The Sica Dagger
Feared prestige sign, with a special spiritual charge, the Sica dagger is a landmark in trying to determine the size of the Thracian military phenomenon as a whole, but especially the role the military elite that used it had in society.
Our course tries to bring up a typological repertoire, with the artistic and spiritual implications that can be built, with due caution, around this weapon, starting from iconographic, archaeological, historiographical, symbolic interpretations and experimental archaeology. The parsimony of ancient written sources regarding the “history” of the space inhabited by the Thracians of the Lower Danube (both to the south and north of the river) is, to a large extent, filled with archaeological discoveries. The lacunary nature of the former generates a whole series of difficulties nowadays in defining some of the components of material and spiritual life. That is also the case of what we now generically call a “Sica”.
The most characteristic type of curved weapon in the panoply of Thracian warriors is therefore represented by a sharp dagger with a curved blade and a triangular section, with a blood-draining trench along the blade and zoomorphic or geometric motifs encrusted on the blade. The dimensions of this dagger, generically called Sica, vary between 25 and 35 cm length. The relative morphological unit is affected by the inclusion of larger weapons in this weapon category, inappropriately called daggers, and even of smaller swords,which are very likely assimilated to this category because the curved daggers are invariably attributed to the Thracian ethnos and consequently associated with it.
This complements the fact that, from a semantic and terminological point of view, the term Sica, denoting a crooked dagger, although strongly anchored in Latin by its derivatives, is taken over by the Romans from the Greek world, where it arrived together via the Thracian mercenaries engaged in the various conflicts of Hellas.
At origin,the word stems from the Indo-European root *sec, *sac, meaning to cut, to section, which makes room for the hypothesis that the curved daggers of the second half of the 1st millennium BC, prefer red weapons for cutting and stabbing, transpose, first into bronze, then into iron, the Neolithic knives and stone daggers. The ease with which different medium-sized curved weapons spread all through the Thracian world, weapons of the mahaira or falx type, are considered daggers has made it particularly difficult to inventory and study the daggers themselves, despite the fact that the latter are present, in relatively large numbers, both in archaeological contexts and in figurative representations. The hypothesis of identity between the sica and any other curved weapon in the Thracian arsenal cannot be supported if it is taken into account that, in Latin, the sica = crooked dagger belongs to the same family of words with sicillis = sickle, sicilio = cutting with a sickle, sicilicula = small sickle, pruning knife, sicarius = cutler, figurative assassin. The whole family of words suggests small sized weapon sand not always warrior weapons.
At least on a theoretical level, Romanian historiography puts the equal sign between the sica and any other type of curved dagger; practically, however, the exemplification with precise artifacts covers a wide range of shapes and sizes, which makes it necessary to conduct a careful analysis and make a clarification in this regard.
Ambiguity has its roots in historical sources that are not always clear, which bring up the weapons of the Thracians. According to Herodotus, the equipment of the Bithynian Thracians, which had crossed into Asia during the middle of the 1st millennium BC, consisted of spears, light shields and small swords, a formula that Nicolae Iorga translates into spear, and hatchets, and daggers, trying to render both Herodotus’s language and the historical truth. Clemens Flavius increases confusion, recalling the invention by the Thracians of a large curved knife, called mahaira in the text, but without other morphological or functional details.
The representations of curved weapons on the monuments of Antiquity are no more unequivocal, in order to be able to catalogue as daggers or falxes the weapons with which the Dacians immortalized on Trajan’s Column are armed or the personifications of Dacia from a series of Roman coins. Archaeological discoveries, lacking literary ambiguities or artistic minuses or additions, by the number of pieces and their relative standardization, however, allow the creation of a more accurate and, therefore, more complete image of these weapons. The large number of pieces discovered, with different features,but circumscribed to the notion of dagger, combined with the equivocation of the ancient sources, obliges a differentiation between daggers and small swords (mahare), possible only taking into account the physical and functional characteristics of the weapons taken into consideration.
Thus, according to the specialists, the dagger is considered that portable white weapon with a short blade, usually having two edges and a sharp tip, insufficient description, because the dimensions are missing, as elements of exact distinction between the various white weapons existing in the Thracian space. A distinctive element, necessary to precisely define the Thracian daggers, would be their functionality, all the more so since it is particularly complex in the spatial-temporal area in question.
By definition, the dagger is a secondary offensive weapon, alongside the knife, it is used only as a reserve on the battlefield, when the main weapons, spear, lance, rapier or sword, are exhausted, unavailable, or when the tactical situation requires it. Being a short-range weapon, its effectiveness is at a maximum when used for stabbing and sectioning, being much lower when it comes to hitting. Without these characteristics reducing its utility, the dagger was an important weapon, which, in case of the Thracians also accumulates a number of distinctive elements of an aesthetic and symbolic nature.
In this general context of the notion of dagger, the Thracian ones have specific attributes, especially related to the form, but also to the spiritual footprint. In the first case, and perhaps most obviously, the shape of these daggers, with a sharp tip and triangular blade section, is a curved one, most often an elegant curvature, and does not have two edges, but only one, on the concave side of the blade. This conformation improves the basic features of daggers through the fact that, although it retains the high penetration power resulting from the sharp tip and long blade, it amplifies the effects of the sectioning/stabbing action. The second peculiarity of Thracian daggers is the presence of an important spiritual load, inferred from the representations with which the blades are ornamented, but also from the relationship between curved weapons in general and the idea of sacrifice.
Based on these considerations, an evolutionary line can be drawn in the North Balkan area along which, starting from simple forms, by successive modifications,a final form is reached towards the end of the 3rd century BC. and the beginning of the next century, a form functionally and aesthetically elaborated, specific to a cosmopolitan warrior elite, whose arsenal allows the identification in its ranks of a Thracian component.
The area covered by these warriors is north-western Bulgaria, western Muntenia, much of Oltenia, with a consistent intrusion into south-western Transylvania, in other words: the archaeological cultural complex Padea-Panagjurski Kolonii, in whose funeral inventory we also find curved daggers of the type sica. This military elite, in its expansion to the north, eliminated the Celtic authority from the intra-Carpathian zone and spread the curved dagger north of the Danube, the sica being used by the military and religious elites of the Dacian Kingdom.
The arsenal of these fighters covers all kinds of weapons necessary for the successful professional combat: lance for attack, long sword for close combat, shield for defence, sometimes helmet and chain mail, dagger for melee. The equipping of this military elite with weapons of various types demonstrates not only the diverse origin of its members, but also the contribution that each ethnic group has made to the entire complex and reflects the adaptability of the communities in question to the new realities of the operating theatres of the last half of the millennium BC. In this context, the dagger has a precise destination, taking into account its short range and morphological peculiarities, namely the curvature of the blade, the grooved decorations (Blutrinne) and the edge on the convex side. These characteristics need to be re-discussed, in order to better understand the practical ways of using combative actions, both for the delimitation of curved daggers in relation to the different variants of small and medium-sized swords, and for the replacement, more than necessary, of the “sica sword” phrase, often used in the specialty literature and which, through its ambiguity, transfers the place that daggers should occupy to a variety of curved swords.
This equivocation, born at the beginning of the 20th century and continued, with small exceptions, throughout the historiography of the 20th century, is the result of combining the images of Trajan’s Column with a few historical sources, all curved weapons other than large swords being considered sica, without taking into account their functionality. Analysis of this functionality shows that curved daggers and swords, having different functions and characteristics, cannot be used in the same way and have therefore been rendered differently in the reliefs of the Column. Thus, the curved swords were used for penetrating the arms and helmets of soldiers grouped in compact formations, which requires a heavier weapon and with a curved tip slightly more pronounced than the daggers discovered in archaeological contexts, characteristic that also results from the more robust appearance they seem to have in the depictions. According to these considerations, a curved sword had to be held with its tip towards the enemy, given that the sword was mainly used for top-down strikes, as is apparent from the LIX, LXXII or XCV scenes, a way to use unsuitable for smaller and more elegant daggers. The only scene in which a sica dagger unequivocally appears is the one in which King Decebal commits suicide, CXLV, a scene which categorically shows how to use the daggers. These were intended for stabbing and cutting, actions that were only achievable from the bottom up, as well as severing in the case of suicide, which required the bladed weapon to be directed to the handler’s own body.
The third feature, namely longitudinal channels (Blutrinne) encrusted on the blades, is one common to all white weapons aimed at stabbing. It offers not only a reinforcement of the weapon, but also an increase in the lethal effects of the stabbing. Thus, the grooves, one or two, allow blood to drain from the wound even when the dagger remained stuck, allowing a continuous haemorrhage. The presence of blood drains on the daggers of the Thracian military elite, starting in the 4th century BC, shows not only the efficiency of these weapons, but also the place they occupy in the arsenal of the military elite and, by implication, the differentiation, both in figurative art and in the literature, between daggers and various weapons with close morphological characteristics.
To complete this difference, the fourth characteristic is equally eloquent, consisting of ornamentations of the blade with different geometric or zoomorphic elements. The ordering of these decoration elements was initiated by polish researcher Zenon Wožniak in 1974. He divided these ornamentations into four distinct groups: a first group (A) combines zoomorphic representations; the second (B) comprises a series of complex associations of zigzag circles, dots and lines; the third (C) summarises circles and longitudinal lines, and the last (D) includes strings of triangles punched on the blades of the daggers. The interpretation of these decorations is diverse, ranging from Uranian symbols to the transposition of celestial phenomena on the blade, no option being less likely. The ornamentation of the dagger, in addition to the customization of the weapon, was intended to give it a strong spiritual charge, most likely amplified by its use as an instrument of sacrifice.
From a typological point of view, although there is a strong trend of standardization, sica daggers can be fit into three main categories, distinguished only by some morphological aspects, not functional ones.
The first type is characterized by massiveness, sometimes with a broken appearance immediately after the half of the blade, short and sharp tip, with a slight curvature, the rod of the short handle, usually triangular in shape, provided with a hole for the rivet necessary to secure the handle, located near the blade. The blade features incised ornaments and a heavily profiled blood drain groove. These characteristics are not general, the only arguments for delimiting this type are the size and shape being roughly similar. Also, not all the exact chronology could be established, especially for some daggers published in the Bulgarian literature.
The robust appearance and the apparently coarse allure, together with the dating of most of the pieces in the chronological horizon between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, allow the hypothesis that from this type evolved the sica dagger in its classical form, which we find in the following category.
Not very numerous, this type of sica daggers was discovered along a north-south axis, starting in the western part of Bulgaria and moving north to the center of Transylvania, the discoveries being more compact in the Iron Gates area.
The southernmost specimen was discovered at Ravno-Pole, near Sofia, then, advancing towards the Danube, at HristoDanov, Galatin, Prisovo, Komarevo, Sokolare, Altimir, Barbečevo, Sofronievo, Vraca, Comakovtzi, PanagyurishteKolonii, Bogomilovo, Pleven, all in Bulgaria. Three such pieces also come from the Iron Gates area, discovered in Ajmana, Serbia, and in Dubova and Siseştii de Jos, on the Romanian shore. The most northern specimens come from Căpâlna and Piatra Craivii, both in Alba County. Only two specimens are not, geographically speaking, part of the north-south distribution axis, namely that discovered at the Vânătorii Mici, Giurgiu County, and the one at Radovanu, Calarasi County, their presence outside the concentration area being closely related to a possible migration along the Danube. A special case is that of several daggers offered for sale on a number of sites specializing in the trade of antiquities. Although the archaeological contexts from which they originate are not known, which makes it much more difficult for them to be dated and assigned, the information posted on these sites, the image itself, the dimensions and, in rare cases, the details regarding the pieces themselves allow at least them being recognized as belonging to the Thracian world and, with due caution, typological framing. To the type discussed here belong two such daggers discovered in unspecified locations.
The second type, not very different morphologically, but with some notable peculiarities, is shaped around three daggers discovered in the village of Padea in Oltenia, an eponymous location for the cultural aspect of Padea-Panaghiurski Kolonii. These daggers no longer have the robust appearance of the prime type, but have a long blade with a groove for blood leakage, but most often retains the short triangular handle tang. Only two specimens have been found, so far, south of the Danube, at Teteven and Comakovtzi, two others being identified in the north of the river, at Slatina and Zimnicea, and one in Transylvania, at Silivaş. This category also seems to belong to the longest known specimen, a piece poached and offered for sale on a website specializing in the trade of antiquities. Without knowing the provenance of this dagger, guided only by the obviously lacunar information presented on the site, by the morphological characteristics and analogies with similar pieces discovered in safe contexts, we can say that the dagger belongs to the arsenal of the Thracian world, as is the case with six such pieces from the following category.
The third type, more numerous, subsumes a series of weapons spread in northern and western Bulgaria, southwestern and central Romania. These daggers are characterized by the long blade, elegant execution in most cases, ornamentation with circular incisions and/or lines along the blade, the existence of the blood drain groove, the tang of the handle continued along its length and the guard. These distinctive elements are found either all together or some specimens have one or more such peculiarities. The dimensions show a relative standardization, located around 30-40 cm long and approx. 3 cm wide, some pieces slightly exceeding these quotas. The poor preservation or non-specification of dimensions in the case of artifacts has not always allowed the accurate classification of daggers belonging to this type except through the use of statistical analysis and existing analogies. Chronologically, this type of dagger is dated predominantly in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. The daggers discovered come from: Comacovtzi, Hassan-Faka (now Kamburovo), Galiče, Koínare, Osen, Pavolče, Sofronievo, Tarnava, Vinograd, localities in Bulgaria, then: Călăraşi, Cetate, Corneşti, Corcova, Golenţi, Orodel, Mehedinţi, Popeşti, Rast, Viiaşu, ViişoaraMică, Blandiana, Călan, Cugir, Hunedoara, Teleac, Sibiu, situated on Romanian territory.
This typological series also belongs to the northernmost specimens of sica daggers discovered at Mala Kopanya, Trans-carpathia, Ukraine.
This series is not without artifacts of its own auctioned on themed sites. We have identified six such well-preserved daggers with typological characteristics that place them in the category of curved sica daggers, but which must be viewed with some dose of scepticism, in the absence of information provided by the archaeological context.
Beyond all morphological differences, not always decisive enough, what puts the sica daggers in a unique cultural horizon is the archaeological context in which they were discovered. With small exceptions, this is a funeral one, with an inventory specific to the Iron Age warriors of the Balkan Peninsula who often, in addition to weapons, also contained harness pieces, ornaments or chariots.
These discoveries, which by their nature complete an elaborate, specific funeral rite and ritual, have been defined as a cultural complex, called Padea-Panaghiurski Kolonii, which covers the geographical area mentioned and dates from the 2nd century BC. and until the 1st century BC. The presence, in the tombs of the 2nd and 2nd centuries BC, of the sica daggers, together with the typical Thracian bit sand chariots, emphasises the ethnic imprint of the Thracians in the conglomerate of warriors who quickly penetrated the Danube basin and then into the center of Transylvania.
The most common weapon associations attributed to this group are the spearheads, in some cases two found in the same tomb, with the straight sword, the shield boss and the curved dagger, plus various pieces of harness: spurs, bits, buckles. This type of burial inventory, almost constantly found in the tombs from which the daggers originate, allows the identification and reconstitution of specific inventories, disparate over time for a number of reasons.
The particularly complex ornamentation of daggers gives them a cumulation of spiritual, artistic and symbolic valences. Geometric motifs, as well as vultures and snakes, whose schematisation implies the existence of a certain “code”, understood only by the informed members of the group, have been incised on the blades. The function of ornamentation in warrior ideology is given by the frequency with which it is encountered and by the wide areas on which it has spread. It may have had a strong apotropaic charge and, at the same time, it was an emblem that emphasized the allegianceto a warrior brotherhood or demonstrated a certain social status. The symbols engraved on the dagger blades provided a spiritual bindingofthe warrior to his social environment, transposing into the material world the set of spiritual bonds existing between the members of the group, placing the individual in a network of well-defined relationships and excluding the feeling of loneliness.
The powerful schematization of the themes present in the iconography of dagger blades turned the symbols into “ideograms” of myths entered into the consciousness of the communities to which their owners belonged and, at the same time, through the appeal of zoomorphic iconography, made a reference to the virtues of animals whose rapacious behaviour was a model in the era. A good example of this can be drawn from the stratagem of King Scorilo who, in order to convince his compatriots of the inopportunity of an attack on the Romans, associates a wolf with his own fighters.
The association between the dagger and,in some cases,the sword, with the “totemic” image was an easy and visible way of customizing the weapon and, by implication, the possessor and, at the same time, highlighted the warrior features of the man-weaponpair. The weapon, as a concept, was permanently the depository of a set of values and meanings, was personified, invested with magical powers, so likely to fit perfectly into a mythological ambiance.
The curved dagger, already the depository of ritual significance, receives a double dose of meaning as a weapon of prestige and sacrifice and, in this context, its presence in the episode of king Decebal’s suicide is by no means coincidental.
Prestige, exceptional combative qualities, an elaborate mystical component are the elements that, combined with the warrior character of its bearers, allow the identification of a military elite sufficiently coagulated to be able to build a barbarian state, which they can make strong enough to become a serious opponent, not just military-wise, of the Roman Empire.
Based on the data presented above, it can be said that the sica dagger represents an important historical artifact which, due to the importance and role played in the Thracian world, contributes to the understanding of the social and military mechanisms of this society, and through the special spiritual dimension, to the reception of a new facet of the religious mosaic of this people. Of all the curved weapons used in the Thracian space, the sica daggers are the only ones that connect the southern Thracians with the ones north of Danube, being equally wide spread on both sides of the river.
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Aurel Rustoiu, Valeriu Sîrbu, Poignard recourbé découvert dans un tombe à incinération de La Tène tardive in Romania, in Instrumentum. The bulletin of the Group of European workers on the artisanat and the manufactured productions in Antiquity, Montagnac, 9, 1999, p.12;
Gelu Florea, Proto-Historical Images, in Orma, 1, 2004;
Ioan Glodariu, Eugen Yaroslavschi, Iron Civilization in the Dacians (sec. II B.C. – I e.n.), Dacia Publishing House, Cluj-Napoca, 1979;
Ioan Mircea Paşcu, Weapons and Politics, Political Publishing House, Bucharest, 1989;
Jean-Paul Roux, The King. Myths and symbols, translation and notes by Andrei Niculescu, Meridiane Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998;
Aurel Rustoiu, Prestigious Warriors and Artisans in Pre-Roman Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 2002;
Rustoiu 2008 – Aurel Rustoiu, Warriors and Society in the Transylvanian Celtic Area. Studies on the edge of the tomb with helmet from Ciumesti, Mega Publishing House, Cluj-Napoca, 2008;
Zenon Woźniak, Wschodnie poganicze Kulturoy Lateńskiej, Wroclaw–Warszawa–Krakow–Gdansk, 1974.
Article taken from Enciclopedia Dacica.