By Periklis Deligiannis
Modern researchers of Medieval Western military history often wonder what was the nature of the Byzantine weapon called ‘rhomphaia’?
The rhomphaia (or rhomphaea) of Antiquity was a weapon of the Thracians, which consisted of a long straight or slightly curved (sickle-shaped) blade mounted on a long wooden shaft. If the rhomphaia was sickle-shaped, the edge was located on the inner (concave) side of the blade. Especially the curved rhomphaia belonged to the group of spears and rapiers with scythe blade (kopis, falcata, falx etc) which were used by various peoples of the ancient Mediterranean (Iberians, Celtiberians, Greeks, Thracians, Etruscans, Lycians, Carians, Lydians, Phrygians, Dacians and others). Their original source is unknown and sometimes the researchers try to locate it. My opinion is that they are products of polygenesis.
The ancient Greeks and then the Romans used units of Thracian rhomphaioforoi (rhomphaia-bearers), allies and mercenaries, but they never adopted this weapon. But until the Byzantine period, the Thracians were absorbed ethnologically to the Roman and then to the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) racial environment by becoming Latin-speaking north of the Balkan Mountains and Greek-speaking south of the same ridge, loosing their national identity. So the rhomphaioforoi combatants were incorporated ethnologically to the Romans and the Greeks through Latinization and Hellenization respectively. During the Byzantine Period, the word rhomphaia appears in the Byzantine military terminology posing the aforementioned question.
Some examples of long swords in Byzantine frescoes, icons and manuscripts, that can be classified as rhomphaiae (in the plural). The opening image of this article comes from a Byzantine church in Kosovo.
My opinion is that the rhomphaia as perceived by the Byzantine Greeks, was the typical curved or straight sword (of various types) whose main feature was the large blade length. If there is a doubt that the rhomphaia could be a straight sword as well (because nowadays the term is usually [and falsely] associated with curved blades), I note the fact that some ancient Thracian rhomphaiae had a straight blade.
As inferred from archaeological and literary evidence, some Hellenized Thracians of the Byzantine army continued to use the rhomphaia proper (ancient rhomphaia) up to the Middle Byzantine period, but it is a mere evidence, not a proof. Probably the Byzantine term ‘rhomphaia’ represented equally the Thracian rhomphaia proper as well as the very long sword of any type in which the blade was strongly reminiscent of (or equated with) the blade of the Thracian rhomphaia. Especially after the final disappearance of the ancient Thracian rhomphaia during the Early or even in the Middle Byzantine period, the Byzantines finally gave its name to those rhomphaia-like swords.
This ascertainment is reinforced by the fact that in the oldest literary sources the rhomphaia is described or implied as a spear, but with the passage of the centuries it is described or implied as a sword (gradually in Plutarch, Eustace, Hesychius, Luke and in John’s Book of Revelation). Especially in the ecclesiastical texts, the word rhomphaia symbolizes the divine and fair punishment of the unjust and the sinful, a punishment that is usually manifested by the actions of angels. Considering that the angels are depicted in frescoes and icons usually as swordsmen (and never bearing ancient rhomphaiae), we have another indirect testimony on the evolution of the rhomphaia from a spearoid (spear-like) weapon to a rapier.
Straight and slightly curved blades of ancient Thracian rhomphaiae, from excavations.
Especially the curved saber of Asian origin that the Byzantines adopted from the Eurasian nomads with whom they were in contact throughout their history, had the edge on the opposite (outer convex) side of the ancient rhomphaia but it was very reminiscent of it in shape and thus the Byzantines had no difficulty calling this saber ‘rhomphaia’ as well. The same goes with some straight swords of Western European origin which were also described satisfactorily (from the Byzantine point of view) with the term ‘rhomphaia’, because they were very long and handled with both hands (exactly like the Thracians handling their own rhomphaia). These swords were reminiscent of the straight ancient rhomphaiae as well as to their way of use, because they were used equally for a piercing blow (and not only for cutting), as these rhomphaiae.
Two more examples of Byzantine rhomphaiae.
Finally, I also note the Byzantine Greek tendency to archaism in the national, political and military terms, e.g. they often used to call “Scythians” the Sarmatians, the Huns, the Turkic peoples and generally the nomads, sometimes they used to call “Gauls” generally the Western Europeans etc, while the use of Latin military terms but who no longer had their actual Roman/Latin meaning, is well known. The Byzantine rhomphaia was very probably one of those cases of archaism.