The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

Single Combat in the Roman Republic*

S. P. Oakleya1

a1 Emmanuel College, Cambridge

In his discussion of Roman military institutions Polybius described how the desire for fame might inspire Roman soldiers to heroic feats of bravery, including single combat: (6.54.3–4) τxs22EF δxs22EF μέγιστον, οxs1F31 νέοι παρορμxs22EFνται πρxs22EFς τxs22EF πxs22EFν xs1F51πομένειν xs1F51πxs22EFρ τxs22EFν κοινxs22EFν πραγμάτων χάριν τοxs22EF τυχεxs1FD6ν τxs22EFς συνακολουθούσης τοxs1FD6ς xs22EFγαθοxs1FD6ς τxs22EFν xs22EFνδρxs22EFν εxs1F50κλείας. πίστιν δ' xs1F14χει τxs22EF λεγόμενον xs22EFκ τούτων. πολλοxs22EF μxs22EFν γxs22EFρ xs22EFμονο-μάχησαν xs22EFκουσίως xs1FECωμαίων xs1F51πxs22EFρ τxs22EFς τxs22EFν xs1F45λων κρίσεως κτλ. Modern scholars, however, have taken little notice of this remark and some have tried to belittle the importance of single combat at Rome. Thus G. Dumézil alleged that the Romans fought few single combats and that this was significant for their outlook upon war, while R. Bloch described the duels in the seventh book of Livy as ‘un mode de combat absolument étranger à la tradition romaine, mail auquel les Romains ont été contraints par les habitudes et par les défis des Celtes’. W. V. Harris is the only scholar to have understood the importance of monomachy in the Roman Republic, but even he has not assembled all the evidence necessary for an accurate assessment of the phenomenon. This essay is intended to provide a full treatment and thus to make some contribution in a limited but interesting area to our understanding of Roman attitudes to warfare. I have included a list and discussion of all instances of single combat from the Roman Republic which I have discovered and have argued that the custom continued from prehistoric times at least to 45 b.c.


* My interest in single combat was first aroused by reading Livy, but the stimulus to write on this topic came from a suggestion of Professor W. V. Harris (see War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327–70 B.C. [1979], 39 n. 1). An earlier version of this paper was read by Mr M. H. Crawford, Dr T. J. Comell, Professor Harris, Dr J. G. W. Henderson and Dr P. C. Millett. I am grateful to them for their helpful suggestions (and also to all others who have discussed single combat with me), but it should not be assumed that they agree with all that I have written. I am especially indebted to Dr Henderson for the loan of his own copy of his unpublished D.Phil. thesis.