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The Spartan Xyele


It has been a most puzzling case on the Spartan weaponry for decades. That is the case of the enigmatic xyele, ξυήλη — in the Doric form ξυάλη. The question that rises is the following: was xyele a weapon used by the Spartan hoplite and mainly by the Spartan boys, or a tool commonly used also by the rest of the Greek hoplite? In this brief examination I will seek to underline the available studies and theories, and to answer what was the xyele.

It is true that we know very little of the shape and construction of the so-called xyele. We first acknowledge the term in Xenophon’s Anabasis (iv.7.16 and iv.8.25) and also in another two passages in Hesychious and the Suida (s-v) — ξυήλη· ξυάλη. ἔστι δὲ καὶ ξιφίδιον, ὅ τινες δρέπανον λέγουσιν — and in Xenophon’s Cyropaidia (vi.2.32) that meanly corresponds to a spokeshave for smoothing the spear’s shaft. Further, in Pollux’s catalogue of the Spartan weapons (1.137) there is a mention of the term ξυΐνη, which according to Anderson (see foo[1]) is a misspell of the word xyele. That proves that the term was not common in use especially in a later era. It seems that in Hellenistic times and even possible at the time of Xenophon the term was rarely used.

Pic. I: “A sickle; a scythe; a pruning knife or pruning hook; a bill; a falchion; a halbert. As culter denoted a knife with one straight edge, falx signified any simpiliar instrument the single edge of which was curved.” (Smith, 1873)
Source: William Smith, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873. Copyright: 2003, Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Hysichious — as mentioned above — considers the xyele a small sword (ξιφίδιον) that commonly was called a sickle (δρέπανον). We can find that comparison also in Xenophon’s Anabasis were the sickle was mentioned twice as δρέπανον and δρεπάνη (also mentioned as ξιφοδρέπανον, sickle-shaped). In all the above mentioned cases the xyele is compared and / or used to picture the sickle.

Also, in the eminent work Artemis Orthia, Dawkins (ed.) presents a number of sickles which have been dedicated to Artemis Orthia (see foo[2]), that according to Boardman, they were strigils. Indeed the shape of a sickle is much resembles the strigil. In both cases of a sickle and a strigil there is no connection for their use as a standardized weapon, but rather as a literary comparison on the shapes used for weapons. So why Pollux and Hesychious mention it as a Spartan weapon?

It is believed that Pollux and Hesychious take in granted Xenophon’s described incident of the Chalydes who butchered and beheaded their prisoners with a knife as big as a Spartan xyele, which was carried by their belts, and also in the case of the Spartan Dracontius, who was exiled from Sparta in his youth because accidentally struck a boy with his xyele and slew him.

Pic. II: This image shows Roman strigils and guttus much the same as the Greek counterparts.
Source: William Smith, A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873). Copyright: 2003, Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Kromayer suggested in Herwesen und Kriegführung der Griechen und Römer (1928) — by taking in granted that a) the xyele is small in size and b) that has resembles the shape of a sickle — that the the xyele was indeed the technical term of the small sword carried by the Spartans and for that reason has been used for slashing and not for stabbing. However, and against his supposition, Anderson points out that Xenophon do not say that the weapon used by the Chalybes was a xyele and, also, the case of Dracontius does not suppose that was a military weapon but rather a tool used by the Spartan boys.

In conclusion, Cartledge in his eminent essay for the Spartan hoplite (see foo[3]), rightly in my point of view, does not mentions — as Pollux did — xyele in his list of weapons used by the Spartans. In addition, the boy’s xyele, seems to be used as a scraper, and maybe there are the sickles found in the temple of Artemis Orthia, and have been used as the spokeshave mentioned in Cryropedia. Thus the connection of xyele with the Spartan short sword is not valid. The Spartan xyele was indeed a tool.

What was the Spartan short sword?

According to Miss Chrimes (see foo[4]) and Anderson, the Sparta short sword was indeed a stabbing weapon — and not a slashing one, and for that reason had a swallowed and straight blade. We have also evidences of the shape — but not based fact of its size (~ 25cm) — in the New York relief of a grave-stone (ca 420-400 B.C.E) which agrees that the Spartan short sword was used for stabbing.

1 J. K. Anderson, ‘Sickle and Xyele‘, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 94. (1974), p. 166.

2 D.R. Dawkins, (ed.), Artemis Orthia, p. 298, 300.

3 Cartledge, ‘Hoplites and Heroes: Sparta’s contribution to the technique of ancient warfare’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 97., 1977, p. 15.

4 K.M.T. Chrimes, Ancient Sparta, (1948), p. 363.

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The article The Spartan Xyele by Nikolaos Markoulakis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History.
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