The “Varangian Rhomphaia”: a Cautionary tale

This article was originally published in the Varangian Voice no. 22 (May 1992) pp. 24-6. It has been slightly revised.

The Varangians of Constantinople, personal bodyguard to the Emperors of Byzantium, had a fearsome reputation for effectiveness in battle. In recent decades the explanation for this reputation was attributed, at least in part, to a unique weapon. It was called a “rhomphaia” and was believed to be a short pole-arm with a long, narrow blade hooked at the point. The provenance of this weapon is questionable, and the answer to that question has important lessons for anyone researching the military equipment of Byzantium

The weapon first appears in the 1978 Wargames Research Group book, Armies of the Dark Ages, and then in the Osprey Men at Arms Series volume 89, Byzantine Armies 886—1118, both written by Ian Heath. Both books are full of pretty pictures and glib summaries, which is always seductive, so they gained a wide readership and even been cited in scholarly texts. In the Osprey volume the author went so for as to give a primary source, the eleventh century historian Micheal Psellos, thus:

“Psellos, however, claims that every Varangian ‘without exception’ was armed with a shield and rhomphaia, a one-edged sword of heavy iron which they carry suspended from the right shoulder.”

Although he does not acknowledge it, it is clear that Heath has used the translation of E.R.A. Sewter, which closer study reveals to be quite misleading. Heath evidently made no attempt to check the original Greek, had he done so, his explanation attached to the end of this quote, “(perhaps meaning it was sloped across the right shoulder when not in use)”, would not have been so tentative. Sewter’s use of the term “suspended” is quite inappropriate. Consulting Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, the standard reference for a century and a half, we find that the verb Psellos uses, “episeiein / ἐπισείειν”, has a complex of meanings which may be summarised as “to shake or brandish in a threatening manner”. Sewter also fails to translate an indefinite pronoun which if included significantly changes the sense of the description. A better translation for the sentence is:

“The whole group carry shields and brandish on their shoulders a certain (sic) single-edged, heavy-iron weapon.”

Turning again to Liddel and Scott, the sequence of deduction which turned this vague description into a Dacian falx in the Wargames Research Group book also becomes clearer with the following:

Rhomphaia = a large, heavy sword used by the Thracians — Orthas rhomphaias barusidêrous apo tôn ômôn episeiontes. Plutarch, (in his biography of) Aemilius Paulus.

If one identifies Thracians with Dacians, it is a reasonable step to equate the rhomphaia with the falx shown on the reliefs on Trajan’s column, a monument of the same century as Plutarch, but in doing so Heath has further revealed his ignorance of Greek. In this quote the first word is all-important. Orthas means “straight” and it is hard to imagine that Plutarch would have described something of as distinctive a shape as the falx as being straight. On this ground alone Heath’s Varangian rhomphaia must be rejected as a fiction, but we are still left with the question of what Psellos was, in fact, referring to.

Psellos makes another substantial reference to the Varangians after their arrival in Byzantium. In it he repeats the quote from Plutarch given above almost word for word. The only difference being to make the number of rhomphaiai and the number of shoulders singular. In his last reference to the Varangians he plainly describes them as bearing “single-edged axes” (axinas heterostomous). I shall return to the precise significance of these things later.

Further information comes from another Byzantine source of some half century or so later, the Alexiad of Anna Komnênê. Komnênê mentions the Varangians eight times, yet in only one of those does she mention the rhomphaia. What is her description of the Guard otherwise? On six occasions (including the one which also contains the rhomphaia) she uses the term xiphos, in a formula which varied only a little — “bearing or brandishing on their shoulders the xiphos”. The xiphos was originally the ancient Greek cruciform short-sword, but the term was commonly used in medieval Greek for any bladed weapon. The swords then in use were consistently called in less stylised literature by various terms evolved for specific varieties. The occasion on which Komnênê mentions the rhomphaia is instructive. It describes the Varangians surrounding the Emperor “some with xiphê (plural) girded on, some carrying spears and some having on their shoulders the heavy iron rhomphaia”. On this occasion, quite inconsistently, Sewter actually translates rhomphaia, and does so as “axe”. In this case Komnênê has indeed used xiphos for sword, as shown by them being “girded on”, that is in a scabbard on a belt, which has left her looking for a term for this weapon carried on the shoulder. She found an established usage in Psellos, although we can can be sure she took it with no enthusiasm, for reasons I shall shortly explain. The remaining reference to the Varangians is also enlightening, for there at last we have them explicitly described as “axe-bearing” (pelekunophoros).

A consistent pattern should now be apparent - the use of a stock phrase with a few variations. The Varangians are described as brandishing on their shoulders a weapon, for which the antiquarian names rhomphaia and xiphos are used, and which is often described as “single-edged” (heterostomos) or “heavy-iron” (barusideros), or both. The explanation for this is to be found in Byzantine literary conventions.

Originality was never a virtue in Byzantine literature. On the contrary, good literary form lay in borrowing the style and even the phraseology and words of the past, especially of the classical era. This is called the principle of “mimêsis” or imitation, or “Atticism”. Psellos and Komnênê were both thoroughly imbued with this mimetic tradition. No warrior of the classical past ever fought with a wood-axe (pelekus), so to acknowledge that anyone did so in their day was to be avoided. So confronted with the Varangians with their great axes they sought ways to refer to this distinctive feature without compromising their memetic aim. In this Komnênê was more consistent than Psellos. She was able use xiphos, a term of the purest classical provenance, while in using rhomphaia Psellos only went back to the second century C.E., an era regarded as being hardly less linguistically degenerate than the common speech of the eleventh century by the standards of Atticism. (That is why Komnênê would have been unhappy to have been compelled to copy Psellos in the occasion discussed earlier.) In his use of axinê Psellos did better, for that can be found in Homer. We can conjecture that Komnênê was most concerned with overall consistent Atticism, (the use of pelekunophoros being an unaccountable lapse) while Psellos wanted to exhibit the diversity of his reading.

The conclusion is clear. The Varangian rhomphaia is a fiction, a literary contrivance, concocted between the stylisation of mediaeval Greek prose and the ignorance of modern popular authorship. It never existed in the form of a curved pole-arm proposed by Ian Heath. Byzantine culture and art were formed by social and ideological forces quite unlike those of medieval Europe. A great deal of work is still to be done to gain a clear picture of its soldiery, both native and foreign.

Timothy Dawson

Select bibliography

Anna Komnênê, Alexiade, ed. Bernard Leib, Société d'Edition «Les Belles Lettres» 1945 (Original Greek)
Anna Komnênê, Alexiad, tr. E.R.A. Sewter, Penguin Books 1985
J.F. Haldon ‘Some aspects of Byzantine military technology from the sixth to tenth centuries’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 1 (1975)
H. Hunger ‘On the imitation (MIMHSIS) of Antiquity’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24 (1969-70) Washington D.C.
Liddel and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 1843 etc
Michael Psellos, Chronographie, Société d'Edition «Les Belles Lettres» 1967 (Original Greek)
Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers tr. E.R.A. Sewter, Penguin Books 1966