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The Most Incredible Sword Fights in History

Posted by JT Hats

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Ancient Fights

First up are the Ancient Fights. With details often obscured by centuries of exaggeration, these stories are the trickiest to pin down. But the ones we've chosen below are based in fact, and sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.

Pyrrhus Vs. Unknown Barbarian
Pyrrhus, drenched in his own blood, delivers one blow to slice enemy's head in two

First to Win a Pyrrhic Victory
Destruction: 5
Skill: 3
Honor: 5

In ancient times the sword wasn't the weapon of first choice. Metallurgy hadn't advanced far enough to create dependable swords with a reach that competed well with the spear, and the sword usually existed as backup blade.

One of the exceptions was a fight between the Macedonian king Pyrrhus and an unnamed Mamertine soldier sometime during the 3rd Century A.D. As King Pyrrhus withdrew from the battle temporarily because of a head wound, a cocky Mamertine stepped between the battle lines and challenged him to single combat.

Drenched in his own blood, Pyrrhus broke through his own retainers and charged the Mamertine warrior furiously. One blow of his sword cleaved through helmet and armor and left the barbarian in two pieces on the battleground.

This sudden response made a lasting impression on the remaining 1,000 Mamertines. Plutarch of Chaeronea, the author of the account, mentions that during the rest of his army's journey to the city of Tarentum, the Mamertines caused King Pyrrhus no further problems.

Jingke vs Qin Shi Huang Ti
Such an elaborate plan deserves its own Hollywood blockbuster
Destruction: 3
Skill: 2
Honor: 2

The battle between the assassin Jingke and the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Ti, inspired many popular kung fu movies including the Jet Li epic, "Hero."

Accounts of the actual battle depict a fight in which events went wrong for all involved. Employed by the crown prince of the Kingdom of Yan to eliminate the Emperor, Jingke and one companion smuggled a poisoned dagger into the Emperor's palace, rolled up in a map intended as a ceremonial gift. Jingke's companion lost his nerve and became useless.

Jet Li in "Hero"

The Emperor spotted the weapon when Jingke unrolled the map and evaded the first thrust. No one in that part of the palace carried a weapon except the Emperor, but his own sword hadn't been designed for actual fighting. The Emperor nearly met his demise while trying to free the unusually long blade from its scabbard.

Meanwhile, Jingke threw his poison dagger, but missed. Once he did free his sword, the Emperor wounded Jingke nine times before guards arrived and put Jingke to death.

Achilles vs. Hector
The Truth Behind "The Iliad"
Destruction: 5
Skill: 4
Honor: 2

Epic films often depict the clash between Achilles and Hector as a matter of intricate swordplay, but in Homer's version the story plays out quickly. In this most famous heroic clash, the action begins and ends with spears.

Once believed to be nothing more than legend, the story of "The Iliad" now appears to accurately depict a genuine battle for the city of Ilium in the western part of Turkey. As the contest between the two heroes begins, Hector casts his only spear, which Achilles deflects with his shield. At that point, Hector shifts to his sword but already senses things are coming to a close. As Hector charges with sword in hand, Achilles runs his spear through a chink in Hector's armor, slashing his throat.

Fortunately for Homer, Hector's vocal cords were not damaged, and the heroic Trojan had time for a dramatic speech before he died.

Achilles on the Battlefield
Verus vs. Priscus
Gladiators battle to a rare draw
Destruction: 1
Skill: 4
Honor: 5

Gladiatorial combat gave swordplay a new stage during the centuries of the Roman Empire's dominance of Europe. Bouts between well-trained and well-matched fighters armed with gladius and shield often took more than a few minutes to settle. Although such fights were common, only one first-hand description survives.

The bout between Priscus and Verus, both proven champions, became the subject of a poem honoring the inaugural games of the Roman Coliseum in 80 A.D. Both men were friends, and both were equally determined to survive, continuing the sword fight even after the adoring audience shouted for Caesar to free them. According to some interpretations of the poem, at Caesar's suggestion both gladiators raised their fingers at the same time, signaling defeat for both and ending the matter peacefully.

Caesar freed both men.

Russell Crowe in "Gladiator"
King Olaf's Defense of "The Serpent"
The end of King Olaf. Or was it?

Vikings Approaching Winchester
Destruction: 5
Skill: 3
Honor: 5

Trust the Vikings to come up with one of the best sword battles, as well as one of the most likely to be true. In the "Heimskringla" or "The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway," we get a close look at the battle tactics of Viking sailors and a finishing fight in close combat with swords and shields.

King Olaf Trygvason lashed the boats of his fleet together to repel the forces of three opposing kings, fighting an heroic but ultimately losing battle as ship by ship his longboats were boarded, conquered, and set adrift. Towards the end, King Olaf noticed that his men's swords were striking but had little effect on the enemy. One Viking explained that their swords were so blunted and notched that they failed to cut — a common problem in days when swords were made of inferior metal.

King Olaf had planned ahead, and handed out new weapons he'd stowed in a chest beneath his throne. The fight renewed with more efficiency, but in a berserker rage many of the embattled Vikings forgot they weren't on land, leaping towards the enemy boats and drowning in their battle armor.

When the battle had clearly been lost, Olaf leaped overboard himself to escape capture, apparently drowning beneath his own shield. Since Olaf's body never surfaced, doubts arose as to his fate.

Olaf had been an unusual athlete, capable of impossible feats like running around his longship on the blades of its raised oars. Some believed Olaf shrugged out of his chain mail beneath the waves and swam beneath the enemy boats to a friendly vessel from Vindland. The only certainty is that King Olaf never returned to Norway.

Thorkel Vs. Vagn
Viking code of honor: follow up on all threats. Even when drunk.

A Viking
Destruction: 5
Skill: 4
Honor: 5

During the reign of Denmark's Viking King Harald, the leader of one of Denmark's prominent Viking bands had a little too much mead during a public feast and boasted that he and his men would run Earl Hakon out of Norway.

Although in the morning it seemed more rash, honor bound Sigvald to give it a try, and sixty Viking ships soon sailed on what would be a doomed mission.

After much successful pillaging along the coast, Sigvald's band fell for a peasant's trick and were led into an encounter with Hakon's fleet of three hundred ships. Although Hakon was hard pressed during the fierce battle, and according to the history did resort to conjuration of thunderstorms and lightning-casting trolls, the battle ended poorly for the Viking raiders.

Sigvald escaped with thirty-five of the fleet's ships and returned to Denmark. Sigvald's brother gave up the fight shortly afterward and led twenty-five ships homeward. In the end only the Viking Vagn's one boat remained. Vagn and thirty-six compatriots fought bravely but were taken prisoner.

Hakon selected a trustworthy fellow named Thorkel to behead the men, and after eighteen successful operations Thorkel came to Vagn, the Danish leader. Since he had a special hatred for Vagn, Thorkel gripped his sword with both hands and charged him. Undeterred by the misfortunes of the day, Vagn rolled at Thorkel's feet, knocked him over, and then quickly dispatched Thorkel with the executioner's own sword.

In recognition of his bravery, Hakon released Vagn and the surviving members of his band.

The Death of Roland
Famous angels, unbreakable swords and exploding heads. Yeah, right.
Destruction: 5
Skill: 3
Honor: 2

The last battle of Roland, Paladin of Charlemagne, will always be remembered, but usually not accurately. Roland's military adventures became the foundation for epic tales. The "Chanson de Roland" by Turoldus describes Roland's death as a glorious battle between Christian knights and Saracen warriors, embellished by an unbreakable sword called Durendal and timely interventions by famous angels.

Roland couldn't be harmed by the enemy's blades even though his armor had been battered and slashed to pieces, but burst his temples fatally by blowing a battle horn to summon Charlemagne's forces.

Au Revoir Roland

In real life, Roland — actually Hroudland — of Brittany, died during a disastrous rear-guard action on Charlemagne's retreat from Spain. The Basques, not the Saracens, opposed Charlemagne's forces during the battle, which took place in the Pyrenees Mountains at Ronceveaux Pass. Roland had been assigned to lead the rear guard, which lagged far behind the main force because of its heavy load of looted goods. Basque fighters hid alongside the pass and let Charlemagne's main army through unchallenged, but ambushed Roland's command as it struggled through the narrow divide.

According to the few historical accounts of the action, the French fared poorly because their heavy armor limited their movement in the difficult terrain, while the lightly equipped Basques attacked at will and outmaneuvered any pursuers. Roland and several other commanders died along with their troops on August 15th, 778.

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