Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Xiphos

Courtesy of Knight's Edge, an online retailer of medieval arms and trinkets:

The xiphos is a sword that was used by the ancient Greeks. The sword featured a double-edged, leaf-shaped blade that was perfect for cutting, slashing and thrusting. Xiphos was a short and thus, single-handed sword. The sword was used as a secondary, close combat weapon and it was used when the primary weapon, the spear was discarded. The very early Xiphos swords were made of bronze. Similarly shaped swords were in existence throughout the Europe under various different names.
The description of the xiphos makes an intersting point - for millenia, swords were secondary weapons, for close combat. Spears and lances were the primary weapons of warriors, both on foot and on horseback.

The long straight stick with the pointy bit at the end would endure a dizzying array of variations, but it would remain the basic weapon until firearms dominated the battlefield in the latter half of the 17th century, and bayonets - pointy bits affixed to the end of the firearm - would carry on the tradition for at least another three centuries.

It's interesting that swords represent martial puissance more than spears. There are a slew of reasons why: swords were often restricted to certain social classes, particularly in the post-Roman world; they required additional training and skill to use effectively; they were much more expensive to produce and therefore dearer to the owner; swords could be more durable than spears and lances, and pass through generations. One sees swords in heraldry far more often than the spear or lance, reinforcing the notion that swords are exclusive relative to the common man's spear. In romances, the sword is the weapon most likely associated with a champion rather than his lance.

The sword captures the popular imagination, but it is the spear upon which empires were built.


  1. Swords always have status. Possibly because you have to get close to the enemy to use them. A spear is a much more practical weapon, but practical doesn't have any heroism.

    1. Here's one I think you'll appreciate: what do we call the nameless, silent extras whose job it is to fill out crowd-scenes on stage and in films? Spear-carriers.