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p518 Falx

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp518‑519 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FALX, dim. FALCULA (ἅρπη, δρέπανον, poet. δρεπάνη, δρεπάνιον), 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 similar instrument, the single edge of which was curved (Δρέπανον εὐκαμπές, Hom. Od. XVIII.367; curvae falces, Virg. Georg. I.508; curvamine falcis aenae, Ovid, Met. VII.227; adunca falce, XIV.628). By additional epithets the various uses of the falx were indicated, and its corresponding varieties in form and size. Thus the sickle, because it was used by reapers, was called falx messoria; the scythe, which was employed in mowing hay, was called falx foenaria; the pruning-knife and the bill, on account of their use in dressing vines, as well as in hedging and in cutting off the shoots and branches of trees, were distinguished by the appellation of falx putatoria, vinitoria, arboraria, or silvatica (Cato, De Re Rust. 10, 11; Pallad. I.43; Colum. IV.25), or by the diminutive falcula (Colum. XII.18).

A rare coin published by Pellerin (Med. de Rois, Par. 1762 p208) shows the head of one of the Lagidae, kings of Egypt, wearing the Diadema, and on the reverse a man cutting down corn with a sickle (see woodcut).


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The lower figure in the same woodcut is taken from the MSS. of Columella, and illustrates his description of the various parts of the falx vinitoria (De Re Rust. IV.25 p518, ed. Gesner) [Culter]. The curvature in the fore part of the blade is expressed by Virgil in the phrase procurva falx (Georg. II.421). After the removal of a branch by the pruning-hook, it was often smoothed, as in modern gardening, by the chisel (Colum. De Arbor. 10) [Dolabra]. The edge of the falx was often toothed or serrated (ἅρπην καρχαρόδοντα, Hesiod, Theog. 174, 179; denticulata, Colum. De Re Rust. II.21). The indispensable process of sharpening these instruments (ἅρπην χαρασσεμέναι, Hesiod, Op. 573; ἅρπην εὐκαμπῆ νεοθεγέα, Apoll. Rhod. III.1388) was effected by whetstones which the Romans obtained from Crete and other distant places, with the addition of oil or water which the mower (foenisex) carried in a horn upon his thigh (Plin. H. N. XVIII.67).

Numerous as were the uses to which the falx was applied in agriculture and horticulture, its employment in battle was almost equally varied, though not so frequent. The Geleni were noted for its use (Claudian, De Laud. Stil. I.110). It was the weapon with which Jupiter wounded Typhon (Apollod. I.6); with which Hercules slew the Lernaean Hydra (Eurip. Ion. 191); and with which Mercury cut off the head of Argus (falcato ense, Ovid, Met. I.718; harpen Cyllenida, Lucan, IX.662‑667). Perseus, having received the same weapon from Mercury, or, according to other authorities, from Vulcan, used it to decapitate Medusa and to slay the sea-monster (Apollod. II.4; Eratosth., Cataster. 22; Ovid, Met. IV.666, 720, 727, V.69; Brunck, Anal. III.157). From the passages now referred to, we may conclude that the falchion was a weapon of the most remote antiquity; that it was girt like a dagger upon the waist; that it was held in the hand by a short hilt; and that, as it was in fact a dagger or sharp-pointed blade, with a proper falx projecting from one side, it was thrust into the flesh up to this lateral curvature (curvo tenus abdidit hamo). In the following woodcut, four examples are selected from works of ancient art to illustrate its form. One of the four cameos here copied represents Perseus with the falchion in his right hand, and the head of Medusa in his left. The two smaller figures are heads of Saturn with the falx in its original form; and the fourth cameo, representing the same divinity at full length, was probably engraved in Italy at a later period than the others, but early enough to prove that the scythe was in use among the Romans, whilst it illustrates the adaptation of the symbols of Saturn (Κρόνος: senex falcifer, Ovid. Fast. V.627, in Ibin, 216) for the purpose of personifying Time (Χρόνος).


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If we imagine the weapon which has now been p519described to be attached to the end of a pole, it would assume the form and be applicable to all purposes of the modern halbert. Such must have been the asseres falcati used by the Romans at the siege of Ambracia (Liv. XXXVIII.5; compare Caes. Bell. Gall. VII.22, 86; Q. Curt. IV.9º). Sometimes the iron head was so large as to be fastened, instead of the ram's head, to a wooden beam, and worked by men under a testudo (Veget. IV.14).

Lastly, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Medes, and the Syrians in Asia (Xen. Cyrop. VI.1, 2, Anab. I.3; Diod. II.5, XVII.53; Polyb. V.53; Q. Curt. IV.9, 12, 13; Gell. V.5; Macc. II.xiii.2; Veget. III.24; Liv. XXXVII.41), and the Gauls and Britons in Europe [Covinus], made themselves formidable on the field of battle by the use of chariots with scythes, fixed at right angles (εἰς πλάγιον) to the axle and turned downwards; or inserted parallel to the axle into the felly of the wheel, so as to revolve, when the chariot was put in motion, with more than thrice the velocity of the chariot itself; and sometimes also projecting from the extremities of the axle.


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