Weapons with metal blades first came about as part of the “cutting edge technology” of the Bronze Age.
Throughout Europe and Asia, men found the sword essential to the defense of their villages or tribes. There were those who were especially skilled in swordplay. They were known and respected as heroic warriors and became the stuff of legends. Their communities depended on them for survival.
The Bronze Age Swords
The oldest archeological find was a dagger discovered in Turkey and dated to 3300 BCE. Blades longer than 60 cm weren’t practical because the tensile strength of bronze is weak and the blades too easily dent and bend but don’t spring back into their original shape. During the Bronze Age, swords were developed in Europe, China, and Pakistan. But some cultures, such as the Incas in Peru only used short daggers and no true swords.
The Iron Age Swords
When steel alloys were developed, the more familiar swords came into use in combat in the 13th century BCE. The Hittites, Greeks, the Persian Empires and the Romans all had their own versions and the first long swords came into existence.
Rome developed a class of professional soldiers in their legions, and the Roman citizens enjoyed the entertainment provided by gladiators on festival days. Soldiers and gladiators trained with heavy round shields woven from willow branches and fencing sticks against six foot tall poles stuck in the ground. They learned not to slash with the edge of a sword. Such a sweeping cut inflicted on an opponent proved to rarely be fatal because bones protect the vital organs. These fighters learned that a stab wound two thumbs deep is more deadly because such a thrust is more likely to inflict serious internal damage. The spatha or the longsword came into use late in the days of the Empire.
The Viking Age
During the Viking Age, beginning in about 750 CE, the raiders from the north struck on moon nights seeking plunder to quench their battle-lust. Certain Norse invaders earned the name “Berserkers” because they worked themselves into a rage just before the conflict. In this frenzy, they didn’t seem to feel pain or fear. Sometimes the Berserkers became even more excitable and unmanageable while they were on board the dragon longships headed to battle. They caused a danger both to the ship and the crew. It was necessary for the ships to drop anchor for a time to allow them to go on shore and expend some energy wrestling large logs and boulders to calm them down enough so that they might proceed with the raid. The Berzerkers had a brutal capacity to deliver crushing blows with their longswords. They fought with these six foot long weapons using a ferocious violence and fury for the duration of the battle. These warriors went “a-viking” for a period of about three hundred years from the western shores of Ireland east to Constantinople.
The Age of Knights and Kings
The sword was the defining weapon technology of this era. Only a few sword smiths of the time knew and protected the secrets of creating a truly magnificent weapon. They commanded great prices for their skills. A newly crafted sword by a renowned sword master could cost at least a fortune. Generally the swords were handed down through the generations; otherwise they were buried with their owners. A sword denoted kingship and a monarch was supposed to wield divine authority with it. Just a mere touch on the shoulders and head of a warrior by a king’s sword could dub him a knight of the realm and kissing the blade of a king’s sword consecrated a most solemn oath.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, several terms for the weapon came into use. Besides the longsword was the broadsword and the Gaelic claymore. As a weapon, the sword was deemed more noble than the axe. Only a sword would do for the execution of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII sent to France to bring their most accomplished swordsman to England to accomplish the feat. The executioner was so swift and skillful with his sword that a single slice sent Anne’s head flying into the hay.
Swords in the Far East
The samurai were Japanese men of the sword who kept the weapons at hand at all times. This was almost a religion in feudal Japan and was known as the way of the samurai. The ninja fighters were a special class of warriors who fought only at night. Dressed in black, they disappeared into the darkness. These murderers and spies were stealthy assassins as well as accomplished swordsmen. They lurked about in stealth, speed and deception during the nocturnal hours. Their history is legendary and it’s unknown just how much of it is actually true. The ancient Chinese tradition holds the mastery of the sword as a high virtue.
Swords in the Middle East
The Islamic sultans were rulers with huge fortunes and armies at their convenience. The scimitars were fashioned from Damascus steel by the best sword makers in the Middle east, and the hilts were studded with beautiful jewels. Damascus steel was formed from an alloy that could be honed to an incredible sharpness. It was said to cut through other swords without losing its edge.
The artisans and craftsmen who fashioned these legendary swords and the warriors who used them so skillfully have left their own bloody mark on the history of the world.