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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions

3.4 9
by Richard A. Cohen

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Throughout this history of "swordplay" -- from its first depiction, in an ancient Egyptian mural, down to modern tournaments where hits are logged by electronic sensors -- Cohen draws upon his own experience as a sabreur who represented England in the Olympics. (One impressive photograph shows him in midair, executing a "horizontal flèche.") He concentrates, naturally enough, on the Western fencing tradition, of which he is a product -- its manuals, masters, champions, famous duels, and lore. Cohen loves the punctilious dressage of fencing -- citing with approval the Victorian masters who honed their pupils' footwork by making them stand on tea trays -- and is particularly drawn to instances where this vanished world has given us a cultural legacy. Men button their coats left over right, he says, to accommodate the swords that are no longer by their sides, and we shake hands, apparently, to show that we are not about to draw our swords. His narrative style, too, with its outspoken opinions and talk of fair play, embodies the "heroic archaism" that so evidently delights him.
Publishers Weekly
Cohen's enthusiastic history of the sword and of swordplay captures the adventure, romance, danger and intrigue that the weapon has represented throughout world history. The narrative contains superheroes, villains, underdogs, spies, alchemists, movie stars and champions. Rather than use a purely chronological structure, Cohen (who has written for the New Yorker) takes apart many of the influences that fencing has had on society and vice versa. Barely a subject escapes his eyes: metallurgy and the quest for a sword that would hold its edge and remain strong; the damage swords can do to a body (including purposeful gashes across the cheek); judicial duels (it was believed that God would intervene on behalf of the innocent party, who would win regardless of fencing ability); the history of the Musketeers; swashbuckling movies; modern sport fencing (which countries and even families reign supreme and why), Fascists (Mussolini and many higher-ups in Hitler's regime fenced), cheating and the Olympics. Staying away from an impersonal history, the author extends his own involvement with the sport he was on the British Olympic team four times (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984) by visiting as many of his subjects as he can, from the historically superior sword-making city of Toledo to Gretel Bergmann, a figure in a Nazi fencing scandal. There are copious playful asides as footnotes filling the reader in on wonderful facts and anecdotes. For those with even a casual interest in fencing, Cohen's work will be a delightful read; he brings the daunting breadth of the history of the sword within easy reach of the curious. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The culture of the sword has given us everything from words like prizefight and freelance to such customs as shaking hands, the military salute, or men buttoning their coats on the right. Cohen's exuberant history of swordplay begins with an account of his own 1972 "duel" in London, then leaps into the story of civilization as measured through the evolving technology and customs around broadswords, armor, lances, foils, sabers, rapiers, and epees. Readers wanting only to escape into chivalric tales from Musketeer days will not be disappointed; however, the polished writing and masterly use of centuries of anecdote should lure them through equally vivid sections on Roman gladiators, medieval knights, Japanese Samurai, and the swashbuckling crazes in Italy, Spain, France, England, and Hollywood. (According to Cohen, a British publisher and Olympic fencer, actors Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr. were exceptional fencers, while Tyrone Power might not have opened a pi$ata without a sword double.) Cohen perhaps didn't need to explore the sword proficiencies of American presidents, but this is a small matter in a work so rich in social history: Cohen investigates the sword duels of Ben Johnson and Voltaire and the real source of Cardinal Richelieu's hatred of sword dueling. A fascinating story told with literary verve and the pride of a longtime practitioner; highly recommended.-Nathan Ward, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A literate, learned, and, beg pardon, razor-sharp history of fencing and kindred martial arts, by an English Olympian and saber master. "Of all sports arguably the most romantic," Cohen writes of fencing, "it also most closely simulates the act of armed manslaughter." Homicidal though its origins may be, fencing has long had a certain aristocratic allure, and Cohen’s pages are peppered with appearances by the likes of Richard Francis Burton, the Orientalist and adventurer who found time between seeking the sources of the Nile and translating the Kama Sutra to carve up a rack of skilled opponents in the ring; the Roman emperor Commodus, whose announcement that he planned to suit up as a gladiator and try his hand at fencing earned him assassination at the hands of real swordsmen; and the noble Italian foilman Nedo Nadi, who resisted Mussolini’s overtures to join the Fascist cause while guiding Italy’s Olympic team to fencing glory. This is a work of anecdote and accumulated trivia rather than of sustained narrative, but wondrous anecdote it is, whether Cohen is addressing the roster of actors and actresses who have wielded steel throughout Hollywood history—Charlton Heston, Lana Turner, Peter Ustinov, Peter O’Toole, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and "even Robert De Niro" among them—or considering the developments of the armed martial arts in China and Japan. Fencing, he insists, is by no means of antiquarian interest; even today, "the upper reaches of certain leading German companies are still said to require a dueling background," while some of the sport’s brightest stars are emerging from minority communities in large American cities. Not all is noble in his pages, happily enough;Cohen details enough incidents of cheating to warm a French judge’s heart, enough scandals to sustain a run of tabloids, and enough oddities (such as the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich’s insistence that American Jews judge his performance at the 1936 Olympics) to fuel dozens of spinoff articles. A pleasure for practitioners, and a rewarding entertainment for the armchair swashbucklers and varlet-tamers among us.

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Random House Publishing Group
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6.44(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.33(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

Thisten-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.

Meet the Author

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. He lives in New York City.

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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
PatrickZJD More than 1 year ago
While the vast amount of research into his chosen sport, and passion, can sometimes be a little bewildering and confusingly presented, especially when it comes to names of modern fencers, Richard Cohen nevertheless delivers a well-written, encyclopedic but engaging survey of the history of both combative and athletic swordfighting throughout human existence. Cohen in fact is somewhat persuasive in his thesis that swordfighting had a subtle yet significant effect on diverse aspects of history through the early twentieth century in ways that are not always easily apparent or fully appreciated. Furthermore, although primarily an editor and publisher throughout his literary career, the champion fencer exhibits a wry, engaging prose style in his narrative. While I am sure that an armchair reader might not necessarily find this book interesting enough to want to pick up, for anyone who has even the most passing regard for duelling and/or fencing, "By the Sword" is excellent reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the seminal modern work on the history of fencing. This book is not really about how to fence, but about its history and many of the colorful characters that have taken up steel over the millenium. For not being an experienced author, Mr. Cohen does an admirable job of covering the subject in a thorough, and thoroughly readable, manner. The stories in here touch on many subjects, from the samurai of Japan to ancient duelling practices, to modern Olympic fencing champions. One should note, however, that while all of these subjects are included in the book, this book is really about fencing, and not swordsmanship (or swordsmen) in general. The book's subtitle is 'A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions.' This isn't completely accurate, however, as the gladiators get a page or so, the musketeers get one chapter, and samurai get a few paragraphs and one good story about Miyamoto Musashi. Swashbuckling gets a chapter on swordfighting in movies, but most of the book is about fencing in the modern sense. As an experienced fencing champion, obviously the author knows much about this subject, but I must admit that I was expecting a more broad-based discussion of swordfighting over the years, which isn't what this book is really about. I must also note that the book is rather long, and especially towards the end there is just too much detail for a gneralist to take on all of the travails of fencing over the last 50 years. I just don't care enough, I guess. That aside, the first half of the book is marvelous, touching on such disparate topics as medieval dueling practices, ancient Japanese codes of honor, and why what you see of swordfighting in movies is pretty much all wrong. I really enjoyed the discussions of how different swordfighting techniques evolved over the years, and how each European country tended to develop its own unique styles, even favoring special weapons designed for those styles. If more swordfighting was discussed in schools, the boys at least would likely show more of an interest in history. Pretty much everybody at least knew something of dueling a few hundred years ago, and this book has helped me to understand why that was and how it played into overall society. So, in the end this is a good book, but it is somewhat too long and too exculsively focused on fencing in the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic read, offers plenty of insight
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Richard Cohen writes an interesting and engaging book on the history of the sword and fencing in By The Sword, giving a whole new prospective on one of history's oldest sports that sprang from one of history's earliest weapons. By The Sword is an attempt to explain and understand what keeps us fascinated by the sport that may seem old- fashioned at first glance, but remains one of the most deadly sports man or woman engages in. Not intended as a guide to improving one's fencing, it nevertheless offers a background and history of a sport that still maintains its lethal quality even in our technology mad world. I especially enjoyed his review of the movie 'versions' of swordplay, although I missed him pointiing out that in the Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power, the fencing scene was speeded up to make the duel seem even more lethal. An entertaining read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was looking forward to reading this book, figuring it might serve as a reference as well. This could have been a definitive book, a book of fencing for our times -- but it is riddled with numerous factual/historical inaccuracies. Just two examples a few pages apart: Cohen writes (on page 151) that the film 'Duel at Ichijoji (1964)' was the 'first of that trilogy' -- when the title is actually 'Duel at Ichijoji Temple' and it is the second of the trilogy and the year should be 1956. A major blunder though is Yukio Mishima being called a 'Nobel-laureate' (p. 155). Strange that none of the professional reviewers picked up on that one or warns readers about similar errors. It's been an annoying read, having to second guess and stop to double check Cohen's facts.
patricia deleon More than 1 year ago
thus the book us about fencing, waste of time