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I have read various tales of two armies meeting on a battlefield, but rather than fight, the two leaders agree to one-on-one combat, and the winner decides the war, thus saving on bloodshed.

Are there any historical examples of that sort of thing? Are there any examples where it was attempted but the armies went to war anyway? It just seems like such a prevalent myth, and most myths have some grounding in history, but I don't know of any.

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    David & Goliath? :-) – sds Jan 12 '17 at 17:48
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    @sds good cite! Although David wasn't a leader at the time, that seems a good source for the recurring archetype. biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17 – SRM Jan 12 '17 at 18:07
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    This wasnt single combat but 3 vs 3 so its not the exact answer you like. But in ancient Rome when they went to war against Alba Longa the armies met and decided that it would only empower the Etruscans to have the two armies battle each other so 3 brothers from each side were chosen and both generals made oaths to abide by the outcome of the battle. See Horatia vs Curiatia – ed.hank Jan 12 '17 at 22:13
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There are several instances of this mentioned in history books but as to their veracity one can never be certain. First of course was the 3 vs 3 battle of the Horatia and Curiatia brothers for Rome and Alba Longa (even though this wasnt single combat I think it meets the jest of what the OP wants and this is the most probable story of the lot) The second case was between Titus Manlius (yeah I know best name ever right!) who fought a Gaul leader on a bridge in single combat, after he won the Gauls retreated.

Tacitus mentions that Germans would have their "hero" fight a captive of the army they were about to face, if their hero won then the battle would commence, if otherwise they would decline battle or seriously rethink their strategy. No names mentioned though.

sources: Oakley, S. P. “Single Combat in the Roman Republic” The Classical Quarterly, New Series 35.2 (1985): 392-410. & Solodow, Joseph B. “Livy and the Story of Horatius, 1.24-26” Transactions of the American Philological Association 109 (1979-): 251-268.

The historian Gregory of Tours mentions that the Germanic tribes in Spain (Vandals mainly) would often settle disputes between kingdoms with single combat between heros, again though he does not cite any specific examples.

There is a legend that Canute and Edmund Ironsides battled in single combat to a draw and upon the draw they decided to rule their kingdoms together, though I think this one is highly unlikely.

source: Ashdown, M. “The Single Combat in Certain Cycles of English and Scandinavian Tradition and Romance” The Modern Language Review 117.2 (Apr., 1922): 113-130.

In more recent times there is a story about single combat between indian chiefs, in fact the city in Wyoming called Crowheart is named after one. The story told is, to quote wikipedia ... link

"According to legend, following a five-day battle for rights to the hunting grounds in the Wind River Range, Chief Washakie of the Shoshone and Chief Big Robber of the Crow agreed to a duel, with the winner gaining the rights to the Wind River hunting grounds. Chief Washakie eventually prevailed, but he was so impressed with the courage of his opponent, that rather than scalp him, he instead cut out his heart and placed it on the end of his lance."

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Beside stories about single combats deciding battles, there are also stories about the leaders of armies fighting each other during battles.

In 161 BC Sinhalese King Dutugamunu riding his elephant Kandula defeated and killed Tamil King Ellalan or Elara on hs elephant Maha Pamata ("big rock").

Simamese King Naresuan killed Burmese Crown Prince Mingyi Swa on elephant back in 1593.

Adolf, Count of Nassau was elected King of the Romans in April 1292. In 1298 the electors declared Adolf deposed and Duke Albert of Austria elected in his place. Adolf and Albert fought at the battle of Gollheim on 2 July 1298 and Albert personally killed Adolf.

At the Battle of Antioch-on-the Meander in 1211 Emperor Theodore Lascaris is said to have personally killed Kaykhusraw I, Sultan of Rum.

For more examples of famous combats between monarchs or generals, and combats deciding battles, and other famous combats, see my answer here: https://historum.com/threads/single-combat-in-the-seventh-century.181793/1

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