The Ancient Thracian Iron Sword Rhomphaia

By Kamen Kolev, translated (from Bulgarian) by Daniel Genchev

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In Greece, among the grave finds in Mycenae two artistically crafted bronze swords are found with handles mounted with ivory and the remaining metal part is decorated through intarsion (rubbing of other metal in the bronze - silver), different scenes being depicted - birds, animal figures running or fighting, hunting scenes, etc. (10). The rivets of our swords were bronze. In some specimens they are preserved and allow the thickness of the mount to be figured, handle - around 1.7 cm. The second part of the handle is 51 cm long, 1.8 to 1.6 cm wide and average of 1 cm thick, the edge on the periphery being with higher relief than the back of the handle. On both sides of the sword, around the whole edge on its back, there is decoration consisting of two incised straight parallel lines. This decoration passing through the whole length of the second (longer) part of the handle suggests that it has not been covered and there have not been applied any bone or horn plates. In support of this opinion speaks also the fact that this part lacks holes for rivets, which could eventually have been used if there has been lining on this part of the handle.

At the head of the sheet, close to its sharp part, there is a hole, in which a bronze ring with internal diameter of about 2 cm (plate 3a) is inserted. It was used for hanging the sword on a strap for flinging over the shoulder.

In their present condition the average weight of the swords is around 0.77 kg. These swords had double function - they were used as piercing and slicing weapons. They become of definite significance for Thracian history considering some accounts by Titus Livius and Plutarchus, as well as a relief depiction from Trajan's trophy found at Adamklisi, Dobrudja. Both authors mention quite cursorily a long Thracian iron weapon called rhomphaia, which, according to Plutarchus, was carried on the right shoulder. Here are the written accounts themselves: When Titus Livius (XXXI 39) describes the course of battle between the Roman consulate Sulpicius and the Macedonian ruler Philip V (220-179 BC) during the second Macedonian War (200-197 BC) which took place in the forested area around the river Erigon (Black River) in 199 BC, he notes of the Macedonian allies the following: "And the Thracians could not even use their rumpias here, which, being too long, intertwined with the stretching from everywhere tree branches." Obviously this regards a long weapon, with which one hits and slices with a broad swing. And when Plutarchus (Aem. Paul. 18) mentions the beginning of the battle in the valley of Pydna (June 22nd 168 BC), he expresses the personal impressions of the Roman commander Publius Nasica who, as he himself admitted, was most scared: "They were tall men armed with white shining shields and greaves, underneath dressed with black chitons, swaying on their right shoulders raised upwards heavy iron rhomphaias."

The etymology of the noun rhomphaia, which according to the ancient authors means "A big Thracian sword" is unknown. We saw from the two cited passages that the accounts about this weapon are not detailed enough for there to be a clear understanding of what it was. Some modern authors see the rhomphaia as a spear. According to Tomashek (II 1, p. 18) it is a Thracian spear about 2 m. long, half of which was a heavy double-edged iron. This opinion is at first shared G. Katsarov. Later the heavy iron rhomphaias (rumpias) are defined - by Katsarov too - as big, long double-edged swords, which the Thracians carried on their right shoulder (12) or as a peculiar type of long, wide sabers, which they used (13). Professor G. Mihaylov has studied the issue on the rhomphaias considering the expressed opinions (14). Probably, he states, in the different tribes, or rather the different epochs, the name has been applied to different weapons of this type. Considering some accounts that state it is a sword and also the fact that the word rhomphaia in Greek in the first few centuries AD means exactly sword, G. Mihaylov expresses the opinion that in this case we could consider the long Celtic sword or its development. Since according to other accounts the rhomphaia consisted of two equal parts - wooden and iron, G. Mihaylov considers a similar weapon used by the Dacians (Thracians) in their wars against Trajan (98-117AD). It is depicted on the reliefs from Trajan=s trophy (beginning of II c. AD) at Adamklisi in Dobrudja (plate 4). Depicted is a Roman soldier fighting three Dacians (Thracians), two of which are armed with long swords - probably rhomphaias - with wooden (?) handles occupying half of the length and metal cutting part with tip slightly curved to the inside. In battle this weapon is used with two hands but is carried with one hand semi-erect on the right shoulder. Having in mind that the rhomphaia is defined as a spear as well, and also the explanation of the lexicographer Hesichius: rhomphaia - Thracian defensive weapon, machaira, sword or long spear, an explanation found similar from other lexicographers as well, G. Mihaylov supposes that the word rhomphaia expresses a collective term for offensive weapon or regards the long and heavy Celtic sword, which surpasses in size the long sword of V and IV centuries BC, or if not that, something similar to the offensive weapon from Trajan=s trophy.

It is obvious that due to the lack of more detailed data the clarifying of the questions around the type, size, make, shape, decoration and use of the Thracian rhomphaia is not taken to the end. It can be done only with the help of more exact and detailed accounts from the ancient written tradition and exact archeological material. To this day the written sources have not contributed with anything new to the issue but the archeological discoveries already reveal the opportunity for a new comprehensive study and interpretation. These are the ten swords that are the subject of the present examination. They are in fact the mysterious and unidentified so far rhomphaia. For this unconditional statement of ours we consider the following facts:

1.The swords are found in areas inhabited by the Thracians, mainly by the tribe Bessi.

2.There is no doubt that the graves, in which these weapons are found, are of Thracian warriors wearing torques. The ancient Greeks did not wear torques as they considered this habit barbarian (15). The swords beside those Thracian warriors are obviously Thracian weapons.

3. All ten of them are made of iron.

4. Their length - 145 cm. - gives us reason to define them as too long or big Thracian swords.

5. Long, sharp and heavy in their striking power, they can replace the long spear. With this function of theirs they cover the collective term offensive weapon.

6. Our swords can replace the machaira and akinake (16) as piercing weapons.

7. They also replace the long and heavy Celtic sword used mainly for slicing.

8. In the grave from the village Tzar Kaloyan (plate 5) the sword was placed on the right side of the skeleton, the upper part of the handle being at the level of the head. Obviously the sword was carried on the right shoulder and extended above it. In much the same position was found the sword from the grave at Razlog, which placed in the right, slightly bent at the elbow hand, was leaning to the shoulder of the dead. (17)

9. Worn in this manner by a warrior the sword was freely wailing on the right shoulder, just as Plutarchus notes.

10. The swords are similar to the striking weapon from Trajan's trophy, which according to the guesses of G. Mihaylov is the Thracian rhomphaia.

11. All finds are from IV-I centuries BC, i.e. from the time of the events described by both ancient authors.

From all accounted of, it is clear that the rhomphaia was used for slicing and piercing of the enemy, i.e. it successfully replaced the long and short spears and various swords with the same functions. It is obvious that in the first century BC the Thracian arms have gone through series of changes and improvements before arriving to the rhomphaia, which successfully combined the functions of several different weapons, without, of course, the latter=s exclusion from the equipment of the Thracian battle arsenal. In addition to that we see that the similar depictions of the striking weapon from Trajan=s trophy from the beginning of II century AD, compared to our rhomphaias from IV-I centuries BC, reveal a continuation in the evolutionary development of this type of weapon. The gradual improvement of the mentioned swords in particular, as well as the improvement of Thracian arms in general during the Iron Age, quite convincingly bear witness of the gradual grow of the producing capacity of Thracian society, of the material and technical advance and skill, which act as a necessary prerequisite for the improvement of material manufacture.

Written accounts reveal that the rhomphaia was made for the infantry and the relief from Trajan=s trophy shows the way it was used in battle - gripping with two hands. For the light infantry using a light shield pelta (peltasts) the equipment was not the same. Usually for them was the short sword but this does not mean that the long one is for horsemen. The peltasts had spear throwers, archers, slingers and rock throwers. After all this arsenal has already done its work, the crushed enemy was chased and slaughtered by the victors with swords, among which they had choice - long or short. This is an army, which equips itself with the weapons of slain enemies. Yet it was taken into account the most convenient size of swords and spears in use at the time. But the extraordinary length of the swords, as well as the fact that only the first small part of the handle was lined with plastics which add comfort to the grip for one hand only giving the opportunity for a heavy blow with a strong wide swing, shows that this weapon may have been used by a mounted warrior who, with the wide swing, had to reach from his horse an enemy not in direct contact. There is an opinion expressed that these swords may have been used for both offense and defense (18).

When we are lucky enough to discover more examples of the examined swords it will be possible to make more certain conclusions as for whether these swords can be linked to more definite tribes on ancient Thrace. It is obvious that they are made in an independent craft center with unique armory, technique imposed by the proper - probably individual - martial style and ammunition. For now we will emphasize only that more that two thirds of the known rhomphaias are found in an area inhabited by the Thracian Bessi - famous ore miners in antiquity (19). And probably here is the primary center of this type of swords, probably here is the home of the heavy iron rhomphaias, and the Bessi themselves were rhomphaiaphores, i.e. armed with these typical of the Thracians long and slightly curved swords (rhomphaias) unused then by other peoples. We already have such an example witnessed by Thucydides (II, 96, 2) - the independent mountain Thracians Dii (who were a branch of the Bessi) (20) are machairaphores, i.e. armed with their typical Thracian short and curved swords (machairas). 

rhomphmap.jpg (18738 bytes)

Plate 1. Map of locations of the ancient iron Thracian sword rhomphaias.


Plate 2. Iron sword rhomphaias from: a) Brestovitsa village, Plovdiv district; - b) Assen's Fortress, Plovdiv district; d) Cherven village, Plovdiv district; e)Tzar kaloyan village; f)Cheleveshnitsa cave near Zaburdo, Smolyan district. Rhomphaia handles

Plate 3. Types of handles of the rhomphaias from: a) Brestovitsa, Plovdiv district; b)Ruen, Plovdiv district; c) Assen's Fortress, Plovdiv district; d) Cherven village, Plovdiv district; e)Tzar Kaloyan village, Plovdiv district; f)Cheleveshnitsa cave near Zaburdo, Smolyan district.


Plate 4. Roman soldiers fights with Dacians (Thracians) armed with rhomphaias. Relief from Trajan=s trophy at Adamklisi, Dobrudja (beginning of II cent. AD)

Plate 5. Sketch of the grave of Thracian warrior from Tzar Kaloyan village, Plovdiv district, and its grave inventory.



10. Sergeev, V. History of Ancient Greece, S., 1950, pg. 94

11. Katsarov, G. Lifestyle of the Old Thracians According to Classical Authors. SbNU, I, 1913, pg. 32

12. Katsarov, G. D. Dechev and others. Sources of Old History and Geography of Thrace and Macedonia, S., 1949, c. 292, footnote 18.

13. Same, pg. 171, footnote 41.

14. Mihaylov, G. The Thracians. S., 1972, pg. 144 and next.

15. Lenk, B. RE 6 A, 2 180 and quote

16. Buyukliev, Chr. Ancient Thracian Sword-Akinakes from the Bulgarian Lands. - Centuries, 1981, N. 5, pg. 87-91, plates 1-7

17. Serafimova, D. Quoted works, pg. 45.

18. Detev, P. Discovered Archeological Finds. Pg. 3

19. Kolev, K. The Riches of the Plovdiv Fields and Maritsa River, Reflected Upon the Surface of an Antique Coin from Philipopolis. - GNAMP, VI, 1968, pg. 105 and next.

20. Danov, Chr. Ancient Thrace, S., 1969, pg. 114, 119, footnote 59.

Kamen Kolev

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