The Thracian Romphaiorioi

The elite Thracian infantry

Fear and awe

With their proverbial face-mask helmet and feared Romphaia, Thracian elites were among the most feared in the battlefield in ancient times. Worst still: They were not confined in their Thracian homelands but were often part of mercenaries round the ancient world. However there is a paradox here. There is just one mention of the rompahia as a weapon, but not a single one after its bearer, the "Romphaiaphoroi", or litteraly "romphaia bearer". Men used to this weapon were also not the most elite troops among the Thracians. This was the privilege of the Orditon, a spearmen/swordsman cladded with chainmail and recalling the Gallo-Thracians of Tylis. Also mounted aristoi of the Odrysai Kingdom were also elites, but in the old way, with bronze anamorphic cuirasses and modified Corinthian helmets. Thracian Romphaia bearer by Johnny Schumate

Ancient Thracian mercenaries

Thracian warfare was mostly a question of quick raids and ambushes by small groups, the conerstone being peltasts, a kind of light infantry, skirmishers with boots, cape, cap, sica or shortsword, axe, and javelins. However they were often led by more experienced and better protected warriors, armed with a romphaia and mask-helmet. These were veteran, elite troops, able to use their romphaia the best way in close-combat. Mercenaries would comprises both these peltasts and more elite romphaia bearers, named and known by Hellenistic rulers as the "romphaiaphoroi". These weapons bearers were feared and this was a powerful psychological asset used by the Diadochoi in many occasion. Pure psychological warfare. At least in several occasions a besieged city was warned of the presence of Thracian mercenaries and the effect on the population if the latter were 'thrown' in the assault after the walls were breached. Dacian Falx

About the Romphaia

Thracian Romphaiaphoroi by the author The famous weapon was relatively diverse in its appearance, although the basic design was kept unchanged: A long pole, enough for the long blade itself to be embedded in the pole on about 1/3 of its total lenght. The idea was to provide a solid grip for bot hands, relatively far apart. This solid grip was essential to inflict the maximum damage. The Romphaia was a pure slashing weapon: There normally was a single blade, and a sense given by the inwards-curving (slightly) blade. However in many cases, the Romphaia could also be completely straight. In that case it is possible that the blade was symmetric. The weapon then could be used with more versatility: As a spear, and as sword for thrusting blows as well. It is therefore comprehensible why it was used by experienced warriors, by contrast to the later Dacian use, which was limited to curved weapons and single use, easy to master. The straight or almost-straight romphaia was therefore an interesting development, a sabre/sword and spear reminiscent of the medieval ... at the same time.

surviving Rompahia examples
Surviving examples of Romphaia. Of course the wooden pole has disappeared but the shape shows the weapon's silhouette.

The size of the classic romphaia in the 3rd century was relatively homogenous, 1.10 to 1.50 m. The longer were often straight, which reinforce the idea of using them s spears; 1.50 m was immense for a sword anyway. Celtic swords were genearlly around 80-90 cm long and those longer were aither ceremonial swords with low-quality blades (which were ceremonially bended) or rare two-handed swords.

The Geto-Dacian Romphaias

The Getic peoples were an ancient Thracian tribe, called by the ancient Greeks the "northern tharcians". They were different from southern Thrace in many points. Notably, they wore pants, like their western Celt and eastern Scythian horsemen neighbours. Both peoples greatly influenced their gear, but also warfare. As a result, the Getic peoples used cavalry extensively as well as archery. They also had possily some Hellenistic influence which traduced in the use of a disciplined spear infantry, although it could have been the influence of Celtic close formation tactics. They also had skirmishers and "Orditon", some elite, noble infantry equipped and fighting like the Celts. Straight swords and Rompahia were used as discovered in Getic tombs.

Thracian warriors by Angus Mc Bride
Thracian Warriors

Naturally, these Getic peoples had a great influence on another people settled due West in actual Romania: The Dacians. The latter drew some influence from the Celts again, settled in the region, as testifies the famous "bird helmet", adorned with articulated wings and probably belonging to a cavalryman. The Dacians were known to use the Rompahia, but perhaps in a different way than the Getic and Thracian peoples in general. Indeed in the latter case, Elite and nobles seemed to have favored long rompahias, whereas the pesantry was armed with the much simpler sica, an agricultural tool. The Sica was not a rompahia but a one-handed falx, far more affordable. The Dacian rompahia bearers as described by the Romans seemed to have been simple peasants armed with the weapon. They wore no protection, and were often bare-chested. The way they were used also seems to be an adaptation to Roman formation: Indeed, they were thrown first in melee combat to disrupt the close formation of Roman legionaries.

This lack of protection and way of fighting was perhaps also a resurgence of Celtic warfare and this visible absence of protection was perhaps related to Celtic traditional psychological intimidation tactics. There could have been also more practical reasons. Being bare-chested allowed more mobility, as required for such a large weapon. The absence of a shield was somewhat compensated by the use of the blade as an active protection, and there was no room to attach a shield anyway. The absence of helmet, presumably also, was required to give the best peripheral vision possible. Whatever the case, the effect of a Romphaia was fearful. Thracian Romphaia bearer by Johnny Schumate The power of such two-handed weapons was such as the Roman legionaries had to modify their gear to cope with its heavy blows. These consisted in extra reinforcing bars to their helmets, long neck guards and shoulder reinforcements. In fact the famous Lorica Segmentata appeared just at that moment and definitively shaped the modern Roman legionary as we understand it. The Peasants wielded this weapon were probaly handpicked for their physical strenght, chosen to use a weapon distributed by the nobles or chieftains, from their own armouries. Since it was a pure weapon, it had no place in a farm and needed to be forged to specs. It is possible by the long influence of Celtic warrior culture in the region also made nobles and elites preferring the more difficult to master and rewarding sword instead. Whatever the case, romphaia bearers were probably seen as a kind of an "expandable" infantry.

They probably were thrown in the first wave to "soften" the line, before more experienced, protected, sword bearers entered the melee. Their role was clearly of a breakthrough infantry related to an old eastern tradtion of axe-bearers (the eastern axe bearers called Takabara according to their crescent shield), the Scythian sagarisphoroi when fighting on foot, and also probably used by the Celts as well, in the shape of an axe or two-handed mace. The tradition in fact survived to the Viking age which also practiced effective shieldwall tactics. In that case, these were two-hand axemen, which survived in Medieval history as well.

The famous Housecarls of King Harold at Hastings in 1066 were such infantry... In the case of the Dacian romphaia, which end was curved, the idea was to strip of the legionnaires from their large scutum. The blade embedded deeply in the top of the shield, enough for the bearer to drag it away. The Roman scutums of the time were squarer and better rim-protected, but the force of the blow as such the blade penetrated both the metal and wood (as shown in some modern recreations) about 20 cm at least. Thracian elite warrior - Russian illustrator On a rounded helmet, the effect was immediate, as it was able to cut through as shown by many surviving examples. The front bar with was welded to Roman improved coolus model helmets (imperial helmet) was specifically designed as a response (in Trajanic times) to Rompahia blows. The effect of a rompahia blade on a chainmail was also fearful: It was able to cut though it and embed deeply behind, but also cut unprotected limbs with ease. As a result, even the shoulder pads of the traditional lorica hamata was no longer sufficient and the solution chosen, also for practicity reasons, was to adopt a new kind of simpler armour, made of plates. In the case of the Lorica segmentata, the shoulders were protected by a whole array of interleaved curved plates, which effect was to oppose multiple layers and some cushion at the same time. Moreover, the segmentata was cheaper and simpler to create than the hamata (chainmail). It however imposed extra care in maintenance and equipment time for the legionaries, which had to mutually help themselves. Aside the falx, there was also the Sica, a sword-like blade with a bended, "broken" end, famously used by Spartacus, of Thracian descent.

Celts with Romphaias

Dacian falxmen News in January 10 2017: Arcaeological discovery by – An ancient Celtic shrine has been unearthed during excavations at Bulgaria’s sacred place, Sboryanovo, in the region known as “Holy Land of the Getae”. This place was settled by these northern, powerful Ancient Thracian tribe. They were closely related to the Dacians, living on the Lower Danube (now Northern Bulgaria and Southern Romania). Lead archaeologist Prof. Diana Gergova studied a Celtic shrine which contained among others a ritually bent romphaia found in the pits surrounding the Sboryanovo Preserved site.

The study of the Celtic shrine was made by a team of archaeologists led by Professor Diana Georgova. She is an expert in Ancient Thrace researcher in particular of the Getae (Gets) people. The Celtic shrine has a rectangular shape, surrounded with a moat according to the professor. Inside the pits that surrounded the shrine, the team unearthed ancient weaponry in various state of preservation. For what we are concerned here, it was a “ritually bent” romphaia. This close-combat bladed weapon were used by all Thracians in various shapes and forms as early as 400 BC.

Thsese polearms with a straight or slightly curved single-edged blade and a long pole about 1/3 long as the iron blade. Archaeological evidence for pas Romphaias suggests that rhomphaia swords were forged with straight or slightly curved blades, that served as both a thrusting and slashing weapon. This weapon was used almost exclusively by the Geto-Thracians and the Daciansup to the era of Emperor Trajan. A Celtic warrior’s buckle was also discovered inside the ritual pit, in the middle of the shrine.

Thracian warriors vs Celts
Celts vs. Thracian Warriors - Reenacment of a battle.

Why a Celtic shrine with a bented Romphaia ?
The answer is quite simple. Celts which settled there after the 280 BC invasion of the Balkans, were split in three groups. One of them settled in Thrace, besieged and conquered Tylis, one of the ancient Odrysian Kingdom strongholds. This Celtic group settled there for about a hundred year, before being defeated by the last Hellenistc ruler in the region. The Tylis Thraco-Celt kingdom lasted long enough to integrate some aspects of the Thaco-Getic culture, notably weaponry and possibly helmet. The Romphaia was simple to master on no less effective in the hands of a Celt. The term of a victim of a romphaia was called 'defalcation'.

Thracian warriors
Dacian Warriors with falx, Trajanic wars

Medieval or modern romphaias

The falx in general was back as an agricultural tool and used in rare case as a weapon, but it became rarer as levies were usually given versatile pole arms instead. The large, almost straight Romphaoia however did not suvived pas the antiquity. There are many sabers that can inherited some aspects of it, like the Cutlass, Fachion or Dadao, which are rather large, heavy sabers more in line with the ancient Falcata. Very large swords such as the Flamberge and the German Zweihander appears more as possible inherited designs in a sense both were two-handed and the latter had a very long gap between hands. The sheer weight and speed produced the same effect as the classic romphaia, while they still could be used for thrusting, like straight romphaias.

As for medieval falx, there are two examples shown in miniatures in the Maciejowski bible. Other contenders includes the Scythe, and the medieval East Anglian thatcher's eaves knife, similar to the former. Billhooks, which are polearms, also used a falx head. Another painting shows a knight with a two-handed (with a long gap) falx-like saber, with a relatively convolted and heavy head an concave blade, not described by any known name. It is possible that many weapons were tailor-made and borrowed characteristics which suited the handler's tastes and fighting style. The Swiss Vouge, also a polearm, was also ended by a long blade, as the French watchman Vouge.


Sources/Read More

The Falx on wikipedia
Romphaia on wikipedia
Romphaia - specs
Ancient Celtic Weaponry in Transylvania (pdf)
Some pinterest references

Previous entries

Samnite warfare Judaean Warfare Chalkaspidai Indian warfare Etruscan warfare Numidian warfare Devotio Warrior Ancient Chinese warfare Scythian Horse archer The Ambactos Iberian warfare Illyrian warriors Germanic spearmen Carthaginian Hoplite Corsico-Sardinians Thracian Peltast Caetrati Ensiferi Hippakontistai Hastati Gaesatae Cretan Archer Thorakitai Soldurii Iphikrates Kardaka The thureophoroi