The Catholic University of America

Dec. 12, 2014

Students Recreate Ancient Battles

  Students in the Greek and Latin course Ancient Warfare and Martial Arts stand ready for battle on the University Mall.

Tom Leoni’s passion for his area of study is apparent on a late fall afternoon when he arrives to teach his class in McMahon Hall dressed as a Roman soldier, complete with tunic, sandals, helmet, and shield. His shield sports a large knob (called a boss or umbo) in the center, which allows it to be used as an offensive, as well as a defensive weapon.

After handing out papers and reviewing some coursework, the teacher dressed as warrior leads his students in the Ancient Warfare and Martial Arts course to the University Mall. They elect leaders who arrange their warriors in formation. Carrying cardboard shields and swords, the students form two straight lines as their leaders call out, “syntagma, forward march” and “syntagma, halt.” Leoni reminds them they must march in unison. “Left foot forward march. All in the same step. No shuffling,” he tells them.

One student leader, junior Drew DeYoung, now asks for a box formation. “Syntagma, ready. First row, forward march. Second row, right wheel, halt. Third row, left wheel, halt. Last row, close ranks. About face.” The students are now in a square, all facing outward, with their captains at the corners. They are ready for battle from any direction.

They don’t seem to notice the campus passersby who stop to observe their military drills. Next they form a maniple, a smaller formation used for throwing weapons. The officers line their fellow student warriors into four rows of five people each. The second and fourth warrior in each line takes a step back forming a checkerboard. The leaders issue commands: “First row, ready, pila fire. Close ranks. Third and fourth row, ready, pila fire. Close ranks.” Leoni explains the effectiveness of the staggered firing of their pila (javelins).

During these military re-enactments, Leoni makes a point to use Latin and Ancient Greek terms, directing them to form a syntagma (a military unit of 256 men in the army of Macedonia) or a maniple (a tactical unit of the Roman Legion) or a phalanx (a closely packed rectangular military formation used by the Greeks).

Instructor Tom Leoni, suited for Roman battle, directs his students before a drill.  

The terms are familiar to them from their lessons in the course offered through the Department of Greek and Latin. The students studied the main wars and battles of antiquity (circa 800 B.C. to 300 A.D.) including the Persian wars, the Peloponnesian wars, the Punic Wars, and by the last class in December, the coming of the Barbarians. Leaders such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were also studied. Students learned about ancient military drill and matial arts, and weaponry of Classical times.

“The study of how soldiers of ancient times waged battles tells us so much about history,” explains Leoni, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, where he studies medieval history with an emphasis on canon law with respect to chivalry, self-defense, and dueling.

Leoni, an international expert on ancient warfare and martial arts, has published five books and numerous articles. A copy of his limited-edition 2005 book, The Art of Dueling, the first English-speaking critical translation of Salvator Fabris's highly regarded 1606 rapier-fencing title Scienza d'Arme, is listed at nearly $3,000 on

Leoni is from Ticino in southern Switzerland. The picturesque Italian-speaking region borders Italy. He is fluent in Italian, French, German, and Latin, and has translated several Medieval and Renaissance books on fencing and martial arts.

Leoni’s passion for the study of ancient warfare began when he was a child. His father took him to the Milan Castle museum in Italy where, among all the European weapons, he saw a Japanese sword displayed. “Curiously, only the history of the Japanese weapon and how it was used was fully explained,” he recalls.

“There were quite a few European swords, “intricate and gorgeous like steel orchids but no indication whatsoever as to their use,” he says. That piqued his curiosity and set him on a quest to research and translate period texts related to ancient warfare and martial arts in Western culture.

As the class winds down, students are paired in twos. In each pair, one will be a Roman soldier, the other a Barbarian. They are each given text from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (History of Ancient Rome), Book VII, chapter 9. The time period is 361 B.C. There is a war between the Romans and the Gauls over the possession of a bridge.

According to the text, “A Gaul of extraordinary stature strode forward on to the unoccupied bridge, and shouting as loudly as he could, cried, ‘Let the bravest man that Rome possesses come out and fight me, that we two may decide which people is the superior in war’.”

Titus Manlius came forward. The Gaul (“a creature of enormous bulk”) “held out his shield on his left arm to meet his adversary’s blows and aimed a tremendous cut downwards with his sword. The Roman evaded the blow, and pushing aside the bottom of the Gaul’s shield with his own, he slipped under it close to the Gaul, too near for him to get at him with his sword.” With two rapid thrusts in the Gaul’s belly and groin, the Roman is victorious.

As each pair acts out the duel, Leoni shows a bit of pride in his heritage. “The Romans brought civilization to Europe, things we still enjoy today — legal thought, philosophy, national and human rights, culture,” says Leoni.

He believes in teaching history through more than texts — the concept of material culture, which he explains is the study of history through artifacts and re-enactment.

Dominick Lanzetta, a senior from New Hope, Pa., and Nick Consler, a junior from Rochester, N.Y., are dueling over the bridge. “We’re both left-handed, so we had to spend a little bit of time getting it right,” said Lanzetta, who has nine years of martial arts experience. “I love this. Being outside. Re-enacting ancient marital arts. It’s fun and so interesting.”

Consler, who has no martial arts experiences, says the best part of the course for him is his instructor. “He’s so dedicated. He gets everyone excited about ancient warfare.”




More news from CUA