Long swords, falchions, zweihanders, scimitars, maces, flails… If you have interacted with any medieval and/or fantasy inspired media, be it books, games, movies (and honestly, who hasn’t nowadays? Thank you Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones!) there is a very large chance you have heard these terms thrown around, among hundreds of others. The development of weapons has accompanied humans since the Stone Age, and as a consequence, weapons are often crucial points to our stories, both historical and fiction, and by extension games. Where would King Arthur be without Excalibur? How much fun would Dark Souls be if all you could do is punch enemies? This series will dive into the amazingly diverse world of weapons, spanning cultures all across the globe over thousands of years of history. Each article will focus on a unique culture or time period, exploring the looks, features, uses and cultural significance of their armaments, hopefully providing useful information, reference, and inspiration to all you designers and artists out there. If all goes well, by the end of the series you will not only know the difference between an arming sword, a great sword and a long sword, but also be fluent in exotic terms such as “Maquahuitl”, “Falcata”, and “Scramaseax”, among many others.
The first section will examine the world of Antiquity and be split into two articles, taking a look at the military technologies of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as the so called “Barbarians” of the era.
We begin our journey roughly 4000 years ago, in the lands around the Nile River. Over the course of its long history, the ancient Egyptian military was primarily composed of archers and infantry, generally unarmoured other than a light shield due to the baking desert heat. The most common armaments for these units were bows and spears, both of which were devastating against equally unarmored foes.
Even though not as widely used as the previous weapons, a new weapon emerged during the New Kingdom period (1550-1077 BCE), which would go on to become one of the most iconic weapons of the Egyptian time.
The Khopesh, or sickle sword, is a sword with a curved, sabre like blade which attaches to a straight bit leading to the hilt (handle). An average Khopesh would have measured anywhere from 50-60cm. The term “sickle sword” in regards to the khopesh is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the weapon is not descended from the agricultural implement at all, instead deriving its origin from the Epsilon axe, a weapon with a “D” shaped head widely used in the middle east at the time.
Reminiscent of its axe ancestry, the Khopesh is very clearly intended for slashing and chopping, due to its weight being focused around the crescent portion at the front of the blade. This type of weapon would be highly effective against the unarmoured soldiers of the time and area.
Two extremely well preserved (with the wooden grip still intact) Khopeshes were recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Khopeshes have also been recovered in other royal burials, some with blunted edges, leading to speculation that they may have been ceremonial and/or status symbols as well as weapons of war. Considering the the shape of the weapon shown in the TV show, the Khopesh seems to have been a strong inspiration for the Dothraki Arakh from Game of Thrones.
Moving across the Mediterranean and forward to around the 8th century BCE, we enter Greece, home of the Hoplite. Hoplites were the backbone of most Greek armies, and fought with shields, spears and short swords in the phalanx formation. Before we get into depth about their weapons, we’ll go a bit more into detail about the phalanx system of warfare itself, since both aspects are deeply tied to each other in regards to why the Hoplites were such an effective fighting force.
The phalanx is an infantry formation in which soldiers armed with spears (or other long, pointy objects) and shields line up next to each other, usually multiple rows deep. The shields overlap in such a way that each soldier’s shield covers the right side of the man to the left of them, allowing full protective coverage while soldiers can stab at the enemies with their free arm. Due to the rightmost fighter having no one to cover his right, this is the most vulnerable area of the shield wall. To offset this disadvantage, the most elite fighters in an army would often be placed on the right of the formation (this tradition of the phalanx was exploited by Epominondas at the Battle of Leuctra).
Combat in the phalanx began with both armies meeting on an open field, lined up opposite to each other. Both sides then began moving towards each other, steadily picking up speed (even coming to a running charge in some situations) while still holding formation. There is some contention about the exact nature of battle once the two phalanxes connected; some historians argue that the armies would crash into each other and combat came down to a shoving match, with the back rows pushing on the men in front of them to try and shove through the enemy’s lines; others feel that this method would have led to too many casualties compared to the historical record not only due to hand to hand combat but suffocation caused by the press of bodies against each other. The alternate theory is that the two armies most likely left some space between each others lines for fighting and breathing room, possibly allowing men to switch out when exhausted or wounded. Both theories agree that the end goal was to break through the enemy’s line, causing them to flee. Historical sources show that the largest casualties were inflicted not during the main standoff, but upon fleeing troops after breaking their lines.
Not only was the phalanx adopted and evolved into the Macedonian pike phalanx, similar shield wall tactics were used all across the world, from Roman military formations, to Norse and Saxon shield walls, to Landsknecht pike formations, and even modern riot police.
Obviously, a crucial part to the success of the phalanx was the equipment of the Hoplites, a key component of which was the Hoplon (also known as Aspis, the ancient Greek term for shield). In fact, the Hoplon was so important that it is the root for the word “Hoplite”. The Hoplon was a domed shield made of wood about half a centimetre thick and backed by a layer of leather, often rimmed or coated with bronze. The Hoplon was about 1 metre in diameter, allowing full coverage of a man’s torso. The curve of the dome allowed the Hoplite to rest the shield on his shoulder to conserve strength, which is great as the Hoplon weighed around 7 kg (15.5 lbs).
Another interesting feature of the Hoplon was its grip design. Compared to many other ancient shields which were held by a grip in the direct center of the shield, the Hoplon featured a grip at the edge of the shield with a strap for the forearm near the elbow at the center of the shield. This gave the shield a pushing advantage, and also meant that half the shield stuck out to the soldiers left side, protecting his neighbor as well as giving him room to use his spear on the right. The grip placement meant the shield would have been at a disadvantage in a one versus one dueling situation, but discouraging lone wolf style maneuvers was actually a positive effect for maintaining the very cohesive, team based phalanx.
The next important piece of equipment was the Doru or Dory, the Greek term for spear. The spear was around 3 meters long with a wooden shaft, iron tip and bronze butt-spike, and weighed 1-2kg (2-4lbs). The length of the spear meant that that multiple ranks within a phalanx could engage the enemy over the heads and shields of their compatriots. The spear could be used in both an overhand and underhand manner, usually with the front row using underhand and the rows behind them using overhand to clear their heads.
The bronze butt-spike, called sauroter or “lizard killer” in Greek, served several different functions on the spear. First, it helped counterbalance the spear making it less cumbersome and easier for soldiers to wield, and could be used as a secondary weapon if the spearhead was broken off. It could also be used by the back rows to finish off enemies on the ground as the phalanx advanced forward over top of them. Finally, it could simply be rammed in the ground to stand the spear up.
When it came to the Macedonian phalanxes of Philip II and later Alexander the Great, the Doru evolved into the Sarissa. The Sarissa followed the same principle with head, shaft and butt-spike, however was a good deal longer, ranging from 4-7 meters. This meant up to five rows of Phalangites (The common name for the Macedonian equivalent of hoplites. Also known as Sarissaphoroi, or sarissa-bearers) were able to get their spears in position to form a wall of pikes, causing the sarissa phalanx to be considered invulnerable from the front.
The extra length and weight of the weapon (a 5.5 meter Sarissa weighed around 6.5 kg [14.5lbs]) meant it had to be wielded with two hands. Instead of the Hoplon, Phalangites used a smaller shield (60 cm diameter) which was suspended from the neck to cover the left shoulder.
The third component of Greek military equipment was the sword, of which there were three major types, the Xiphos, the Makhaira, and the Kopis (not to be confused with the Egyptian Khopesh. Research shows the two weapons were developed independently from one another). The Xiphos was a dual edged weapon, whereas both the Makhaira and Kopis were single edged, with only one sharpened edge. The swords were used when the spear had to be discarded, either through damage or tight quarters, and as such were rather short, to allow maneuverability. On average, the swords would have measured 50-65 cm, with the Kopis landing on the longer edge of the spectrum. It is thought that at times the Spartans may have used Xiphoi as short as 30 cm.
Most of the Greek swords seem to focus a large percentage of their mass towards the front of the blade, so while they seem to have been capable at thrusting (especially the Xiphos), they would have been equally, if not more in the case of the Kopis, suited for slashing and chopping. The difference between the Makhaira and Kopis is a little murky, as in texts from the era Makhaira can refer to almost any knife or sword. The current modern standard is to refer to the Greek straight bladed, single edged sword as Makhaira, and the distinct forward swept blade as Kopis.
Due to the brutal wounds the chopping attacks of the Kopis would leave, it was somewhat viewed as the “Bad Guy” weapon in Greek culture and art, for instance, Spartans were often depicted wielding Kopides on Athenian vases. It is interesting to note that an almost identical sword to the Kopis, named the Falcata, was developed on the Iberian peninsula in around the same time period, however both are thought to have come about independently of each other.
Basically, that wraps up the the first part of the overview of the weapons of Antiquity. Originally, this article was also intended to include the weapons of Rome and its legions, however the Greek section ended up much longer than originally anticipated, so in order to give the military and technology of the Roman Empire the space it deserves, the entire next article will be dedicated to them and their opponents. To me, the past is one of the best sources of inspiration there is and I believe that knowing the real history and uses of items through time greatly helps create more believable and entertaining narratives and game worlds. I hope reading this article is as educational and inspiring as it was to write it.
See you next time!
Sebastian Pachmayr is an Art TA at VFS Game Design