The sword in Ancient Greece

The sword was an ancient Greek weapon. It was the main weapon of war along with the spear and the scraper. It was used in both vertical and horizontal hitting. From the sword evolved the Gladius of the Romans.

Few archaeological findings exist to this day. According to the description in George Cameron Stone's dictionary, the classic sword was a double-edged sword with a blade 50-60 cm long, while the Spartans also used smaller ones, 30 cm long during the Persian wars. Its cross-section has the shape of an ellipse or rhombus. The width of the blade varied with the maximum width at two-thirds the length of the blade, while its tip was very sharp.

The first swords were made of bronze, while later iron was used.
The ancient Greek kopis or kopida (from the word to cut), was one of the main weapons of the Greeks, such as Alexander the Great, in antiquity.

The characteristic of the shovel is its curved asymmetric blade. Its structure created an additional thrust similar to that of a pelecy (axe), but differing in the center of gravity (the center of gravity of the spade is approximately in the middle of its lower curve, while that of the pelecy at its head) and served to break shields and shredding enemies.

In addition, the handle of the spade is constructed so that the hoplite's hand "nests" inside it, not allowing it to slip out of position.

The kopida was a prototype for later weapons of other peoples such as the Egyptian Khopesh or the Iberian Falcata.

The sword with an iron guard and part of its sheath, from the archaeological museum of Thessaloniki.

During the period of Antiquity, the sword accompanied the Greek soldiers of almost all categories (armors, peltasts, archers, infantry, cavalry, etc.). Although all warriors possessed one, the sword was not the primary combat weapon, nor did it ever succeed in displacing the spear as the primary offensive weapon and preferred by combatants.
Mycenaean swords. Above and in the middle: sword, below: cowslip

The inhabitants of the Greek area made and used swords from a long time ago, probably from the first years of the metal age (for the Greek area around 3000 BC). The swords that were developed were a result of the progress achieved in the art of working with metals (copper, brass, rarely iron at that time).

Several years later, during the time of the Trojan War (1194-1184 BC according to the prevailing version), which had shaken the Greek world, two main types coexisted in use: the long straight sword, the fasganon (from slaughter) according to linear B, and the shorter and newer, the aor (from aero=to shake). The first ones were relatively long, from 60 centimeters at least up to one meter (!), they were straight and thin.

Their edge was spear-shaped (reminiscent of a pole, a spear) and was manufactured with a central ribbing along the longitudinal axis, giving them greater resistance in the event of the weapon being used on impact.

The blade was sharp on both ends (they were double-edged, i.e. double-edged) but their large size and their resemblance to spears, along with the effort to fix them better, lead us to the conclusion that they were mainly used for night weapons (as spears are used). blows.

Of course, this does not mean that in case of need it would not also be used for crushing blows, as swords are mainly used, but then there was the possibility that the blade itself would break or that its parts (blade and handle) would be separated from a possible strong impact .

Their impressive feature and at the same time a clear proof of the advanced metalwork of the Mycenaean world are the elaborate decorations they carried, mainly on the handle or at the points where the handle joins the blade.

The History of the Greek Nation writes about it: "The famous swords of the royal tombs of Mycenae have an ornate handle covered with gold plates. Usually the handle ends in an apple or mushroom shape at the upper end and the lower part of the blade has rounded ends, but later it becomes square or acquires a cross or horn-shaped end.

Perhaps these longswords were intended more for display of grandeur than for combat use, although their blade was sharp enough to cut down an opponent. The length often exceeds one meter. Often the gold foil and ivory are decorated with fine designs.

On a hilt of a sword four lions circle and face each other...The spine, which was originally purely reinforcing, is decorated with rows of animal representations: horses, stags or griffins in flying gallop or with decorative subjects such as small shields or spirals....

The longsword is very similar to modern cavalry swords and seems to have served similar purposes. Because the Mycenaean lords fought primarily as charioteers, their longsword was necessary in order to cover the distance from the chariot to the opposing infantry or, even more, to the opposing charioteer. In such a case they must have used it at night, to pierce the chest of the enemy official.

It seems that the breastplates were resistant to crushing blows, since the long length of his weapon reduced the force of the impact. However, they were relatively more vulnerable to nocturnal blows, especially to those that were delivered at an appropriate angle to the less protected parts of a chest (joints, etc.). The same was true for the pedestrian collision, as we will see below.

The large, almost full-body shields used by the opponents left little margin of success for chest blows, so only at night could they have any luck.

The newer technology and shorter sword we do not know exactly when it was introduced. It was shorter, from 50 to 70 cm at most, but considerably heavier. They used it, contrary to the older one, in a double role, for thrusting as well as for nocturnal strokes.

It had a blade that was broad along its entire length, except in some cases in which the blade was widened (thereby becoming heavier and stronger) at the tip, i.e. the point. The swords of this type, with the reinforced point, were very similar to the kopides of the classical times (4th century BC) and to the yatagania of the modern era.

The aor is considered to have revolutionized the way of fighting. Warriors using it could no longer line up in close formation, as both raising it to strike from above and moving it diagonally or laterally could not be accomplished without sufficient space.

But they could land powerful blows against their opponents with it, whether they were holding a massive shield or wearing a breastplate. The aor was heavy enough that there was no adequate protection against it.
 Swords with an iron guard and part of its sheath, from the archaeological museum of Thessaloniki.

The sword in one form or another was the constant weapon of all warriors. It was used by both the nobles and the common soldiers of the people. However, it was not what constituted the main weapon, neither for them nor for the others. The main weapon was the spear, which speaks in favor of the Greekness of the Trojans, who had the same regard for it.

In addition to the sword, however, the Greeks of the Mycenaean era also carried a manual, which they usually used as a last resort, when their other weapons had become useless. Possibly they exploited its armor-piercing power, but this could only be done by very cool and well-trained men, who took advantage of it when they were in a death embrace with the armored enemy.

In such a case they sought to direct it towards the opponent's relatively unprotected neck, as shown in similar surviving representations (for example in a fresco of the palace of Pylos, 13th century BC).

A few such manuals have survived with very imaginative decorations, a sample of the wealth and aesthetics of their owners as well as the society that admired them. In the National Archaeological Museum, four very elegant manuals are on display, which have an impressively beautiful inlaid decoration.

The first of these depicts a nature scene with birds near a river and a feline attacking them. In the second we see galloping lions, in the third spirals and roses and in the fourth various marine species. More impressive, however, and very instructive for later generations, is the lion hunting scene depicted in a fifth handbook that was discovered in the burial grounds of Mycenae and dates from the 16th century.

In it four men clad only in loincloths (light clothing around the waist, up to the thighs), armed in order, with eight-shaped shield and spear, with turret-shaped shield and spear, with bow and with eight-shaped shield and spear, fight against a large of a lion which has already laid down a fifth hunter.

The History of the Hellenic Nation comments: “…Manuals, as royal weapons, were the most elegant of all, and, as it turned out, were often in the hands of queens and princesses. In some of them, metalwork managed to become real metal painting with adhesive art. Entire scenes are depicted on the broad spine.

It was a truly admirable technique. Using niello, an alloy of lead, silver, sulfur and borax, the artists rendered tones of metallic colors. The scenes that often depict racing themes amaze with their dynamism, movement and grace…”.

In the years following the Trojan War the Mycenaean countries and their civilization collapsed under the blows of the Dorians or Heraclides or peoples of the sea, who invaded from the North (according to the older version), from the sea (according to newer versions ) or they were not invaders but simple internal rebels (a version that was advocated in the 1980s but is no longer heard today). Wherever they came from, the new sovereigns prevailed because, among other things, they seem to have had more effective equipment, made of iron and not of brass.

Although there is a long period of time intervening (from the 10th to the 8th century BC) for which our information is limited, it is considered more likely that the developments in martial arts and the new methods of combat that prevailed during that period (conflicts in dense array , hoplite phalanxes) was not something completely new but the result of wider processes and technological inventions of the "dark" years that preceded it.

The swords of that period were probably a design evolution from the aor, which was now made of iron or of alloys that made it more robust. Because it was originally used by phalanx fighters, the hoplites, the new sword appears to have been considerably shorter in length. These men had the spear as their main weapon and only as an adjunct, when the spear broke, they drew their swords and fought at close range.

In such a case, since one line was in close contact with the other (during the pushing phase) and therefore the men were suffocatingly close to each other and space was very limited, there was a need for a weapon which could be used effectively, injuring the armored opponent, who was almost face to face, in the vulnerable spots...

To be able to cover these needs, the sword became shorter and rather heavier (to be easier to withdraw from the sheath and also to use) but it kept its double property, in order to be used for night strikes (which was also most often in phalanx combat conditions) and for percussion (which was extremely difficult during the thrusting phases but very easy when the opposing line was beginning to bend and the spears were now broken).

For the same reasons, the grip of the weapon was shaped accordingly. This was carried in a leather (usually) or metal (rare) sheath, which was slung by a leather strap (telamon) from the right shoulder to the left side of the waist. The weapon was held in a relatively high position, at the level of the sternum and not at the waist, as was done later. So its owner could draw it easier and faster, during the critical phase when his spear was lost and he was momentarily unarmed.

A phalanx hoplite at the moment of close contact with the opponents all he could do was to draw with his free right hand (which before held the spear in a high grip) his sword, while with his left hand, always holding the his shield, he pressed the scabbard against his sternum so that the weapon could be released easily.

Then with this he tried to achieve a night strike on the enemy's unprotected points, i.e. above or below his shield or between them if such a possibility existed.

To the armored warriors of that time such blows, which were necessarily delivered from a very short distance and therefore with limited power, could not seriously injure, unless they hit unprotected parts (pubic area, genitals, neck).

The same was the case when the phalanxes relaxed and the battle took on a more fluid character, in which case the sword-wielding hoplites sought to strike, mostly with a blow and rarely with a jab, the enemy's head or body.

However, the armor also limited the effectiveness of the blows, especially the impact ones. The realization of this particular disadvantage of the weapon led to the search for and eventually the construction of a stronger sword.

The new weapon, the dagger, was no longer ambidextrous: it had lost that ability in favor of increasing the striking power of one of its parts. It had swelled on one side, it had become heavy so that it fell with greater force on the armors and the bodies.

The allusion capability was maintained but rather with reduced effectiveness. In addition the new weapon had the advantage of requiring less effort to learn to use, because the emphasis fell on striking ability rather than on careful, pretentious innuendo.

The knife, although its counterpart also existed in Mycenaean times, does not seem to have come from workshops in the metropolitan country. It was probably introduced during the 6th century from the West (specimens of it have been found in Italy since the 8th century BC). In any case, the needs that forced the introduction of this weapon existed both in the metropolis and in Great Greece, so it does not matter so much where it was first used. It is important that it was very useful, spread quickly and was the second type of sword used by the armies of that period.

The use of both species is fully demonstrated by the surviving depictions. In the Attic vase paintings of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. the swords that appear fall into the two described categories.

In the first, the straight sword is represented, sharp and piercing, whose double-edged blade usually had the shape of a tree leaf and a length, generally, greater than the cubit of the hand of the one who carried it. An iron sword of this type found at Dodoni, without most of its hilt, was 58 cm long.

The best preserved of all that have been excavated at Olympia was 68 cm long, and it is estimated that its original length must have been around 80 cm. The second type of sword was elongated, sharp, about the same length, with a curved single-edged blade. Xenophon calls it a machete and recommends its use by cavalry.

Despite the expert's advice, the angiographs often show the knife being used by infantry as well, but in combat from the cluster of hoplites the straight piercing sword would logically have been more in use. In a very characteristic instance, in which this type is depicted in use by a foot hoplite, a fully equipped Greek hoplite is shown to have engaged a Persian warrior.

Apart from Attic vases and some other finds on Greek soil, there are several types of swords in other Mediterranean countries, where Greek martial art and technique had arrived. In Campovalano, Italy, some great specimens of that period (straight, leaf-shaped blade and about 60 cm long) were found, excellently preserved, together with their metal cases. In Etruscan depictions the use and position of the sword in the equipment of the hoplite is evident.

The peculiarity of the Laconian sword

At the same time the masters of the weapon battle, the Spartans, seem to follow their own, separate, direction, although not significantly different as to yield a third type of sword.

For the battle from the cluster between phalanxes, the Spartans were at first armed like the other Greeks, but instead of the usual sword they carried a small sword (about 30 centimeters long), so that many younger authors speak of manuals and not of swords. However, it is more correct to speak of a short sword, because its shape with the leaf blade and its weight correspond to something like this and not to a simple manual.

The reasons that led the warriors of Lacedaemon to use weapons of such size are not fully clarified. Probably there must have been an appreciation of its effective use during the push phase, so a small, "sly" weapon was needed to take down the onrushing warriors.

M. Kampouris considers it "...a version for short distances, dense formations and skillful hands. Suitable only for nectal strikes and not for dueling, it allowed for great accuracy in use, even from extremely dense formations, which became difficult for standard-length swords.

The short length utilized all of the user's dexterity in conditions of high density, such as occurred during or shortly after thrusting, while offering great impact power and little risk of breakage."

The shortness of the Spartan swords had been the subject of many anecdotes in antiquity. When the famous Athenian orator Demas told the Lacedaemonian king Agis that the Laconian swords were very dear to magicians because due to their small size they could easily be swallowed, Agis proudly replied that the Spartans approach the enemy with these swords...

The Lacedaemonian general and diplomat Andalcidas answered the question why the Spartans used such short swords: "Because we fight close to our enemies." A Spartan mother, to whom her warrior son complained, replied: "Add to your sword a step forward...". Even Plutarch spoke of the shortness of Spartan swords and the prowess that justified it in many of his treatises, during the 2nd century BC.

Apart from their characteristic brevity, Spartan swords were also characterized by their very simple technique and the absence of decorations. Regarding their name, however, disagreements and question marks have arisen. While ancient writers often recorded the xyelon as the Spartan sword, in the texts of some lexicographers the "xyelos" or "xyeli" is described as "a small sword called a drapanon".

If the name used was a drill, it is possible that the designation "wood" simply meant the material of the weapon, which was certainly used in military exercises.

However, even if it was a simple wooden sword, it seems that it was not only suitable for the training fields. Ancient writers report many incidents in the performance of mock combats, in which one trainee mortally wounded another.

In a case recounted by Plutarch in his Ethics, during a duel two young Spartans struck the other so violently that he fell bleeding. Those watching immediately intervened, with the intention of punishing the perpetrator. When they began to beat him, the young man who had been mortally wounded intervened, saying: "For God's sake, don't do that. It's not fair, because I'd kill him too if I managed to strike first."

Both the comments of this type by the ancient authors and the name "xyelos" or "xyeli", i.e. the wooden construction, prompted some modern writers to claim that the Lacedaemonians also used wooden swords in the battles! Such a thing does not seem to stand up to the light of criticism. First of all, it is not certain that the name also means wooden construction.

Many times the names do not correspond to reality or highlight something symbolic. In the Spartan army was the elite body of 300 horsemen, who followed King Leonidas to Thermopylae and eternal glory, fighting with him to the end.

But none of them were riding. They were all infantry... Looking at the problem from another side we find that, however brave the Laconians were, this did not mean that they were challenging their luck, needlessly risking the future of their army and state.

Moreover, all their strategies were oriented towards the achievement of the best result (crushing the opponent at a minimal cost to themselves), i.e. towards efficiency and not towards heroic self-affirmation and irrational display of courage.

The distinguished professor of Classical Archeology Tz. Anderson wrote about it: "I have not recognized the xyleon on soldiers in representations of classical art, and I am of the opinion that it was not used by the Spartans in battle during the classical period. Iron drills, later, were dedicated by children to the goddess "Artemis the Standing" and I think that the wood should be identified with these ritual weapons.

In a very characteristic relief, however, which is now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, it depicts a scene from the civil wars of the late 5th century BC, in which a fallen Spartan soldier uses his very short sword against of his Athenian opponent, who strikes him while bending over.

From this singular illustrative incident each researcher, according to his predisposition, has drawn different conclusions. Another sees the fallen Spartan striking in the pubic region the Athenian who bends over him, and another the depiction of the Athenian vigor prevailing over the decadent Laconians... It is noted that the relief, because of course it is not three-dimensional to reveal the true idea of the artist, justifies all interpretations…

The sword during the Alexandrian and Hellenistic era (from 4th to 1st century BC)

Although the standard hoplite sword was still in use, the most common sword of this period was the kopis (kopida), a development of the well-known knife with a sharp but now curved handle, almost identical to the jatagans of the Revolution of 1821.

Gradually, with a process corresponding to today's fashions, it became a particularly beloved weapon and displaced the classic sword of the hoplites. Very well preserved specimens of this species have been preserved in Spain.

As had been established in the previous period, the knife was an ideal weapon for horsemen, because it allowed a good hold on the horse and at the same time an easy strike, which was not so simple with the spear.

Similarly, the evolution of the knife, the kopida, was especially suitable for horsemen, who could use it to deliver powerful blows, from top to bottom, on foot soldiers who were protected by armour. The situation of course became very hard for the latter (the infantry), in the event that their lines were broken and they were isolated from oncoming horsemen.

The equestrian forces of the time, the Thessalians and the Macedonians, seem to have adopted the kopid to a large extent. It is even claimed by authors that the sword with which Alexander the Great cut the Gordian bond was of this type.

Something remarkable about that period was the widespread use of the sword. Not only infantrymen and horsemen, but also various squires were equipped with a sword suitable for their specialty.

This development is justified by the complex form that battles had acquired at the time, the greater fluidity and the rapid increase in the utilization of important and well-trained cavalry units. In reliefs of the period, various archers, even Cretans, are depicted with a sword.

Special mention must be made of the peltasts. That body emerged at the beginning of the 4th century BC. The men brought him along with the other objects (spear, pelt, leather chest, endromides) and a sword, which seems to have been of great length and had a rhomboid point.

Although in its other characteristics it was similar to the hoplite sword of earlier times (it was straight, double-edged, with a high allusion potential), some authors saw in it a new weapon, more similar to the Spanish dagger which later for centuries it would glory in the skillful hands of the Roman legionnaires.

The weapon's primary role (mainly effective innuendo from afar and less successful engagement in one-on-one duels) lends more support to the opposite view. It was a weapon based on the basic model of its kind at the time, but adapted (like the other types of peltasts) to the particular needs and mission of the special body that adopted and used it.

The peltasts were involved in fluid conflicts and fought both against armored and unarmored infantry. It was, therefore, necessary for them to have a second weapon (the spear was the first for them) which they could use both in an allusion, hitting the opponent from a distance, and in an impact, participating in skirmishes.

To ensure that both the strike (the nocturnal) and the other (the impact-crushing) would be effective, the men's sword had been lengthened (to achieve a nocturnal strike from a distance) but also strengthened with the rhomboid (more flattened, thus more compact) instead of the sheet-like shape.

It is possible that general Iphicrates was the initiator of this innovation as well. M. Kambouris characterizes the new sword "...clearly suitable for the new type of fights that developed into fierce duels, in open or closed space, both during wall battles, sieges and naval battles, as well as in ventures on uneven terrain, but also after the fracture of the phalanges, during the push."

During the years of Philip II and Alexander the Great, the warriors who manned the Macedonian phalanx were also equipped with the usual sword for their time, but they rarely had the opportunity to use it.

This situation was maintained during the times after the death of the great soldier (323 BC), during the wars between his successors. During the 3rd century BC the phalanx underwent modifications, which strengthened it in terms of striking power but rendered its fighters almost unarmed.

The latter apart from the sarissa (spear 6.5 meters long) which they held with both hands, now possessed a sword of small size (about 40 cm long) and of doubtful value. Furthermore their shield remained small as before, providing protection only while the phalanx was fighting in formation. Some such Macedonian weapons have been preserved in excellent condition and allow us to draw very useful conclusions.

The phalangite sword was half as wide and slightly shorter than that used by the Roman legionnaire at the same time. These developments had dramatic effects during the years that followed and during the conflicts of the Macedonians (but also of the other Greeks who were then equipped in a similar way) with the Roman invaders, whose main weapon was the powerful sword (gladius), which were used for percussive - fatal blows.

All the overwhelming victories achieved by the conquerors had this outcome (the defeat of the Greek arms) because after the initial tactical maneuvers the Greek phalanx was broken up and the battle turned into a number of individual duels, in which the Romans, due to doctrine, equipment and corresponding education, they had a clear lead.

For the greatest of all battles between Greeks and Romans, that of Pydna in 168 BC, Plutarch has left us a very vivid and characteristic description: "...As soon as they penetrated and found themselves inside the phalanx, others were beating them from the sides in bare parts of the body and others surrounded them.

Thus the power and the common effort of the Romans weakened the phalanx, which broke up and in the duels and the skirmishes of a few men from the group, the Macedonians with their small knives beat the solid and sturdy shields of the Romans and with their light shields they tried to repel the blows of the swords that they had and which from their weight and from the momentum of the blows pierced every weapon and entered the bodies of the Macedonians".

Comparing Greek and Roman weaponry (in swords), several authors argued for the qualitative superiority of the latter and its contribution to the eventual Roman predominance.

The catalytic element, however, does not seem to have been the qualitative difference in armaments (the Romans themselves admired and highly valued the quality of Greek weapons...) but the fact that during the critical battles (mainly those of Kynos Kefali and Pydna) the Roman leadership he managed to carry out the conflict in a way that served him, that is, by breaking up the phalanx and fighting from the cluster, so he also had the tactical advantage.

In the conflicts in which the Greek phalanx did not break, the Greeks were also the final winners (Herakleia 280 BC, Asklos 279 BC and possibly Olympus 149 BC), proving that it was not the type of armament but the proper command of the battle which gave victory.