Reconstruction of two xiphos long types, that is of the early Archaic era. Later, in the Classical era, their length was reduced due to the development of hoplite warfare (credit: Hoplite Association).
By Periklis Deligiannis
The Greek hoplite sword (xiphos, ξίφος) was double-edged. The blade was wider in the middle of its length so that the weight was concentrated to this point, making the stroke to the enemy even overwhelming. The Greek sword was used equally for perforation of the enemy.
The sword was an auxiliary weapon for the Greek hoplites, who usually used it when they broke their spear during the fight, or when they could not use the later due to the limited space. However they were not lacking in sword fight, compared with spear fight. Several modern scholars often suggest that the Roman legionaries were better swordsmen compared to the warriors of other peoples who were not fond of the use of the sword, among whom were the ancient Greeks. However, it should be noted that the Romans used the heavy gladius sword (gladius italiensis, and later the much more effective gladius hispaniensis but both of them of Spanish origins) which did not need great skill to use. The Romans used its weight and shape, which allowed the full exploitation of its weight to achieve a crushing stroke to their opponent, nullifying his shield if it was not metal (after all, the shields of the enemies of Rome were usually wooden). In contrast, the Greek swords were relatively light, with the exceptions of the kopis (known as “falcata” or “falx” in the western Mediterranean), the machaira and a few other types. This data demonstrates that the Greek hoplites used a special technique of sword fight, to injure or kill their enemy opponent. Moreover, this opponent was usually another Greek hoplite and there was no sword that could crush his heavy bronze hoplite shield with powerful but clumsy sword blows. Additionally, the Greek hoplite was very well armored (protected) with a strong helmet and a cuirass of various types. The only way that a hoplite could strike the flesh of an enemy hoplite with his sword, was the development of his skill in fencing. In conclusion, the Romans simply preferred the sword more than the Greeks, without being better swordsmen than them.
The proper type of the Classical hoplite xiphos and its scabbard (Reconstruction of a Xiphos by Manning Imperial, Wikimedia commons, user: Phokion)
The Spartan hoplites used the classic Greek hoplite sword with a blade type of iron. During the 5th century BC, they were continually reducing the length of its blade, evolving it to the end of the century, into a purely Spartan type of sword. The explanation lies in Spartan warfare. During the battle, the Spartan hoplite was trying to come closer to his opponent for a very close duel (a Spartan was almost unbeatable in that type of fight). In the narrow space of the hoplite phalanx, a sword with strong perforation power, which also would approximate the length of a dagger, was the “perfect” weapon. The Athenian reliefs confirm the reports of ancient authors considering the Spartan short sword. They often depict Spartans carrying a short sword with a maximum length of 30 cm, and also leaf-shaped (much like a spearhead). The only example of this type of sword was found in excavations in Crete and was originally part of a statue.
The short length of the Spartan sword has led some scholars to conclude that it was also used for strokes from bottom to top. This is confirmed by some depictions of injured or fallen on the ground Spartans, who hold this sword and aim upwards toward the abdominal or groin of their standing opponents. Soon the short sword spread in most Greek regions displacing older types.
The xyele is another Spartan type of sword mentioned in ancient sources. It has been considered as a type of knife or dagger (most likely). Because of its way of usage, it seems very likely to have been sickle-shaped. If so, then the Xyele belonged to the group of sickle-swords and sickle-daggers (kopis, romphaea, falcata, falx and other), used by various peoples of the Mediterranean.
A Spartan short xiphos (from excavations). During most of the Classic Period, the short xiphos was the standart hoplite sword.
The Athenian hoplites were also using the standard hoplite sword, but it looks like some of them preferred the Kopis, though this type of long sickle-sword was suitable mostly for cavalry, because its use required open space. The Kopis was a robust singly-cut saber. A well-balanced single stroke of a Kopis could cut the enemy warrior’s hand or leg. The sickle-shaped swords were used by many Mediterranean peoples (Iberians, Celtiberians, Greeks, Thracians, Etruscans, Latins, Lycians, Carians, Lydians, Phrygians, Dacians and others). The Kopis could not be used effectively in the limited space of an hoplite conflict. But the Greek hoplites could use it effectively against Asian and Egyptian warriors, because a battle against them was not of an inter-hoplite type (among hoplites). Usually a rapid brake to the Asian battle array, gave open space to the hoplites in order to kill their enemies quickly with deadly strokes of Kopis-type swords. Additionally, the defensive armor of the Asians and the Egyptians was rudimentary or nonexistent. Generally speaking, the Athenians and other Greek hoplites preferred the Kopis more than the Spartans, but the typical short sword was the most common also among them.
Α few Athenian vase-paintings of the 6th-5th centuries BC depict Athenian hoplites using a kind of curved saber (type ‘Cutlass’, as it is called nowadays). This saber originated probably from Asia Minor, but its rare depiction demonstrates that it did not become popular in Greece.