Honor, Masculinity, and Ritual Knife Fighting in Nineteenth-Century Greece

On the sweltering night of July 26, 1830, Tonia Theodoros from the village of Agios Theodoros on the island of Kerkyra brutally slashed the face of his fellow villager Gioragachi Mokastiriotis. Theodoros then spit on his prostrate victim and left the wine shop where the incident had occurred, while five other men, including the proprietor Panos Landates, looked on. Ten days later, Constable Andreas Sallas approached Theodoros, served him with an arrest warrant, and took him into custody on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon. At his trial in police court on August 28, the various versions of Theodoros’s assault on Mokastiriotis were recounted. There had been bad blood between the men for some time; no one was quite sure why. That night at the bar, both had been drinking heavily when Theodoros called Mokastiriotis a fool and a braggart. Mokastiriotis loudly replied that he would rather be a fool than “the lord of a house full of Magdalenes.” Theodoros erupted from his chair, drew his pruning knife, and demanded that Mokastiriotis stand and face him like a man. None of the other men in the room intervened as the knife-fighters traded parries and thrusts. Finally, Theodoros with a flick of his wrist delivered a telling blow that cut his victim from the tip of his chin to halfway up his cheek. As the blood flowed, Mokastiriotis fell to his knees cursing his assailant. When asked by the presiding magistrate at the police magistrate’s court in the town of Kerkyra why he started fighting, Theodoros sternly replied that no man would call his wife and daughters whores and get away with it. His reputation would not allow it. As a man, he would not stand for it. He was found guilty, sentenced to forty days (less time served) in the House of Corrections at Fort Abraham, fined three Ionian dollars, charged for court costs, and bound over to keep the public tranquility.[1]

This vignette captures the three themes I address in this article: honor, masculinity, and violence. In anthropology, the literature on honor, or that cluster of attitudes and attributes often glossed as honor, is large and important. Ethnographers and anthropologists working in Greece have been early and critical contributors to this body of work, and consequently Greece is often considered paradigmatic of an “honor culture.” While some works in this corpus indicate that honor was part of a masculine cultural code that often required displays of aggressiveness, few studies have actually discussed the role of violence in the ethos of honor. Indeed, for most of this century, Greece has manifested remarkably low rates of interpersonal violence.[2]

Historians working in other areas of Europe and the world have borrowed from the rich anthropological honor literature in order to understand better the cultural logic of male violence in the past. Prominent have been studies of the duel—a form of ritual male-on-male violence that drew its cultural meaning from an ethic of esteem or honor. Kevin McAleer in his recent study of the duel in Wilhelmine Germany, for example, explicitly connected the two literatures, stating, “I hope to challenge the conventional shibboleth of cultural anthropology that sees Mediterranean societies as far more sensitized to the point d’honneur than their neighbors to the north.”[3]

However, historians have by and large related honor to the duel among members of elite classes; few have tried to connect it to plebeian or peasant violence. There seems to be a paradox: ethnographers have studied honor among peasants but did not discern notable manifestations of interpersonal violence; historians have studied interpersonal violence among elites and found it to be intimately connected to honor. One element of this paradox has been that historians have not studied honor among the lower orders, and they have been reluctant to accord the same ritual status to plebeian violence as they do to upper-class dueling, even though they been more than willing to see other forms of plebeian behavior as rooted in culturally constructed rituals.[4] Another is that ethnographers have studied groups in societies where levels of interpersonal violence regardless of class have plunged to historic lows.[5]

This study aims to contribute to the existing scholarship by showing that plebeian violence in the past was quite prevalent, that it was often rooted in an ethic of honor, that these forms were as ritualized and rule-bound as the aristocratic duel and, indeed, should be considered a form of lower-class dueling. It aims to move that literature forward by offering an explanation for why honor remained an integral component of Greek men’s identity while dueling violence ceased to be an important element in the cultural construction of masculinity. It also shows that the court system imposed by the British on the islands played a crucial role in the transformation of men’s contests over honor and status. By explicating how Greek men retained honor as a cornerstone of masculinity but dissociated it from violence, this article seeks to further our understanding of the reduction of interpersonal violence noted so ubiquitously in the historical record.

“In many parts of this country the knife,” according to Charles K. Tuckerman, U.S. consul to Greece during the 1860s, “is as quick as the tongue.”[6] The Ionian Islands, even though under the control of the British Colonial Office, were no exception.[7] Accounts by contemporary observers and the abundant archival sources of the criminal justice system bear this out. William Goodison, for example, noted of the Ionians that the blade was “the means of directly prosecuting their revenge,” and that all too frequently they were “given over to the license to raise the dark knife and bloody stiletto against the breast of unoffending innocence.”[8] Easy recourse to the dagger was commented on by nearly every other colonial officer or traveler to the islands during the period of the British Protectorate.[9]
An examination of police and court records during sixteen years of the Protectorate suggests that knife fighting was a relatively common occurrence.[10] Based on my analyses, the average annual homicide rate on Kerkyra and Kefallenia was 12.4 per 100,000, and the combined rate for homicide and attempted homicide was 37.9 per 100,000.[11] Of those recorded homicides, approximately 20 percent were the result of knife fights. Both of these figures are substantially higher than the comparable rates from elsewhere in rural Europe, such as France, England, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Indeed, only mid-nineteenth-century rural Corsica manifested a higher rate.[12]
However, the homicide and attempted homicide rates do not provide a truly accurate picture of the prevalence of knife fighting among Ionian Island men. Most episodes of dagger fighting did not result in a loss of life, nor did the criminal justice system typically categorize or consider them as attempted homicides. Instead, for reasons that will soon become apparent, knife fights were classified as simple assault or assault with a deadly weapon. I recorded in the sixteen sample years 2,677 warrants or indictments for assault or assault with a deadly weapon. This translates into a rate of 134 per 100,000. From this group, I selected 125 cases (5 percent) for detailed investigation, a thorough analysis of the warrant, the police report, and the trial transcript if the case went to court. Of the 125 assaults, 61 were knife fights. In other words, in 48 percent of the recorded cases of assault, the offense involved dueling with knives. Assuming that this ratio characterizes the entire sample, over 8,000 duels would have taken place during the period from 1817 to 1864. The figures become even more revealing if we consider only assault with a deadly weapon. There were 37 of these, of which 33 (89 percent) were knife fights.

As Peter King has suggested, historians have largely neglected the study of assault and other similar forms of interpersonal violence, so it is difficult to situate my case in a comparative framework.[13] Nonetheless, that Ionian Island men had a marked propensity to draw their blades and to use them frequently and regularly, and that violence was an integral element in masculine social discourse seems abundantly clear. This last is important. The distinctiveness in this case lay in the ready recourse Greek men had to the knife fight as a primary response to a challenge to their reputation. A close reading of the narratives of these clashes allows us glimpses of the inner logic and rules of these plebeian duels. Unlike the usual type of aristocratic or bourgeois duels studied by historians, there are no manuals to guide us in our search for the rules of knife fights. Instead, the rituals that men followed can only be excavated from the tales of the fights men told to each other, the police, and the courts.

When Ionian Island men during the nineteenth century felt that they had been insulted or had some sort of grievance against other men from their group, they frequently challenged one another to settle their differences by dueling with knives. Among European aristocrats, U.S. Southern elites, and other men who dueled, verbal insults or slights or symbolically charged physical gestures, like a slap in the face, inaugurated ritual combat. Greek men employed provocative insults drawn from their rich vocabulary of sexual words as their causae belli. Analogous to the slapping of the face, once certain words were uttered in specific contexts, usually a wine shop or tavern, there was no turning back. A man had to rise to the challenge or lose status. Once the knives were drawn, the men followed a known script. They aimed not to kill but to maim, not to slay but to scar. They sought to cut the face of their opponents.[14] According to the stories told, the rules compelled onlookers to refrain from interfering. They were to observe and evaluate performances, not become actors themselves until a certain part of the play was reached or one of the participants deviated from the script. As soon as one man drew blood, the audience stepped onto the stage and pulled the opponents apart. The victor often would seal his triumph by spitting on his opponent or collecting a trophy, dipping his neckerchief in the blood of the vanquished or wiping the blood off his knife with it. But the story was not done with one man losing face. In many cases, the winner remained at the scene of the fight until the constables or the village authorities arrived and took him into custody. In others, the victor would leave the actual scene but make no attempt to flee the vicinity. It appears from their behavior that these men wanted to be caught. There was, it would seem, a third act to these dramas, and it was performed in a different site: a court of law. Some examples reveal the essential elements of the dominant script and illustrate some of the variations it could take.

The vignette with which I began portrays some of the key elements of the script. The men knew one another. Animosity existed between them before the fight. The confrontation occurred in a wine shop, and thus in a male-dominated public space where both were well known to the other patrons. The clash commenced with verbal sparring, and then the words that would shift the contest from tongues to knives were uttered: words that slurred the reputation of one man’s female relations and that branded him as a cuckold—a keratás. Reputations were at stake, and in this culture those were high stakes indeed. Each man drew his blade. Based on the way they aimed their knives at each other’s faces, it would seem that the intent was not to kill but to scar. So the parries and thrusts sought to inflict the cut that would settle the contest. Once it was delivered, the observers, who had previously stood aside and assessed the fight, intervened, presumably to stop the bout before further damage was done. The victor then validated his triumph by symbolically humiliating his opponent. In the aftermath of the contest, he made no effort to avoid capture; he wanted his day in court. The sentence he received of forty days, a $3 fine, and promising to keep the peace was a common one.

This was the basic script. Although there were some slight variations on it, two basic patterns predominated. In one version, the fighters were acquaintances, and a precedent cause of the contest was some previous grievance that existed between the two. (These were not, however, vengeance fights or vendetta killings. As we shall see shortly, slayings of those sorts manifested their own rituals.) Some additional cases portray the basic script of the plebeian duel in which an existing grievance set up a violent clash. Theodoros Kavvadis from Fiskardo on Kefallenia killed Gerasimos Salomon from nearby Assos. After a hard day of fishing, Kavvadis retired to a nearby tavern. Salomon, according to witnesses, shortly thereafter entered the emporium, walked up to Kavvadis, and accused him of having stolen some tackle from his boat.[15] Kavvadis warned him to be wary of whom he called a thief. Knives were drawn, and a fight ensued. Salomon lunged at his opponent, but his blow went low. Rather than slashing his foe’s face, as he stated in his testimony was his intent, he severed his carotid artery. Bloody death soon followed.

Giorgios Antippas from Antippata, also on Kefallenia, on the evening of July 25, 1840, killed his cousin Athanasios. The incident took place while the two were drinking wine in front of the house of another villager. In small villages such as Antippata, it was not uncommon for someone to obtain a license and serve wine at his home. Two days before, an unknown person had injured Giorgios’s donkey with a rock. The quarrel began when he started accusing his cousin of having done the deed. As more wine was drunk, the banter between the two grew more heated. Giorgios then taunted him, saying that he was not man enough to take care of his ass. Athanasios responded by “giving him the horns,” that is, making the gesture that accused the other man of being a cuckold. Enraged, Giorgios unsheathed his stiletto and demanded that his cousin fight him. In the midst of their fight, Athanasios tripped over a chair leg, and while off balance he fell forward at the same time as his cousin thrust forth his blade. The fatal blow entered his neck just below his Adam’s apple.[16]

Ioannis Pelemedis from Kerkyra learned the hard way that it was best not to confront a man who made his living working with knives. Red-faced with anger, he stormed into a wine shop on Gavia Street and approached a table at which Evstathis Sklonias, a butcher, was seated with some friends. Standing before the group, he accused the butcher of having cheated his wife on a sale of meat. Sklonias nonchalantly replied by sniffing the air and announcing to the assembled group of men that he “smelled a horned one [a cuckold] in the room, and as a butcher, he knew the stench.” Pelemedis drew his dagger and demanded a fight. The duel was brief. With his second stroke, Sklonias cleanly severed his opponent’s left ear from his head. He then added insult to injury by asking Pelemidis if he “wanted this piece of meat [the ear] added to the bill as well?”[17] Numerous other stories also adhered to this script. A grievance existed between two men. One confronted the other with it in a public place. They exchanged insults, almost invariably of a sexual nature. The knives came out, and the fight ensued.

In most cases, the precedent grievance involved not the world of praxis and material goods but cultural capital in the form of reputations. When Alexandros Salamis from the village of Agios Theodoros on Kerkyra killed Ioannis Bassianis in 1847, it was because the victim had insulted his sister by approaching her in public and slapping her spindle and distaff out of her hands. When the brother learned of it, he confronted Bassianis on the main road to the village. In front of some other peasants who were coming home after working in their fields, he challenged him to fight. The knives were drawn and used. Bassianis later died from the cut he received on his face. Presumably, he succumbed to an infection.[18] This case is different from the norm in that it was not one of the duelists who was directly insulted. The following cases were more typical.

Ioannis Tsoudis entered the taverna of Spiridon Briotas in Argostoli and demanded that Panagis Magdalios stop calling him a cuckold. According to the police report, Briotas believed that Magdalios was the source of the gossip about him, gossip that Briotas’s wife had told him. When confronted with the accusation, Tsoudis simply laughed. Beside himself with fury at being mocked, Magdalios swore to make him eat his words. After a fight that the witnesses all agreed was a good and fair one, Tsoudis needed thirteen stitches to close the wound on his face.[19] On the night of April 23, 1835, Giorgos Koidan entered a billiard parlor in the town of Kerkyra and demanded satisfaction from Ioannis Deninzzando. Koidan had just learned that Deninzzando had been overheard calling his wife a magdalene in public. Having tracked down his wife’s slanderer, he walked up to him and, while standing nose to nose, announced to the assembled group that “no man insults my onoré.” He then drew his dagger. In the subsequent fight, he cut Deninzzando on the face and ears.[20]

Theodoros Kirinaris did not like his paternal cousin Spiridon and, according to elders in their village of Kominata on Kerkyra, had not since childhood. Spiridon, it seems, was a bully. On December 18, 1854, matters came to a head. Theodoros had heard that his antagonist had been telling other men tales about his wife. According to the constable’s report, when confronted Spiridon said to his cousin, “it’s a shame that your hen won’t stay in the yard.” Stilettos were unsheathed. Neither man fought well, and the affray ended with Theodoros receiving a cut on his left arm. When the night patrolman arrived on his rounds, he took statements from the witnesses and the two fighters themselves, who had remained at the wine shop. On the constable’s recommendation the next day, the police magistrate issued warrants for the arrests of both men for assault. Four days later, after hearing testimony, he acquitted both men with the admonition that they should behave like kinsmen and not fight.[21] In these and numerous other examples, gossip in the form of sexual insults about one of the men or his wife (or another kinswoman) was the root cause of the fight.[22]

Another well-represented variant of the script involved men who were strangers or, if they were acquainted, who seemingly held no grudge against one another. The participants were often drunk, and almost invariably sexual taunts were exchanged that led to a fight. Ioannis Koursaris from Kerkyra and Athanasios Merkouris came to blows in the wine shop of Sathi Nikieravatos when one questioned the other’s paternity: “we all know your mother, but your father God only knows [sappiamo ch’e la vostra madre, ma suo padre il Dio sa].” The onlookers intervened only after Kousaris had drawn first blood by slashing open Merkouris’s cheek.[23] Spiros Petrolides was a well-known forty-two-year-old barber in the town of Kerkyra. On the night of July 17, 1860, he fought a duel with a twenty-three-year-old laborer from the village of Velonades. The latter had challenged his manhood and honor by calling his wife a magdalene. No one knew what started the trouble before that word that could not be borne was uttered. The consensus was only that the two men, after some heavy drinking, had taken a dislike to one another. The unfortunate barber received a vicious cut across his chin before the men were separated.[24] In these cases, strangers clashed in a public setting. Though unknown to each other, they came from the same social class and culture and thus performed the rituals of violence according to the same culturally inscribed script.

An examination of some other forms of masculine violence amply confirms the degree to which the knife fight was ritualized and rule-bound. It could be argued against my interpretation that men simply fought with what was literally to hand, that, until the imposition of strict weapons possession laws in the 1830s, most men in this culture carried edged weapons with them—such as pslithia (pruning knives), daggers, stilettos—and instinctively drew them when necessary. However, in addition to the more obvious point that the same script was followed so frequently that it is unlikely men were acting wholly without intentionality, an examination of those episodes in which a quarrel took place but did not end with a knife fight indicates that participants knew their roles in preexisting narratives.

On March 2, 1843, Athanasios Diavatos, a fishmonger in the central market of Kerkyra, confronted Antonios Avella, a twenty-three-year-old laborer, in a wine shop by the pier and accused him of having stolen his scale. They exchanged insults. Everything, it would appear, was in place for a knife fight, but instead of knives they fought with fists. The deviation from the script, I would suggest, related to the fact that Avella was not a native. He was a foreigner from Malta, and as such he was not rooted in the same cultural system as Diavatos and the other Kerkyrans.[25]

In another case from Kerkyra, instead of fists a man used a clay pot to smash the skull of his antagonist. Once again, the man was an outsider.[26] In another episode where the dominant script would have called for knives, fists were used. But here the sexual taunts were exchanged between a British soldier and a local Greek peasant.[27] A fight at the wine shop of Panagis Lefkaditis at the fort of Agios Giorgios on Kefallenia in 1832 had all the requisite elements for a knife fight. But instead, Sisifos Romanos put Chimachi Kantouzza in “pericolo di vita” (fear for his life), as the medical examiner put it, not with a knife but with a gun. Instead of cutting him with a blade, he pistol-whipped his foe.[28]

In the majority of those episodes in which all of the elements should have resulted in a knife fight but did not, one of two differences was evident: either one of the participants was a foreigner—a xenos—or one was not a social equal. Knife fighting, then, was reserved for insiders, for men who were anchored in the same social milieu. The seemingly scripted nature of the fights was not a coincidence but the result of a purposeful adherence to a shared cultural practice. An examination of another type of violence prevalent among Greek men, the vendetta homicide, further highlights the distinctiveness of the knife duel.

During the customary afternoon stroll in the village square of Pilaros on Kefallenia on September 11, 1835, Spiridon Kallihias, a farmer, approached Theodoros Maridas, an auxiliary constable, pulled a pistol from beneath his belt and fatally shot him in the head. Many in the hushed crowd were not surprised at the killing. A few people even nodded their heads in grim-faced satisfaction. Some of the dead policeman’s kinsmen ran to get their guns; others hastened to the church to ring the mourning bell. His kinswomen gathered around the body, singing ritual laments, and began the funeral rituals. Within hours, a posse of ten armed constables arrived from the district capital. Questioning of the forty witnesses elicited only stony silence: no one had seen anything. Even the deceased’s kinsmen professed no knowledge of the assailant’s identity. After seventeen days of detention during which no one could leave the village, the killer’s identity was anonymously revealed. He was captured by the posse three days later at his cousin’s house in a nearby village. A week after that, Kallihias stood at the bar in the Hall of Justice in the island’s capital. His lawyer argued he was merely defending the reputation/honor (timi) of his family by killing a man who had shamed them. Earlier that year, Maridas had arrested the younger brother of Kallihias for violating the British quarantine laws, leading to the youth being sentenced to life in prison. Justifiable homicide based on the notion of blood revenge was thus Kallihias’s plea, and his fellow villagers supported it. In order to prevent a “perversion of justice” and to restore the “public tranquility,” however, the tribunal rejected this line of reasoning and found him guilty of murder. Kallihias was duly executed, his corpse dipped in tar, and hung in the city square for ten days.[29]

For sheer audacity, few men could match Bernardo Leftachi. He was the coxswain of the Sanita boat on the island of Zakinthos. While accompanying his patron, the wealthy and powerful Dr. Dimitrios Lombardos, on a visit to one of the villages attached to the estate of the former Regent of Zakinthos, Leftachi learned that his younger brother had just been killed in a fight with a man named Glassi. Having ascertained that the contest had been unfair, the coxswain returned to the island’s capital and went to the main police station. There he confronted Glassi’s brother, who was a constable, and in front of the desk sergeant and two other officers, he shot Glassi in the head and then stabbed him through the heart. Before the shocked constables could act, Leftachi bolted out the door. In spite of an island-wide manhunt, the avenging brother was never captured. It was widely rumored that his patron had given him refuge and helped engineer his escape from the island.[30]

The son of a noble house on Kefallenia was seated alone in the upper dining room of his family’s country estate. Two rifle shots broke the summer evening’s silence. The youthful count was instantly killed as both bullets hit home. A full staff of servants was on duty and numerous peasants were working in the vicinity of the house, yet no one admitted having seen the assassins. During the course of their investigations, the police learned that the young aristocrat recently “had paid his addresses to, and then abandoned” a woman from one of the villages under his family’s control. On account of the widespread belief in blood revenge, the police automatically assumed that her brothers were the ones who went to the house that night, climbed the arbor outside the dining room balcony, and killed the man. Though “universally given credit” by the authorities for having “really done the dark deed,” the brothers were never charged because “none of the peasantry could be induced to come forward to present evidence which many of them, it is believed, were able to supply.”[31]

These three cases typify vendetta killings on the Ionian Islands and demonstrate some of the key differences between this type of violence and knife dueling.[32] Both were ritualized forms of violence but with different rules of engagement. Honor was the key to both. But the intent of a vendetta was to kill, not, as in the duel, to maim or scar. The weapon of choice was usually a firearm rather than a knife. In addition, stealth or ambush was acceptable. There was no sense that the fight had to be a fair one. On the contrary, none of the victims discussed above had a chance to respond to his assailant. Furthermore, the cause of the conflict stemmed from actions, not words. Insults alone did not initiate a vendetta. The provocative act had to be seen as a violation of communal norms. Note the very different responses of Leftachi and the kinsmen of Theodoros Maridas. Leftachi believed that his brother had died in an unfair fight, and so the act called out for blood vengeance; Maridas’s family accepted his fate as just and so felt no need to cleanse their honor in Kallihias’s blood. In a vendetta, the victim did not have be the one who committed the act; any of his kinsmen was fair game. And vendetta killers vigorously sought to elude apprehension and trial. Unlike duelists, who welcomed their capture, the men discussed above evaded apprehension—even when they had committed their crime in a police station. As many scholars have noted, vendetta killers often could never return to their homes and so took to the hills to become brigands.[33] Finally, the loquaciousness of the witnesses to knife fights contrasts with the stony silence maintained by those who saw vendetta killings. The Greek code of omertá (“silence”) pertained to certain types of violence but not others. This last point especially requires attention. Men wanted to tell tales about knife fights, and they seemed to relish the opportunity to recount them in court.

Where knife fighting was involved, Ionian Island men incorporated the British colonial criminal justice system into their masculine discourse of honor. Cases of assault or assault with a deadly weapon could be inaugurated by the victim as a private prosecutor or by the Advocate Fiscale on behalf of the state. Acting as the presiding magistrate in the police court, the Advocate Fiscale would hear testimony from the participants and the constables and other officials. His role in these cases was to determine if there was a case to be answered. In only 29 of the 125 cases I examined did he determine that the case should not go forward to the Correctional Court, the lowest rung of the criminal justice system that had a public trial. In the cases that he did not set forward, the magistrate determined that either no party was legally at fault or that the wounds sustained were negligible. In some cases, he ordered that the victim be awarded a sum of money. The vast majority of cases, however, went before the Correctional Court, where a panel of three Greek jurists would hear the case. All parties attended, and witnesses gave evidence.

In their testimonies, Ionian Island men talked about the fight: what it was over, what was said. But they also rendered an evaluation of the contest, and the judges paid heed to their assessments. Men talked about how well the fight went, whether or not the two were equally adept. Was one man drunker than the other? Did one aim to kill rather than to maim? The judges seem to have taken these factors into account. If the fight was fair and the provocation unbearable, they occasionally imposed a non-custodial sentence such as a monetary fine or the payment of a surety to keep the public peace, or a light custodial sentence of from twenty to forty days. As we shall see shortly, punishments such as these became much less common over time. Magistrates sought to learn whether or not there had been bad blood between the fighters. If there had, they usually imposed a stiffer sentence. They inquired about the course of the fight. If one man had taken advantage of the other and not played by the rules, then a term in the House of Correction was in store for the guilty. If one of the fighters had died as a result of wounds received in the fight, the judges focused on the question of intent: did the killer intend to inflict a mortal blow? The fate of the defendant hinged on how the witnesses responded to this crucial question. Intent distinguished accidental death from homicide and assault from attempted homicide. Initially at least, jail time awaited only those convicted of the latter two offenses. As time went on, however, regardless of how men answered these questions or if intent was or was not manifested, it became ever more probable that incarceration would result for anyone caught knife fighting.

The courtroom provided the site for the third and final act of the drama of the knife fight. It was there that the final verdict was rendered on the duel and the duelists, but witnesses, not judges, rendered it. Courts, then, were coopted, and legal ritual was subverted to serve the needs of the contestants. Reputation, not truth, was on trial, and disputes that started with words that cut ended with words as well. The trial provided the loser with an opportunity to try and salvage his reputation. He could claim that he was drunk and taken advantage of, or that his opponent had tricked him, or that the fight had in some other way been unfair. The winner got a public forum in which to heap scorn on his opponent. In the spinning out of his tale of triumph, he redoubled his assault on the public reputation of the loser. As the man in my opening vignette vowed, no man would insult his reputation and get away with it. The refrain heard most often from the victor was that he made the other man “eat his words.”

Just as important, I suggest, were the stories by the witnesses. Even more than the participants, they framed the discourse for public assessment. In their narratives, men commented on every aspect of the fight: who fought well, who did not, who instigated, who got what he deserved. The discursive power of the duel to damage or salvage reputations stemmed from the comments of the witnesses, which acted to formalize the narrative. While the knife fights were usually high drama—after all, men could and did die in them—the witnesses’ assessment could reduce them to farce as well. Then the reputations of both the scarred man and his unblemished foe were damaged. In the case of Andreas Magiras and Nikolaos Bamboulis in 1835, the onlookers heaped scorn on both because they were so drunk that they did not fight well. As one man told the court, “this was not serious, they fought like fools.”[34]

The narratives told in court also tell us what the fights were really about: honor. Repeatedly in their stories, men talked of reputation (fama, diko mou), honor (timi, onoré), insults and vulgar verbal assaults (villania insolenza). As Charles K. Tuckerman observed, the single most prevalent cause of interpersonal violence among Greeks was honor: “a wound of honor or a family insult,” he remarked, “burns and did so till soothed by the blood of the insulter.”[35] Nineteenth-century Ionian Island men were as sensitive to their reputations and status as their latter-day kindred whose preoccupations with honor have been so well documented by ethnographers.

Elsewhere, I have argued that certain words had extremely evocative power in this society because they tapped into a set of core metaphors through which men made sense of their world.[36] The combat with knives was part of the same discourse in which men fought with words. Men walked a very fine line in their struggles for honor and status. The banter and verbal sparring described by Michael Herzfeld and other ethnographers in contemporary Greece was a part of men’s discourse in nineteenth-century Greece as well.[37] But Ionian men were fully cognizant that there were certain words, certain phrases that once uttered could lead to violence. These words challenged a man’s honor and reputation. Greek men literally put their faces on the line in order to save face figuratively. If we accept that Greek knife fighting was a plebeian form of dueling, in what ways was it similar to dueling among the higher orders of other societies as studied by historians?

In a number of respects, Greek knife fights were remarkably similar to duels conducted among aristocrats in the U.S. South, British soldiers, French bourgeois, Italian liberals, and German students.[38] This is not, of course, to imply that dueling everywhere and at all times was identical. There were variations in style and form both between cultures and over time. Some general characteristics, however, are apparent. First and foremost, the Ionian knife fight and the canonical duel were ritualized single combats fought by men in the name of honor. Witnesses were central to the ritual, but their role was by and large a passive one. Unless a rule of combat was infringed or until a certain point in the ritual was reached, they were to act as observers only. The Greek duel was fought to first blood, as was the duel with swords in France and Italy. Moreover, in Greece as elsewhere, the duel acted as a boundary marker between groups and classes. Many students of the duel have emphasized that a man restored his honor and good name simply by entering the arena of combat. Dueling was not about winning or losing but about playing the game. Thus the university students who participated in the German dueling ritual Mensur proudly displayed their facial scars. Indeed, according to McAleer, the tactics of the sword fight developed in such a way that exposed the participants’ “faces to the jagged lacerations on which every student duelist plumed himself.”[39] Among the Greeks, a man who refused to fight lost the respect of his peers, but how those peers regarded the loser is problematic. Based on their courtroom narratives, it appears that they considered the facial scar of a bested fighter as a mark of defeat and so they held him in lower esteem. The one who was cut did not suffer shame but rather, as the Greeks put it, systoli—a word whose root meaning is “diminution.” In other words, losing a knife duel did not dishonor a man. He kept his honor, but his reputation was diminished. By and large, then, for them as for duelists in other societies, the true test of a man’s mettle was his willingness to fight solo combat in the name of honor. Only the failure to fight would have signified emasculation.

There were a number of differences between Greek plebeian knife fights and dueling elsewhere. Greek peasants and workers had no written code duello. There were no equivalents to Raimund Sebetic’s Duell-Regeln or Adolphe Tavernier’s L’art du duel.[40] This, however, is a rather minor distinction due to class-based differences in literacy. There were more important differences. First, there was no, or only a slight, delay between the utterance of an insult and the duel among the Greeks. Combat followed hot on the heels of the attack on a man’s honor. A key part of the upper-class duel was the time delay between affront and affray. Second, Greek plebeian duelists did not seek to elude capture, since, as I suggested earlier, an appearance in the courtroom was a vital component of their ritual. This is markedly different from the practice in Germany and France. McAleer shows that even the introduction of special “courts of honor” did little to alter duelists’ reluctance to engage the state in honor disputes.[41] And in the case of France, “both defenders and opponents of the duel agreed that a man who took his case to the courts would be perceived as a ‘coward’ whose sense of ‘independence’ was so feeble that he was willing to entrust a decision about his personal honor to complete strangers.”[42] One final aspect distinguishing the Greek knife fight from the upper-class duel of Europe and the United States is that none of the explanations proposed to account for the end of upper-class dueling can explain why Greek plebeian men kept their honor but put away their blades.

For some historians, the differences in the rituals of lower-class combat and upper-class dueling are so substantive as to mark them as two distinct forms of violence. Dickson Bruce expresses such sentiments by stressing the time delay and the nature of the combats: “The duel, unlike the street fight, was an outgrowth of the carefully cultivated style of the Southern gentry. A fit of passion may have led to the problem but duelists quickly assumed the kind of behavior of which society approved, and instituted procedures to maintain order . . . The street fight not only admitted the passions, but brought to the fore impatience, revenge, and a rejection of order. The chapters may have been the same whether one fought for revenge or dueled for honor, but the procedures and the symbolism were very different.”[43] Others writing about dueling in the Old South also accept the distinction drawn by Bruce between honor and dueling among elite men and their absence from the social realm of plebeian men. Echoes of this view resound in the literature on the duel in Europe as well. Robert A. Nye, for example, draws a clear distinction in the role of honor between the French duel and the lower-class knife fight.[44] Anthony Simpson in his study of the English even more explicitly distinguishes the duel as a class boundary delimiter. In his view, “it would be impertinent to equate the psyches of the working-class brawler and the aristocratic duelist.”[45] For some, then, it is the seeming absence of honor that is crucial.

For others, it is the seemingly unscripted nature of lower-class violence. Some sociologists and criminologists, for example, have recently returned to an idea proposed by Marvin Wolfgang almost thirty years ago that much masculine working-class violence was caused by “trivial slights” over honor or reputation.[46] Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, for example, have argued that “a seemingly minor affront is not merely a ‘stimulus’ to action, isolated in time and space. It must be understood within a larger social context of reputations, face, relative social status, and enduring relationships. Men are known by their fellows as ‘the sort who can be pushed around’ or ‘the sort that won’t take any shit,’ as people whose word means action and people who are full of hot air, as guys whose girlfriends you can chat up with impunity or guys you don’t want to mess with. In most social milieux, a man’s reputation depends in part upon the maintenance of a credible threat of violence.”[47] In his study of over 500 homicides involving Australian youths, Kenneth Polk concluded that the overwhelming majority of them were confrontations of honor in which young men traded insults and then blows in defense of their status among their peers.[48] While the sociological literature revises the historical studies of the duel by suggesting that lower-class violence is also connected to honor, it still espouses the notion that it was not ritualized or formulaic. Polk specifically distinguishes the cases he studied as “confrontational homicides,” thus perpetuating the idea that plebeian violence was spontaneous, unscripted, and rage-driven.[49]

Pieter Spierenburg more than any other historian has shown that knife fighting among lower-class Amsterdam men was rule-bound and ritualistic and that the causes of most conflicts were slights and insults to another man’s reputation. As he concisely put it: “Masculinity and honor were central to the knife fighters’ world.”[50] Elliot Gorn in his examination of Southern backcountry lower-class violence argued that honor was directly implicated in such fights and that they were subject to their own rituals: “A rough-and-tumble was more than a poor man’s duel, a botched version of genteel combat. Plain folk chose not to ape the dispassionate, antiseptic, gentry style but to invert it. While the gentlemen’s code of honor insisted on cool restraint, eye-gougers gloried in unvarnished brutality.”[51] The evidence from Greece supports the argument that certain forms of plebeian violence were rooted in an ethic of honor, were ritualized, and were therefore more akin to than different from upper-class dueling.

The role of the courts, however, was the one difference between the rituals of Greek plebeian knife duels and upper-class dueling that was truly distinctive. Greeks embraced them, others eschewed them. While this in and of itself is an insufficient basis for drawing a categorical distinction, it may suggest an avenue for explaining the other major difference: the ending of the duel. Studies of the duel on the Continent are remarkably consistent in concluding that it was the carnage of World War I more than anything else that caused the duel to fall into disuse. As Nye put it, “the duel perished in the trenches of the Western Front.”[52] Italy walked a slightly different path, whereon it was the war and then the advent of fascist rule that kept Italian liberals off the field of honor.[53] Britain, as so often happened, marched to a different drummer. On Albion’s isle, dueling had more or less come to an end by the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Contributing factors seem to have been the democratization of the duel, which led to the practice ceasing among the aristocracy, vigorous action of the state to curtail dueling in the military (where it had been most prevalent), and a shift in masculine sensibilities among middle-class men that transformed attitudes about violence.[54] Edward L. Ayers has proposed a complex explanation to account for the demise of the duel in the U.S. South. He sees the Civil War acting in much the same way that World War I did in Europe to generate a revulsion against violence, but he also suggests that evangelicalism and the spread and adoption of a bourgeois business ethos from the North to the South led to diminution of the importance of honor among the upper class.[55] As honor lost its saliency, dueling was diminished in importance.[56] The cultural arguments proposed by Ayers and Simpson for the duel follow along the lines of other scholars attempting to explain the general decline of violence in the West, which all derive from Norbert Elias’s idea of the “civilizing process.”[57] None of these satisfactorily explains why Greek plebeian men stopped dueling when they did. There was no war that rocked their world. There was no evangelical religious movement or a transformation of masculine sensibilities based on bourgeois values. We have to seek, like Ayers and Simpson, a complex and multicausal explanation for the demise of the working-class duel in Greece, and our explanation must account for why the duel ended but honor remained.

The literature on the duel strongly suggests that, when the practice ceased, honor also lost its central position in the core of masculine identity. As Peter Stearns has noted, in the new bourgeois society of the West, “honor [became] an archaic remnant.”[58] But honor has been seen as a central element in contemporary Greek and Spanish rural societies since the ground-breaking ethnographies of J. K. Campbell, Julian Pitt-Rivers, and J. G. Peristiany.[59] Subsequent studies in these countries and in other regions of the Mediterranean led to the assertion that the “honor and shame complex” was a central defining element of a Mediterranean culture system.[60]
There are clusters of actions and beliefs that recur cross-culturally and historically among cultures that profess to hold “honor” dear. Two such recurring patterns concern us. First, status, reputation, and esteem are assessed, bestowed, or rescinded by the court of masculine public opinion. Because of this, honor acts as a cultural boundary delimiter. Second, honor is intimately connected with aggression. Manhood, because it is on public display, is always at risk, and so a man’s reputation is directly connected to his ability to be seen as able to defend openly against all challenges. Thus, in honor cultures, there develops an “agonistic ethos [that] has deep roots in the atomized social context of Mediterranean society. The grim conflicts it embodies are real and pervasive; the interpersonal aggressions it spawns are not gratuitous.”[61] Part of being a man in an honor society is a readiness to employ physical violence to defend one’s reputation.

The Mediterranean ethnographic record is replete with vivid descriptions of colorful displays of masculine bravado. But there is a paradox: for all the macho posturing, anthropologists record very few actual acts of violence, especially lethal violence. Nor do official court and police documents record many instances of honor homicides. In other words, there is a great deal of masculine bluster but little blood. In his study of the Sarakatsanoi, a group renowned for its supposed violent propensities, Campbell noted that “knives are pulled with great bravado [only] when it is certain that others are present to prevent their use.”[62] During the time period he studied the group, he saw many displays of aggression but few actual conflicts. Robert Paine elaborated slightly on this theme. In his view, the Sarakatsanoi construct zero-sum dramas in their contests over honor rather than zero-sum fights.[63] Michael Herzfeld in his work on Cretan shepherds, another group with a reputation for violence, found that men competed with one another at cards and contested status by trading sung insults, a Greek type of “playing the dozens” (a game among U.S. inner-city black youths of testing your opponent’s wits with provocative remarks about his mother). He also noted that aggressive displays and boisterous announced threats of violence were common, though actual conflicts were few. As he concluded, what mattered to Glendiote men was to be seen to be good at being a man.[64] In Spanish Andalusia, Pitt-Rivers found that assailants squared off only when they were sure that the onlookers were prepared to pull them apart.[65] Finally, in his wide-ranging examination of aggression and honor, David Gilmore observed no cases of actual life-threatening violence; instead, he concluded that masculine aggression in Spain had by and large been channeled into symbolic displays of machismo.[66] Even among contemporary groups known for their sensitivity to honor in Greece and elsewhere, then, violence in defense of reputation has been largely reduced to ritualized, symbolic forms. This was definitely not the case in the past. When and why did this crucial transformation take place?

As noted earlier, Greek knife fighters used the court systems in ways unlike duelists elsewhere, and an examination of the role of the courts can provide a starting point for explaining the end of the duel. The criminal justice system offered a possible remedy to Greek men with a sullied reputation: slander. Over the course of the Protectorate, thousands of men and women filed warrants, attended magistrate’s tribunals, and went to the Correctional Court to prosecute fellow islanders for slander. Women also used the courts in their contests over reputation, and they extended their networks of gossip to include the criminal justice system.[67] Men’s knife fighting and women’s use of the slander laws served two different strategies embedded in the same discourse over the honor and reputation of the household. Could taking a man to court for slander, almost invariably involving the same sexual insults that inaugurated knife fights, restore a man’s damaged reputation? Some inferences drawn from an examination of over two hundred slander cases suggest possible answers to this query. In addition, they can provide an explanation that can connect the historian’s world of the honor-based duel to the anthropologist’s domain where masculine honor rules but without high levels of interpersonal violence.

The first aspect that stands out is that members of the aristocracy appear far more frequently in slander trials than in knife fights. In just over 10 percent of slander trials, one or both of the litigants was an aristocrat, whereas no aristocrats were prosecuted for assault or assault with a deadly weapon. Unlike in the cultures most often studied by historians, the Ionian aristocracy did not duel. There were some cases of members of the signori killing one another, but these were rare and were not the result of a ritualized duel. The nobility earlier and disproportionately took each other to court; however, I do not want to overstate this point: for the most part, they neither dueled nor litigated. The reason, I suggest, is that the aristocracy on these islands was organized into relatively tight patrilineal kin groups, each of which employed gangs of armed tough guys or bravi. Aristocratic factions fought one another by proxy, using their lower-class gangs. In addition, given that the ethos of the vendetta was prevalent, signori had to be very careful about instigating a confrontation because by so doing they could incite a potentially destructive feud. In certain respects, then, plebeian men had a more autonomous sense of self-identity than did their noble brethren, and as a consequence they had to defend their reputation in different ways. One very important way was the knife duel. The courts gained legitimacy as an arbiter of honor first among the aristocracy.

Plebeian men soon followed suit and flooded the court docket with their accusations of criminal slander. A statistical trend analysis of complaints and arrests for assault and assault with a deadly weapon shows a decrease over time. At the same time, the propensity of men to swear out complaints for slander rose.[68] To be sure, knife fighting persisted, but the relative balance of dueling to litigation shifted. The lawsuit, then, gradually replaced the duel. But no single element can account for why Greek men began to place less emphasis on violence and more on the courts as the means of preserving their reputation.

A number of factors contributed to this change. Cultural and ideological developments could have contributed to a “civilization” of male tendencies to violence. Since the 1830s, pro-British Ionians, who disproportionately held the levers of local political power, used the law and public policy to transform the national character of their countrymen. They took their cue from the colonial officers, who denigrated the Ionians, comparing them to the aboriginal groups like the Hottentots or Irish. Indeed, the British frequently referred to the Ionians as the “Mediterranean Irish.”[69] The Greek civic leaders learned from the British in no uncertain terms that it was the propensity for violence that separated “Orientals” and “savages” from “Western men.” A key part of the civilizing mission launched by the Greek leadership thus focused on the restoration and maintenance of public order.[70]
The Orthodox church was brought into the struggle against crime and violence through the practice of excommunicating criminal offenders.[71] Standing before assembled communities of Greek peasants, dark-robed clerics pronounced the ultimate sanction—eternal damnation—against certain criminal offenders, and they reserved their sternest opprobrium for those who had committed acts of violence. While the policy was not a great success at either diminishing crime, especially crimes against property, or at reducing the influence of the code of omertá, nonetheless the constant preaching of the clergy against violence would have resonated with some men because of the close interconnection between Orthodoxy and Hellenism.[72] Greeks drew a distinction between the church as an institution and Orthodoxy, and Greek men held ambiguous and conflicted views about the church. Because a key element in the Greeks’ conception of their identity as Hellenes was the Orthodox faith, pronouncements that challenged their status as Christians would have captured men’s attention.

Finally, and most important, after 1850 the leaders of the Ionian Greek nationalist movement changed their tactics from encouraging violent agitation against the British to emphasizing nonviolent forms of resistance.[73] During the 1830s and 1840s, the radical unionists fomented public unrest whenever possible. Public processions frequently turned into riots. Political rallies and elections were used as vehicles to whip up anti-British sentiments, and such events often ended in bloodshed. Nationalist fervor culminated in 1848 when violent uprisings rocked a number of the islands. In the aftermath, the nationalist leaders changed tack and opted for political disruption rather than open confrontation as the best means to drive the British off the islands. They sought to make the islands ungovernable by disrupting the political process. A new rhetoric accompanied this change. Violence now was constructed as an impediment to the nationalist struggle.[74]
In sum, their political leaders told the people that violence was “non-Western” and uncivilized; their priests told them that it was immoral and unchristian; their radical nationalist leaders told them it was anti-Greek and hindered the struggle for national union. It would be surprising, then, if Greek plebeians did not begin to internalize new values that militated against violence, especially given that other forces were also at work that reinforced this message.

Laws were passed that forbade the wearing or possession of bladed weapons or implements in public. Only butchers were exempt from these regulations. Farmers and farm laborers could only possess pruning knives with a blade length of less than two inches. Enforcement of the laws banning possession was one of the primary duties of the Greek police, and the strict application of the laws acted to take weapons out of men’s hands. The courts increasingly took this offense seriously. In 1823, for example, the average sentence imposed for illegal possession of a knife was five days in the House of Correction. The same offense in 1855 would bring six to eight months at hard labor.[75] A trend analysis of arrests for illegal arms possession shows a very marked increase over time.[76] In short, the police became ever more vigilant in arresting men for possession of a knife in public, and the courts began to impose stiffer sentences. The end result was that fewer men had knives.

The difference is stark and remarkable. During the 1820s, nearly one-third of cases resulted in a non-custodial sentence. Instead of prison, the guilty party was fined a sum ranging from 1 to 5 Ionian dollars and bound over to maintain the “public tranquility.” Based on the courtroom testimonies, it appears that the decision to impose a custodial sentence and its length were based on the details of the fight and the nature of the wounds inflicted. Modal sentences were ten days and twenty days. By the latter part of the 1840s, however, judicial attitudes had changed dramatically. Everyone convicted received a jail term. The modal sentences in this period were sixty days (accounting for slightly over one-quarter of all cases) and two years. Indeed, almost 40 percent of those found guilty of slander in 1847 received sentences of ninety days or more, whereas no one had received a jail term of more than sixty days in 1823 and 1824. Knife fighting went from being a relatively minor offense to one that brought with it a hefty sentence to the House of Correction.

From the beginning of the period I examined, the courtroom discourse was an integral part of the knife duel, constituting, as I argued earlier, the third act in these narratives. By incorporating the court into their daily dramas about honor and masculinity, plebeian men bestowed legitimacy on it. The nobility had shown that the courts could provide a vehicle for disputing reputations through the charge of criminal slander, and plebeian men used this new venue to contest honor in an ideological climate that was increasingly hostile to interpersonal violence. Thus, in an act of social mimesis, some plebeian men opted for the docket over the blade. For the reasons cited above—especially the confiscation of their knives and the stiffer sentences imposed by judges—men continued to contest reputations in the court of public opinion, but now, rather than being restricted solely to the enclaves of male sociability—the wine shops and taverns—the site for their contests was the Hall of Justice.

To be sure, the knife fight did not disappear, and the heightened stakes may even have held an attraction for men who saw greater honor in greater risks. But the tide had turned. Beginning around mid-century, more men who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous insults took their antagonist to court rather than cut his face. By the 1880s, the assault rate on the islands had fallen from 134 to 27 per 100,000, and by the 1920s, it fell even further to 8.7.[77] The Eliasian civilizing process had occurred, and the knife duel as a means of defending one’s honor became a relic of the past. Honor, however, did not.

Elias argued that the culture of honor predominating in early modern Europe was prone to violence precisely because honor and violence were causally connected. Men of honor fought, and they fought over honor. For him and for the historians who have followed his lead, the duel was a perfect manifestation of this connection. He argued further that the rise of a “bureaucratic ethos” during the nineteenth century supplanted the ethic of honor and that alternative mechanisms of dispute resolution arose. Their advent severed the connection between masculinity and violence.[78] Studies of the changing ideas about masculinity in the West during the nineteenth century suggest that the civilizing of working-class men went hand-in-hand with industrialization and urbanization. In the factory, men internalized ideas about discipline and self-control; these were reinforced by the new civic institutions that developed in the burgeoning cities of Western Europe and the United States.[79] New ideas about middle-class male gentility were rooted in the emerging white-collar professions.[80] In this new world, “respectable” men were assertive, not aggressive, and violence became unacceptable.[81] In the southern United States, the way of life of the aristocracy was markedly changed in the postbellum period. What we see, then, in the areas where the honor-based duel flourished, is that its demise was accompanied by radical and profound changes in the material infrastructure of the dueling class. The cultural logic that had given honor its privileged place in defining masculinity had changed, and honor disappeared with the duel.

This study of plebeian violence in nineteenth-century Greece shows that honor was a more malleable concept than has been previously allowed. In this case, the ethic of honor persisted, but the intimate connection between it and violence changed. What remained of plebeian violence and masculinity were their symbolic manifestations, so well documented in mid-to-late twentieth-century ethnographies. The Greek men studied by Campbell, Herzfeld, and other ethnographers still contested status and reputation in a variety of ways but without the high incidence of interpersonal bloodshed that I have documented in this study of knife dueling. The marked decrease in masculine violence was not associated with a shift from an ethos of honor to something else.

There are a number of major reasons why Greece was different. First, unlike in the other cases where honor and dueling disappeared, in the Ionian Islands, the material basis of life that undergirded honor’s role in defining masculinity did not change substantially until the very recent past. The islands experienced neither industrialization nor urbanization. Men were still mostly peasant farmers, shepherds, dock workers, and merchant seamen. Theirs remained a world of stiff competition for scarce resources, and thus the reasons why honor developed in the first place persisted. Second, the ethical foundation of honor remained intact. The campaign waged by politicians, priests, and nationalists was against violence, not honor. No Orthodox priests decried honor from the pulpit, as Evangelical and Utilitarian clergymen did in England.[82] Far from denigrating honor, Ionian radicals steeped their nationalist rhetoric in the discourse of honor. In short, no agency or group on the islands challenged the notion that honor was at the core of what it was to be a Greek man. Finally, the courts and the legal system proved central in perpetuating the importance of honor in the discourse of masculine identity. One of the unintended consequences of the British Empire’s endeavor to insinuate law and the courts into the heart of colonial rule on the islands was to make the courts relatively cheap and accessible.[83] As the courts gained legitimacy among plebeian men as a venue for contesting reputations, their disputes took on less violent and more symbolic forms. However, honor remained central and prominent in slander trials. In each of the thousands of courtroom dramas over criminal calumny, Greek men stood in the dock and through their words reshaped what it meant to “be a man” in their society. The connective tissue between honor, masculinity, and violence was severed. Honor remained at the heart of Greek masculine identity, but violence did not.

The transition from combat with knives to duels with words took place in the nineteenth-century courtroom. When the British relinquished the islands in 1864, the Kingdom of Greece took them over and imposed its own legal system. The courts ceased to be as open and accessible, even after the major legal reforms of the 1880s and 1890s.[84] With access to the rituals and formal mechanisms of the courts removed, masculine contests over honor and reputation returned to the more informal settings of the tavern or the wine shop, where they would be studied by anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s, but with a difference. Violence and the knife duel had been disconnected from cultural concepts of honor and masculinity. In more recent times, then, men dueled over honor with words, not with stilettos. They bested one another with cards, not blades. Losing one’s face increasingly became a figure of speech rather than a fact of life in the rough and tumble world of Ionian Island men.

Thomas W. Gallant is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He received a doctorate in classical archaeology under the direction of Professor Anthony Snodgrass at the University of Cambridge. Gallant’s books include A Fisherman’s Tale (1984) and Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece (1991). He has recently completed two new books, Experiencing Dominion: Culture, Identity and Resistance in Britain’s Greek Empire (forthcoming) and A History of Greece in the Modern Era (forthcoming). This article derives from his current research on crime, criminal justice, and policing in the British Empire, and has been supported by grants from the H. F. Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


1 Istoriko Arheoi tis Kerkyras (Historical Archive of Kerkyra, hereafter IAK), Ektelestiko Astinomia (Executive Police Section, hereafter, EA) 870. The numbers recorded here refer to the file number under which the document or group of documents is filed in the archive. A file may consist of the records of a single case or a number of cases. See Aliki Nikiforou-Testone, Arheio Ektelestikis Astinomias (Kerkirsas, 1991), for a guide to the archive and its numbering system. The second archive from which I gathered court cases is the Topiko Istoriko Arheio tis Kefallenias (Local Historical Archive of Kefallenia, hereafter, TIAK). The police and court records in this collection were being archived while I was conducting my research; the record numbers here are the ones provisionally assigned to each document file. I wish to thank the archive directors, Aliki Nikiforou-Testone at Kerkyra and Yioros Moschopoulos at Kefallenia, for their assistance. Additional research was also undertaken in the Colonial Office records (CO) housed in the Public Records Office (PRO) in Kew Gardens, England.

2 Thomas W. Gallant, “Collective Action and Atomistic Actors: Labor Unions, Strikes, and Crime in Greece in the Post-War Era,” in Dimitri Constas and Theofanis G. Stavrou, eds., Greece Prepares for the 21st Century (Baltimore, 1995), 149–90; Gallant, “Crime, Violence, and Reform of the Criminal Justice System during the Era of Trikoupis,” in Kleomenis Koutsoukis, ed., Harilaos Trikoupis kai i epohe tou (Athens, 1998), 17–34; Gallant, “Murder in a Mediterranean City: Homicide Trends in Athens, 1850–1936,” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 24 (1998): 1–27.

3 Kevin McAleer, Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany (Princeton, N.J., 1994), 5. Robert A. Nye also endeavors to extrapolate from the anthropological literature on honor in contemporary Mediterranean societies to the study of honor and dueling among nineteenth-century French aristocrats and bourgeois. “Honor Codes in Modern France: A Historical Anthropology,” Ethnologia Europaea 21 (1991): 5–17.

4 For a recent summary of this literature, see Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (New York, 1997). The list of works in this vein, especially for the early modern period, is long, and many of them are extremely well known and so do not require citation here.

5 In one of the few works that explicitly connects the historical and ethnographical data, Frank Henderson Stewart noted that many honor disputes among the contemporary Bedouin he studied ended in arbitration and settlement rather than in a duel, as they would have, among aristocrats in medieval or early modern Europe. Stewart, Honor (Chicago, 1994), 139–44. His interpretation is correct, but it leaves unanswered the larger question of why a defense of honor in the past called for violence whereas today it does not.

6 Charles K. Tuckerman, The Greeks of To-Day (London, 1872), 340.

7 The Ionian Islands (Kerkyra, Paxos, Lefkas, Ithaki, Kefallenia, Zakinthos, and Kythera) are a string of verdant isles lying off the western coast of Greece. They extend in a northwest to southeasterly arc, with Kerkyra situated in the north and Kythera in the south. In the days before steamships, they could give a state mastery of east-west maritime movement across the northern Mediterranean and so were a hotly sought-after commodity by any power with imperial pretensions in the region. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the islanders were granted sovereignty guaranteed by Britain, Russia, and Prussia in 1817. The United States of the Ionian Islands were to be placed under the protection of the British government. Nowhere, however, was it ever stated what form this protection should take. The situation of the Ionian Islands was anomalous. They were a sovereign polity, but another state controlled them. They were not a British colony, yet the Colonial Office administered them as if they were. The first Lord High Commissioner, Sir Thomas Maitland, set the tone for the Protectorate. He wrote the constitution, allowing for local participation but reserving real power for the Colonial Office. The British ruled the islands until 1864, when Queen Victoria ceded them to the Kingdom of Greece upon the accession of King George.

8 William A. Goodison, Topographical and Historical Essay upon the Islands of Corfu, Leucadia, Cephalonia, and Zante (London, 1822), 196.

9 Robert Montgomery Martin, The British Colonies, Vol. 6: The Mediterranean (London, 1856), 141; George William Orkney, Viscount Kirkwall, Four Years in the Ionian Islands: Their Political and Social Conditions, 2 vols. (London, 1864), 57–60; Charles J. Napier, The Colonies: Treating of Their Value Generally and of the Ionian Islands in Particular (London, 1833), 97–98; John Davy, Notes and Observations on the Ionian Islands and Malta (London, 1842), 126–27; PRO, Colonial Office records (CO) 136/692:8/27/1841.

10 I introduced an element of stratification in selecting the sixteen sample years in order to ensure coverage. Three to four years from each of the four decades of British rule were selected, but which years in each decade were determined randomly. In order to examine the operation of the system in its entirety, I recorded data from all levels: complaints and warrants, constables’ reports, arrest registers, court proceedings from all levels of the judiciary, sentences and convictions, prison records, and correspondence inside the criminal justice system and between its functionaries and the colonial officers. I employ data from all of these levels in this examination of knife fighting.

11 For the purposes of this article, I have not presented the rates over time. Instead, the changing patterns of homicide will be discussed in another article.

12 Gallant, “Murder in a Mediterranean City,” 12–14.

13 Peter King, “Punishing Assault: The Transformation of Attitudes in the English Courts,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 26 (1996): 43–75.

14 In numerous cultures at various points in time, scarring or cutting or in some way attacking the face of an opponent was seen as a way of branding or shaming her or him. See, for example, Valentin Groebner, “Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town,” History Workshop 40 (1995): 1–15; Elliot J. Gorn, “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” AHR 90 (February 1985): 28; Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as Women, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton, N.J., 1996), 16; Robert Muchembled, La violence au village: Sociabilité et comportements populaires en Artois du 15e au 17e siècle (Turnhout, 1989), 167–83.

15 TIAK 873:4/24/1835.

16 TIAK 1454:7/25/1840.

17 IAK, EA 1119:1/10/1856.

18 PRO, CO 136/748.

19 TIAK 658:3/4/1835.

20 IAK, EA 1317:4/23/1835.

21 IAK, EA 215: 12/18/1854.

22 Thomas W. Gallant, “Turning the Horns: Cultural Metaphors, Material Conditions, and the Peasant Language of Resistance in Ionian Islands (Greece) during the Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 36 (1994): 717–19. As I showed in this article, the most direct challenge to another man’s reputation was to call him a cuckold. It was an insult that cut to the quick because it called into question a man’s capacity to fulfill in the ways prescribed in this society the duties of a man. Most frequently, however, men chose indirect means of making the accusation. The butcher in the story recounted above humiliated his foe with a pun revolving around his own occupation. By horned one, he alluded both to a goat or ram, the smell of which he would know from being a butcher, and a cuckolded man. The insult was sufficiently ambiguous as to leave the offended party with an out if he wished to avoid a fight. But the consequence of doing so would have been a diminishment of his reputation as a man who could protect what was his, i.e., his honor.

23 IAK, EA 1317:12/8/1835.

24 IAK, EA 1334:7/17/1860.

25 IAK, EA 679:1/1/1835.

26 IAK, EA 1421:6/9/1832.

27 IAK, EA 1610:7/27/1835.

28 TIAK 217:7/27/1832.

29 TIAK 847:9/11/1835.

30 Dispatches from Her Majesty’s Consuls in Corfu, Zante, and Cephalonia (London, 1867), Consul Wodehouse to Consul-General Saunders, 2/13/1865, enclosure No. 13, p. 12.

31 Kirkwall, Four Years in the Ionian Islands, 70–71.

32 Vendetta violence in Greece resembles the practice as recorded elsewhere in the Mediterranean. See, for example, Stephen Wilson, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica (Cambridge, 1988); and Christopher Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies, 2d edn. (Philadelphia, 1987).

33 John S. Koliopoulos, Brigands with a Cause: Brigandage and Irredentism in Modern Greece, 1821–1912 (Oxford, 1987), 251–53; Thomas W. Gallant, “Greek Bandit Gangs: Lone Wolves or a Family Affair?” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 6 (1988): 269–90; J. K. Campbell, “The Greek Hero,” in J. G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers, eds., Honor and Grace in Anthropology (New York, 1992), 137.

34 TIAK 724:7/14/1835.

35 Tuckerman, Greeks of To-Day, 240.

36 Gallant, “Turning the Horns,” 704.

37 Michael Herzfeld, The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (Princeton, N.J., 1985), 126–29.

38 The comparative literature on the duel is vast. I have drawn mainly on the following works, Dickson D. Bruce, Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South (Austin, Tex., 1979); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, 1982); Greenberg, Honor and Slavery; Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South (New York, 1984); Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (New York, 1993), 136; Anthony E. Simpson, “Dandelions on the Field of Honor: Duelling, The Middle Classes and the Law in Nineteenth-Century England,” Criminal Justice History 9 (1988): 99–155; V. G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford, 1988); Cecilia Morgan, “‘In Search of the Phantom Misnamed Honour’: Duelling in Upper Canada (Conceptions of Masculine Honour),” Canadian Historical Review 76 (1995): 529–63; Donna T. Andrew, “The Code of Honour and Its Critics: The Opposition to Duelling in England, 1700–1850,” Social History 5 (1980): 409–34; Ute Frevert, Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel, Anthony Williams, trans. (New York, 1995); Frevert, “Honour and Middle-Class Cultures: The History of the Duel in England and Germany,” in Jürgen Kocka and Alan Mitchell, eds., Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Providence, R.I., 1993), 207–40.

39 McAleer, Dueling, 123.

40 R. Sebetic, Duell-Regeln (Graz, 1879); A. Tavernier, L’art du duel (Paris, 1885).

41 McAleer, Dueling, 86–98.

42 Nye, Masculinity, 176.

43 Bruce, Violence and Culture, 73.

44 Nye, Masculinity, 136.

45 Simpson, “Dandelions on the Field of Honor,” 176.

46 Marvin E. Wolfgang, Patterns in Criminal Homicide (Philadelphia, 1958), 188–89.

47 Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Homicide (New York, 1988), 128.

48 Kenneth Polk, “Masculinity, Honour, and Confrontational Homicide,” in Kathleen Daly and Lisa Maher, eds., Criminology at the Crossroads: Feminist Readings in Crime and Justice (New York, 1998), 188–205.

49 Polk, “Masculinity,” 191.

50 Pieter Spierenburg, “Knife Fighting and Popular Codes of Honor in Early Modern Amsterdam,” in Spierenburg, ed., Men and Violence: Gender, Honor and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus, Ohio, 1998), 107. See also his essays: “Masculinity, Violence and Honor: The Long Term,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 1–35; and “Faces of Violence: Homicide Trends and Cultural Meanings: Amsterdam, 1431–1816,” Journal of Social History 27 (1994): 701–16. The major limitation with Spierenburg’s work is that it is based exclusively on homicide cases. As he points out, the intent of the knife fight was not murderous, and so the examples he examined were exceptional. This restricts his ability to illuminate the normative rules of conduct that structured knife fighting. It also means that the number of examples he had at his disposal was modest. I should note in passing that the other authors in the volume did not develop Spierenburg’s idea that plebeian men dueled over honor. Daniel Boschi in his examination of knife fighting in Rome, for example, persists in denying that lower-class combats were duels. Boschi, “Homicide and Knife Fighting in Rome during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 73–94.

51 Gorn, “Gouge and Bite,” 41. Gorn’s conclusions are amply supported by Ayers’s study of violence in the South, Vengeance and Justice, 21.

52 Robert A. Nye, “The End of the Modern French Duel,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 82–101, quote 83; McAleer, Dueling, 201; Frevert, Men of Honour, 192; and Ute Frevert, “The Taming of the Noble Ruffian: Male Violence and Dueling in Early Modern and Modern Germany,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 37–63, quote 60.

53 Steven Hughes, “Men of Steel: Dueling, Honor and Politics in Liberal Italy,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 64–81.

54 Simpson, “Dandelions on the Field of Honor,” 139–40; Peter N. Stearns, Be a Man! Males in Modern Society (New York, 1990), 49–50.

55 Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 271.

56 Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen assert that contemporary Southerners are more prone to violence than other Americans because of the persistence of a “culture of honor” in the South. However, neither in the national-level surveys they used nor in the social-psychological tests they conducted on University of Michigan students was any coherent definition of honor employed. In fact, they seem to conceptualize honor very differently from historians of the Old South, and so their work does not convincingly challenge the view that honor and dueling ebbed simultaneously. Nisbett and Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, Colo., 1996).

57 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Edmund Jephcott, trans. (Oxford, 1994), 447–49; see also Jonathan Fletcher, Violence and Civilization (Cambridge, 1997). Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen, “Introduction,” in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds., The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Countryside since the Middle Ages (Urbana, Ill., 1996), 1–16. Pieter Spierenburg, “Long-Term Trends in Homicide: Theoretical Reflections and Dutch Evidence, Fifteenth to Twentieth Centuries,” in Johnson and Monkkonen, Civilization of Crime, 63–105.

58 Stearns, Be a Man! 50.

59 J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (Oxford, 1964); Julian Alfred Pitt-Rivers, The People of the Sierra (1955; Chicago, 1961); and Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem; or, The Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean (New York, 1977); J. G. Peristiany, ed., Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology (The Hague, 1968).

60 The heated debate over whether or not there is such a cultural system need not concern us here. I am very aware of the dangers of reducing the varieties of contextually shaped behaviors down to a single gloss of honor. Nor do I argue that honor, as an ethical concept among Greek men, has remained constant through time. What I do contend, however, is that there is a connection between honor as ethnographers have recorded it in Greece during the recent past and the set of attitudes and behaviors that men during the nineteenth century described as honor. The literature on honor in the Mediterranean is vast. The major works consulted were J. Davis, People of the Mediterranean: An Essay in Comparative Social Anthropology (London, 1977); Anton Blok, “Rams and Billy-Goats: A Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour,” in Eric R. Wolf, ed., Religion, Power and Protest in Local Communities: The Northern Shore of the Mediterranean (Amsterdam, 1984), 51–70; David D. Gilmore, ed., Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington, D.C., 1987). Those arguing against such a view include Michael Herzfeld, “Honour and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems,” Man 15 (1980): 339–51; Herzfeld, “The Horns of the Mediterraneanist Dilemma,” American Ethnologist 11 (1984): 439–54; Josep R. Llobera, “Fieldwork in Southwestern Europe: Anthropological Panacea or Epistemological Straightjacket?” Critique of Anthropology 6 (1986): 25–33; Victoria A. Goddard, “From Mediterranean to Europe: Honour, Kinship and Gender,” in Goddard, Josep R. Llobera, and Cris Shore, eds., The Anthropology of Europe: Identity and Boundaries in Conflict (Providence, R.I., 1994), 57–92.

61 David D. Gilmore, Aggression and Community: Paradoxes of Andalusian Culture (New Haven, Conn., 1987), 43. See also Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven, 1990); and Elvin Hatch, “Theories of Social Honor,” American Anthropologist 91 (1989): 341–54.

62 Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage, 151.

63 Robert Paine, “High-Wire Culture: Comparing Two Agonistic Systems of Self-Esteem (Marri Baluch of Pakistan and Sarakatsani of Highland Greece),” Man 24 (1989): 667.

64 Herzfeld, Poetics of Manhood, 47.

65 Pitt-Rivers, Fate of Shechem, 32; in a more recent ethnography from the Iberian Peninsula, Miguel Vale de Almeida noted that when men fight “there is always someone there to restrain the contenders just in time.” Almeida, The Hegemonic Male: Masculinity in a Portuguese Town (Providence, R.I., 1996), 102.

66 Gilmore, Aggression and Community, 11. Stanley Brandes as well demonstrated how Andalusian men channeled their aggressive confrontations with other men into rituals such as joke-telling, skits, and riddles. Brandes, Metaphors of Masculinity: Sex and Status in Andalusian Folklore (Philadelphia, 1980).

67 Thomas W. Gallant, “‘We’re All Whores Here!’: Women, Slander, and the Criminal Justice System,” in Experiencing Dominion: Culture, Identity and Resistance in Britain’s Greek Empire (unpublished ms.).

68 The formula describing the trend for assaults is Yt = 2297 + 3.04 * t, while the equation for slander is Yt = 113.3 + 1.93 * t.

69 Thomas W. Gallant, “European Aborigines and Mediterranean Irish: Identity, Cultural Stereotypes and Colonial Rule,” in Experiencing Dominion.

70 Thomas W. Gallant, “Creating ‘Western Civilization’ on a Greek Island,” in Experiencing Dominion.

71 Thomas W. Gallant, “Peasant Ideology and Excommunication for Crime in a Colonial Context: The Ionian Islands (Greece), 1817–1864,” Journal of Social History 24 (1990): 1–32.

72 Thomas W. Gallant, “‘We Are the Christians’: Religion, Identity and Resistance,” in Experiencing Dominion.

73 B. Knox, “British Policy and the Ionian Islands, 1847–1864: Nationalism and Imperial Administration,” English Historical Review 99 (1984): 503–29.

74 Michael Pratt, Britain’s Greek Empire: Reflections on the History of the Ionian Islands from the Fall of Byzantium (London, 1978), 140.

75 I tabulated these figures from the database of convictions compiled from the court records in Kerkyra as described in note 9.

76 The formula for arms possession arrests is Yt = 2.1 + 1.25 * t. The arrest rate rose by a multiple of six between 1820 and 1858.

77 Gallant, “Murder in a Mediterranean City,” 11–12.

78 Elias, Civilizing Process, 292–300; for an application of this model to France, see Nye, “Honor Codes,” 10–11.

79 Stearns, Be a Man! 48–107; Jeffrey S. Adler, “‘My Mother-in-Law Is to Blame, but I’ll Walk on Her Neck Yet’: Homicide in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago,” Journal of Social History 31 (1997): 253–77; Martin J. Wiener, “The Victorian Criminalization of Men,” in Spierenburg, Men and Violence, 149–63.

80 Stearns, Be a Man! 108–54; E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York, 1993); Michael S. Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York, 1996); John Tosh, “New Men? The Bourgeois Cult of Home (in the 19th Century),” History Today 46 (1996): 9–16; and Tosh, “What Should Historians Do about Masculinity? Reflections on Nineteenth Century Britain,” History Workshop Journal 38 (1994): 179–202.

81 Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930 (Chicago, 1997), 111.

82 Wiener, “Victorian Criminalization,” 201, 204; Tosh, “What Should Historians Do,” 180–81.

83 One of the Lord High Commissioners of the islands, Lord Seaton (formerly Sir John Colborne), put it best when he wrote that it was the aim of the Colonial Office’s legal system “to bring justice to the peasant’s own door.” PRO, CO 136/120, Seaton to Stanley, Zakinthos, October 10, 1843.

84 Gallant, “Crime, Violence, and Reform of the Criminal Justice System during the Era of Trikoupis,” 13–16.





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