Was 'one-on-one' combat ever used to settle a country's differences?

I’m sure I read or heard that Native American’s used to sort out their tribal disputes in this manner, but I may well be wrong.

David vs. Goliath?

Titus Manlius Torquatus also comes to mind, though there may have been a battle afterwards and Gaul was far from being conquered.

Is this idea of Amerindian braves fighting one on one to settle tribal disputes, just a construct of Disney movies then?

Also keep in mind re Torquatus, that the only account we have of him is written from the victors’ side. Probably something like that actually happened, but it was almost certainly embellished some.

Single Combat in the Roman Republic Author(s): S. P. Oakley Source: The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985), pp. 392-410

Lots more examples in there but I don’t want to overrun the fair use limit.

Does “three-on-three” count? Then you could include the battle of the Horatii (representing Rome) versus the Curiatii of Alba Longa.

Obviously not a one-on-one combat, and probably embellished quite a bit by Livy (the battle is supposed to have taken place in the 7th century BCE), but it might fulfill the “settling the countries’ differences” factor better. The Torquatus story is reminiscent of scenes from the Iliad–one hero challenging a hero from the other side for a one-off fight–there’s no implication that the outcome of that fight would determine the outcome of the entire campaign.

With the Horatii and the Curiatii, the Romans and the Albans are said to have been reluctant to wage an all-out war with one another (due in large part to marital ties between the tribes), and so they preferred to settle things with representative warriors determining the victor.

Rome won, but not without great cost to the Horatii family. See Corneille’s Horace for one of the most famous adaptations of the story.

I have a hard time believing it actually happened on any significant scale; if your side is more likely to win a battle, why would you accept defeat just because your “champion” had lost? The sort of things humans fight battles over are far too important for them to keep to a promise like that, and both sides would surely know it…

I believe that David and Goliath were one example.


El Cid Campeador won his title of Campeador (“Tourney Fighter”) in this fashion.

Ownership of the city of Calahorra was disputed between Ramiro of Aragon and Fernando of Castille; even asking the townsfolk who would they rather belong to hadn’t worked. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, called El Cid (Cid means Lord in Arabic, a prisoner he’d won and released without asking for price called him that and it stuck) was chosen to represent Castille. He won.

The reason to do it like that is that both kings (who after all were Christians and closely related) reckoned that it was best to go together to fight their southern (Muslim) neighbors than continue losing people over the town. If the Muslim kingdoms had been able to stay united, the Reconquista would still be on…

The Arabs in Muhammad’s time did something similar. Before a battle there would be one on one combat between some champions of the two armies. At Badr, the Meccans made a mistake, they sent their commanders out to fight, while the muslims sent their best fighters, result commanders get killed and the Meccans get decimated in the ensuing battle.

In the film Troy Brad Pitt naffed off that big bugger no problem.

Big buggers king was mightily cheesed off and surrendered his kingdom.

Does this count?

If we’re going by the Trojan War, there was also the man-to-man combat bnetween Menelaus and Paris. Of course, that was contest! Menelaus was a mighty warrior and Paris was a wuss, so Menelaus wiped the floor with Paris and would surely have killed him.

In the “Iliad,” Aphrodite whisked Paris away to safety before he could be killed.

I can’t believe that little boy fought the talking dog.

Sorry, can’t give a cite, but I believe in the case of some NAI tribes it was called counting coup (though this also referred to general combat where you acquired coup by killing, wounding or even touching an enemy during a battle)…individual combat often proceeded a general melee. I don’t think it was used to settle the battles, in general, but throughout history individual combats would often happen before a more general battle.

ETA: And those individual combats often influenced the psychology of the later combat. Many felt that by winning in these preliminary individual battles their armies became stronger (or weaker), based on the outcome.


This applies to the David and Goliath story as well. The belief of both sides was that the gods would have the appropriate champion win, and that was that. It was more a form of divination than some kind of military tactic. You had to either say “The gods told me I should go home because I’m going to lose no matter what” or say “The gods must have made a mistake and I should fight anyway.”

It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of old-school conflicts were not much like we imagine them. “Conquering” someone may have meant that you took some of their cows, part of the harvest, and whatever gold you could find and then you went home after demanding some amount of tribute be paid the next year. You didn’t necessarily remove rulers, disrupt existing laws or try to control anything directly.

The story of Cúchulainn and Ferdia seems to be based on the idea of single combat between champions of opposing sides (Cúchulainn representing Ulster and Ferdia representing Connacht). But as observed above, after Ferdia was defeated and killed, the two armies went into battle anyway. So I’m not sure what is the significance of the single combat.

If you think about it, lots of battles were fought because one Head Honcho wanted to take over the property of another Head Honcho. So Head Honcho Numero Uno gets his boys together and moseys on over to Head Honcho Numero Two-o’s place.

So the lackeys and minions could fight, and whoever has the toughest lackeys and minions wins. But since the point is for Honcho Uno to own Honcho Two-o’s lands, if the Honchos just fight each other the conflict can be resolved without anyone else having to fight. Either Honcho Uno will win, in which case there’s no need to fight because Honcho Two-o is now dead, or Honcho Two-o will win, in which case there’s no need to fight because Honcho Uno is now dead.

But this can only happen if both Honchos think they can win at single combat, otherwise the guy who thinks he’ll lose will refuse the combat and will instead fight the battle.

But the outcome is like when matters of honor could be resolved by a duel. The point of the duel is that it didn’t really matter which guy was dead at the end of the duel, either way the conflict was over. Either the insulter was dead, in which case the insult didn’t matter, or the insultee was dead, in which case the insult didn’t matter.

Duels often ended with neither party dead. The important thing was just to make it clear how seriously you took the issue.

I’m more shocked that the kid fought something that resembled ED-209 from Robocop.