Fencing in the Ancient World

Egyptian stick fighting
Egyptian stick fighting

The word “Carma” coming from Sanskrit refers to fencing in ancient times. The modern word “Escrime” is used to signify the art of “touching without being touched,”

Mankind has a history of fighting and conflict. People have tried to compensate for their physical weakness by inventing weapons to defend against or conquer animals and other humans. Weapons developed from wood, stone and then metal, lead man to try to perfect methods of combat; to maximize their most effective strengths and skills for both offence and defence – the art of fencing.

Mention was made in sacred books in ancient India, containing the principles of weapon exercises shown by the Brahmins, warrior-priests, the first professionals who taught fencing lessons in public places. Later, this study of fencing was strictly reserved for the warrior class, lest the peasants rise up in armed revolt.

TEgyptian sword practicehere is also evidence of early fencing in many text books in China. A Siu-Fu, the Kung-Fu master, established himself in an isolated place deep in the forest, a cave or on a mountain peak. He then meditated to search and study the martial arts. In certain monasteries, some monks, like the Shao-lin, also observed and learned the motions of the animals in order to simplify and modify their movements, transforming them into the science of combat. They also included many bizarre forms, techniques, and secret movements, frequently tricky and deadly.

In Egypt, a popular fencing practice was to fence with quarterstaffs. It was the basic technique for beginners preparing to learn for other weapons. There is a document describing the victory celebrations after the war against the Libyans in 1190 B.C., when King Rameses III organized a fencing tournament very similar to those we follow today.

In the Medinet Habou temple in High Egypt, there is a remarkable illustration engraved under one of the Bas-reliefs. The competitors are fencing with blunted swords, wearing visible helmets and armour and one can identify a jury presiding over the tournament.

In Western Europe, we find epic accounts of single combat in Homer’s Iliad. In Athens, hoplomachie (fencing teachers) were in demand in the fifth century B.C. Numerous masters taught the methods of combat in return for a great reward from each session they taught.

Greek swordIn the martial city-states of ancient Greece, warriors used a heavy weapon in the art of fighting, and a full-time training schedule. Their battle-dress included a helmet, armour, round shield, metal-cased fitted boots for protection, with short swords and long spears as weapons. Eventually, the practice of fencing was included in the original Olympic Games and established teaching remained in Sparta, even during the time of the Roman domination.

Original Greek Olympic games, with a referee judging the bouts.
Original Greek Olympic games, with a referee judging the bouts.

During the decline of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, it seems that many changes took place. The Roman conquerors, unconcerned with the Hellenic traditions, transformed the Olympic Games into a circus. The gladiator’s combat was greatly enjoyed by the Romans and under certain emperors, the Games were extremely bloody; far beyond the conventional combats and courtesies of Greek competition. The Romans refined their sword skills toward the heightened discipline of military combat. Their most skilful soldiers became “Doctors of Arms” and received a double allowance for living.