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The bible describes the battle between Goliath and David as a dual between two champions each represents his side fighting between them selves to determine the outcome of a battle. The same is described at the opening scene of the movie Troy

Was it a real practice in ancient times (say before the Roman Empire)?

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    There are hundreds of accounts of this, though it didn't happen universally across all cultures prior to a certain time. See the wikipedia page for single combat, specifically the "middle ages" section. "Sometimes however, such single combat would merely initiate a battle rather than prevent it." What exactly are you skeptical of here? – John Lyon May 13 '12 at 23:11
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    The movie in this followed Homer which is supposedly a historical account (historians by now treat it as such, though of course mixed with myth and legend over the centuries). – jwenting May 14 '12 at 9:31
  • @jozzas, wasn't aware of this, when I tried to find it before asking, I didn't know it's called single combat. Put an answer, and I'll accept it. – SIMEL May 14 '12 at 19:28
  • Hmm, I don't fancy the US's chances against Russia at the moment. How about internally: With sufficient training, a televised Romney vs Obama in a ring could potentially make millions instead of costing millions... – Benjol May 15 '12 at 11:58
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Yes.

There are hundreds of historical accounts of this, though it obviously didn't happen universally across all cultures prior to a certain time. Some cultures used single combat to resolve disputes in place of a battle, but others used the single combat as a starting point:

"Sometimes however, such single combat would merely initiate a battle rather than prevent it."

Sword, and later, pistol duelling was a natural evolution of this activity off the battlefield.

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    I think sword and pistol dueling were more commonly in response to personal affronts. This paper www3.amherst.edu/~cgkingston/duels.pdf argues that "under certain social and economic conditions, individuals must fight in order to maintain their personal credit and social standing." (Emphasis added) – Larry OBrien May 21 '12 at 1:36
  • @LarryOBrien I agree. From the wiki: "the tradition of single combat was continued away from the battlefield, with the pas d'armes and the early modern duel." I've clarified this in my answer. – John Lyon May 21 '12 at 2:22

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