The Dacian Falx

 

The Daco-Roman wars of 101-102 and 105-106 highlighted not only the warrior attributes of the northern branch of the Thracians, the Dacians, but also a local adaptation of a curved sword known in antiquity as the Falx.

Unlike the Sica dagger, an indisputable creation of the Thracians, the crooked sword, the so-called sickle-sword, was not specific only to the Thracian space, it was also known to the South Danube Thracians, the Greeks and the Macedonians, the Lycians or some Celtic tribes. Its fame, however, in Antiquity, was given by its use by the Dacians, especially during the last century of existence of the Dacian state.

 

Probably originally a simple sickle, The Dacian Falx has undergone successive changes, as we can infer from the existence of falx variations in older chronological horizons, reaching impressive dimensions and elaborated shapes towards the end of Dacian kingdom. The transformation of the bronze sickle into a curved sword coincided with the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, an era dominated by a metal more suitable for such a tool-weapon and can be blamed on the need of simple fighters to adapt when faced with new tactical situations. The evolution of this weapon can be traced in two directions, one from which the falcata, known and used throughout the Mediterranean basin, derived, and a second line of evolution that led to a larger sword, with an elongated blade, more sharply curved and with the edge on the concave side, used mainly north of the Danube.

 

The name that the Dacians gave to this gruesome weapon is not known, so the historiography recorded only its Latin version. The term falx, -cis, pl. falces (sickle, hook, scythe, gaff), probably the latinization of the Greek falcata, defined in particular the tool, with its numerous differentiating attributes, but also the weapon, with utility in cult practices, hunting or military applications. In general, falx designates all objects of different shapes and sizes that had in common the edge on the inside of a blade more or less curved, this characteristic differentiating them from the various types of knives.

 

With regard to the panoply of curved weapons used mainly north of the Danube we can include in the phrase Dacorum falcibus, the sickles, scythes, the hooks and battle knives, the curved dagger (sica) and the two main types of curved swords: the Thracian rhomphaea and the shorter type, the dacian falx, used by the Thracians to the North of Danube.

Cornelius Fronto will have probably also thought of such a broad meaning, when integrating in the ensemble of words Dacorum falcibus, all the types of curved weapons used by the Dacians. Publius Papinius Statius brings a necessary clarification, for whom the falx is the symbol-weapon of the Getae, which focuses attention only on a certain curved weapon, individualized and effective enough so that it can be associated with the ethnicity of those who used it. Corroborating this information with the artistic representations of the era, the only candidate for this status that remains is a certain falcatusensis,which, in the recent literature, became the dacian falx, a weapon whose characteristics have not, however, been established in detail.

 

The Dacian curved sword is therefore not only one of the curved weapons of the Dacians, but also the most effective of them, in any case one of the most famous curved weapons used in Antiquity, throughout the Mediterranean area, including the northern Balkans area.

From the multitude of curved weapons used by the Dacians, it stands out not through the number of specimens discovered, but because of the elaborate morphology and technical characteristics with the help of which it has proved itself to be an exceptional weapon.

The morphology, partially reconstituted, of this type of sword, called “Sarmizegetusa” by the place of provenance of most of the discovered parts, shows a medium to large weapon, with a total length of between 0.70-1 m, with a handle which ends with a thickening intended to stop the hands from touching the blade, suitable for use with one or two hands. The blade is triangular in section, with a considerable length and an elegant curvature finished by a sharp tip. The petrified skin debris, discovered in the case of a specimen, reinforces the hypothesis that this type of curvature allowed the sword to be worn in a sheath.

 

Quite explicit in determining proportions is the reverse of a sestert (fig. 8/6) issued in Rome between 104-111, more likely after 106 (RIC 584, Cohen 569). The iconographic ensemble is also illustrated on an as (fig. 8/7), a variant of the same monetary type, and the weapons, clearly visible, are very similar to the curved weapons embossed on the LXVII scene of the Trajan’s Column.

An example in this regard is Trajan’s Column, from Trajan’s Forum, a monument on which imagery of such weapons abounds in the hands of the Dacian fighters who oppose Rome. The dimensions of these curved swords, having as benchmark for comparison the stature of the soldiers, show them as being of medium length, compared to the length of the Roman gladius, or even smaller, which can offer the prospect of heavy weapons, with large blades, relatively short, of approx. 50 cm, handled with one hand. The same monument, in the scenes in which trophies arepresent, offers a different perspective, from which the impression of some large swords results, comparable to the dimensions of a shield (fig. 8/1-5, 8).

 

The dimensions and shape of these swords are similar to the specimens discovered mainly in the area of the capital of the Dacian kingdom and can be said to represent a correct image of the sword with which the military elite around the king was equipped. Differences can be attributed to talent, artistic inspiration or a dose of political subjectivity if we take into account the fact that on the Column the Dacians figurate as simple barbarians, without complex equipment, and on the scenes with the trophies one can see chain mails, helmets, lances, quivers with arrows or long swords. The difference in message is obvious and obliges caution in identifying and establishing fixed criteria, but given the context in which they appear, the images cannot be circumvented.

A decisive element, in determining the dose of historical truth contained in the Roman reliefs, is the discovery in archaeological contexts, among others, of swords identical to those on the trophies and not even one, for the time being, of the kind used by the Dacian warriors highlighted on the Column. The conclusion is supported by the Adamclisi Trophy metopes, whose authors, craftsmen and soldiers from the troops stationed here after the conquest of Dacia, were closer to events, and thus more qualified in the rendering of barbarian weaponry. The swords of the barbarian warriors, Dacians or their allies, are of two types: one is long and can be assimilated to the Thracian rhomphaea, but having obvious local characteristics and one with dimensions close to those on the Column trophies or from the archaeological contexts.

 

The exemplification of artifacts suffers a number of shortcomings, due in part to the rarity of these objects in archaeological contexts, and, on the other hand, due to the relative standardization. Although the weapon is present on numerous architectural monuments, monetary broadcasts or votive pieces, artistic ambiguities do not allow the real characteristics of these swords to become clear, the authors being in most cases content with the rendering the idea of a falx and not its objective image.

From an archaeological point of view, although not numerous, the discoveries are subsumed, with small exceptions (rep. 1, fig. 1/2), to a single type of sword, named by us “Sarmizegetusa” after the place of origin of several curved swords which we are certain to be authentic and which have preserved almost all the characteristics.

The description of this type of curved sword provides some standardization, in the sense that the differences are minor, all parts being circumscribed to the same manufacturing technology and functional idea. The differences relate to the craftsmanship of the manufacturer or to the specifications of the work order he received. Thus, this type of sword has a long blade, wide enough to provide good impact resistance. What individualizes them is the handle fastening system, which can be with a gauntlet tube (rep. 2, fig. 2/1), with the help of one or more clamping rings (rep. 3,fig. 3/2 a-b), through a rod (rep. 4, fig. 4/1; 5/1), by the handle tang deducted from the blade (rep. 5, Pl. I/1;Pl. V/1) or with a rivet hole (rep. 6, fig. 2/2). If in case of the latter the total length of the handle, and implicitly of the weapon, can be inferred with a high probability, for the other types there could have been the possibility of attaching a long handle which would turn the sword into a battle scythe. This hypothesis seems unlikely if we take into account the fact that pieces with this allure are represented on numerous coins, or on one of the metopes of the Adamclisi monument. This type of curvature, although it has a variable geometry in all repertoryd specimens, is not sufficiently varied to form in sub types. One characteristic, insufficiently argued, however, is the presence of the grooves on the blade, identified so far only on a blade tip discovered at Tilişca (rep. 7, fig. 5/4) but also on some monetary issues (fig. 5/5.5/6).

 

One last aspect to be mentioned is the one concerning the punching of a symbol on the blade of a sword discovered at Sarmizegetusa Regia (rep. 8, fig. 4/2 a-b) in the form of a point inscribed in a circle or the Greek letter Θ,representing, more than likely, a symbol with a protective role over the weapon and its bender. This hypothesis takes form if we also take into account the ornamentation of curved sica daggers, on which blades this solar symbol was quite frequently incised.

The origin of this type of curved sword, in the area of the Orăştie Mountains, provides another detail that supports our view that the production and use of this type of sword has been circumscribed to the area around the capital, being probably an appanage of the warrior elite around the royal residence. The specimens arrived in areas far from this centre appear to have been more or less successful imitations, such as fragments discovered at Sighişoara (fig. 5/2-3), the copy from Târgu Mureşor parts from the south of the Danube (fig. 6/1-2), which could have gotten there as a result of barter or as trophies.

 

The existence of a specialized military elite is also supported by the combative qualities of this type of sword that could not be wielded by everyone, requiring professional warriors, specially trained to fight using this kind of weapon. The effectiveness of the sword in confronting the defensive equipment of the opponents, especially the Roman legionnaires, seems to have been due not only to the qualities of the weapon, but also to the human element of this equation. The written sources speak of a great psychological impact of the curved weapon(s)of the Dacians, the artistic and numismatic ones confirm their widespread use, while the archaeological discoveries are rare, limited to a few falx-type swords. The explanation lies both in the fact that these swords were coveted trophies, their figuration on most artistic assemblies being an obvious message, and from the fact that these elite units constitute only a part, not the largest, of an army, and a third possibility would be precisely the social status of these warriors.

That this elite was not an aristocratic one, but, most likely, only a special category of warriors, those capillati mentioned by ancient sources, freeborn men having obligations of a military nature and in a subordinate relationship with the pilleati, is also demonstrated by the absence from the funeral contexts of the curved sword, as there is no case of funeral inventory in whose composition to find the dacian falx. On the contrary, in all the safe archaeological contexts, the dacian falx appears as a hidden weapon so as if to avoid its confiscation by the Romans or, and more likely, not to give away the status of the owner.

 

The effectiveness of these fighters, who probably opened the battle with creating breaches among the enemies, was the result of combining two intelligently associated elements. One of these is the special shape of the sword which, due to the angle of curvature, concentrates the entire penetrating force at the top of the weapon, which is not suitable, therefore, for thrusting, its action being maximum only when hitting with force and cutting. This feature makes it particularly dangerous, even if the enemy is protected by armour, helmet and shield. In the case of the latter, although there was a possibility of penetration, was probably “bypassed”, because of the curvature of the sword, the blade could strike over the shield into the opponent’s helmet. An argument in this regard can be considered the decision of the Roman commanders to reinforce the military helmets by adding two metal bands arranged in across over the cap (fig. 7/1-2), the most vulnerable point, as well as the equipping of special units with lamellar armour for the arms (fig. 7/3-4), precisely to cope with the Dacian fighters, tactical decisions taken between the two Dacian wars.

The effectiveness of this sickle-sword was undoubtedly the source of the sinister fame it acquired mainly because of the Daco-Roman conflicts that culminated in the two wars that ended the existence of the Dacian kingdom.

The special form, that of a sickle, concentrated the entire weight of the weapon, and implicitly all the penetrating force, at the top of the weapon, the set of factors that built a weapon whose maximum action was the powerful strike and severing. These features made it particularly dangerous, even if the enemy was protected by armour, shield and helmet. The potential injuries (cuts, clefts) therefore depended to a large extent on the force of the blow, the experience of the person using the sword, the angle of incidence, and the affected body part. In the case of high-amplitude strikes, the inertia force conferred by the weight of the weapon and arm would also intervene.

The second element that laid the foundation of this successful human-weapon pair was the special mental structure of the falx wielders. The use of this type of sword implies a certain kind of heroism which, combined with the exceptional characteristics of the weapon, can justify the almost exclusive association of the Dacians – and, on coins,of Dacia – with the Dacian falx. The attachment of these Dacians to such a weapon lies not only in the quality of the material and the effectiveness of the form, however important they may be, but must be linked to that detachment that the Dacians had with regard to death and, perhaps not ultimately, to the magical-religious significance that the various types of curved weapons had in most known civilizations, the association between them and death being a constant discoverable to this day. The exploitation of this spiritual vein and from the perspective of a warrior mentality, can provide, through the use of theoretical models, additional data about the curved sword and its meteoric ascent within the Thracian military phenomenon.

The history of the curved sword did not stop at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, for a significant part of the Dacian warriors were incorporated into the structures of the imperial army, carrying with them, if not the weapon itself, at least the memory of its ferocity.

The curved sword, a defining element of the new province, as a symbol of a defeated Dacia, first feared then ostracized, will be integrated into imperial ideology, and from there it will penetrate into the ancient consciousness as an emblem of the warrior personality and fame of the Thracians of the North Balkans and, finally, of the Dacians. Therefore, the dacian falx, the “national” weapon of the Dacians, survived in the artistic and symbolic Roman imagination long after the disappearance of the aristocracy of the Dacian state.

For the curved sword, the historical and symbolic periplus will not end here, for its image – reinvigorated in the 19th century by the romantic historiography – together with the famous draco banner, has penetrated the contemporary Romanian consciousness, the association between the Dacian idea and the curved sword being a motif found both in modern heraldry and in art.


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Article taken from the Enciclopedia Dacica.

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