The Rhomphaia, a Thracian Weapon of the Hellenistic Period

by Dr Nick Secunda

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The rhomphaia (romjia), in Latin rhompaea or rumpia, was a weapon used by Thracian contingents in the Macedonian Wars.  It is mentioned in only a few passages in Livy and Plutarch, none of which describe the weapon in sufficient detail to enable us to decide on its exact nature with any certainty.  Nor, unfortunately, do entries in ancient lexica etc shed any direct light on the problem1.   The passages dealing with this weapon do, however, give us certain clues and inferences which have convinced the author that the rhomphaia was, in fact, a Thracian version of the weapon known to the Greeks as dorudrepanon (doruprepanon - 'spear-sickle'), or more simply as   drepanon (drepanon - 'sickle').

The only scholar to have considered the problem of the exact identification of the rhomphaia at length is, to my knowledge, A. J. Reinach2.  Reinach thought that the weapon was of Thraco-Illyrian origin and was

'une pique longue d'au moins 2 mètres, dont la moitié formée par une lourde lame à deux tranchants.  Ce fer, puissant et acéré, que Tite-Live et Isidore paraissent identifier à la framée, devait n'être qu'un grand coutelas, la harpé ou la sica des Thraces, adapté à une hampe solide.'

[Translation from Roman Szwaba's Slingshot article:
'a pike at least two metres in length, of which half consisted of a heavy, double-edge blade. This strong and sharp iron (weapon), which Livy and Isidorus seemed to identify as the framea, must have been a large cutlass, the harpe or the sica of the Thracians, modified by the addition of it solid shaft'.]

I believe Reinach's identification to be correct, and the purpose of this article is to re-examine some of the evidence used by Reinach and to add further, archaeological, evidence not used by the scholar, which will, I hope, enable us to go somewhat further than Reinach's conclusions and identify the weapon as the dorudrepanon - a decision I had, in fact, already arrived at before consulting Reinach's article.   Reinach refers to biblical, patristic and other passages mentioning the rhomphaia, but adding little to our knowledge, which are not used in this article, which aims at conciseness.  A future examination of the question would, however, be incomplete without reference to Reinach's article.

A number of Attic vase-paintings and other ancient art-works have survived showing us dorudrepana, or possible dorudrepana; I list these first with a short commentary on each.   Then I continue with a discussion of those passages illustrating the doruprepanon in use.  Next I go on to discuss those passages mentioning the Thracian rhomphaia, and I hope to show that the descriptions of the weapon and the way it is used in action make most sense if the weapon is seen to be a version of the dorudrepanon.   Finally I will mention some other passages coming from periods other than the Hellenistic which may also describe Thracians using the rhomphaia though the weapon is not mentioned.

Before we go on to discuss the spear-sickle, however, we should consider the origins of the weapon, which were undoubtedly agricultural.  The spear-sickle is simply an agricultural sickle adapted for military use, and is of the same genus of weapons, therefore, as the harpe (arph) used by the hero Perseus.  Other than when  harpe is used to describe the hero's weapon, the word is used by Hesiod for an agricultural implement and by Josephus for a military weapon3.  Perseus' weapon is sometimes represented as a sickle, sometimes as a hooked sword, but sometimes as a spear-sickle virtually identical to the dorudrepanon.  If there is any real difference between the dorudrepanon and the harpe it seems to be in the length of the haft; the representations of the spear-sickle gathered below show a weapon little short of a man's height whereas Perseus generally carries a short-hafted weapon, sometimes with a hand-grip.  In the small catalogue gathered below I have excluded the very many representations of Perseus carrying a spear-sickle and I have concentrated on including only examples of the weapon shown without Perseus, which may give us a better idea of what weapon the Greeks precisely meant by the term dorudrepanon.

1) Stamnos, by the Midas Painter, British Museum E.447.  Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum Great Britain 4, 187, 2 a-b; ARV2 11 p. 1035 nr. 3 (plate 3.1).

On this vase Silenos, with his hands bound behind his back, appears before Midas (?) seated on a throne.  A woman with a fan stands behind Silenos.  The guard is bearded and is shown wearing mixed elements of non-Greek dress.  It is interesting to note that these include the Thracian cloak or zeira4.  The guard holds a dorudrepanon which is only slightly smaller than a man's height in length, in his right hand.  A maenad, a young satyr and a satyr are shown on the other side of the vase.

2) Kylix, near the Codrus Painter, Florence 21 B 268 (part ex Villa Guilia), Leipzig T 591, Chicago Univ, and Naples Astarita 263.

D. Von Bothmer Amazons in Greek Art Oxford 1957) pl. 79, 1; ARV2 11 p. 1274, iv, 1. (Plate 3.2)

These fragments were first associated by Von Bothmer who also recognized the weapon being used5: according to Beazley the vase 'resembles the early work of the Codrus Painter'.  To the left is an Amazon in babaric dress and a helmet, advancing towards the right, and blowing a trumpet supported by her right hand.  A sword is slung over her right shoulder, on her left arm she carries a pelte and in her left hand she holds a dorudrepanon.  The dorudrpanon is again about a man's height in length, but this time the spear blade is quite thick with a central ridge and the haft is bound where it is being held.  To the right a second Amazon is shown with a pelte in her left hand and a sword-baldric slung over her right shoulder, she is probably holding a dorudrepanon in her right hand and seems to be fighting from horseback.

Next page

Sekunda's doudrepanon/rhomphaia

« A reconstruction of a dorudrepanon, from Roman Szwaba's Slingshot article



1. Poll. Onom. 1.120, 10.144

2. A. J. Reinach sv. Rhomphaea in Ch. Daremberg & M. E. Saglio Dictionnaire des Antiquités IV, 2 p.865; see also B.C.H. 34 (1910) p. 447 nt. 3

3. Hes. Op. 573, cf Theog. 179; Joseph. AJ 14.15.5.

4. On the zeira see Leon Heuzay 'Notes sur quelques manteaux grecs; l'ephaptide et la zeira' Revue des études Grecques 40(1927) p. 1 seq.

5. Von Bothmer op. cit. p. 181.


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