Most Popular Greek Swords and Their Historical Uses
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The Greek hoplites were the finest foot soldiers of their time and fought with several types of swords and weapons in warfare. The classic Greek sword was the xiphos, a double-edged leaf-shaped sword, though the hoplites also used the kopis as a powerful chopping weapon. They initially fought with their spears, but relied on these swords well-suited to close-quarters fighting.
Let’s explore the different types of Greek swords, their historical uses, and how they compare to Roman swords.
Types of Greek Swords
The xiphos and kopis were the principal swords of Greek hoplites, though each had its own purpose and advantages on the battlefield. These cutting swords later influenced Roman and Middle Eastern sword designs.
1. Mycenaean Short Sword
Derived from the archeological site of Mycenae in Peloponnese, the term Mycenaean refers to the late Bronze Age civilization of ancient Greece from around 1600 to 1100 BCE. The Mycenaean short sword was made of bronze and had cross hilts with lugs, like half finger loops.
The hilt design of the bronze sword could reduce the risk of dropping it during the battle. The uppermost flare of the blade and the underside of the cross combine to offer a smooth, rounded corner from which to hook a finger.
The term xiphos is a generic name for a sword and eventually became associated with the classic sword of the Greek and Macedonian hoplites. It was the archetypal sword of both Classical and Hellenistic Greece, recognized for its distinctively leaf-shaped blade.
The xiphos also served as the Spartan sword of Spartan warriors, who utilized it as soon as their spears had broken off. It was an efficient weapon for thrusting, hacking, and allowed powerful slashing attacks against ranks of enemy infantry.
3. Makhaira or Kopis
By the 6th century BCE, the makhaira was introduced and became known for its recurved blade. It was used like an ax, due to its heavier and broader blade. It was a weapon that would lop off the head of enemies, but was also designed as a cut-and-thrust sword. Its recurved blade made it versatile for thrusting, chopping, and drawing cuts.
Having lived just a generation before Alexander the Great, the Greek historian Xenophon had cavalry experience in the battlefield and recommended the use of the makhaira by the cavalry troops. The blade shape of the makhaira would be a more efficient cutting sword when fighting from horseback. Also, its weight leaned heavily towards the tip.
Another term associated with makhaira is kopis. The Greek kopis comes from the term kopto, meaning cut. Some argue that the kopis sword was used generically to refer to any type of curved sword, dagger, or knife, while others suggest that there are differences between the two based on the shape of the curved blade. If they were once more specific terms, their differences have been lost.
Characteristics of Greek Swords
The term hoplon is Greek for weapon, so hoplite means something like man-at-arms. The most popular type of Greek hoplite sword is the leaf-shaped xiphos, followed by the recurved kopis or makhaira sword.
Here are the unique characteristics of Greek swords:
Type of Metal
Ancient Greek swords were made of copper, bronze, and iron. During the early periods, copper was one of the most abundant metals that originated from Cyprus—from which the modern name of copper is derived. Some accounts suggest that copper was first found on the Greek island Euboea, in the town of Chalcis. Thrace produced the largest of Greek blades, including the xiphos.
The art of smelting the ore was not uncommon to the Greeks of Homer’s time. In post-Homeric times, swords were mostly made of iron, not of bronze or copper alloy, though the older metal did not entirely go out of use. The Greek xiphos had an iron blade and was the peak of the development of sword design.
Today, replicas of Greek swords are often equipped with damascus steel or high-carbon steel blades, but those designed for display often have stainless steel blades. Greek swords are also not uncommon in historical reenactment and LARP, often with blades designed for safe sport. Technical manuals on using the Greek swords did not survive, though some utilize battle-ready swords in test-cutting practice.
The shapes of ancient Greek swords ranged from straight to curved and leaf-shaped.
The xiphos had a waist-like neck and swelled on a third of the blade from the tip, mirroring the leaf-shaped blades of the Greek Bronze Age. Its leaf-shaped blade had a flattened diamond cross-section. It was curved at its striking point, making it ideal for powerful hacking blows, and acutely pointed on the tip, making it efficient as a thrusting weapon.
Recurved Makhaira or Kopis
Developed from an agricultural tool, the makhaira or kopis had a recurved—or curved backward or inward—blade. Its blade shape combines the concave and convex shapes along its cutting edge. It is narrowest near the hilt, with its cutting edge on the inside of the concave curve. Then, it broadens and has a cutting edge on the outside of the convex curve, sweeping toward the tip with an extremely sharp point.
The makhaira or kopis blade had a wedge-shaped cross-section, with a thick back that tapers toward the cutting edge. It usually had multiple fullers along the upper portion of the blade, providing rigidity and balance. It was efficient in delivering heavy cutting blows as its weight was leaned toward the tip of the blade.
Size and Length
Ancient Greek sword blades ranged from 14 to 25 inches. The xiphos had a 24-inch or 60-centimeter iron blade, though some historical examples were as short as 30 centimeters. The weapon design for the makhaira or kopis was not standardized, and historical examples could be shorter or longer, narrower or shorter, and with slight or extreme curves. The average blade length of the kopis was about 20 to 23 inches or 50 to 58 centimeters.
The Greek swords varied in hilt design, but the warriors generally carried them with scabbards hung on their left hip.
The xiphos was a single-handed weapon and generally had a wooden grip and a bronze pommel. On the other hand, some kopis had a bone grip riveted onto the tang—the portion of the blade running through the pommel and hilt.
The makhaira or kopis had an L-shaped hilt to prevent it from slipping from the hand. A chain was usually attached from the L to the base of the hilt for additional protection, though some versions had a knuckle guard.
The crossguard on the Greek xiphos offered additional protection to the hand, preventing it from sliding forward onto the blade when thrusting. However, the kopis or makhaira lacked a crossguard.
The scabbard was of metal or leather with metal mounts. The xiphos had a T-shaped scabbard, similar to those of the Indonesian keris. The T-shaped scabbard was designed to accommodate the flaring of the blade where it joins the cross. It was carried in its scabbard on the warrior’s left side, so he could easily draw it out with his right hand.
Baldric or Shoulder Belt
The ancient Greeks used a baldric or a shoulder belt to suspend the sword, which was commonly hung beside the left hip. Its belt was supported by the right shoulder and passed over the chest. The sword belt was usually made of leather and adorned with bulla or metal studs resembling bubbles floating upon the water. In Homeric times, the Greeks also used a belt to carry the shield, and this second belt was broader and lay over the other.
Greek Xiphos vs. Roman Gladius
The Roman short sword gladius had a series of changes throughout the Roman era, but its earliest type, the gladius Hispaniensis, was similar to the xiphos sword, due to its leaf-shaped blade. However, it preferred a domed guard to a cross, which prevented the hand from sliding into the blade. It also had a large spherical pommel that served as a backstop to the hand.
The Roman short sword later evolved into the shorter and stockier Mainz that also had a broad leaf-shaped blade and sometimes with almost parallel edges. By the 1st century CE, the Pompeii gladius with straight parallel sides eventually replaced the Mainz type and became associated with the gladiators.
With its sharp point, the gladius served as a thrusting weapon though the Roman legionary likely utilized it for slashing. Like the Greek xiphos, the Roman sword was worn by means of a baldric worn over the shoulder. The Roman long sword spatha was a cavalry sword, but later replaced the gladius due to the advantage in having greater reach.
Greek Kopis vs. Iberian Falcata
Similar to the Greek kopis or makhaira, the falcata was a popular type of sword in the Iberian peninsula from the 5th to the 1st century BCE. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century CE that the sword type became known as the falcata, derived from the phrase ensis falcatus, meaning sword and sickle-shaped respectively.
The Iberian falcata had a double-edged blade about half of its length while the Greek kopis generally had a single cutting edge. The falcata was the cleaving sword of Hannibal’s Celtiberian troops—Celtic people who inhabited the Iberian peninsula. The Celtiberians, both cavalry and infantry, used the falcata as the principal weapon rather than a sidearm.
History of Greek Swords
In the 5th century BCE, the Greek hoplites, the infantry force of ancient Greece fought against the Persian invaders and then in the Peloponnesian Wars between the two powerful city-states Athens and Sparta. They later served the army of Alexander the Great as mercenaries and fought with their swords and other weapons on the battlefield.
Swords in the Iliad and the Odyssey
Greek poet Homer gave several names to Greek swords. While the chalcos means copper or bronze, the xiphos served as a generic name for a sword. On the other hand, the phasganon implied a two-edged leaf-shaped sword while the aor referred to a broad, heavy sword.
Many scholars suggest that the term phasganon is the most appropriate word to describe the Bronze Age predecessor to the Iron Age xiphos. However, Homer lived in the 8th century BCE when swords were already made of iron and were called the xiphos.
Homer described some of his greatest warriors wielding swords. In the Iliad, Ulysses wielded his aor in battle. In the Odyssey, the name phasganon means slaughter or to slay with the sword. Achilles, in the funeral games held in Patroclus honor, offers a sword as a prize for the winner.
The Athenian and Spartan Hoplites
Athens and Sparta differed sharply but similar in their swords, weapons, and tactics. A hoplite carried a short iron sword, a large shield, and a long spear and fought in a tight formation known as phalanx. In Athens, hoplites had little or no formal military training and fought as free men fighting for their city. On the contrary, Sparta was a totally militarized state.
In the Greek and Persian Wars
During the Greco-Persian Wars, from 492 to 449 BCE, swords and stabbing spears were the primary weapons for close-quarters combat, though the warriors also used bows, slings, and javelins. The xiphos served as the Athenian hoplite sword and a back-up weapon. At the Battle of Marathon, the hoplites, despite their inferior numbers, drove back the first Persian invasion of Greece.
Swords of the Macedonian Hoplites
When the Macedonian rulers dominated the Greek city-states, the hoplites became a secondary force in Macedonian-led armies. Alexander the Great inherited the hoplite army of Macedon from his father Philip II who equipped his hoplites, known as the Foot Companions, with pikes called sarissa which was twice the length of the Greek hoplite’s long spear or dory.
The Macedonian Foot Companions’ phalanx—a military formation where warriors stood very close to each other for defense or attack—was invincible. When the opposing phalanx broke, the Foot Companions would draw their swords. The Macedonian army used xiphos, which resembles the Alexander’s sword in the famous Alexander Mosaic, though some suggest that he carried makhaira.
Hellenistic Greece and the Macedonian Wars
The Hellenistic period spanned from the death of Alexander in 323 BCE until the Romans conquered the last of the Macedonian territories in 31 BCE. The Greek and Macedonian heavy infantry relied on the pike or sarissa and long spear or dory, which gave them reach over the shields of the phalanx. When the formation broke up, the Greeks used the sword in hand-to-hand combat.
At the Battle of Pydna, the Romans caused the Macedonians to lose their tight formation, as their swords and javelins were able to slash a path into their phalanx. The sarissa became impractical, so the hoplites fought with swords but were cut to pieces by the Roman swords.
Influence of Greek Swords
The recurved blade of the makhaira or kopis was well-designed and influenced the sword design of other cultures. Some examples include the Nepalese kukri, the Indian scimitar sosun pattah—meaning lily leaf—and the yataghan. By the 1st century BCE, swords with forward-curving blades had started to disappear from the European battlefield.
The ancient Greeks had several types of swords with the double-edged and leaf-bladed xiphos being the most popular. The less popular sword type was the kopis or makhaira sword with single-edged and forward-curving blade. The makhaira-type swords were not exclusive to Greece and Macedon as they were widely used on the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas.