By the Sword : A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions
By the Sword is an epic history of sword fighting--a science, an art, and, for many, a religion that began at the dawn of civilization in ancient Egypt and has been an obsession for mankind ever since. With wit and insight, Richard Cohen gives us an engrossing history of the world via the sword.
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August 04, 2003
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Excerpt from By the Sword by Richard L. Cohen
The great authority on early arms, ewart oakeshott, believes that swords first appeared between 1500 and 1100 b.c. in Minoan Crete and Celtic Britain. Remarkably quickly, they became an implement of sport: the oldest known depiction of an actual fencing match is a relief in the Temple of Madinat Habu, built by Ramses III around 1190 b.c., near Luxor in Upper Egypt. (To its right is an engraving of a pile of trophy penises, hacked from the enemy dead-practice well, the sequence suggests, and this can be your reward.) The men are clearly not dueling-they appear to be wearing masks, padded over the ears and tied to their wigs, and the tips of their weapons have been covered. There are judges on either side holding feathered wands, and the score is being kept on a piece of papyrus. An inscription records one contestant as saying, "On guard and admire what my valiant hand shall do."
Ninus, king of Assyria, is usually given the credit for the development of swordplay as a formalized sport. He was also the first to use professional fencing masters to instruct his troops. The Chinese, Japanese, Persians, Babylonians, and Romans sometimes fenced as a pastime, but mainly they used swords to train for combat. Indian tradition has it that Brahma taught his devotees martial exercises with the sword (priests were warriors then), and in Hindu India's great epic, the Mahabharata, we read:
Brightly gleaming their lightning rapiers as they ranged the listed field.
Brave and fierce is their action and their movements quick and light.
Skilled and true the thrust and parry of their weapons flaming bright.
This ten-thousand-verse narrative, reputedly written by one Vyasa around 500 b.c., makes frequent mention of swordfights and fencing skills and is one of the first works to examine two basic aspects of swordsmanship: forocity and chivalry.
The Greeks believed that there was no special art to handling a sword. One reason for this was that their weapons of choice were generally short, double-edged with hilts or crossbars, and ridged from point to hilt (to stiffen the blades)-basically hacking implements. A warrior would employ it for close combat only after his spear had been thrown or broken: it was the instrument of last resort.
The Greeks placed critical importance upon drilling men to maneuver in formation, little to teaching hand-to-hand combat. It may have required special skill to throw a javelin, but with a sword it was impossible to miss at close quarters. The Greek historian and soldier Xenophon is dismissive in his account of how the Persians trained their forces. As he saw it, skill with edged weapons came to man as naturally as breathing:
I myself from my earliest childhood knew how to throw up a guard before the things that I thought were going to hit me. If I had nothing else, I would hold my hands before me and hinder the man who hit me as far as possible. I did this not because I was taught to do it; indeed, I was even hit just for throwing my hands before me. As for knives, from the time I was a baby I grabbed them whenever I saw them, and I never learned from anybody how to hold them either, except from nature, as I say. . . . I promise you, I cut with my knife everything that I could without being noticed. It not only came by nature, like walking and running, but seemed to me to be pleasant as well as natural. Well then, since we are left with a sort of fighting that calls for courage rather than skill, why should not we fight with enthusiasm?