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Gladius – Roman sword

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Gladius was an extremely popular sword in gladiator fights.
By MatthiasKabel | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Gladius (literally meaning “sword”; plural gladii) was a Roman sword used in legions during the republic and empire, from the 3rd century BCE. to the 3rd century CE. Later, the gladius was replaced by its elongated form, the spata, which also became part of the cavalry armament. Interestingly, the name gladius was probably born from gladiators who often used it for arena fights.

In the early period of the republic, the Romans used Greek and then Gallic swords. With the Second Punic War, the Spanish-type sword, which was borrowed from the Celtiberians, began to be used in Roman armies; hence the full name of the sword – gladius Hispaniensis.

Gladius was used for both cuts and thrusts, with the latter form of combat being used more often. Its small size and well-developed blade allowed not only for efficient and quite free manoeuvring of the sword but also for very high accuracy of stabbing.

With the development of technology and the art of war, the gladius underwent structural changes; especially when it comes to the blade, which initially measured 75 to 85 cm, and eventually reached a length of 80 to 100 cm. The blade made of iron had a bone going through the centre and a sharply outlined tip. The hilt, on the other hand, had a spherical pommel made of wood or horn, the shaft of which was corrugated or enclosed in round rings, with a not very prominent box-shaped crossguard. The hilt of the sword was richly decorated, often silver or gold was used for this purpose, especially among high officers.

Rudis was a wooden sword used by legionaries during exercises. It was also given to gladiators as a symbol of freedom. It had the same weight as the real one, and sometimes even heavier.

The gladius was worn over the left shoulder on the right in a sheath (vagina) with metal fittings. The belt used to carry the sword was called balteus. In addition to the sword, each legionary carried a short dagger (pugio) in his belt, which served as a backup weapon.

How to fight with a gladius

As mentioned before, the gladius was mainly used for thrusting. It was determined by the way of fighting used by the Roman infantry. The legionaries fought in close formation at close range, which did not allow the use of long weapons. The soldiers going at the enemy held their swords in their right hand and shields in the left, thus creating a wall studded with blades. When they clashed with the enemy, they put their swords out and stabbed blows.

The ineffectiveness of long swords in close combat with the Roman infantry was discovered by the Celts, who could not swing their long swords in the crowd.

This is how the effectiveness and use of gladius were described by Vegetius:

They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action.

Vegetius, De re militari

Gladius types

With the development and improvement of weapons, four types of gladius were created:

  • Gladius Hispaniensis – a sword, used from the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) to about 20 BCE, had a length of 74 cm to 81 cm, where the blade was 64 to 69 cm.
  • Mainz – the blade was 66 to 70 cm long. The sword weighed about 1 kg. The sword was mainly exported to the north.
  • Fulham – a transitional form between the Mainz and Pompeii types. Used practically right after Aulus Plautius’ invasion of Britain, i.e. 43 CE. The blade was 70 cm long. The shape of the crossguard was similar to the form of a flat pyramid. The knob at the end of the handle had different cross-sections, from hexagonal to circular. It was used as the personal weapon of the centurions.
  • Pompeianus – used during the reign of Claudius and Nero. The blade was 60 cm long.
The Romans probably took over the gladius during Second Punic War through the Iberians, although there are also opinions saying that it was already in use around the middle of the 3rd century BCE (earlier, a Gallic-type sword was used, among others). Gladius was carried in a sheath suspended on a pendet (balteus) on the left shoulder.
By: Rama | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Armia Rzymska na Wojnie 100 p.n.e. – 200 n.e., Oświęcim 2013
  • Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris
  • Zdzisław Żygulski, Broń starożytna. Grecja, Rzym, Galia, Germania, Warszawa 1998

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