients with penetrating trauma to or through the heart who remained active and conscious for a minute or more after the injury, have made it to the emergency room alive, and with the benefit of modern surgery, have survived…it is clear that with adequate resolve, a person so wounded in a swordfight might attempt one or more desperate attacks in the moments immediately after sustaining such an ultimately fatal injury.”

The lesson to be drawn from these examples is clear: one cannot abandon the defense in the pursuit of dealing out a perceived “mortal” blow to the adversary, because there is very little guarantee that such a blow will actually be incapacitating, no matter how devastating it may at first appear. Swinney and Crawford thus conclude,

“The belief that a particular blow or thrust will instantly incapacitate an opponent is, more often than not, inaccurate or even silly. [Modern] historical fencing practices based on these erroneous assumptions weaken the art. Were swords still in earnest use, several common modern training practices might cost the swordsman limb or even life.” [67]

Conversely, there are many recorded examples in modern times in which combatants quickly became incapacitated (and even died) as a result of comparatively minor wounds to the arm or leg, in which the major veins and arteries reside. Thus, from this fact, one can draw a second lesson—that in an encounter with potentially lethal weapons, the defense can never be abandoned, because even apparently minor wounds to extremities can unpredictably result in incapacitation or death.

In conclusion, it is important to note that since time immemorial, martial artists have used the arena of contest to hone and test their abilities. Likewise, martial artists of both east and west have utilized various training methods to prepare themselves for live encounters with fully (or nearly fully) resisting adversaries. These include the concepts of sparring (as in the case of boxing and grappling), of the assault (as in the case of traditional fencing), and of gekken (as in the case of Japanese swordsmanship). To ensure that such practices remained safe, it was also necessary to develop protective equipment and specialized training weapons. These are all good, and indeed necessary, aspects to the healthy and effective practice of martial arts.

However, it has been shown that when such training methodologies, and contests, become the ends rather than the means—that is, when practitioners shift their intention from studying the martial arts systems of the past (whether Western or Eastern), to concentrate on success in tournaments or games, these arts lose their martial applicability and effectiveness. This as just as true today as it was in past centuries. It is of special significance that even in the context of a warlike culture such as the samurai of Japan, this phenomenon has still occurred.

We can do better than to end this article with the words of the Virginia fencing master Edward Blackwell, who wrote in 1734:

“The nicest Part of Fencing consists in the Defensive, and particularly against the Bold Ignorant…No Person ought ever to make any other Use of his Skill in Fencing, than in his own Defence; and then in such a cool and temperate Manner, as neither to be exasperated by Passion, or afraid to exert his judgment; then a Gentleman will reap the benefit of his instruction.” [68]

Or, in the words of Colonel Monstery,

“Above all things, never lose your presence of mind.” [69]


Special thanks to Levente Barckzy for his translations from the original Hungarian to English of Fels-Eöry’s “Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel” for this article.

[1] J. Barnes, Speed Training for Combat, Boxing, Martial Arts, and MMA, 2005. For other examples, see C. R. Jahn, Hardcore Self-Defense, 2002, Page 72; Mike Young, Martial Arts Techniques for Law Enforcement, 2014, Page 95; Kevin J. Robinson, S.M.A.R.T. Self-defense, 2003.

[2] “Dempsey believed the best defense was a murderous offense. For that reason he never bothered about protecting himself.” “The Othello of Boxing Faces His Inexorable Destiny With the Dignity of the Noble Moore,” by Frank Scullt in Esquire, Volume 4, 1935. p. 34. A simple search using “Google Books” reveals additional attributions to Dempsey throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

[3] The Christian Science Journal, 1883, Volume 88. p. 535 “It has been said that the best defense is a good offense…”

[4] George Washington to John Trumbull, June 25, 1799.

[5] New York Times, July 14, 1888.

[6] Illustrated London News, July 28, 1888.

[7] L’Univers Illustré, July 21, 1888.

[8] Thomas H. Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Thomas Stoeppler (translator), Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a), ca. 1389.

[11] Don Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza, Of the Philosophy of the arms, of its art and the Christian offense and defense, 1569.

[12] Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (York: John White, 1711).

[13] Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing; or a treatise on the Art of Sword-Defence, theoretically and experimentally explained upon new principles; designed chiefly for persons who have only acquired a superficial knowledge of the subject (London: Printed for the author by W. Wilson, and sold at Egerton’s Military Library, 1809), 211.

[14] Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry, A Kardpárbaj Veszélytelen Kimenetele És Annak Eshetségei [Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel], Budapest: 1901, 48. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy. Earlier (2015) English translation by Krisztina Nagy accessible at


[16] Ben Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800 (Estafilade, 2009).

[17] Kenji Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004), 203.

[18] Ibid., 229.

[19] 程眞如 (Cheng Zhen Ru), Art of E’mei Spear (Translated and edited by Jack Chen), 13.

[20] Patrick McCarthy, The Bible of Karate: Bubishi (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1995),  65.

[21]  Li Yiyu, For Hao Weizhen to Cherish: 王宗岳太極拳論 後附小序並五字訣 “Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Treatise” Appended with my Preface & “Five-Word Formula,” [A treatise handwritten by Li Yiyu, presented to his student, Hao He (Weizhen), 1881] Translation by Paul Brennan, 2013.

[22] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[23] Baron Cesar de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword (London: George Bell & Son, 1900), 219. [Translation of 1862 French original].

[24] Paul Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol (Boulder: Paladin Press, 2004), 146-151.

[25] The Lancet, July 21, 1888.

[26] L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899. p. 213.

[27] Fels-Eöry, 86. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[28] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[29] Monstery’s comments were recounted in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, April 2, 1904, p. 5.

[30] Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies, 180.

[31] Joachim Meyer, Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Page?


[33] Duels between gentlemen were private affairs, and were rarely spoken of (swordsmen-authors who were not gentlemen, such as Donald McBane, had no such qualms). In his A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence, Hope explains:  “[some might wonder] …how I come to give such positive directions for fighting, when it is not well known if I ever drew a sword in good earnest all my life? And if not, how I can know, so exactly as I pretend, the true rules so strictly to be made use of, when engaged for the life? To which I answer, that whether I have ever been engaged in good earnest or not, is none of the querists busines to know; neither will I let them at present into that matter: For I never much approved of being vain-glorious, especially where the victory is obtained, for the most part, at the expence, less or more, of the vanquisher: but if I have ever been engaged, when I might have prevented it, I am now very sensible that I ought not to have done it, according to the principles of true honour laid down in the fore-going Vindication; nothing but being attacked, and necessary self-defence, being what can vindicate any man’s running the hazard, as well as the sin, of taking away another man’s life. And if I have never fought, yet I have had the practice of near 50 years with foils…” William Hope, A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence. London, 1729.

[34] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[35] Roland, 198.

[36] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[37] Examples of schools wherein the traditional use of the point d’arret can still be seen today include the Martinez Academy of Arms (New York City), the Salle Saint-George (Seattle, Washington), Palm Beach Classical Fencing (West Palm Beach, Florida), and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms (Arcata, Calif.).

[38] Fels-Eöry, 87. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[39] Thomas Fewtrell, Boxing reviewed: Or, the science of manual defence, displayed on rational principles. Comprehending a complete description of the principal pugilists, from the earliest period of Broughton’s time, to the present day (London: Printed for Scatcherd and Whitaker, Ave-Maria-Lane: 1790), 15-16.

[40] The Modern art of boxing: as practised by Mendoza, Humphreys, Ryan, Ward, Watson, Johnson, and other eminent puglists: to which are added the six lessons of Mendoza, as published by him, for the use of his scholars: and a full account of his last battle with Humphreys ([London]: Printed for the author, 1789), 18.

[41] Monstery, 177.

[42] Ibid., 118.

[43] Ibid., 38-39.

[44] Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion: Or the True Art of Self-Defence. With an Account of the Authors Life, and his Transactions during the Wars with France. To which is Annexed, the Art of GunnerieGlasgow: 1728.

[45] John Stevens, The Sword of No Sword (Boston: Shambhala, 1984), 128.

[46] Makoto Sugawara, Lives of Master Swordsmen (Tokyo: East Publications, 1985), 203.

[47] Stevens, 143-144.

[48] Ibid., 37.

[49] Ibid., 137.

[50] Lafcadio Hearn, Miscellanies, Volume 2, William Heinemann, ltd.: 1924.

[51] Ben Miller, “The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History.”

[52] “Egerton Castle: Reminiscences of Baron de San Malato’s Life” in the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1909.

[53] Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol, 178-184.

[54] Steven C. Hughes, Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007), 93, 145n.

[55] Le Figaro, April 8, 1900. This account noted that, “Until [the tenth round], these two gentlemen had struck only at the chest, but as those blows were marvelously parried on both sides, it was no longer necessary to worry that the combat would end in a mortal wound…The fifteenth bout was the most lively: the Count de Dion and M. de Saint-Alary attacked by turns, and during the most interesting piece of swordplay, the Count de Dion parried in sixte, riposted above and thrust M. de Saint-Alary in the right arm, on the upper side of the elbow. The wound was five or six centimeters deep. The duel was halted. The time was quarter to one. Finally! … one will be able to go to lunch with a good appetite and good spirits…”

[56] “Il Duce’s Deulist Dies in Argentina,” Spartanburg Herald, September 15, 1937.

[57] New York Herald, April 21, 1889. “Here is a translation of the proces verbal signed by the seconds:—’They—the seconds—met Monday evening and decided that the duel should take place at Vesinet, in front of the left stand of the Champ do Course, on Wednesday, the 4th day of May, 1881, at two P. M., with the weapon chosen by the tribunal of arbitration, and consented to by both parties. ‘The weapon designated for M. Pons was the triangular French duelling sword, and for M. San Malato the flat bladed Italian duelling sword. ‘The meeting took place yesterday. Wednesday, May 4, at three P. M., at the place indicated above , and out of respect for M. Paul de Cassagnac, who had been chosen as arbitrator, the four seconds thought it best to give him entire direction of the combat, without, however, neglecting the interests of their principals or their own responsibility. The duel lasted one hour and a quarter, and was renewed five times…At the fifth, M. de San Malato being touched by a hit above the right wrist made by a counter disengagement after parry of prime, the two surgeons and the four seconds declared M. San Malato hors de combat. “For M. Pons, MICHEL, CAIN; For M. San Malato, PAUL RUZE, BRUN BUISSON.'”

[58] New York Times, July 28, 1873.

[59] Le Petit Parisien, Oct. 30, 1891; United Service Magazine, January, 1898, p. 432. Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 30, 1891. Unlike the other lengthy combats mentioned here, this one was excessively bloody: “They agreed to fight, without seconds, a duel to the death. The weapons chosen were daggers. They met in the wood without witnesses, and were fighting for three-quarters of an hour. Both were stabbed in many places, but neither could kill or disable the other. With blood flowing from many wounds, they continued to combat till neither was able to stand, and, when found by servants, both were lying helpless. They were hurried at once to the hospital and treated, but their condition is critical.”

[60] Fels-Eöry, 52. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[61] Jack Dempsey, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. N. Kaye: 1950.

[62] Roland, 220.

[63] Monstery, 122.

[64] Ibid., 90.

[65] Ibid., 154-155.

[66] McBane, 15.

[67] Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford, “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” SPADA 2 (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006).

[68] Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800, 6.

[69] Monstery, 134.

“Fat” Gladiators: Modern Misconceptions Regarding the Dietary Practices of Swordsmen of the Ancient Roman Arena

In Antiquity, Food and Diet on January 30, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Article by David Black Mastro

In the November/December ’08 issue of Archeology magazine, author Andrew Currey covered the recent findings by paleo-pathologist Karl Grossschmidt of Vienna, concerning the diet of ancient Roman gladiators. Grossschmidt and his colleague, Fabian Kanz, examined the bones of gladiators from a site in Western Turkey. Currey wrote:

But the biggest revelation to come out of the Ephesus cemetery is what kept the gladiators alive–a vegetarian diet rich in carbohydrates, with the occasional calcium supplement.  Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men.” Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein.

This in itself is not surprising, but Grossschmidt’s conclusion as to why the gladiators’ diet was predominantly vegetarian is problematic at best:

The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”

Grossschmidt’s assertion that gladiators purposely “packed on the pounds” with a carb-heavy diet poses several problems. For one thing, it ignores the devastating nature of ancient edged weapons. While a layer of subcutaneous fat can indeed give some amount of protection from the cuts of smaller knives, it is of no use against the types of weapons that gladiators typically had to cope with. Of the various gladiator types, many–as the very name “gladiator” indicates–were swordsmen. Of the sword-armed gladiators, most fought with the combination of the short sword (gladius) and the long shield (scutum)–in this category were the myrmillo, secutor, and provocator. The other main type of sword-armed gladiator was the Thracian, who fought with the curved sica and a small round or square buckler (parma). The gladius was a devastating weapon, capable of horrible, mortal wounds with both its point and edge. The original gladius was the gladius Hispaniensis, so-called because of its use by Iberian warriors. This early type of gladius featured a broad, slightly waisted, double-edged blade, that swelled at the COP (center of percussion), and then tapered to a long, acute point. A perfect example of “form following function”, the design of the gladius Hispaniensis was intended to provide a short weapon capable of fearsome cuts, as well as thrusts. In his book The Republican Roman Army 200-104 BC, archeologist Nicholas Sekunda noted that the ancient author Livy commented on how the Macedonians feared the cutting capacity of the gladius Hispaniensis–it was easily capable of shearing off limbs, or decapitating a foe. The gladius Hispaniensis was ultimately supplanted with a simpler form, featuring a shorter point, and parallel edged, and its broad blade could still cut very well. The sica of the Thracian could deliver slashing strokes with its convex edge, chopping blows with its concave edge, and wicked, hooking-style thrusts. Against such weapons, subcutaneous bodyfat would have served no genuinely beneficial purpose.

Another problem with Grossschmidt’s theory is that it runs contrary to what ancient sources say about the gladiator’s diet. In his classic work, Gladiators, author Michael Grant pointed out that no less an authority than the ancient physician Galen was, in fact, critical of the gladiators’ carb-heavy food:

The schools were also provided with resident medical consultants to check the men’s diet, and both Galen and a leading doctor of the preceding century, Scribonius Largus, concern themselves with this aspect. Gladiators were called hordearii, barley men, because of the amount of barley that they ate, a muscle-building food but (combined with beans as it was at Pergamum) criticized by Galen for making the flesh soft. (emphasis added)

Galen’s reservations about the preponderance of barley “making the flesh soft” suggests that gladiators would not have sought to purposely “pack on the pounds”. Gladiators, like any other fighting men, would not have gained any real advantage from excess bodyfat (and arguably, such extra weight could have actually been a liability).

The condemnation of excess bodyfat can also be seen in the late Roman writer Vegetius’s Epitoma Rei Militaris (Epitome of Military Science). Vegetius wrote specifically about ideal army recruits, but his requirements apply to fighting men in general:

So let the adolescent who is to be selected for martial activity have alert eyes, straight neck, broad chest, muscular shoulders, strong arms, long fingers, let him be small in the stomach, slender in the buttocks, and have calves and feet which are not swollen by surplus fat but firm with hard muscle. When you see these points in a recruit, you need not greatly regret the absence of tall stature. It is more useful that soldiers be strong than big. (emphasis added)

The final evidence which refutes Grossschmidt’s suggestion is ancient artwork. Period representations of gladiators typically show them to be lean & sinewy, like other warriors. Take, for example, the following relief, which shows bestiarii (animal fighters):

The fighters look lean, and the muscle development and definition is very much in evidence.

Given all of the above, it would appear that all those carbs were burned off in the daily toil of training, and in the arena. Grossschmidt’s theory frankly makes little sense.

So, why, then, did the gladiators subsist on a predominantly vegetarian diet? We know from archeological evidence that Roman soldiers (legionaries and auxiliaries), while also relying principally on grains like wheat and barley (they were, after all, from an agrarian society), also consumed a substantial amount of animal protein. In his excellent text, Warriors of Rome: An illustrated history of the Roman Legions, Michael Simkins noted modern archeological evidence “shows conclusively that meat was consumed in the forts, along with a great variety of other foodstuffs”.

And it was, indeed, a great variety. In her online article, “Did Roman Soldiers Eat Meat?”, N.S. Gill wrote:

Much of Davies’ work in “The Roman Military Diet” is interpretation, but some of it is scientific analysis of bones excavated from Roman British and German military sites dating from Augustus to the third century. From the analysis, we know the Romans ate ox, sheep, goat, pig, deer, boar, and hare, in most places and in some areas, elk, wolf, fox, badger, beaver, bear, vole, ibex, and otter. Broken beef bones suggest the extraction of marrow for soup. Alongside the animal bones, archaeologists found equipment for roasting and boiling the meat as well as for making cheese from the milk of domesticated animals. Fish and poultry were also popular, the latter especially for the sick.

For Gill’s full article, go here:

Why were things apparently different for the gladiators? I personally suspect it has to do with the gladiators’ place in ancient Roman society. Gladiators were slaves, and among their ranks were countless prisoners of war and condemned criminals. It was clearly more economical to feed them a predominantly vegetarian diet. Grains and beans and legumes could be combined, and they served not only for their carbohydrates, but also as a good source of protein (the combination makes for a better amino acid profile). Anyone who thinks that vegetarians and vegans cannot build muscle and be powerful has clearly never seen people like old-time strongman George Hackenschmidt (demi-vegetarian), bodybuilder Bill Pearl (vegetarian), MMA fighter Mac Danzig (vegan), strength coach Mike Mahler (vegan), or hardcore music legend & all-round hard guy John Joseph (vegan). Therefore, gladiators were fed a primarily vegetarian diet simply because it was comparatively cheap, and because it still worked to produce lean, fit fighters.

For Currey’s original article, go here:

Thanks go out to Marc Smith, for inspiring me to write this article, and to Carl Massaro and Alex Wilkie, who have both greatly helped me in exploring the sheer power of edged weapons, over the years.


Primary Sources:

Epitome of Military Science by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus

The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius

Secondary Sources:

Gladiators by Michael Grant

Gladiators 100BC-AD200 by Stephen Wisdom

Warriors of Rome: An illustrated history of the Roman Legions by Michael Simkins

Republican Roman Army 200-104 BC by Nicholas Sekunda

Greece and Rome at War by Peter Connolly

Swords and Hilt Weapons (esp. the chapter “Greece and Rome” by Peter Connolly)

The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler and Diana Holtzberg

Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier

Evolution of a Cro-Magnon by John Joseph

“Did Roman Soldiers Eat Meat?” by N.S. Gill (