The Rhomphaia was a close combat bladed weapon used by the Thracians as early as 400 BC. Rhomphaias were polearms with a straight or slightly curved single-edged blade attached to a pole, which in most cases was considerably shorter than the blade. Although the rhomphaia was similar to the Falx, most archaeological evidence suggests that rhomphaias were forged with straight or slightly curved blades, presumably to enable their use as both a thrusting and slashing weapon. The blade was constructed of iron and used a triangular cross section to accommodate the single cutting edge with a tang of rectangular cross section. Length varied, but a typical rhomphaia would have a blade of approximately 60–80 cm and a tang of approximately 50 cm. From the length of the tang, it can be presumed that, when attached to the hilt, this portion of the weapon would be of similar length to the blade.
Used almost exclusively by the Thracians, examples have been found dating from 300-400 BC. As a weapon, the rhomphaia was feared (like the Falx) because of the cutting power afforded to it by the polearm-like design. The Falx forced the only documented change in Roman armour brought about by an encounter with a new weapon. After encountering the Falx in Dacia, the Romans added extra reinforcing bars to their helmets to protect against the powerful blows of this weapon.
The Byzantines used the Rhomphaia, an exclusive Thracian weapon, although it most likely was used by a few units of foot soldiers dating somewhere between Byzantium's golden age of 900-1071 and maybe even earlier. It was not mentioned as a weapon like the falx however. It was indeed a falx-like weapon. Michael Psellus writes that all Varangians without exception used what he refers to as a "rhomphaia".
Differences from the falx
The rhomphaia's blade was straight or only slightly curved, while the falx's blade was significantly curved. Because its straighter blade facilitated a thrusting motion, as well as an overhead or sidewards hacking motion, the rhomphaia could be used by tightly packed troops as a defensive weapon. However, the straighter blade limited the use of the cutting edge.
Rhomphaia in historical texts
Rhomphaia was first ‘a spear’, later ‘a sword’ (Plutarch: Life of Aemilius Paulus 18; Eustathius, on Iliad verse VI 166; Hesychius; also Luke 2;35 and the Revelation of John of Patmos, several times.). In Latin, it has the forms:
- rumpia (Livy, Aulus Gellius, Ascon. ad Mil.)
- romphea (Isidore of Seville.),
- romphaea vel romfea (CGL 7, 212).
W. Tomaschek listed the Bulgarian. roféja, rufja ‘a thunderbolt’ and the Albanian rrufë as derivatives of that word.
Rhomphaia was also preserved in modern Greek as rhomphaia ‘a big broad sword’. The Thracian rhomphaia contains stem *rump- in the Latin rumpo, -ere ‘to break, to tear’.
Rhomphaia was also mentioned in Michael Psellos' Chronographia where he describes it as a "one-edged sword of heavy iron which they [the palace guards at Constantinople] carry suspended from the right shoulder."
It is also mentioned in Anna Komnene's The Alexiad. She explains that during the battle, her father, Alexios I Komnenos, fought against the rebel Nicephorus Bryennius. Alexius happened upon a horse saddled for an emperor, which also had a number of grooms, some of whom "had in their hands the great iron swords which normally accompany the emperors". However, Anna does not name these as rhomphaia, but her editor and translator E.R.A. Sewter does, and they seem to have been very distinctive for the Byzantines who, after an initial rout, saw "the general display of the royal horse with its insignia and the sight of the great swords (which all but spoke for themselves) convinced them that the news was true: Bryennius, who was guarded by these swords, had fallen into the hands of his enemies".
- Christopher Webber, Angus McBride (2001). The Thracians, 700 BC – AD 46. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-329-2.
- Byzantine Armies 886-1118 by Ian Heath and Angus McBride, 1979, page 10: "... One final weapon which needs to be mentioned is the rhomphaia, with which many Byzantine guardsmen were apparently armed. ..."
- Byzantine Armies 886-1118 by Ian Heath and Angus McBride, 1979, page 10: "...The most convincing theory however and the ones that seems to fit the little written and archeological evidence that is available is that it was a falx like weapon with a slightly curved blade of about the same length as its handle..."
- Byzantine Armies 886-1118 by Ian Heath and Angus McBride, 1979,page 38,"Psellus however claims that every Varangian without exception was armed with shield and 'Rhomphaia'...a mixture of Byzantine and Scandinavian gear was in use..."
- Anna Comnena, trans E. R. A. Sewter, The Alexiad, (1969, Penguin), Pp.42.
- Anna Comnena, trans E. R. A. Sewter, The Alexiad, (1969, Penguin), Pp.43.