Swords of the Ancient Greeks

Here’s another essay of mine dealing with the weapons of ancient Greeks, written to compliment the essay on Roman swords.  I will be concentrating on the era from about the 7th to 4th centuries B. C.

Like the Romans, the Greeks used swords as backup weapons for close fighting in the later part of battle.  Spears were the main weapons used, and siege technology, though extant, was not as sophisticated as it became later in Roman times.  Still, the Greeks had a wider variety of swords than the Romans and had a higher regard for them in general.

Early Greek swords are similar to the gladii of the later Romans and the short swords used by the Celtic tribes.  These Greek swords were about 1 ½ feet in length and made originally of bronze, and later of iron.  Like the gladius, they were relatively simple and tapered outward.  Unlike the gladius, which tapered inward to a “waist” and then outward to the point, the Greek swords had a gradual taper from the pommel all the way to the point.  Also unlike the gladius, the Greek sword had a true crossguard, unlike the broad wooden cuplike pommel of the Roman sword.  The Greek swords thus resemble the cruciform medieval short swords.

These Greek swords were double-edged and could be used for cutting, stabbing, hacking, and slashing.  Later, the Greeks picked up various types of curved swords from the Persians and other eastern tribes.  At the time of the Battle of Thermopylae, when Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans held off the cream of the Persian army, such swords were in wide use.  The Spartans used a sword that was tip-heavy, single-edged, and curved slightly forward.  The crossguard projected only downward (toward the edged side of the blade).  This sword was mainly a slashing and hacking sword, and often had elaborately carved handles in the shape of birds or other creatures.  It looked much like the later swords known as falcatas or falchions, or like the modern-day kukri swords of the Gurkha regiments of the British army.

The Greeks also had a sword much like a modern saber, although the Greek version was somewhat shorter.  This was used to some extent by horsemen, although the preferred weapon of cavalrymen was the lance or the bow.  Keep in mind that this is almost a millennium before the introduction of the stirrup to the West.  Thus, swordplay from horseback was limited, as was thrusting with lances (which were usually thrown), since the rider would be in danger of being unhorsed.  Some such fighting did occur, of course, but it was less common than in the Middle Ages.  As noted, bows were sometimes used from  horseback, but this style of fighting was more characteristic of the Persians and the related Parthians and Scythians. 

Swords used by the Greeks, and by ancients in general, were much shorter than the giant two-handed swords used in the Middle Ages.  First, even hoplites, the most heavily armored soldiers of antiquity, were far more lightly covered than even a bankrupt knight.  There was thus much less for the foe to cut through.  Second, steel (as opposed to mere iron) was not perfected and commonly diffused for several centuries.  Thus, the technological limitations made really efficient long swords hard to make and brittle and ineffective for combat use.  This is why swordplay was not developed to the art form it later became in Renaissance Europe—the relatively primitive technology made it counterproductive to do much more than simple stabs, slashes, and parries, and the spear-centered strategy left the sword in a position of secondary importance anyway.  Thus in a TV show such as Xena: Warrior Princess, the general size and shape of the swords depicted is accurate, and the battered, nicked, rusty blade of the heroine rings true, but the flashy martial-arts style of combat shown is far from anything the Greeks and Romans ever did!


Posted on 29/07/2011, in Greco-Roman, history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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