The falcata is a type of sword typical of pre-Roman Iberia. The falcata was used to great effect for warfare in the ancient Iberian peninsula, and is firmly associated to the southern Iberian tribes, among other ancient peoples of Hispania. It was highly prized by the ancient general Hannibal, who equipped Carthaginian troops with it during the Second Punic War.
It is unknown which name ancient Iberians gave to the weapon. Contrary to popular belief, falcata is neither a native name nor one used in classical sources, but a 19th century term coined by historian Fernando Fulgosio to describe the shape of its blade. The term derivates from Latin falcatus, meaning literally "falcon-shaped". Classical vocabulary did have a sword named ensis falcatus, but it was apparently meant to be either a falx or a harpe. In any case, the name caught on very quickly and is now firmly entrenched in the scholarly literature.
The falcata has a single-edged blade that pitches forward towards the point, the edge being concave near the hilt, but convex near the point. This shape distributes the weight in such a way that the falcata is capable of delivering a blow with the momentum of an axe, while maintaining the longer cutting edge of a sword and some facility to execute a thrust. The grip is typically hook-shaped, the end often stylized in the shape of a horse or a bird. There is often a thin chain connecting the hooked butt of the Iberian with the hilt. Although usually a single-edged weapon, double-edged falcatas have been found.
The falcata was derived from the sickle-shaped knives of the Iron Age; that too explains their ritual uses. It is thought to have been introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Celts who introduced iron working there. There are several historians who believe that its origin is parallel to the Greek kopis and is not derived from it. Meanwhile, others believe the design was carried over from Greece via merchants and traders.
Quality and manufacture
Roman armies in the Second Punic War and later, during the Conquest of Hispania, were surprised by the quality of the weapons used by Iberian mercenaries and warriors. The overall quality of the falcata came not only from the shape, but also from the quality of the iron. It is said that Steel plates were buried in the ground for two to three years, corroding the weaker steel from them, but this is technically nonsense as the higher carbon content of the 'better' steel makes it more vulnerable to chemical attacks (= corrosion). The technique of joining layers of steel in a fire-welding process in a forge was a standard procedure.
Ornamental and liturgical uses
In the early times of the tribes in Iberia, its use was more ornamental and liturgical than military. Highly decorated falcata have been found in tombs, for example the Falcata de Almedinilla. The scarcity of the falcata during early times was due to the expense and scarcity of iron in the region.
In ancient texts
Since "falcata" is not a term used in Classical Latin, it is difficult to tell when, or even if, it is being referred to in ancient literature. There is, however, one passage that is generally agreed to refer to this type of sword, in Seneca's De Beneficiis 5.24:
A veteran who had been a bit too rough with his neighbors was pleading his case before Julius Caesar. "Do you remember," he said, "Imperator, how you twisted your ankle near Sucro?" When Caesar said he did remember: "Then you certainly remember that when you were lying to rest under a tree that was casting just a tiny shadow, in a very tough terrain with just that one lonely tree sticking out, one of your men laid out his cloak for you?"
Caesar said "Why shouldn't I remember, even if I was exhausted? Because I was unable to walk I couldn't go to the nearby spring, and I would have been willing to crawl there on hands and knees, if it were not for a good soldier, a brave industrious chap, hadn't brought me water in his helmet?" to which the man replied,
"Then, Imperator, you could recognize that man, or that helmet?" Caesar answered that he couldn't recognize the helmet, but certainly the man, and added, a bit irritated I think, "And you certainly are not him!" "It's not surprising," said the man, "that you do not recognize me, Caesar; for when that happened I was whole. Afterwards, at Munda my eye was gouged out, and my skull smashed in. Nor would you recognize that helmet if you saw it: it was split by a Hispanian sword (machaera Hispana)."
Caesar awarded the case to the veteran.
Polybius also calls Iberian swords machaera, possibly referring to the falcata given its similarities to the Greek makhaira. However, he also employs this name for the straight swords used by the Gauls and even the Romans themselves. The additional fact that other tribes from Hispania also used straight swords, which would later inspire the Roman gladius, obscures the differentiation of their respective names.
- In: Fulgosio, Fernando (1872): "Armas y utensilios del hombre primitivo en el Museo Arqueológico Nacional", in José Dorregaray (ed.),Museo Español de Antigüedades, Madrid, Vol. I, pp. 75-89.
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