A duel is a formalized fight between two individuals, theoretically with equally matched weapons — almost always either swords or pistols, though there are exceptions — conducted according to certain rules, with each participant usually assisted by a “second.” This was usually a friend of the combatant, whose role was to try to settle the dispute before the face-off began and then, if unsuccessful, to ensure that the rules of the engagement were followed.
Though some sources refer to the story of David and Goliath in the Bible or the one-on-one fight between Hector and Achilles in the Iliad as duels, the term most often applies to confrontations over matters of honor (typically when one party insults the other publicly) or political or romantic rivalry. (The place where a duel is held was sometimes referred to as the “field of honor.”)
Though prohibitions against dueling were introduced as early as the 13th century, it remained a common way for knights and nobles to settle their differences throughout the Middle Ages, and later became popular among the upper classes in Europe and America. Fencing duels between German students, for instance, were often held over trivial matters, with a resulting scar on the cheek considered a badge of honor indicating masculinity and social position.
In the United States, dueling was outlawed in most places by the mid-19th century, though duels continued to be fought, often secretly. The most famous duel in American history was that between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Hamilton was killed in the duel, and his death helped to discredit the practice of dueling. (Read why Hamilton is one of the people most honored by statues in America.)
To compile a list of some of the most famous duels in world history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed numerous online sources with a focus on history. We used editorial discretion to assemble the list, based on several factors, including the notoriety of the people involved, the public’s interest in the duel, and any unusual outcomes that may have occurred.
Click here to read more about 22 of history’s most famous duels.
Besides Burr and Hamilton, many celebrated figures have fought duels over the years. Two famous Frenchmen — the painter Édouard Manet and the author Marcel Proust — faced adversaries on the field of honor, and the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was killed in a face-off with a French army officer. In our own country, future president Andrew Jackson, famed orator Henry Clay, and Texan hero Sam Houston all found themselves dueling. (Dueling was not involved, but here’s a list of 37 violent celebrity deaths.)
While many of the duels listed here ended in death, a number didn’t, and in some cases the participants remained lifelong friends.
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