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A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions; 10th anniversary edition

Written by Richard CohenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Richard Cohen


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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 560 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43074-8
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Igantius Loyala challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to get spaghetti,” their code to avoid alarming the children. 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.
With a new Preface by the author


Chapter 1
How It All Began

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?

Despite this debatable view, it is possible to find, as early as the fifth century b.c., references in Greek historical accounts to oplomachia (literally, "fighting in armor"). Hoplites were the senior Greek infantry, men of substance who could afford armor, unlike the light infantrymen (peltastai) and shield carriers (oplontes), who carried slings and light javelins. The hoplites' skills eventually became a regular part of the military training program in Athens. Plato specifies how their practice sessions should be configured:

We will institute conflicts in armor of one against one, and two against two, and so on up to ten against ten. As to what a man ought not to suffer or do, and to what extent, in order to gain the victory-as in wrestling, the masters of the art have laid down what is fair and what is not fair, so in fighting in armor-we ought to call in skilful persons, who shall judge for us and be our assessors in the work of legislation; they shall say who deserves to be victor in combats of this sort, and what he is not to do or have done to him, and in like manner what rule determines who is defeated.

Combatants wore a shield, breastplate, helmet, and shin guards and carried both spear and sword. The competition was essentially a test of skill, flexibility, and physical endurance-a formal imitation of genuine warfare. While professional teachers of combat began to be highly paid and to hold prominent positions in the gymnasia, there were no fencing masters per se. Nor is there any account of Greek sword exercises like those of Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who wrote a whole treatise on the training of Roman legionaries. Swordsmanship in itself was not valued, it being generally believed that those who excelled in athletic games, at the Olympics, and elsewhere would naturally distinguish themselves in war. Thus the "art" of armed combat rarely found its way into public festivals, with the possible exception of funeral games.

One means of preparation came in the form of war dances, which were often performed at religious festivals and would imitate the movements and postures of soldiers-waving shields, swerving or ducking to avoid a blow, and manipulating weapons-thrusting first spears, then swords. Spartan youths practiced these dances from an early age. Socrates believed that those who honored the gods most in dances were the best in battle, while Plato, in his Laws, said, likewise, that dancing had combat value. The goal was to develop agility rather than strength, although Greek recruiting policy still emphasized weight and size rather than gymnastic ability: a good big one was worth more than a good little one. Only in cases of monomachy-a tradition in which the commanders of opposing armies met each other in single combat-did any individual duel openly with another.

Unlike the greeks, the romans admired and appreciated swordplay. Horace's friend Sybarus was a fencer, and Ovid, reflecting mournfully from his exile on the shores of the Black Sea, imagined the young men back in Rome practicing their swordplay. Gladiatorial combats-a Roman invention-date from 264 b.c. They began as a flourish occasionally added to aristocratic funeral celebrations: slaves, or sometimes prisoners of war, would fight in honor of the dead. Over the years, the contests, which could run to three hundred bouts, were extended to general celebrations. None other than Julius Caesar drew up special rules for these deadly games; he encouraged them as a means of distracting his otherwise restive people (as well as winning himself political support) and even had his own school in Campania, now recognized as "the cradle of the gladiatorial system."

Can an activity be regarded as a sport when only the spectators see it as such? Gladiators were of course fighting for their lives, but ancient graffiti reveal that they were paid for each performance and could become the popular equivalent of rock stars: images of famous gladiators adorned oil lamps, flasks, and toys, and their exploits were recorded by contemporary chroniclers. Crucial to all this were the lanistae-the indispensable operators who functioned as trainers, slave traders, managers, and impresarios all in one. They bought, rented, or contracted gladiators for combats, set the price for seats, arranged for publicity, and hired musicians. They were generally held in disrepute-lanista also meant "assassin" and "bandit."

Gladiators could be formidable figures: the slave rebellion led by the famous gladiator Spartacus managed to sustain itself against powerful Roman forces for three years, and this is not an isolated example. When gladiators consistently triumphed in the arena itself, it was not uncommon for fathers to pass on the profession to their sons, and there were even families of gladiators. Occasionally, as a novelty act, women fighters appeared-the British Museum has a stone relief of two bare-breasted female performers-although such encounters were seen as exotic spectacles, on a par with dwarfs fighting, and eventually, in a.d. 200, were banned.

Combatants, as a rule, fought in pairs, and a referee (summa rudis), dressed in a voluminous tunic, would normally stand between them, armed with a long stick. There were various kinds of gladiators: the myrmillones and samnites were the most heavily armed, with helmet, shield, protection for their leading leg, and sword-in the beginning a short, wide weapon, later about three feet long and thinner. Thracian gladiators wore helmets and greaves (lower leg guards) and used a dagger. The retiarii fought with a net in one hand and a trident in the other. The juxtaposition of armed and unarmed parts of the body dictated the use of weapons and created the conditions for highly skillful swordsmanship. Left-handed gladiators were reputed to be particularly fearsome, and the style of swordmanship was subject to precise rules for the various gladiatorial categories, which were remarkably uniform across the Roman Empire from the first through the fourth centuries.

All these fighters received their instruction from the lanistae. Trainee gladiators learned the basic movements in groups, using wooden swords covered with leather, with leather buttons on the points. Once in the arena, as a curtain-raiser, they might put on a mass demonstration with training swords, not so different from modern TV wrestling contests. Then the real fighting would begin. "Gladiatorem in arena cepere consilium," wrote Seneca-"The swordfighter reveals himself only when he gets to the arena"-an insight that would ring down the centuries.6

The Roman public was thoroughly familiar with the technical aspects of parrying and thrusting-many would have seen combat themselves. While Romans despised cowardice, they would reward a courageous defeated fighter, even occasionally granting a reprieve from death. There were periods when combat without reprieve was banned altogether: after all, gladiators were expensive to train. The authorities were as vigilant over the health and muscle tone of their fighters as they were over the authenticity of the fights. Ludi (schools) were set up all over Italy to train future performers, and several distinguished surgeons specialized in the treatment of sword and trident wounds.

Over time, free citizens, patricians, and even women frequented the ludi and swordplay became fashionable. No records survive as to whether visitors were limited to watching or were allowed to handle the weapons themselves, although Petronius's novel Satyricon has a woman of senatorial status finding gladiators so interesting that she actually trains as one. We do know that the ancient world never developed sports for their own sake; they played checkers-a game invented, according to legend, to overcome the tedium of the siege of Troy-and various forms of dice. Chess, however, had to wait until the Middle Ages. High society may have practiced swordplay, but that did not make fencing a sport. From an early date attempts were made to legislate against nongladiators' aping gladiators. For members of the upper class to compete in gladiatorial contests was felt to be reprehensible, so much so that when the Emperor Commodus (a.d. 161-192) announced that he would appear as a gladiator in the dress of a consul, he was murdered by his senior entourage before he could do so.

From the Hardcover edition.
Richard Cohen|Author Q&A

About Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen - By the Sword
Richard Cohen is the former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. Five times U.K. national saber champion, he was selected for the British Olympic team in 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984; in 2004 and again in 2005 he was world veterans’ saber champion. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Richard Cohen, author of BY THE SWORD

Random House: In America, sword fighting has something of a hidden cache. Of course, we often see jousting in action movies, and other types of entertainment venues. But, the sport — at least in America - has been lost to a large sector of the general populace for quite a while. Why do you think this is?

Richard Cohen: From the 1870s on swordplay in America pretty well disappeared, being kept up by certain aristocratic groups and by the military. It became an elitist,
minority interest. But from 1896 on - really, the birth of the cinema -
swordfighting has been a staple of adventure films. So there's always been
this underground interest in swordplay, and when in the last ten years or so
some great European masters came to the US there were plenty of people
willing to take it up. Two years ago the US won its first fencing world
championship - at women's saber! It's now a rapidly growing sport.

RH: The artwork on the jacket of BY THE SWORD is so evocative and lush. Can you tell us about the image and why it was chosen to go on the jacket?

RC: We tried several approaches. We wanted to get at the romance of fencing -
that seemed its crucial quality - but at the same time not make it look like
a sports book. It's much more than that - a general work of history that
appeals to all sorts of people. After about six or seven different attempt a
friend of mine suggested we model the cover on MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA - which
shows just a small section of a Japanese woman. It's atmospheric and
beguiling, and very effective. Spurred on by this, the jacket's designer,
Misa Erder, found a superb turn of the century painting, LE MAITRE D'ARMES,
by Tancrede Bastet (1858-1942), and used that to put together the superb
cover the book now has. But I also love the book's spine -it almost makes
you feel you're looking at a leather-bound classic. Which is a nice feeling
to have.

RH: How did the idea for BY THE SWORD come about?

RC: Back in 1992 I had just left the British publishers for whom I worked and
decided I'd have one last go at getting to the Olympics. I was already 45,
and my first Games had been in 1972, but in 1990 I had been selected again
for the British team, and again in 1991, so I knew there was a chance. Well,
I thought I'd keep a record of the year, as I went off to internatinal
competitions in Bulgaria, Boston, Padua and so on - to be called ONE LAST
FENCE. It was to be a personal account, taking in history as appropriate. In
the end, I failed - in the last bout of the last competition before selection
- in Madrid, I remember, so there was no happy ending, so no story. But I had
all this research - interviews with champions and their coaches that captured
stories that had never been written down or recorded anywhere; and when in
1999 I moved from London to America I thought maybe I should expand my
original idea to write an entire history.

RH: What were the main challenges in writing a history of sword fighting?

RC: The main challenge in all this was that I never knew the history would
turn out to be so vast or so complex! I knew Churchill had fenced, but
Lincoln? Teddy Roosevelt? Harry Truman, of all people? I would come back from
my main research home, the NY Pub;ic Library, each day with what I hoped wasa
minimum of two 'nuggets' - two new pieces of information that I knew I would
want to see in the final ms. But often I would return home with six or seven.
From the organizational point of view, there were some fascinating problems.
Many non-fiction books have a tension between their being a chronological
account and their dealing with specific themes, and that was certainly a
battle I had to work out. Some themes I decided to allow to carry on through
the entire book - the often intense relationship between master and pupil,
for instance. At other times - say with the story of swordfighting and the
cinema - I'd work an entire subject into one chapter, even though that was
covering a period of over 100 years. On the other hand, quite early on I
created an entire section - three chapters - on the idea of perfection -
perfection in sword-making, in the longing for a perfect stroke, in the
philosophical notion that via swordplay one might become perfect. I wanted
the reader to know that these quests have lasted through history, and to
carry a sense of what these quests involved as they read on through the rest
of the story.

RH: Why did you persevere in writing a book about sword fighting? To some, it may seem an esoteric subject.

RC: IS swordfighting an esoteric subject? Well, I know it's a minority sport
both here and in Britain. But nearly everyone, boy or girl, has picked up a
stick or madeup sword at some time or another and started to fight. It's a
very basic enthusiasm. And as for my persevering, it really wasn't hard. I
loved the research, even (dare I say it) loved the writing. The subject just
got bigger and bigger. It wasn't that I kept on finding out so much more than
I ever thought I would. It's that swordplay led into so many different areas,
so that I discovered that I wasn't writing about a sport at all, but a social
history, a book about an entire culture. I had grandly described the book as
I first envisioned it as a 'biography of a sport', and I hope that element is
still there. But it's more how the most important weapon known to man - for
that's how the sword has to be seen - has opened the way to so much that
isn't to do with swords at all.

RH: I understand that you are an accomplished swordfighter (is that the correct terminology?) yourself. What drew you to the sport? What is your specialty within it?

RC: I think I'm just a plain'fencer' rather than a 'swordfighter', though I
like the second term! I first took up fencing when I was at my main school,
in England, at a large boarding school set in the Somerset countryside. The
school was run by Benedictine monks (I was brought up as a Catholic - Jewish
father butn Irish mother) and one day, early on in my time there, a monk came
into the 'junior' house and talked about the sport he ran at the school -
fencing. He was a marvelous character, and very compelling. Locals called him
'the fighting monk', and he would sometimes come to our sports hall wearing
his habit, a mask and glove and wielding a saber above his head. Anyway, how
could I resist? I started with foil, the light French sword, did a bit of
epee, which is the sword used for dueling, but soon turned to saber full
time. It's more mobile, more dramatic. Better fuel for one's fantasy life.

RH: In sword fighting, which skills are most prized? Similarly, what are the least important — or least desirable — characteristics in a swordfighter?

RC: I recently asked my first national team coach what made a great fencer. He
was called Bob Anderson, and besides his coaching duties (he went to seven
Olympics) he was Hollywood's main fight director. He said a champion fencer
had to have four qualities - anticipation; a superb sense of rhythm; timing;
and physical ability, especially leg strength. Of all the people he coached
in film roles the actor with the most ability - over 50 years of assessing
actors - was Antonio Banderas. Bob taught him to fence for THE MASK OF ZORRO,
and will be doing so again next year, in the sequel.
Least important? Strangely, because there can be such a strong mental element
in fencing, it's not vital that you are a great athlete. Obviously, that can
be a tremendous help, but I've known a champion fencer with one hand, another
with one arm, even a German sabreur with only one arm and one leg, and three
fingers on his one hand. He was suprisingly fast, and a really difficult
fencer to beat. What I hate in a fencer is someone who cheats - who goes
against all the traditions of honor that surround the sport. Sadly, success
at international level is now often judged so important that the pressures
not to be honorable on the fencing strip are very great.

RH: BY THE SWORD must have required quite a lot of heavy research. Was this so? Or were you already acquainted with most of the history? What were your primary sources? How did you go about researching the history in the book?

RC: I took just over two years for research, although in truth I suppose I'd
been taking material in through my pores for the previous forty. I travelled
to twselve countries in the course of research, and spoke to over 100 people.
The NYPL was a wonderful resource, but I went to libraries in Spain, Germany,
Britain and France as well. My languages aren't great, and so I had fellow
historians and fencers in countries like Russia, Hungary and Poland
translating long-forgotten memoirs and ancient texts for me. I felt by the
end I had a whole brotherhood helping me get the research for the book right,
all of them aware that probably it wouldn't ever be attempted again - or at
least not for a very long time. I was really enormously lucky in the help I

RH: I know that you were integrally involved in the book publishing industry in England for many years. Can you tell your American audience the primary differences, as you see them, between American and English publishing?

RC: I was an editor and publisher in Britain for 25 years. Really, the
similarities are more striking than the differences. As an author, though,
it's been an enlightening experience being published simultaneously in both
countries. At the time of writing, a month after the book went on sale in the
US, I have had one review (albeit a marvelous one, in the NYT) yet the sales
are strong. In the UK, where there are so many national papers, I have had
twelve reviews, all in broadsheets or national magazines. It seems so
difficult to reach readers in the US. Bob Anderson, who I've mentioned, got
me to be an extra in the latest James Bond movie, DIE ANOTHER DAY, and so I
rubbed shoulders - very briefly - with Piers Brosnan and Madonna. It was all
great fun, and a little absurd; but that probably got my book more publicity
than anything else.

RH: Was BY THE SWORD also published in England? If so, what kind of reception did it get? In what ways did the American publication differ?

RC: In Britain I was published by Macmillan. Like Random, they've been very
good, and I've also been very lucky with reviews, nearly all of them pushing
the book as a really good read. One interesting difference is that the Random
version is printed on very good thin paper, so it doesn't look as if it's 520
pages. It looks an elegant but not threatening package. In Britain they
really bulked up the paper, so there's over half an inch difference in width.
They wanted readers to feel it was value for money. Both editions have
reprinted, so maybe both publishers were right!

RH: Many readers have begun to come to BY THE SWORD. Who do you envision your primary audience to be?

RC: My primary readership is obviously those whop have fenced or who have an
interest in swordplay. But as I've indicated, it's really mainline history
that I've written. In Britain, one of the leading sports columnist has called
for BY THE SWORD to be given the best sports book of the year award. (I
wish...) But I was even more pleased when the Random edition was picked by the History Book Club and also the Military History Book Club. It even got picked, I was told, by the Science Fiction Book Club. Work that one out.

RH: Which main points in BY THE SWORD appeal to the general reader? I ask because the flap copy on the book jacket gives many tantalizing hints about the continued relevance and legacy of sword fighting in society (i.e. it explains why buttons are sewn on a certain side of a jacket; why we shake hands in the way we do; and so on.) It would be interesting to hear your take on the book as a whole.

RC: When I began writing BY THE SWORD I never felt it was going to have a
central theme. To my surprise, it grew one - the place of honor in our
society, and over time. Because swordplay developed from people trying to
kill each other, it was more necessary to have not just rules but a code of
behavior that fencers would abide by. Even more than other martial arts,
fencing expects people to be honorable in the way they behave. In Japan,
swords were seen as a reflexion of a man's soul, and even in the West they
have a huge symbolic value. This gives any history of swordplay a resonance
beyond most other books on a specialist subject. I enjoyed COD, for instance;
but the opportunities for honorable and dishonorable behavior are limited.

RH: It’s the holiday season. Many of our readers are looking for gift books for loved ones. If you could recommend this book to certain people on readers’ holiday shopping lists, who would they be and why?

RC: In all seriousness, it's difficult to see who WOULDN'T enjoy the book, if
they like reading at all. My 14-year-old has started to read it (very
critically), and he normally reads only science fantasy. The lady who cleans
our apartment has a copy; our doorman gives me a chapter-by-chapter critique.
I thought it might be more a man's book, and certainly there's so much
derring-do in the book that I hope that audience will get their money's
worth. But three of the most appealing longer stories in the book are to do
with famous women fencers. And in the end fencing is the most romantic of
sports - perhaps the most romantic of all. But you'd have to read the last
chapter in the book to see how that has particular play for me personally.

RH: Lastly, what’s next?

RC: What next? Something of a similar approach, I suspect, but to a very
different history - the history of the sun, and man's relation to it.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Like swordplay itself, By the Sword is elegant, accurate, romantic, and full of brio—the definitive study, hugely readable, of man’s most deadly art.”—Simon Winchester
“Touché! While scrupulous and informed about its subject, Richard Cohen’s book is about more than swordplay. It reads at times like an alternative social history of the West.”—Sebastian Faulks
“In writing By the Sword, [Cohen] has shown that he is as skilled with the pen as he is with the sword.”—The New York Times
“Irresistible . . . extraordinary . . . vivid and hugely enjoyable.”—The Economist
“A virtual encyclopedia on the subject of sword fighting.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Literate, learned, and, beg pardon, razor-sharp . . . a pleasure for practitioners, and a rewarding entertainment for the armchair swashbuckler.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How would you fight a duel? What weapon would you choose? If a sword, what kind–a broadsword, a rapier, a nineteenth-century dueling épée? A samurai’s katana? How would you behave–and what would you expect from your opponent?

2. Why has the sword proved to be such an object of fascination over the centuries? Will its symbolic value survive? Now that fencing is “only” a sport, will interest in swordplay wane?

Will its symbolic value survive? Now that fencing is “only” a sport, will interest
in swordplay wane?

3. Does fencing have a moral or philosophical significance? Much of By the Sword discusses different ideas of honor. Do you agree with the author’s analysis? How does the book judge the conduct of Mayer, Pawlowski, Onishenko, and Beck?
Do you think honor has any part to play in modern swordplay, or is it, in Ben
Jonson’s words, “a mere term invented to awe fools”?

4. How well did the code of personal honor, derived from chivalry, control the violence of dueling from the sixteenth century on?

5. The novelist Sebastian Faulks has described By the Sword as reading at times “like an alternative social history of the West.” What do you find to support this view? Another reviewer noted that the “antagonism of the aristocratic and plebeian are the twin strands of a teasing dualism that lies at the heart of nearly all swordplay,” and that this “emerges as the unspoken theme of the book.” Do you agree?

6. To what kind of person does fencing appeal? Why did so many right-wing politicians find it attractive? Do you think that individual nations can be characterized by the way they fence?

7. The relationship between master and pupil is a theme that runs through the book. What makes a good master? What makes a good pupil? Are there inherent dangers in the relationship?

8. Richard Cohen describes swordplay as romantic. Is it? How do you think modern fencing compares with that of previous ages? Has something important been destroyed, or has fencing evolved in the same way any sport evolves?

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