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The Varangian Rhomphaia-
A Cautionary Tale

by Tim Dawson

About five years ago a novel weapon was introduced to Melbourne Garrison, spread subsequently to other branches and was even proselytised to other clubs.   It was called a "Rhomphaia" and was a short pole-arm with a long, narrow blade hooked at the point.   Belatedly the provenance of this weapon was called into question and the answer to that question has important lessons for both individual researchers and for the group as a whole.

The immediate source for this weapon were the Osprey Men at Arms series volume 89 Byzantine Armies and Armies of the Dark Ages both written by Ian Heath and the second published by the Wargames Research Group.   This last fact alone ought to have sounded a clarion of warning about the latter, but both books are full of pretty pictures and glib summaries and that is always seductive.

In the Osprey the author even went so far as to a primary source, the eleventh century historian Michael 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'(1).

Although he does not acknowledge it, it is clear that Heath has used the translation of E.R.A. Sewter(2), which closer study now reveals to be of dubious merit.   Heath made no attempt to check the original Greek, which reads thus:

touto de genoV aspidoforoi sumpanteV kairomfaian tina apo tou wmou eterostomon kai barusidhron episeionteV.

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 Lexikon, the standard reference for a century and a half, we find that the verb Psellos uses "episeiein / episeiein" has a complex of meanings which may be summarized 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 W.R.G. book also becomes clearer with the following:

romfaia / romphaia= a large, heavy sword used by the Thracians : OrqaV romfaiaV barusidhrouV apo twn wmwnepiseionteV (Orthas romphaias barusidirous apo ton omon episeiontes). Plutarch, (in his biography of) Aemilius Paulus(3)

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.   "OrqaV / 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(4), but we are still left with the question of what Psellos was in fact referring to.

Psellos makes one other substantial reference to the Varangians after their arrival in Byzantium.

Greek is an inflected language.   One of the consequences is that the word order is very variable.   Consider the following comparison with Psellos' words re-arranged:

Plutarch:                                      romfaiaV barusidhrouV apo twnwmwn episeionteV

Psellos book 7. XXVIII:              romfaian barusidhron apo tou wmouepiseionteV (5)

The only difference is that Psellos has made the number of rhomphaia and the number of shoulders (wmoV) singular.   Psellos makes one other reference to the Varangians in which he plainly describes them as bearing "single-edged battle-axes"(6) (feronteV... axinaV eterostomoV) (7).   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 Comnena.   Comnena 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(8) (including the one which also contains the rhomphaia) she uses the term "xiphos" (xifoV), and otherwise the formula is varied only a little: "bearing (feronteV) or brandishing (Comnena uses kradainonteV rather than the episeieonteV of Psellos but the meaning is very much the same.) on their shoulders the "xiphos".   The xiphos was the ancient Greek cruciform short-sword, but the word had no regular use in the medieval period since the longer broadsword then in use was called a "spathion" or one of similar terms evolved specifically for it(9).   The occasion which mentions the rhomphaia is instructive.   The former describes the Varangians surrounding the Emperor "some with a sword girded on (xifh periezwsmenoi), some carrying spears (dorata feronteV) and some having on their shoulders the heavy iron rhomphaia(10) (taVbarusidhrouV romfaiaV epi twn wmwn econteV).   In this case Comnena has indeed used xiphos for a medieval sword, 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 odd reference(11) is also enlightening, for here at last we have the Varangians explicitly described as "axe-bearing" (pelekunoforoV).

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” (eterostomoV) or “heavy-iron” (barusidhroV) 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, the best 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 mimhsiV / imitation, or "atticism"(12).   Psellos and Comnena were both thoroughly imbued with this mimetic tradition.   No warrior of the classical past ever fought with a wood-axe (pelekuV), so to acknowledge that anyone did so in their day it was to be avoided and so confronted with the Guard with their great axes they sought ways to refer to this distinctive feature without compromising their mimetic aim. In this Comnena was more consistent than Psellos. She was able to use a term of the purest classical provenance, while in using "rhomphaia" Psellos only went back to the second century c.e., an era hardly less degenerate than the eleventh century by the standards of atticism.   (That is why Comnena would have been unhappy to have been compelled to copy Psellos in the occasion discussed earlier.)   In his use of "axinh / axini" he did better, for that can be found in Homer.   We can conjecture that while Comnena 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.   So, Guardsmen, cast aside those iron hockey-sticks and shoulder your axes!

The lessons for us are that we should never rely on popularizing secondary sources like the Osprey series, that we should always try to get hold of the most primary source we can make effective use of, that such sources should be compared as carefully and widely as possible and that where possible we should take into account factors in the cultural background which will affect the interpretation of sources.


1) Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies London, Osprey Publishing, 1981/1987, p. 38.

2) Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers tr. E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966.

3) Liddel and Scott Greek-English Lexicon   1843 etc.

4) Due to the lack of citation Heath's claim to have seen such a weapon in an early tenth century manuscript (Armies of the Dark Ages Wargames Research Group 1980 p.73) is impossible to assess.   If it is true, the item observed will have been a scythe (Greek: drepanon) which is referred to in military use in other literary sources of our period.   c.f. Kedrenos p. 589 and Skylitzes p. 668. Gewrgiou tou Kedrenou Synopsis Istorion and Ioannou Skylitzou Kuropalatou, Bonn, Corpus Scriptorum Historiea Byzantinae, Volumes 35 and 36, 1839

5) Michael Psellus, Chronographie, Paris, Societe D'Edition <<Les Belles Lettres>>, 1967.

6) Fourteen Byzantine Rulers p. 289

7) Chronographie book 7. XXIV

8) In the Greek: Anna Comnena Alexiade ed. Bernard Leib S.J. Paris Societe D'Edition <<Les Belles Lettres>> 1945, II.IX 4, II.XII 4, III.IX 1, IV.VI 2, IX.IX 2, and XII.VI 3.   In the english: Anna Comnena Alexiad tr. E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1985 pp. 96, 101, 124, 144, 287 and 384 respectively.

9) cf. J.F. Haldon, "Some aspects of Byzantine military technology from the sixth to tenth centuries" Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Volume 1 (1975) and also A.E. Sophocles Lexikon of Greek of the Roman and Byzantine Eras, n.d.

10) IX.IX 2 in the Greek and p. 287 Here Sewter in typically inconsistent style translates rhomphaia as "axe".

11) XIV.III 8 in the Greek and p. 447 in the English, although Sewter perplexingly leaves out the epithet.

12) For a good explanation of this see H. Hunger   “On the imitation (MIMHSIS) of Antiquity” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24 (1969-70) Washington D.C.

Source: The Varangian Rhomphaia- A Cautionary Tale by Tim Dawson

See also The Book of Job, Old Testament, Byzantine, 9th century. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS. gr. 749.
Byzantine Illustrations of Costume and Soldiers

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