By chance, we came across an account of the ‘Battle of the 300 Champions’ in the Histories of Herodotus (c.484-425 BC). Assuming that ‘the Father of History’ was not just telling a tall story, or relating the sort of thing that he would have expected to happen in Greece a hundred years previously, it seems that, in 546 BC, 300 Spartans fought 300 Argives over the disputed town and treasure of Thyraea.
The significant difference between this and so many other battles fought in ancient times is that the commanders on each side deliberately limited the number of troops they committed to the fray, presumably because each was in pursuit of a limited objective, and did not wish to risk all their military resources. We are not told the size of their respective armies; but it was clearly agreed that all would accept the verdict reached on a battlefield where only 600 men in all would be deployed.
Things did not work out as agreed, or expected. The two sides fought until nightfall, when only three men were left: two Argives and one Spartan, called Othryades. The Argives raced back to Argos to announce their victory, but – unknown to them – Othryades remained on the field of battle and stripped the bodies of the Argive dead for prizes (as was customary).
Both sides claimed victory. They could not agree a verdict and there was renewed fighting, this time between the two hosts as a whole. Nevertheless, the fact that a battle was staged in this limited way at all struck us as so extraordinary that we set out to find other examples.
We found the story of the Horatii in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Foundation of the City’). The incident described occurred some 600 years before Livy was writing, so it was even more remote for him than the Battle of the 300 Champions was for Herodotus.
It may well be that his story owes something to Herodotus’s tale, even though the Horatii pre-date the Greek Champions. The story is that in 672 BC, during a war between Rome and Alba Longa, the kings of the opposing sides, Tullus and Mettius, decided their dispute should be decided in a contest between three men of similar age and ability from each side, who were in fact two sets of triplets. These were the Horatii brothers for Rome and the Curiatti brothers for Alba Longa.
The first phase of the contest resulted in all three Curiatti being wounded and two of the Horatii being killed, while the third, Publius, remained unscathed. Publius then feigned flight, but in pursuing him the Curiatti became separated and were killed, one at a time. As a result Mettius and his people became subservient to Rome.
Both these narratives (though not the writers) date from the heroic, semi-mythical age which preceded the greatest days of Greece and Rome, when towns were small and society organised on a tribal basis. They precede the development of the hoplite phalanx in Greece and the infantry legion in Italy, and the changes in society required to raise, support, and train these fighting machines.
Warfare in the heroic age was dependent on bonds of tribal kinship and solidarity. War-bands were loosely structured, and the conduct of war may have been somewhat ritualised and limited. Perhaps there was a culture that stressed the role of heroic champions, and also a set of norms and values that made ‘combat of champions’ acceptable.
Once we enter the Classical period, this kind of limited warfare, fought with champions, seems to disappear. The Greek city-states and the Roman Republic each knew long wars of attrition, involving the entire population, fought to a finish.
The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta lasted almost 30 years (431-404 BC), with annual campaigns exhaustively described by Thucydides, and ended with the defeat and ruin of the Athenians and the occupation of their city by Spartan troops.
Likewise, the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage between 264 and 146 BC ended with the total destruction of Carthage.
It is difficult to imagine the combatants in these conflicts setting limits to their wars. There was too much at stake, and in any event the parties were not evenly matched. Athens was primarily a naval power, Sparta land-based. Rome had superb infantry; Hannibal had elephants, cavalry, and mercenaries. In both cases, a ‘clash of civilisations’ was involved – between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, between Rome’s citizen-based social order and the mercantile empire of Carthage.
We could find almost no examples of what we were looking for in the medieval period. Here again, most battles in Europe were fought with all available resources, and to the finish, whether fought by Christian against Christian, Muslim, or pagan.
We would cite the wars of Western Christendom with Viking, Hungarian, and Saracen raiders in the 9th and 10th centuries, the First to Third Crusades of the 11th to 12th centuries, the defence of the West against the Mongols in the 13th century; and the long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle of the Byzantines against the Turks.
In all these cases, there was, again, a ‘clash of civilisations’, often involving profound religious, ethnic, and cultural differences. It is difficult to envisage either side suggesting that the outcome be entrusted to a limited battle between select groups of men.
One might, however, expect to find examples of our phenomenon in the Hundred Years War. Here the conflict was between two sides which, whatever their differences, were similar in culture, religion, language, and system of government.
Moreover, in the Late Middle Ages, fighting between the military classes in Western Europe was governed by a complex set of rules based on the ‘laws of war’ and ‘chivalric code’ which regulated the behaviour of knights and gentlemen, at least with regard to their behaviour towards one another. And, indeed, we do find incidents which superficially resemble the two paradigm cases described above; but, on closer examination, the resemblance is misleading.
There were several occasions when English monarchs – Richard I, Edward III, and Henry V – challenged French kings (or princes) to settle their differences in single combat. After the murder of Richard II, the Duke of Orleans several times challenged Henry IV to single combat. On no occasion, however, was the challenge ever taken up.
The Combat of the Thirty
Nearer the mark is the ‘Combat of the Thirty’, which took place between English and French knights in Brittany in 1351, during the War of the Breton Succession (a ‘sideshow’ or ‘proxy war’ during the Hundred Years War).
The French captain of Josselin and the English captain of Ploërmel confronted one another in parley. The French captain suggested that three men be chosen from each side, but the Englishman objected that this would be nothing more than a ‘game of chance’, and suggested that 20 or 30 from each side would be more appropriate. The number 30 was agreed on, and it was further agreed that there would be referees, refreshment breaks, and temporary truces for the treatment of wounds.
In the event, the French had six men killed but the English lost more (and all their survivors were captured), so the French were declared the winners.
But what was going on here? In Trial by Fire (Volume 2 of his monumental history of the Hundred Years War), Jonathan Sumption is unsure. He suggests that the Combat of the Thirty may have been a ‘hastilude’ or tournament of some kind – in other words, a kind of sporting activity, albeit extreme sport (à l’outrance). Or, he writes, it may have been fought to determine some local issue in the Breton civil war – possibly control of some castles or piece of territory. Whatever it was (and the fact that the losing English were held for ransom does not fit well with the idea of a tournament), it became famous as a ‘feat of arms’.
Readers will remember that it was these feats that most interested the chronicler Jean Froissart (c.1337-1405). As he wrote himself, his purpose was to record
the honourable deeds and ventures accomplished by arms, which took place during the wars between France and England, [that] might be aptly documented and commended to lasting memory, so that courageous men might follow such examples to inspire them to good
One might even wonder whether there was a literary link of some kind between the Combat of the Thirty, the Battle of the 300 Champions, and the story of the Horatii. The numbers look suspicious: 30, 300, and 3.
Is it possible that the number 30 derives not so much from the tactical choice made by the captains in the field in Brittany as from the mind of the chronicler, who may have had some knowledge of the Latin precedent?
The Highlands of Scotland
In 1396 (according to a late 18th-century record, based on a lost manuscript of the late 1500s), 30 men from each side decided a limited issue that had arisen regarding precedence in the Battle of the Clans at Perth.
Clan Kay and Clan Chattan had long disputed who should have the most honourable place in the line of battle in their long-standing alliance. At the suggestion of King Robert III, it was decided that the matter should be settled by a combat between champions.
This duly took place, and the men of Clan Chattan killed all but one of their opponents (at a cost of 19 deaths on their own side) and were awarded the victory. Needless to say, the result was hardly conducive to harmony within the alliance!
In similar fashion, in 1478, at Tears Abbey, Caithness, a long-standing dispute between Clan Gunn and Clan Keith was agreed to be resolved by combat between 12 ‘horse’ on each side. This term was (arguably) ambiguous.
Twelve men from Clan Gunn arrived first and, there being no sign of Clan Keith, decided to pause for prayers in the Abbey. Clan Keith – having interpreted the rules somewhat differently – arrived with 12 horses, but two men were riding each horse. They burst into the Abbey and took Clan Gunn by surprise. Eight of the twelve men of Clan Gunn were killed, but not before heavy casualties had also been inflicted on Clan Keith. (The result seems to have been no more than a lull in inter-clan rivalry.)
The medieval Highlands were very different from archaic Greece and Rome; but they were similar in that society there was organised on a tribal or clan basis, and this is probably the explanation for the fact that we find similar events in the Peloponnese in the 6th century BC and in Scotland in the 15th century AD.
The clans were homogeneous and similarly armed. To the extent that they were trained at all, their training was similar. Trial by champions was both feasible and fair, at least if the purpose or objective was clear and limited; and one could hope that the losing side would recognise the verdict achieved by the winners.
The Renaissance involved a military revolution: a large increase in the size of the standing armies deployed by Continental rulers (France and the Hapsburgs in particular); the development of gunpowder weapons; a new importance for infantry; and a new kind of military architecture.
At the same time, among the hundreds of battles that have taken place in Europe from that time onwards, there seem to be no examples of the sort of battle we are looking for here. Championships have since been confined to the track, the playing field, and the boxing ring. Why?
Perhaps Niccolò Machiavelli has the answer. He relates the story of the Horatii in his Discourses on Livy (1531), where he criticises the Romans and Alba Longans for allowing the outcome of a war to turn on what was essentially single combat. He also explains that, in a democracy, it is unacceptable to determine the outcome of a war in this way:
Having made the citizens the defenders of their own liberty… why [put the defence]… in the power of the few to lose it? … No king or people would ever remain satisfied when three of their citizens have left them in servitude.
Machiavelli was not always right – it is widely believed now that he was wrong about many aspects of warfare between mercenaries – but we feel that he was right about warfare by championship. In modern mass societies, the conditions and assumptions prevailing in the heroic age in Greece or the medieval Highlands of Scotland no longer apply.
It is rare to find homogeneity within society, or equality of arms between rivals. Each side thinks that it can find some way to beat the other, whether by lightning strike, some new technology, or simply by process of endurance and attrition. So there is no point in entrusting the outcome to champions.
Moreover, the objective is rarely limited. There is more at stake than booty, or honour, or the fate of a single town. The struggle involves the whole civilian population and becomes existential. Men fight en masse and, if necessary, with their backs to the wall. The war is fought to a conclusion, usually surrender, either conditional (as with the First World War) or unconditional (as with the Second). If war is too important to be left to the generals, it is also too important to be left to a few picked men.
Consequently, in modern times the tale of the Horatii has become a myth and no more. It has been much discussed and portrayed from the Renaissance onwards, particularly in Italy and France. In April 1578, the battle was even re-enacted between supporters of Henry III of France and Henry I, Duke of Guise (though it would seem that the participants were more than just actors, since four of the six combatants died!).
Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1784 painting Oath of the Horatii (Le Serment des Horaces) does not concern a historic event. It is a symbol of raw and primitive patriotism, of the willingness of the individual to sacrifice his life for the good of his country, which is why it acquired iconic status in Republican and Napoleonic France. •
Ashley and Stephen Cooper are brothers. Ashley is a scientist and co-author of more than 30 papers on NMR spectroscopy. Now retired after a career in industry, he has always maintained a keen interest in history and this has led to a number of co-publications with his brother.
Stephen read History at Oxford, before qualifying as a solicitor. After a lifetime in Law, he retired and resumed his youthful interest. He is the author of a number of books on medieval and local history, including Agincourt: myth and reality (2014).