I studied Byzantine history lately. I am familiar with the tradition of champions from opposing armies to duel before battles in the east. What baffled me is that time and again, the Byzantine champions kept losing those duels to Muslim ones.

Why was that the case? One would expect some kind of parity but it did not seem to be the case.

This is my first history question, so sorry if I make mistakes.

  • 15
    Could you bring a few examples of these duel losses please?
    – gktscrk
    May 15, 2020 at 8:23
  • 4
    Not my period, but I'd guess the answer might have something to do with mubarizun.
    – MCW
    May 15, 2020 at 12:03
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    I'm not a specialist at all, but I'd like to throw this out there for specialists to chime in: Why do you expect Byzantine champions to have done well? Because Byzantium survived for so long against all odds? But that's not because of their strength with their champions, but rather because of the fortress they built. On the other hand, the size of the Byzantine army would have been much smaller than that of their enemies, and therefore the probability of picking a successful champion much smaller... or no?
    – PatrickT
    May 15, 2020 at 21:23
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    @PatrickT - trying to decipher the answer's "Byzantine officers were killed by the more martial and battle-tested Muslim officers", they did presumably indeed become fat and lazy hiding behind walls. Complacent and conceited, you're going to lose against bloodthirsty and dehumanized.
    – Mazura
    May 16, 2020 at 1:54
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    @gktscrk Well, Kings and Generals youtube channel for example has a few episodes on Byzantine - Arab battles and during every one, the byzantine champions were bested by their arab counterparts. youtube.com/channel/UCMmaBzfCCwZ2KqaBJjkj0fw May 18, 2020 at 7:12

1 Answer 1


According to this MA thesis, the Byzantine armies had a number of overall advantages, but it does not follow that their commanders were especially skilled at one-to-one combat. Forcing individual Byzantine commanders to fight duels was an effective Arab strategy to exploit this weakness. (EDIT: As mentioned by @MarkC.Wallace in the comments, the Mubarizun were an Arab unit that specialized in single combat. It appears that that the Byzantines may have lacked any similar specialization.)

Specifically, at the Battle of Ajnadayn:

it was the Byzantine commanders who had the greater tactical and strategic expertise; thusly al-Walid chose to weaken the Byzantines using their own vanity as a weapon. The Muslims’ individual champions would march out to the fore and challenge the Byzantine officers to single combat. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, this ploy worked. Scores of experienced Byzantine officers were killed by the more martial and battle-tested Muslim officers.

One of the prominent Arab champions who defeated numerous Byzantine officers in that battle and others was Dhirrar Ibn al-Azwa.

  • 26
    A very important lesson here: Expertise in one domain doesn't imply expertise, or even competence, in an unrelated domain. May 15, 2020 at 12:29
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    See also Abdul-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr's role at the Battle of Yarmouk.
    – Lucian
    May 15, 2020 at 12:39
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    Are those Arab champion victories mentioned in the Byzantine sources?
    – OON
    May 15, 2020 at 17:07
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    One thing I'm rather suspicious about is the source here. If this were a tale being told by Arab sources, and the teller wanted to spice the story up a bit, these one-on-one challenges that the Byzantines constantly and foolishly lost to superior Arab fighting skills would be exactly the kind of thing I'd expect to see added.
    – T.E.D.
    May 16, 2020 at 5:03
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    I remember reading a claim that, way back in the heyday of the old Roman Empire, Germanic tribesmen tended to regard "battle" as ideally being a bunch of "single combats," each between one brave German and one Roman. The problem was that the Roman legionaries didn't see it that way -- they were very, very big on staying in a tight formation and working together, and this made them far more effective than if it had broken up into a bunch of individual duels. If Byzantine officers got suckered into such duels, it would mean they had lost sight of how their predecessors had done things.
    – Lorendiac
    May 16, 2020 at 17:49

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