Combat In ComitatusHistorical interpreters often spend considerable time and money trying to get their clothing historically correct, but spend little time on portraying accurate weapons or combat techniques. Comitatus tries to approach everything it does from an authentic perspective, and this goes for weapons and combat as well. Often re-enactor combat seems to have more than its fair share of machismo, with over-weight white men hitting each other with steel bars trying to be Conan the Barbarian. You can laugh at it, and sometimes admire the competitive aspect of what goes on.
Please realise that once in the arena Comitatus combat is competitive, very competitive, and that is good because it means we try and excel at what we do. We need to demonstrate things that ordinary people canít do. We donít laugh at poor technique but we will laugh at poor application. And we do applaud good performance.
Our Range of Weapons
Traditionally early period Roman re-enactors do not fight with metal weapons, and this is completely accurate. By the time of the Pompeii gladius the prime move was to stab, a possibly dangerous manoeuvre to re-create. Ancient writers tell us that the legions practiced with heavy wooden weapons and wicker shields, so as to make the real equipment seem light. A blunt metal gladius would be incorrect and rather silly.
By the late Roman period legionaries were trained to use to range of weapons, which gives Comitatus members a wide range of opportunities. All members are encouraged to practice with every weapon, and specialise in some. But we do ask that if itís your first time, take an experience member with you, and only to step up to the mark in a display if you are confident in your ability. Remember that legionaries would have to use their right hands, do not use gloves, and with the possible exception of bows use every weapon carrying a shield.
We are predominantly a missile army, and Comitatus uses the full range of weapons available in late antiquity. Missiles should be very very sharp, and the aim is not just to hit the target but destroy it. There are skills and techniques to using the iron framed ballista, and I hope everybody takes the opportunity to cause serious damage to the targets.
Archery targets should ideally be at 90m distance. We use self-bows as training weapons, and composite bows for war. Like most weapons, the crossbow or arcuballista belongs to an individual so only use it, or any other weapon, with the ownerís permission. Bows ideally should be around 80-90lb draw weight, but please shoot a bow is right for you. Archery is a great hobby, and I believe the majority of the group shoot. During displays it is not unusual to see arrows penetrate two targets, and one of the joys of the evening is to see and hear the archers having some fun.
Plumbatae or lead weighted throwing darts can also reach 90m when thrown underarm, which makes setting up the arena very easy. However it is important to hit the targets repeatedly and Iím aware many prefer throwing at 70m. We demonstrate their use on masse by using blunt versions, since these are potentially dangerous weapons. Every year a member will launch their dart vertically or even behind them. Donít be tempted to throw using gloves, and donít force a throw. During the display the range will be shortened to allow legionaries to demonstrate the horizontal release.
Staff slings are easy to use and it is possible to hit our targets with a flat release or just go for distance. The performances of our weapons are hindered by the use of stones rather than lead bullets. However, it is a dramatic display. Slings are harder to use and once again potentially inaccurate. If you want to have a go, practice with an experienced member first.
The various types of javelin are used at around 20m. This is often very competitive, and weapons need to be sharp to penetrate the target and stay there. The iron components of these weapons can be bought within the group, and they are massively cheap compared to re-enactor traders. Throw using a shield in your left hand, and go for speed of throwing as well as for accuracy. The spiculum makes a good weapon to carry when drilling, and a fun weapon to use on the range. The head and ferrule cost around £21, and the whole thing is a bargain.
The throwing axe display is horribly competitive. Not everybody can use a francisca; and so a good deal of practice is advised first. At 10m the damage to the target will be extreme, depending on the weight of your axe. They should be sharp enough to shave with! They are cheaper than swords and make a good secondary weapon to carry alongside your spiculum or lancea.
When in the arena, when marching and drilling, we should be carrying visibly sharp weapons. A well-sharpened spearhead is a thing of beauty and fear. A well-sharpened sword can open up flesh like a fine butcherís knife. But sharp weapons must not be used in combat. I can think of occasions when we have, for television, or to see what they are capable of, but in the arena they should never be used.
The Late Roman writer Vegetius mentions capped spears and blunted swords. The style of fighting in the later Roman army makes the use of blunted weapons safer, and one who was there attests to that! Remember, we are not trying to ďkillĒ somebody and watch them fall over. We are trying to demonstrate armatura, the art of training for hand to hand combat. If you are hit, acknowledge it and continue. It is more important to make this look good and convincing than to win the fight.
The Techniques (armatura)
Lock your shield into your shoulder and brace it against you knee. Keep it there no matter what. It will protect you against 99.9% of attacks. If you move it forward a hard blow can propel it back into your face or legs. You are fighting on the pass. To defend yourself the left leg is thrown forward, the body hiding behind the shield. To attack throw your right leg and arm forward to lengthen the blow. In reality you are pivoting the body around the shield and on the ball of the left foot. Always make sure you are in balance and control of your weapon.
Always fight along the crowd line and when you deliver a thrust do so down one side of your opponents body so the crowd are never too sure how close it came. Keep your eyes (OO) staring into your opponents to focus the line of combat and give dramatic effect. And keep the correct distance to use your weapon. A pede using a spear should try and maintain a greater distance between themselves and their opponent than one using a spatha. Just remember ďbloodĒ and you canít go too far wrong. There are no combat tests in Comitatus. You just need to fight the Chair of the society or his nominee for at least 2 minutes, and fight an accident prone file leader for 2 minutes without putting him in hospital!
Old-fashioned blunted re-enactor spears can be capped using wood, leather or cloth. Donít try capping a sharp spearhead, in my experience it just doesnít work! If you have to, just use an ash shaft with no head. Typical re-enactor blunt sword blades and axes are fine for demonstrating hand to hand combat. But we run a risk of looking like those who just hit each other with steel bars. So we need to find and demonstrate the truth of what we are trying to do. That means we must use the weapons properly, with the correct heft. Gloves are not necessary if you fight accurately.
Spears are for thrusting, and cutting exposed muscle and tendon. They are generally used over arm when in formation, remember there would be a ferule on the rear end you need to consider. Out of formation, anything goes. Donít just hit the shield with it. A well delivered thrust can split a shield, but it looks better to feint, to mover around your shield and look for an opening.
Swords were delicate expensive things, so parry with your shield, and protect the steel edge of your spatha until you attack with it. Hitting something hard with a blade will cut it, but then visibly draw the blade through the cut to deepen it. If you have a stiff blade you may want to demonstrate thrusting as well as slashing. Axes are cheaper weapons, and can be used for hooking, as well as stabbing and cutting.
Your prime defence is your shield. Many members carry display shields in the arena, and switch to heavy training shields part way through the display. So make do with just the one shield and re-paint it regularly. Shields have a sewn rawhide rim, although very old versions may have a very poor nailed rim. Whatever, try not to deliberately damage someone elseís equipment.
Our riders need to show proficiency with the lancea and spatha, demonstrating forehand and backhand cuts. They also need to be able to charge a fleeing opponent down. They need to be able throw at a target a javelin and a plumbata to the left, right and behind them at speed. They need to be able to shoot a recurve bow from horseback, and ideally use a kontos overarm and underarm.
Some members spend little time practising with these weapons, preferring living history and a specific craft. Well, thatís OK as long as they are in the arena. Remember all our soldiers in the arena can also talk to the public and demonstrate a craft in the camp. An acquired skill with a bow is similar to learning how to turn wood or dye cloth.
Itís a discipline from late antiquity that needs to be practised. Itís something you learn for itself. We certainly have no wish to turn out trained killers!