In the year 530, Emperor Justinian’s newly appointed General of the East, Belisarius, led a Byzantine (Eastern Roman) army to a position between the cities of Nisibis and Dara to block the path of an invading Sāsānian Persian force. According to the historian Procopius, who happened to have been General Belisarius’ accompanying legal advisor, the Romans dug a series of trenches near Dara and deployed at the site a force of approximately 25,000 warriors in a fairly typical tripartite formation, with a left, center and right. After the Romans had constructed their defensive features and took up their positions on the battlefield, the Persian army arrived on the scene. Procopius, an eye-witness to the battle, claimed that the Persians numbered around 40,000 upon their arrival on the battlefield, and they initially set up in what seemed to be a single block-like phalanx formation.
On the first day of conflict, the Persians probed the left wing of the Roman formation with a noncommittal cavalry charge. In the ensuing skirmish, the Romans drove off the charging horsemen, reportedly killing seven of the Persians before the cavalry rejoined their main force. At this point in the day, it was late in the afternoon, but the Persians were not done taunting and testing the Roman lines. Next, a young Persian horseman reportedly rode up to the Romans, demanding to duel anyone who was brave enough to come forward. According to Procopius, the Persian warrior’s challenge was accepted by a man named Andreas, a physical trainer and a wrestling instructor who had accompanied one of the Roman generals into battle, not as a warrior, but as an attendant. Reportedly wielding only a spear and a knife, Andreas marched forward to meet the Persian horseman in combat.
When Andreas stepped forward, the Persian horseman charged at him, perhaps thinking that the athletic instructor would be an easy foe. Yet, although Andreas was not a professional warrior in the army, he was nonetheless a skilled fighter. With the horseman bearing down on him, Andreas stood his ground and readied his spear. As the story goes, Andreas used his polearm to knock the charging Persian off of his horse, leaving the horseman dazed on the ground. Now that the Persian warrior was defenseless, Andreas tossed aside his spear, took out his knife, and “slew him like a sacrificial animal as he lay on his back” (Procopius, The Wars, 1.13). As Andreas finished off his opponent, cheers erupted from the Roman army, as well as from onlookers on the walls of nearby Dara.
The day’s events, however, were not over. According to Procopius, a second Persian horseman soon rode up to the roman lines, demanding another duel. The new arrival was much older than the first Persian duelist, and he was reportedly equipped with a whip and a spear. The physical trainer and wrestler, Andreas, as he was already on a roll, accepted this second challenge. After picking up his spear and hopping onto a horse (perhaps the fallen Persian’s steed), Andreas charged at the new duelist. Noticing Andreas’ advance, the Persian lowered his own spear and set off on his horse toward the Roman champion. What resulted was an ancient joust of sorts, with the two horsemen bearing down on each other with their lances leveled. Yet, when the two connected, neither fighter made a direct hit. Instead, the Roman and the Persian unhorsed each other and both fell to the ground, likely dropping their weapons in the process. Down on the ground and unarmed, the wrestling instructor Andreas was in his element. Using all of his grappling prowess, Andreas quickly overpowered the Persian and, either with or without a weapon, slew his opponent.
By the time Andreas’ second duel had finished, the sun was already setting and both armies decided to return to their camps. In the morning, 10,000 Persian reinforcements would join the preexisting 40,000-man-strong army. Despite this, the smaller Roman army, with its series of trenches, would hold its ground and win the day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Medieval depiction of Byzantine emperor Basil I (left) with his son Leo VI from a manuscript of John Skylitzes’s history, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Wars (Book I) by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing (Harvard University Press, originally published 1914).