By George. E. Georgas, fencing coach, Pammachon Hellenic Martial Art Instructor, and Research Scholar for the Meyer Freifechter Guild.
I thank my student and member of the Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’, Mr. Aggelos Pilidis for his translation from Greek to English language.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, many Greek warriors migrated to the West and organized the ‘Stratioti’ units, often also called ‘Strange Poor Soldiers’. Even though their existence is, sadly, mostly unknown in modern Greece, they were very famous in Europe, since not only did they resist and fight bravely against the mightiest military force of the time, the Ottomans, but they also fought against armies of the West, which not long after they served under. Consequently, many of them were given ranks, knighted, and were respected among other military units of the West.
One such unit was the Swiss infantrymen, who regarded the Greek Stratioti their equals in warfare. As for the common people of the western kingdoms, in their eyes the Stratioti were exotic warriors with no country.
To show how famous they were, they weren’t just mentioned by historians of their time, but also depicted in works of art by painters. Even some fighting instructors indirectly wrote about them, while others, like the Venetian Nicoletto Giganti wrote in his second book about a kind of small, peculiar shield that the Greeks were using and mentioned its use. One of the great fighting instructors that doesn’t openly write about them, but mentions them as exotic and outlandish, was Joachim Meyer.
Meyer had come in contact with many warriors, knights, and mercenaries. From them he had gathered a great deal of information about fencing. Meyer was born in Basel in 1537. From a young age he became an apprentice in the knifemaker’s guild. That guild was especially warlike, so its members were often trained in the local guard or national guard that was comprised of mercenaries of all kinds. It is apparent that Meyer was influenced by the Bologna fencing style, which makes sense since Italian mercenaries were spread around the world at that time. Despite that, his method is greatly influenced by the fencing and fighting style of the Balkan warriors, the Polish and the Hungarians. It is known that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation employed in its army mercenaries from Poland, Hungary but also Stratioti. One of the latter, Mercurios Buas had even been awarded with great titles. Still, all that doesn’t mean that Meyer actually saw Stratioti in action.
Into play comes a Swiss artist, goldsmith and mercenary of that time, Urs Graf. Graf was born in Solothurn in 1485 and died in 1528 in Basel, the town Meyer was born 9 years later. Graf had joined the Swiss infantry as a mercenary. That was the unit mentioned earlier, that considered the Greek warriors to be their equals. In two of his hundred and fifty drawings he depicted Greek Stratioti. The first, created in 1521, named ‘Horrors of War’ shows the battle of Maringano.
The other is called ‘Mercenaries in a Tavern’ and was created in 1523. In both drawings, the Stratioti can be recognised from their characteristic large hats, while in the second drawing they can be seen enjoying themselves besides the renowned German mercenaries, the Landsknecht.
Graf lived in Basel from 1512 until his death, and created his drawing during his stay there. As models, he used the people he saw in the city he was living in, and as we can see among them were Stratioti in Basel! Consequently they were the exotic and outlandish warriors with which Meyer later came in contact with.
Of course, Greek warriors weren’t only popular in Germany. They were also very respected in Venice, the city they served for years, so it makes sense for Nicoletto Giganti the Venetians to be writing about the Greeks’ shields in his book, since they didn’t just serve Venice, they even had their own Greek district.
Italian painters have also depicted these renowned warriors, some of which are wearing knightly attire. Many among the Stratioti had been knighted, as we have mentioned. So we have another proof that the fighting style of the Stratioti didn’t go unnoticed by the fighting instructors and teachers of their time.
-From Venice to Byzantium and Back: Relations between Venetians and Greeks, 1200-1600 by Rebecca E. Malik
-The ‘Lost’ Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti(1608): A Rapier Fencing Treatise
– Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (1570)
– Παράξενοι Φτωχοί Στρατιώτες, Εκδόσεις Αλφειός, Του Γιώργου Σαλεμά
-Arthur M. Hind. A History of Engraving and Etching
-Οι μεταβυζαντινοί πολεμιστές ‘Stratioti’
-Σπάνιες εικονογραφίες Βυζαντινών πολεμιστών στον ‘Ερωτόκριτο’ του Βιτζέντζο Κορνάρο
-Όταν οι Κρητικοί τοξότες, οι χωριάτες πολιτοφύλακες και οι Ορθόδοξοι παπάδες υπερασπίσθηκαν τη Ζάκυνθο από την Ορδή των Οθωμανών
-Οι Ρωμιοί Αγιαποστολίτης, Καλόφωνος και Μάστορας που χρησθήκαν ιππότες από τον αυτοκράτορα της Γερμανίας