The Rhomphaia, a Thracian Weapon of the Hellenistic Period - Page 5 of 5

Previous page

Return to Thracian Articles Page

This prompts us to ask if the rhomphaia of the Macedonian Wars was in fact a battle-axe with a point rather than a dorudrepanon. This does not fit in well with the numerous descriptions of the earlier weapon as being one of great length. The general similarites between the dorudrepanon and the Varangian guard’s axe are considerable, the spear-point on the end and the hooked blade, so it is not too surprising that the word rhomphaia is used for both.

In addition to the literary passages mentioned above we should note the Thracian elements of dress worn by the warrior carrying the dorudrepanon on the vase which is number 1 in our list, which also helps to associate the Thracian rhomphaia with the dorudrepanon.

As well as the passages discussed above another couple of fragments survive from ancient historians which suggest that the rhomphaia may have been used during periods other thatn the Macdonian Wars. One of them, however is roughly contempraneous. Aulus Gellius tells us that the rumpia is a Thracian weapon which is mentioned in the fourteenth book of the Annals of Quintus Ennius25. This book of Ennius deals with the Battle of Magnesia in 190 B.C. and it seems that the Thracian troops in question were part of the 2,000 Macedonian and Thracian volunteers left to guard the camp26. Presumably the rumpiae were mentioned by Ennius in the course of his description of the defence of the Roman camp against Antiochus’ cavalry.

A second fragment comes from the previos century. A fragment of Phylarchus has been preserved indicating that the rumpia is mentioned in his History27. This book seems to have covered the period from the death of Pyrrhus to the defeat of Cleomenes and the rumpia could have been mentioned at almost any time within this period.

Finally, I would like to suggest that Thucydides, when he mentions the ‘Sword-bearers’ (macairojoroi) of the Thracian Dioi, may be referring to rhomphaia- bearers. The lexicographers, when defining a rhomphaia (romjaia),usually describe it as a machaira, (macaira)an old and widely-applied Greek word with the general meaning of ‘sword’.

Hsch. sv. romjaia. qracion amunthrion, macaira, eiyoz, h acontion macron.

Photius sv. romjaia. to macron acontion h macaira.

Suidas sv. romjaia. to macron acontion h macaira.

The rhomphaia may have been generally termed machaira among Greek circles at the time, or Thucydides may have substituted the more familiar word for the benefit of his readership. In most passages the machairophoroi are merely mentioned.

‘And he (Sitalkes) summoned also many of the mountain Thracians who are independent and machairophoroi, who are called Dioi, most of them inhabiting Rhodope’28.

‘During this same summer (413 BC) there arrived at Athens 1,300 peltasts of Thracian machairophoroi of the tribe of the Dioi, to have sailed to Sicily with Demosthenes’29.

It is interesting to note that the machairophoroi are also described as peltasts in the second passage. We can compare this with Plutarch’s description of the Thracians at Pydna who carry shields, this time thureoi, and also with the second vase painting in our list, which shows Amazons with dorudrepana also carrying shields.

It is also intersting to not that the Athenian vases showing dorudrepana all date from roughly the same period as the Thucydidean passages mentioning Thracian machairophoroi.

The Athenians found that they could not afford to employ the Dioi and sent them back to Thrace along the Boetian coastline with orders to cause as much damage as possible. The Thracians first raided Tanangra and then Mycalessus but on their way back to the ships they were attacked by Theban cavalry30.

‘For elsewhere as they were retreating the Thracians made their defence against the Theban cavalry, which was the first to attack them, not unskillfully, dashing out against them and closing up their ranks again after the manner of fighting peculiar to their country, and in this few of them perished’.

If these Thracian machairophoroi were, indeed, using rhomphaias, which I think is extremely possible, this last passage is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the tactics employed by troops carrying these weapons and fits in well with our earlier passages. Perhaps I should now turn to some general considerations concerning the equipment and tactics of this type of Thracian troop.

It seems that the rhomphaiophoroi were frequently equipped with a small shield for protection, a pelte or a small thureos. We cannot be sure whether the weapon was handled with one hand or with two, but I assume that the weapon grew in length over time otherwise it is difficult to see why Livy describes them as being of great length. The large rhomphaia of the Hellenistic period may have required both hands rather than the one shown on the classical vases, but whichever was the case the shield would not have to be very large or it would obstruct efficient use of the weapon. Little additional protection seems to have been thought necessary; the Thracians at Pydna do not seem to be wearing cuirasses over their black tunics, and only greaves are otherwise mentioned, though helmets may have been worn too.

The rhomphaia was carried over the shoulder on the march but was lowered to the horizontal for use in battle.  It seems not to have been swung downwards, or sideways, but thrust forward to stab the spear-point home, or tugged backwards using the sickle-blade to shear.  The horse seems to have been the principle target rather than the rider, and the main aim seems to have been to disable the horse by cutting its legs.  The Thracians countered cavalry aggressively be dashing out against the cavalry and then reforming ranks again.   Perhaps this was done in small groups.  The rhomphaia was principally a weapon used against cavalry and it is significant that both at the Callinicus and at Pydna the Thracians were stationed on the flank, presumably to defend the phalanx from cavalry attack.

We can see from Herodotus that the dorudrepanon had been used earlier in Cyprus as an anti-cavalry weapon but there is nothing to indicate that the Thracians knew the weapon before the late 5th Century when its use seems to have been restricted to the Dioi31.  The later books in Xenophon's Anabasis tell us something of Thracian warfare during the period32.  Evidently the cavalry raised from the tribes of the plains were the dominent military element.  Perhaps the rhomphaia was the natural military recourse of the mountain tribes such as the Dioi attempting to defend themselves against the incursions of their more powerful lowland neighbours.  Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the solution was found in a humble agricultural implement converted to military use.

In conclusion I believe that, whilst it is impossible to identify the rhomphaia with the dorudrepanon with absolute certainty, such an identification fits the evidence extremely well.  I also think it is highly probable that the machairophoroi of the Dioi carried the rhomphaia.  Whether my suggestions are accepted or not, it is evident that the methods of making war employed by the Thracians were much more diverse than those of the javelinman and the cavalryman.  Most modern historians believe that when the ancient sources mention Thracian mercenaries they must be referring to javelinmen; this is far from certain, especially in the Hellenistic period.

Return to Thracian Articles Page


25. Gell. N.A. 10.25.4 =1. Vahlen Ennianae Poesis Reliquiae (Leipzig, Teubner, 1928) lib. XIV, V (frag. 390) p.70, cf. p.cxcviii - cxcix.

26. Livy 37.39.7.

27. Phlarchus (F.Gr. H. no. 81) fr. 57.

28. Thuc. 2.96.2 cf 2.98.4 which tells us that the machairophoroi wre the best fighters in Sitalkes' army.

29. Thuc. 7.27.1.

30. Thuc. 7.30.2.

31. I think it is stretching the evidence too much to suggest that the large Thracian swords of Hom. Il. 13. 575-7, 23.807-8 are anything other than swords, but see Eust. 947.30.

32. Xen. An. 7.3.37 seq.


a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y


thrcian_figures_reading.jpg (26582 bytes)

One of Nick Secunda's Thracians waves his dorudrepanon on the far right of this picture!

(Donnington figures from a stall at a Reading, UK wargames convention)

dodrudrepanon2.jpg (47559 bytes)dorudrepanon.jpg (93581 bytes)

Go to the top of the page | Return to Thracian Articles Page

Previous page