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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 73 - A Cack-Handed Tossing of Children and Females (Left-Handed Week)

Tom's Notes; Lefties in Combat

I started, where are I usually do, with the absolute basics. I read a few articles about left-handedness. Very interesting! Around 10% of human populations are left handed; which is a curious percentage. If it were 50%, it would probably be just chance, if it were 0.1%, it would probably be a hiccup, something we could do without, because right-handedness is soooo much better. There are statistical downsides to be left-handed; there seems to be an increase in the likelihood of suffering from various mental health issues, also autism, and a host of medical conditions, possibly due to having a pen sellotaped to your right hand and being made to run around the playground shouting “I am a lefty bastard, the son of Beelzebub! Has a devil put aside for me!!!!” . On the flipside, some evidence for more intelligence, musical talent and, and this is the bit I chose to pursue, sport and combat.

It has been postulated that the advantages of left-handedness in combat are an evolutionary advantage and could explain the continued existence of wet ink smudging weirdos like you Sam. In sport, left-handedness is an advantage due to its rarity. Sports people, like cricket batsmen or baseball batters, are used to facing right handed bowlers or pitchers. So, when faced by a lefty, they are thrown slightly but the change in position required and the subtle adaptations required. This is also the case in boxing, where lefties are called south paws. A bit of slightly questionable etymology, we like this in this podcast, little kernels of factually dubious information to impress your children with (because they don’t question it); the term south paw is thought to have come from baseball where baseball diamonds are generally orientated with the batter facing east; something to do with not facing the evening sun, and consequently left handed pitchers having their pitching arm facing south.

So, I thought I’d investigate left-handedness in warfare, and I’ll be honest, it was quite tricky to find information. Let’s start with the Old Testament, which has some of the best example!

Judges 20:16 – “Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.” These were troops of Benjamin, a son of Jacob and the founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Interestingly, the term ‘left-handed’, isn’t a particularly accurate translation of the Hebrew. A better translation would be ‘restricted in the right-hand’. It struck me, and I couldn’t find any academics that had raised this opinion, that rather than referring to lefties, this could possibly refer to people with disabilities, either through birth or warfare, who no long had the use of the right hand. They’d be at a massive disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat so it makes sense to put them in a unit of slingers.

Another wider theory connected to this, is that in organised warfare, I.e. phalanxes, maniples, or any other form of organised infantry, left-handed men would have had to have conformed to right-handed conventions, or, they would have had to bugger off. Let’s start with the problems of being left handed in an infantry formation, using the Hellenistic phalanx as an example. I say Hellenistic because I think this is what people associate with the Phalanx, but in reality, this form of warfare was being used as far back as the Sumerians in 2500BC. In a phalanx, hoplites would have a shield in their left hand and a spear in their right, your shield would protect the man next to you. Your left wing was the strongest because it was more comfortable to thrust your spear slightly to the right, and the leftmost person was shielded. The right wing was the weaker because everyone else was forcing your army to drift to the right, with the direction of their thrusts and the desire to be covered by their neighbours shield. Due to this, the strongest and most experienced unit was usually placed on the right.

This brief explanation clearly shows that it would not have been possible to have someone in the middle of the line holding his spear and shield in opposite hands.

The Sassanid Persians, a neighbour of the late Romans and Byzantines, had a special left-handed mounted archer unit. These would be placed on the left of the battle field. Unfortunately, outside of the Bible and this fleeting reference to the Sassanids, I was unable to find any evidence of left-handed people being selected to form a separate unit. I.e. a reversed phalanx, or simple being asked to do something like throw rocks. Even being a left handed slingshot amongst right handed men would have been a problem because the lefty would be swinging the other way! It really is a topic that required access to a library and the time I don’t have because I’m sure there is something in this. I searched Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s late Roman book on Roman military matters. Nothing from Ceasar and his commentaries on the Gallic War and the Civil War. Nothing in Vitruvius. Nothing in Tacitus and I also searched through a few other Roman sources.

Having talked about infantry warfare, and projectiles, let’s talk about hand-to-hand combat, man on man, undies down and todgers out, first to 5 wins. Back to the bible, Judges again:

Ehud, a left-handed man… The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword… which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. 17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man… on reaching the stone images near Gilgal he himself went back to Eglon and said, “Your Majesty, I have a secret message for you.” The king said to his attendants, “Leave us!” And they all left. 20 Ehud then approached him… and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it… 24 After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.”

Left handedness, as I mentioned at the start, is an advantage in sports and combat. With regards to the example of Ehud, having the sword on the opposite side to usual may have contributed to the surprise and also could explain why it was not spotted by the king’s guards.

Another area of history where we know something about lefties being effective is Roman gladiatorial combat. There is graffiti from Pompeii showing a left-handed gladiator; a chap called Albanus (hehe, I said anus). He’s fighting a chap called Severus (good gladiator name; a bit like Barry Blade the swordsman, or ‘Arry Arrow the archer).

We’ve also got the Colchester Vase; which ended up being a funerary urn and was made around 175AD. It’s shows Memnon, 9 fights, 9 lives, fighting Valentius, from the 30th Roman Legion. Memnon has won because Valentius has dropped his trident and is raising one finger. Valentius is left handed.

There are also left-handed fighters depicted on coins and mosaics.

Commodus, the Roman emperor who liked the occasional heavily imbalanced fights against a gladiator, was left handed. Commodus was a bit weird; according to Cassius Dio: “ he had once got together all the men in the city who had lost their feet as the result of disease or some accident, and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents' bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, had killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants.”

Unfortunately, due to the ridiculousness of Commodus, it’s difficult to ascertain whether his left-handedness was an advantage!

To summarise, it’s difficult to ascertain what happened to lefties in historical warfare. It’s probable that in organised battle, they were made to conform, or put in a position where they didn’t have to; most probably as skirmishers or something like that. Occasionally we have reference to left handed units. In one-on-one combat, lefties were free to do as they wish, and this is widely agreed to be an advantage. The prevalence of lefties in combat sports is testament to this. Unfortunately this can’t be conclusively ascertained from historical sources though.

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