The Greek and Hellenistic Period

A Short Guide to Greek Short Swords

The aim of this article is to give clear simple information on blades and sword design, plus an examination of some reproduction weapons.


Sword fabrication breaks down into roughly three processes: forming, heat treating and finishing. Depending on many factors such as base materials, location and time period these processes might merge, overlap or be dispensed with entirely.

Swords can be shaped by a variety of metalworking techniques. In some times and places one technique has been used exclusively, in others a combination of techniques have been used. The primary techniques are forging and stock removal.

Forging uses heat to bring the material to a malleable state. The material is then hammered to shape, typically using hammer and anvil together with specialized set and fuller tools depending on the particular technique. There are a variety of forging techniques for sword making and many variations upon those. The Greeks would have access not only to their own blade making tradition, but also those of their neighbours.

Stock removal shapes the sword from prepared stock that is larger in all dimensions than the finished sword by filing, grinding and cutting. While the technique has been available for centuries it was not widely used for making swords until the 19th or 20th century as it is wasteful of the raw material. Where iron and steel are plentiful this method is frequently used as it requires less skill and time. However in places and times where iron and steel have been more rare and valuable stock removal has not been used except as part of the finishing process.

In most techniques the iron and sometimes iron and steel would be shaped into a bar or billet first. At this stage if several metals are to be used they will be combined by welding to form the billet. It seems likely that Greek blades were often made from billets of iron, but that some were made laminated billets of iron and steel. This is very definitely not pattern welding, but an earlier process, alternating soft and harder layers of metal.

The technique of fullering might be used to create a ridge or ridges down the length of the blade. Whether single or multiple, the ridge's primary purpose is to give the blade greater structural strength relative to its mass.

During fabrication the metal might be annealed to relieve stresses built up from forging and differential heating, and to make the metal easier to file, engrave or polish.

Heat treating
After the billet has been formed it is normalized. The blade is carefully and evenly heated and then cooled slowly. The point of normalizing is to remove the stresses which may have built up within the body of the blade while it was being forged. During the forging process the blade might be heated and cooled differentially creating stress, some parts might be hammered more than others, some areas hammered enough to work harden. Filon writes how Spanish blades were not beaten with great hammers in case they twist or harden the sword throughout its entire thickness.

Rather the billets were beaten while cold on both sides hardening each side but leaving the inner part of the billet soft. The result was a blade differentially hardened so that the cutting edge was harder than the core. Work hardening, also known as strain hardening or cold working, is the strengthening of a metal by plastic deformation. This strengthening occurs because of dislocation movements within the crystal structure of the material.

If stresses are left in the blade they could affect the finishing and when it came time to heat treat the blade, the hardening and tempering might not be as even. Potentially enough stress could be added that the blade would be weak in spots, weak enough that it could fail under enough stress. Therefore short swords could contain far less weaknesses than long swords.

As one of the last processes in fabricating a sword is quenching and tempering it. Quenching hardens the metal so it holds an edge longer but this also makes it very brittle. To restore some ductility and durability the sword is tempered. With swords, due to their length, the challenge is greater as in a typical quenching it is possible to bend or warp the blade if it is not introduced to the quenchant smoothly and evenly.

Once the blade had been heat treated, a sword would be ground with progressively finer abrasives until the desired finish was achieved. It would then be sharpened. The sharpness of a sword, and ability to keep that edge, is based on the angle of the edge and the width of the body of the sword. So a wedge shaped wide kopis can be made sharper than a diamond sectioned narrow xiphos or long narrow Scythian sword. How long it can hold the edge is also dependent on the carbon content of the iron.

The Question Of Steel

It was possible to make steel before the Classical period. But it would have been rare. Piled steel developed out of the necessarily complex process of making blades that were both hard and tough from the erratic and unsuitable output from early iron smelting in bloomeries. The bloomery does not generate temperatures high enough to melt iron and steel, but instead reduces the iron oxide ore into particles of pure iron, which then weld into a mass of sponge iron, consisting of lumps of impurities in a matrix of relatively pure iron, with a carbon content of around 0.06%. The bloom must then be heated and hammered to work out the impurities, resulting in the relatively soft wrought iron.

Iron is too soft to make a good cutting edge; a good edge requires the addition of carbon to make steel. By heating thin iron rods in a carbon-rich forge, carbon could be added to the surface, making a thin layer of steel on the surface through a process called carburization. From the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1200 BC, piled steel was the only way to get good steel. Obtaining the right level of carbon was an art, and was very important to the finished product. Too much carbon, or too many of the wrong trace elements, and the resulting steel becomes too hard and brittle, which can result in a catastrophic failure of a sword; too little carbon and the sword will not hold an edge. The ideal sword is one with a hard, sharp edge, and tough enough to bend, but not to shatter.

Sword Types

The Xiphos
The Xiphos (Greek: (To) ξιΦος) is a double-edged, single-hand sword with blade of around 50-60 cm long, widest at about two-thirds of its length, although the Spartans supposedly started to use blades as short as 30 cm around the era of the Greco-Persian Wars. The Xiphos sometimes has a midrib, or is diamond or lenticular in cross-section. It was generally hung from a baldric under the left arm. Relatively few Xiphoi seem to have survived.

The Xiphos' leaf shaped design lent itself to both cutting and thrusting. The design has most likely been in existence since the appearance of the first swords. Blades in bronze and iron are suitable for a leaf shape due to the softness of the metals in comparison to steel. Bronze swords are cast and are thus are more easily formed into a leaf shape than iron swords. The early Celtic La Tène short sword, contemporary with the Xiphos, had a virtually identical blade design as the Xiphos.

A basic version from Campvalano , Italy, is reproduced by Deepeeka. These blades are often over-tempered and will break if put under any stress. The AH4214 sword features an unsharpened carbon steel blade with raised central rib and a hilt of bone and steel. Includes a matching wood scabbard with black leather covering. Overall Length 67 cm, blade 60cm, weight 1.75 kg. They cost under £100. This sword is really an Etruscan weapon, sounds heavy, but could be worse.

Ideally the hilt is a composite design of iron, bone or wood, and very elegant. The below illustration was made by Lonely Mountain Forge and is a beautiful example.

From Manning Imperial (left image) this is a 46 cm short Spartan style Xiphos, with an iron blade and hilt composed of bone and iron side plates. The leather covered wooden scabbard with bronze or brass throat and chape. Roughly £970.

Around the late 5th century the very short sword associated with Spartans and their Lakedaimonian allies was becoming popular (left image). At around 30-40 cm this was probably ideal in the crush of the hoplite battle, but less ideal on horseback. Plutarch gives various stories relating to the shortness of the sword, but sadly nothing of them survives except a cast bronze model sword purchased in Crete in 1898.

This sword probably belonged to a statue and is now in the British Museum. It is possible to buy an approximation of this sword with a diamond cross section , and make your own scabbard. A bronze hilt is perhaps allowed in keeping with the find, but a composite hilt would look nicer.

This example is made by Loricatus for around £180. Weight 1.15 kg. Overall length 44cm, blade length 29 cm.

The Machaira or Kopis.
Makhaira (from Greek μαΧαιρα (mákhaira, plural mákhairai), also transliterated machaira or machaera; an Ancient Greek word, related to μαΧη (mákhe) "a battle", μαΧεσθαι (mákhesthai) "to fight", from PIE *magh-) is a term used by modern scholars to describe a type of ancient bladed weapon, generally a large knife with a curved cutting edge. Homer mentions the makhaira, but as a domestic knife of no great size. In period texts, μαΧαιρα has a variety of meanings, and can refer to virtually any knife or sword (taking the meaning of today's Greek μαΧαΙρι), even a surgeon's scalpel, but in a martial context it frequently refers to a type of one-edged sword; a sword designed primarily to cut rather than thrust. Some modern scholars distinguish the makhaira from the kopis (an ancient term of similar meaning) based on whether the blade is forward curved (kopis), or not (makhaira).

The term kopis (from Ancient Greek κοπις, plural kopides[1] from κοπτω - kopto, "to cut, to strike";] alternatively a derivation from the Ancient Egyptian term khopesh for a cutting sword has been postulated[3]) in Ancient Greece could describe a heavy knife with a forward-curving blade, primarily used as a tool for cutting meat, for slaughter and animal sacrifice, or refer to a single edged cutting or 'cut and thrust' sword with a similarly shaped blade.

These weapons were of various sizes and shapes, being regional, and not exclusively Greek. Greek art shows the Greek and Persian armies employing swords with a single cutting edge. The kopis is often compared to the contemporary Iberian falcata and the more recent, and shorter, Nepalese kukri. It has been suggested that the yatagan, used in the Balkans and Anatolia during the Ottoman Period, was a direct descendant of the kopis.

The kopis sword was a one handed weapon. Early examples had a blade length of up to 65cm, making it almost equal in size to the spatha. Later Macedonian examples tended to be shorter with a blade length of about 48cm. Some of these Macedonian examples have toured widely and are well known. The kopis had a single-edged blade that pitched forward towards the point, the edge being concave on the part of the sword nearest the hilt, but swelling to convexity towards the tip. This shape, often termed "recurved," distributes the weight in such a way that the kopis was capable of delivering a blow with the momentum of an axe, whilst maintaining the long cutting edge of a sword and a capability to deliver a thrust. Some scholars have claimed an Etruscan origin for the sword, as such swords have been found as early as the 7th century BC in Etruria. Xenophon recommended using the single edged kopis sword (which he did not distinguish from the makhaira) for cavalry in On Horsemanship 12:11 - "I recommend a kopis rather than a xiphos, because from the height of a horse's back the cut of a machaira will serve you better than the thrust of a xiphos.". The precise wording of Xenophon's description suggests the possibility that the kopis was a specific type of sword within a more general class, with the term makhaira denoting any single-edged cutting sword. Hippocrates (On Head Wounds 11) makes it clear that wounds delivered from above, such as those delivered by a horseman against infantry, are worse than those delivered from the same level. While the spear is the primary weapon, Alexander seems to have used the sword to an unusual degree.

Two long cavalry examples exist in museums Corfu (left) and Athens (right).

The length of the Athenian version excluding handle is 56cm, total length of the sword is 68.5cm.

Manning Imperial do a version of the Corfu kopis for around £1,250 with scabbard. The length of blade is 53 cm and the overall length is 67.5cm. The weight is 653g compared to the 678g they give for the original. The hollow iron side plates save a considerable amount of weight.

The sword should be worn relatively high under the arm-pit to stop it bouncing around when riding. It is excellent for a cavalry impression and lasts throughout the period. It is possible to buy Indian made simple cheap short versions of this weapon, but any with bronze in the hilt should ideally be avoided. A few years ago I designed this blade which Len Morgan made me based on a Bosporan grave find.

From a 3rd century Bosporan grave.

He sells them commercially and can be found on the internet. The blade is iron ground to shape, and you may need to do some work on the scabbard. Here the chape is made of bone, but the box around the mouth is made of horn which has so far stood the test of time. Older bone versions often broke. The shape of the box helps retain the sword in the scabbard. The blade is a beautiful shape but the handle plates are made in bronze.

A Polish blacksmith and friend "Ibor", Duszka Waldemar, made me the short kopis illustrated here at the bottom of the photo, with an overall length 55 cm, blade length 42cm and weight of 590 grams. Oak side plates are riveted with iron rivets to the tang. The blade has been authentically cold worked to harden the cutting edge.

The top long kopis was made for me by Josef at White Well Arms, for around £500. Weighing 725g with hollow iron handle plates, it has an overall length of 73cm with a blade of 61cm. It is truly an excellent weapon, light but with an excellent reach. The sword is often carried under the left arm in what first appears to be upside down manner. Yet the shaped scabbard mouth stops dust and dirt from accumulating in the scabbard and the edge is carried upwards, to stop it wearing against any grit in the scabbard.

The Sica.
The weapons with curved blade had a long evolution in Thrace and Illyria, across the northern Balkans. Ancient written sources, the artistic representations and the archaeological evidence all document the process and typologies have been suggested. Very probably the curved daggers were already known during the 5th century BC, when Herodotus (VII, 75) wrote that the Thracians 'used spears, light shields and short swords, using a term differing from the from the akinakes, the dagger specific to the Scythians and the Getae. Clemens of Alexandria (Stromateis, I, 16, p. 132) speaks about the Thracians 'who invented the so-called harpe, a big curved dagger', mentioned in his text as mahaira. On the mural paintings of the dromos from the chamber-grave at Kazanlak, dating from the 4th century BC, are depicted daggers with curved blades. Similar pieces, dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, were discovered in a series of archaeological sites. The type probably reaches its height in the 3rd century and after.

This example was made by Ibor and has a good reach at 60cm including the handle in a straight line to the blade tip, with a blade of 48cm in a straight line, weighing just 660g.

Scythian swords
These also change through time, generally moving from an antennae hilt and long thin blade to a shorter weapon. The long sword in the middle dates to around the 6th-5th centuries BC, weighs just 410g and is 64cm long with a 50cm blade.

The akinakes at the bottom of the photo is 41cm long, with a blade of 28cm. With a weight of 285g such weapons were worn strapped to the upper right leg.