Found: 1,600 Year Old Sword That Belonged to a Roman Soldier

When archaeologists begin a dig expecting to find one particular treasure, they sometimes find other troves of artifacts that bring whole other aspects of history to light.

Take, for example, the dig that got underway in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2010. Excavation began on an early Christian basilica in the heart of Greece’s second largest city.  Not only was it an unusual place for human remains to be found, it was the unlikely resting place of a 1,600 year old iron sword that belonged to a Roman soldier.

More precisely, he was (experts say) a mercenary attached to the Roman Imperial Army, who was given land, a title and money for his work for the Roman Empire.

Project co-researcher Erriko Maniotis told Live Science in 2021 that the soldier was not precisely what he appeared to be. Maniotis is with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.

The man no doubt “embraced the Roman way of life and the Christian religion,” Maniotis explained, (but) he hadn’t abandoned his roots.” He was pagan, at least at birth, a fact signalled by the folded (bent) sword with which he was buried.

These swords were used in a ritual in paganism, not Christianity. The find was, Maniotis added, “astonishing… such findings are extremely rare in urban landscapes.” In total, the remains of seven people were uncovered.

The ancient church is itself a treasure trove of findings for archaeologists. It was established in the 5th century, built over the top of a 4th century chapel. It is called a paleo christian basilica, and is perhaps the oldest of its kind in all of Thessaloniki.

Replica pseudo-Pompeii gladius. A sword similar to the one found.

By the 7th century, the church was falling apart, having been poorly constructed and then, later, poorly renovated.  By the 8th or 9th century, Maniotis said, “it had been abandoned.”

Like some of the most startling finds in archaeology, the church was discovered by accident.

Workers were beginning to build a new subway station. They came upon the ruins and officials from the university were called in almost immediately.

Experts are certain the soldier was an officer. “Usually,” explained Maniotis, “these types of swords were used by the auxiliary cavalry forces of the Roman Army.” But the discovery was also unique because folded swords are sometimes found in Northern Europe, but not in Greece.

While Maniotis and his colleagues are certain the man held a high position in the ranks, they were unsure of any further details, like cause of death or age. Those will take a while to learn, because examinations and analyses are time consuming endeavours. At the time of this writing, those and other details about the soldier had not been released.

Much work remains to be done at the church site as well.

Archaeologists have also uncovered an intricate mosaic floor in the basilica. It illustrates a vine with birds, one of which is a phoenix topped with a halo.

Paganism was the predominant religion of Europe before Christianity. It was nature-centred, and practitioners believed in the existence and power of gods and goddesses. Pagans saw life, death and nature as inextricably bound together, and didn’t believe in the afterlife in the way that most religions do.

The team of archaeologists have dubbed the early church “Sintrivanibas basilica,” in honour of the subway station that stands atop the excavation.

The modern subway stop and the ancient church represent what Greece was at one time – and what it has become – a modern, bustling country with all the advances of 21st century living.

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But its past lingers just below the earth, and excavations like the ancient church in Thessaloniki, demonstrate how long Greece has been a hub for humanity, and man’s ever evolving spirituality.