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1st Century CE: The Pre-Immortal Darius

Please Note: This page is part of the Book of Darius website. The primary subject of this page and the parent site is the fictional character Darius from the television series Highlander, not King Darius the Great of Persia or any other person, real or imagined, by the name of Darius. The content will likely be of interest only to Highlander fans. If you want something more scholarly, please check out the Sources.

A Question of Origins

As I pointed out in an earlier article, Goths, Sarmatians and Huns, some of the information concerning Darius' origins appears to be contradictory. The Watcher Chronicles CD states that he was born in 50 CE in a nomad's tent east of the Urals, but it also states that he was a Goth. It is certainly true that the Central Asian steppes east of the Urals had long been the home of nomadic tribes of horse-archers, who had been known by a variety of names over the years, but at the the time of Darius' birth, the reigning nomads of the steppes were the Sarmatians. The Goths, who were a Germanic people, never lived east of the Urals at any time in their history. When Darius was born in 50 CE, they were living along the Vistula River in what is now northern Poland. However, I will not attempt to resolve these issues here. My purpose is to investigate the types of swords the Darius might have used, and since the cultures and weapons of the Sarmatian nomads and the Goths were different from each other in the 1st century CE, I will present information about both and let you, the reader, make of the information what you will.

Germanic Swords of the 1st Century

"Beyond the Lugii are the Gothones, who are governed by kings. Their rule is somewhat more autocratic than in other German states, but not to such a degree that freedom is destroyed. Then, immediately bordering on the sea, are the Rugii and Lemovii. All these peoples are distinguished by the use of round shields and short swords, and by submission to regal authority." (Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, 44, ca. 98 CE.)

This is the most specific information about the 1st century Goths that the historians of that time have provided, which admittedly isn't very much. The Goths had not yet developed a written language in which to record their own histories for posterity, and the historians of the day were mostly Greek and Roman. At this time, the Goths lived far from the boundaries of the Roman Empire and since they did not pose an immediate threat, the Empire took very little notice of them. Tacitus, the Roman senator who wrote the Germania, never actually went there himself, and he probably got these bits of information about the Goths at second or third hand, perhaps from traders who ventured further into the German territories than the Roman army. Archaeology supplies some information about the Goths' tastes in things like jewelry and pottery, but for unknown reasons, they didn't bury weapons with their dead, so there are no known examples of Goth swords from this time period.

Fortunately, Tacitus has more to say about the weapons of the Germanic tribes in general, much of which is confirmed by archaeology, and there are some surviving examples of swords that were in use in Germania during the 1st century. So, while we can't be certain what the Goths' swords looked like, we can guess that they might have been similar to what other Germanic warriors were using at the time.

By Roman standards, Germanic military equipment of this period wasn't very good. Tacitus tells us, "Even iron is not plentiful; this has been inferred from the type of weapons they have. Only a few of them use swords or large lances: they carry spears--called framea in their language--with short and narrow blades, but so sharp and easy to handle that they can be used, as required, either at close quarters or in long-range fighting." (Germania, 6). Some of the spears didn't even have metal points, apparently, just fire-hardened wooden tips, and the spear was their main, and often their only, weapon. Javelins are also mentioned among their armaments, but like swords, axes and bows seemed to have been rare at this point in time. Most Germanic warriors had only a shield for protection. Their shields were typically made of wood or wickerwork with a large metal boss, which could be used offensively to smash an enemy's face. Shield shapes varied: rectangular, hexagonal and oval shields were used in addition to the round shields Tacitus attributes to the Goths. Few had helmets or armor, so Germanic warriors went into battle lightly clad in breeches and short cloak (or else naked). The majority fought on foot, charging the enemy in a wedge-shaped formation that the Romans called a cuneus (the Latin word for wedge).

The Germans did have some mounted warriors, equipped with spears and shields, but Tacitus was very unimpressed with their horses: "Their horses are not remarkable for either beauty or speed, and are not trained to execute various evolutions as ours are; they ride them straight ahead, or with just a single wheel to the right, keeping their line so well that not a man falls behind the rest..." (Germania, 6). He goes on to describe how some daring young German warriors would run with the cavalry and fight among them. However, in his opinion the Germans' real strength was in their infantry, badly equipped as it was, rather than their cavalry. Historians believe that it was mostly the leaders and their retinues who had horses, because of the expense of feeding and maintaining the animals. It is also thought that the leaders were the ones who were more likely to have been able to afford swords and protective equipment such as helmets and armor.

The swords dating from this period that have been discovered in Germanic warrior graves and votive bog deposits are relatively few in number compared to spears, which agrees with what Tacitus wrote about their scarcity. Some Celtic and Roman swords were found among them, probably acquired as spoils of war or through trade, and German swordsmiths seem to have been influenced by their designs. For example, the short, double-edged Roman gladius had German-made counterparts. Longer swords, like the Roman cavalry spatha, and Celtic swords of the late La Tène period have also been found, although they were even rarer than the short swords. Single-edged Germanic short swords, known as saxes, were more common, especially in the east. Below are some examples.

Roman-style gladius
Roman gladius
German sax with curved handle
German Sax
Another type of Germna sax
German Sax
Roman style spatha
Roman spatha
Celtic longsword
Celtic longsword

The gladius was the sidearm of the Roman foot soldier for many centuries, and had its origins in the leaf-bladed short swords of the Iberian Celts. During the period under discussion here, the gladius had straight cutting edges and a triangular point, and was very effective as both a slashing and stabbing weapon. It was equipped with a spherical or ovoid shaped pommel, a grooved handle which provided an excellent grip, and a half-sphere or domed guard just slightly wider than the blade. Overall the gladius measured somewhere around two feet long. As mentioned earlier, German copies of the gladius have been found, mostly in the western territories near the borders of the Empire. The single-edged sax (also spelled seax) ranged in size from a large knife to a sword. Saxes were easier to make than double-edged weapons, but could be just as deadly. Some, like the first sax pictured above, with the curved handle, were primarily slashing weapons. Others had a long, angled point and could be used for stabbing or slashing. The handles might be made of horn, bone, or wood, and during this era, typically had no pommel or guard.

The Roman spatha, like the gladius, was modeled on a Celtic weapon, only in this case the inspiration was a long, broad-bladed slashing sword, which sometimes had a blunt, rounded tip. The guards and pommels had a distinctive double-lobed design. Although the Celts used their long swords both on horseback and on foot, the Roman spatha was mostly used by the cavalry until the second century, when it largely replaced the gladius as the infantry sword. The blade was usually broad with parallel edges, although a tapering, narrow-bladed spatha similar to the modern rapier also existed. The spatha's length (about three feet) made it an ideal weapon for horsemen, allowing them to slash down at enemies fighting on foot, but it could also be used as a thrusting weapon. The hilt at this time was very similar to that of the gladius. The Germans, particularly the westernmost tribes, had contact with both Celts and Romans, so would not be surprising that a few of their swords found their way into German hands, but the long sword was still a rarity among 1st century Germanic warriors.

So how may these general observations about Germanic warriors and their weapons be applied to our Darius in particular? We know from the Watcher Chronicles CD that Darius had his First Death in 95 CE leading his people against the "Germanic hordes". Since the Goths lived well to the northeast of the Roman frontier, it makes sense that Darius would have been fighting other Germanic tribes rather than the Romans or the Celts at this time. The fact that Darius was a leader among his people is particularly significant. Tacitus observed that the Germans "...choose their kings for their noble birth, their commanders for their valor." (Germania, 7). Darius was probably the latter, a war-leader who earned that position by his prowess as a fighter and leader of men, although he could also have originally been a member of a noble family. The fact that he was a leader rather than a common soldier might increase the likelihood that he could afford to own a sword and/or protective equipment like armor or a helmet. As a leader, he might also have owned a horse and thus been able to fight or lead his men from horseback, although admittedly we are moving further into the realm of possibility rather than likelihood. Even as a war-leader of a tribe of Goths, the Pre-Immortal Darius might still have fought on foot with only spear and shield, as the majority of Germanic warriors did.

However, if we choose to assume that Darius did have a sword, what type would most likely be available to him? First, let's recall the passage quoted at the top of this page. In it, Tacitus states that the Goths had short swords and round shields. Since this is the only specific information that we have about the swords of the Goths, I think that a short sword, such as a Roman-type gladius or native sax, is the most likely choice for Darius in this place and time, if he had a sword at all. The scarcity of swords and other iron objects in Germania mentioned by Tacitus must still be taken into account. Unfortunately Tacitus doesn't say whether the Goths' short swords were single or double-edged, or whether they were of native manufacture or imported, and those dead Goths in their weaponless graves aren't talking either.

Of course it is still possible that some long swords could have reached the Goths through trade or warfare with other tribes located closer to the Roman frontiers. It is also worth mentioning that one of the ancient Amber Routes passed right through the territory of the Goths. Traders from the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions took boats up the Vistula River to the Baltic Sea to obtain the precious amber, and it would seem natural for the Goths to do a little business with them. Imported goods and Roman coins are found all over this region, indicating a flourishing trade with the outside world. Perhaps a few choice weapons might have been among the traders' wares, even if they had to sneak them past the Romans at the frontiers. Thus a Roman-style spatha or a Celtic long sword must still remain possibilities for Darius' sword, since at least some 1st century Germanic warriors had them. And there is even a possibility that a Sarmatian sword might have been brought up the Amber Route from the Black Sea steppes. (These swords will be discussed in the next section, which is coming soon).

This article is Copyright ©2006 by tirnanog and may not be reproduced without permission.

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(This page last updated 03/27/2006)

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