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May 3, 2018 Comments (1) Interviews, italian knives

History and Tradition of the Legendary Roman Knife

The Roman knife is a traditional and mysterious knife from Rome. Usually associated with brutal stories of violence set in the 19th century Roman neighborhoods, the unique Roman knife making tradition still exist today.

We had the pleasure of talking with Flavio from Rome. He knows Roman knives very well. He collects these knives, and also makes loyal reproductions of ancient Roman knives. 

If you’re interested in buying one, or have more information about his works get in touch with Santa Smacola Roman Knives on Facebook.

The Origins of the Roman Knife

We don’t know exactly when and how the first Roman knife was created. We only know that Romans couldn’t leave the house without a knife in their pockets. Romans used to say “The best friend I have is in my pocket…

Santa Smacola Roman Knives

What exactly is “Saint Smacola” and what’s the meaning? What exactly do you do?

I restore and make historical Roman knives.

“Santa Smacola” is a name used to call Roman Knives. Old people from Rome refer to Roman Knives with the name “Saint Smacola“. Nobody knows the meaning, or why this name is used. No such Saint exists in history. It’s a mystery. I tried to find more about the origins of the name, but I couldn’t find anything substantial.

I already used to collect and make loyal reproductions of ancient Roman knives. But I was very lucky to find some original, unique knives in the back of a church right outside of Rome, near Ariccia, a couple of years ago. I was convinced that no church in the area would have any original Roman knife, I consider myself lucky that I found them.

The old knives were on wooden boards, and most of them had the tip broken.

I talked with the priest and he agreed to give me the knives to restore them. After my efforts, the knives were put back in the church as a permanent exposition.

The roman knives on wooden boards found in the church.

Most of the tips were broken. 

But why exactly did you find these knives in a church?

Throughout the 19th century the Roman people were violent and would carry a knife with them everywhere. At the same time, they would also be very religious and devoted to Madonna, the mother of Jesus. Many Romans would get involved in knife duels and either survive a stab wound, or kill somebody while fighting. They would feel guilty, or consider themselves saved by a miracle. In both cases, they would go to the local church and ask for forgiveness to the mother of Jesus. Ex-voto. They would give the knife and be forgiven for the sins.

That’s why so many of the Roman knives were found in churches. But most of them have been destroyed during the 20th century. Again, I am very happy I had the opportunity to find many in a local church!

These are some knives I made, starting from the originals found in the church:

Is it possible to identify different types of Roman Knives?

Different types of Roman knives

The traditional feature of the Roman knife is the lock: a metal bar that ensures a safe lock of the knife. Basically, when the folded blade is opened, there are 3 “teeth” that snap into the metal bar, keeping it firmly in place, open. To close the knife, you need to use push the metal lock away from the blade, so the knife can be folded. When the knife is opened, it does a traditional “3 snaps” sound. “Tre scrocchi” in Italian. And this is also the way it’s traditionally called in Rome.

It’s easier to watch this video to understand the ingenious lock mechanism:

The Roman knives are often associated with Bullies from the 19th century Rome.
Who is a “Roman Bully” and how did they use the Knife?

“You’ll see big men, strong as bulls, punching and kicking with the simplicity of drinking a glass of water… and they never go around without carrying a knife in their hands” Edmond About describes his trip to Rome in the 1800

The bullies were honorable men in the old Roman times. Strong and proud, they would show off and easily get into knife fights. A disrespectful look or tone of voice was all that was needed for them to start a violent knife fight. They were honest workers that spent their money in bars… play cards… Yes, the bullies were violent, and they would get into unnecessary fights. But they would also protect their neighborhood (“Rione” in Italian), they would always be on the side of the weak people.

Among all the bullies, there was always “the one”. The bully considered by everyone as the “problem solver”, taken as a reference from the fellow Romans living in his neighborhood for any daily trouble.

Roman card game. Things can develop quickly…

Playing cards could easily get very dangerous in Rome, back in the days. The bullies were were competitive and always tried their best to win and show off. Every game won gave pride and prestige to the “bully society”. After each game, they would frequently discuss about players… who did what … then argue and heavily insult each other with death threats… soon taking THE ROMAN KNIFE out of their pockets. Then there was blood…

Were there historical Roman knife makers? 

The makers were mostly anonymous. Despite the fact that everyone carried a knife on them, the laws were always very strict. Making a Roman knife was especially prohibited back in the days. That’s why all the old Roman knives are with no signature. You could only find engravings, for example when the knife was an engagement present between groom and bride.

Example of engraving: “Look at me and shake with fear” (in italian “Guardami e trema”)

The Roman knives are not simple tools. They’re something more, frequently associated with superstitious stories, evil eye… can you tell us more about this?

The knife for the Romans was by itself a talisman. You can frequently see engravings and drawings on the handle, to keep away the evil eye, or to bring good luck. Another common behavior (even today actually…) was to do a little cut on the tip of your finger when you got a new knife. It was considered to bring good luck.

15 inch / 39cm Roman knife.

If you enjoyed the article, let us know in the comments. Soon I’ll write new knife stories & traditions from different Italian regions.

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One Response to History and Tradition of the Legendary Roman Knife

  1. Richard Bondi says:

    Fascinating. I’d never seen these before. What type of steel was used originally, and what are you using in your very nice-looking reproductions?