Modern rendition of Late Roman Empire spatha
Modern rendition of Late Roman Empire spatha

The Spatha is a type of straight sword, measuring between 75 and 100 cm, in use throughout the 1st millennium. Introduced in the Roman Empire in the 1st century as a cavalry weapon, the Spatha remained popular throughout the Migration period and the Viking Age, until it evolved into the knightly sword of the High Middle Ages from about 1100. Viking Age Spathas are also known as Viking swords.

Roman Empire

Originally the Spatha was worn by cavalry officers and auxiliaries in the later Roman armies. Usually a longer version of the shorter, leaf-shaped gladius used by a legionary, the spatha is around 75 - 100 cm long but seldom reached a full metre. Unlike the gladius, however, the spatha was worn on the left due to the increased length.

Employed by both Roman cavalrymen and their German enemies, later Lombard spathae were actually more advanced than the wrought iron gladii, being constructed using a form of pattern welding employing layers of iron and steel: in effect, a composite material. Eventually under the later Roman Empire the Spatha was adopted by many if not most legionaries.

Migration period

Vendel sword hilt from the Snartemo III grave in southern Norway. Hilt is repoussé Early 6th century. The gold plate grips and silver gilt mount at the mouth of the scabbard are in Style I.

Surviving examples of these Germanic Iron Age swords had blades measuring between 28" and 32" (710 and 810 mm) in length and 1.7" to 2.4" (45 to 60 mm) in width. These single handed weapons of war sported a tang only some 4" to 5" (100 to 130 mm) long, and had very little taper in their blades ending in usually rounded tip.

Viking Age

During the Viking age, the swords grew slightly in length to 37" (930 mm) and took on a slightly more acute distal taper and point. These blades had deep fullers running their length, yet still had single handed hilts which often sported a 'brazil nut' shaped pommel. While the pattern of hilt and blade design of this time might readily be called 'The Viking sword' to do so would be to neglect the wide spread popularity it enjoyed. All over continental Europe between 700-1000 AD this design and its small variations could be found.

During "Norman" times the blades increased some 4" (100 mm) in over all length, and the hilt changed significantly. Instead of the brazil-nut pommel, a thick disc shaped pommel was attached 'on-edge' to the bottom of the iron hilt. In addition the upper guard grew substantially from the near-absent design predating it. Also the blades tended to taper slightly less than those found during the times of the Vikings.

Jan Petersen in De Norske Vikingsverd ("The Norwegian Viking Swords", 1919) introduced the most widely-used classification of swords of the Viking Age, discriminating 26 types labelled A – Z. In 1927 R. E. M. Wheeler condensed Petersen's typology into a simplified typology of nine groups, numbered I – IX.

Norman swords

The transition from the Viking Age Spatha to the High Medieval arming sword takes place between the 10th and 11th century. The main development is the growth of the front handguard into a full crossguard, and the reduction of the typical Viking Age lobated pommel into simpler hazelnut or disk shapes. The sword of Otto I preserved in Essen is such an example of the emerging arming sword, although it has been encrusted with decorations during the centuries it was conserved as a relic (total length 95.5 cm).

See also

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA)

Return to Main Index