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SWORDS, DAGGERS AND THE MYTH OF THE LACONIAN SWORD

07/09/2011

Mycenaean daggers from the Archaeological Museum of Munich. S. Skarmintzos archive

The dagger, initially in the form of a pointed stick and then as a sharpened stone blade is probably the most ancient human weapon from the time that our ancestors understood the need to equip themselves, in order to deal with the hardships of their environment. The discovery of metallurgy enabled humans to increase their dagger blades leading eventually to the development of the sword. People in Greece naturally did not stay behind. Copper and bronze blades gradually replaced the blades from obsidian. Archeological finds from the Bronze Age show the parallel existence of sword, short swords and daggers. No one can claim for sure that a certain weapon type was abandoned in favor of another, except possibly the Mycenaean type “CI” sword that does not appear in later Mycenaean period findings.

«CI» type Mycenaean sword from Athens War Museum. S. Skarmintzos archive

There is a tendency among scholars to believe that a certain fashion was followed at various time periods as far as weapons are considered. They claim that the development of hoplite phalanx tactics led the Greeks to abandon the long sword blades. They believe that the Spartans pioneered this trend and that the “laconian sword” was actually a … big knife!

Middle 7th cent B.C. black figure pottery depicting hoplite carrying a short sword. StaatlicheAntikensammlungen 8966 Source: wikipedia

This claim has its basis on Plutarch’s “Morals”. In this text the Athenian orator Demades made fun of laconian swords saying that they are so short that jugglers are using them for their tricks and Spartan king Ages replied that its because Spartan favor close combat. In another part of this text a Spartan mother scolds her son who complains about his short sword blade by urging him to take a step closer to the enemy.

Laconian hoplite with long sword from Archaeological Museum of Sparta S. Skarmintzos archive

Many also claim that the particular weapon was named “xyale” (Doric dialect) or “xyele” (Ionic dialect). But, was it really so?. Hysychios in his dictionary (lexikon) informs us that : “xyale is also a short sword that some people call sickle” but Suda dictionary we read that “xyele that we call xyale we mean a knife tucked in our belt that Spartans call xyale but Athenians call it knesten (rubber)” The only certain is that xyale was an item with curved blade. Xenophon in his work “Anabasis” (4.8.25) says that a Spartan was exiled for killing someone with a xyale. This does not make xyale a weapon. Many items not intended as weapons have been used as instrument of murder jut because they were available at the moment. It is interesting that philologist E. Kouphogiannis in north Greece found an agricultural tool, which is called xyale in the local dialect of Siatista. This item could have been used as an improvised weapon.

Modern xyale from North Greece source: http://www.siatistanews.gr

We can conclude that the short sword is not a Spartan invention as it existed in Greece before Sparta became the leading military power and dictated fashions in these things. Hence we cannot safely talk about “laconian sword” based on sources coming from writers who wrote centuries later after the events. We cannot also claim that the “laconian sword” appeared in the 4th century with arbitrary use of the archaeological evidence

Sources

http://www.sparta.markoulakispublications.org.uk/index.php?id=117

http://www.siatistanews.gr/etymologika/etymologika10.html

2 σχόλια
  1. I found the info on this site useful.

    • Thank you very much!
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