Replica pseudo-Pompeii gladius
|Place of origin||Ancient Rome, Italy as gladius|
|In service||3rd century BC - 3rd century AD|
|Used by||Roman foot soldiers during wars|
|Wars||Roman Republic and Roman Empire|
|Mass||0.7-1 kg (1.5-2.2 lb)|
|Length||60-85 cm (24-33 in)|
|Blade length||45-68 cm (18-27 in)|
|Width||5-7 cm (2.0-2.8 in)|
|Blade type||steel of varying degrees of carbon content, pointed, double-edged|
|Hilt type||Wood, bronze or ivory|
Gladius ( GLAY-dee-?s,Classical Latin: ['?lad?.?s]) was one Latin word for sword, and is used to represent the primary sword of Ancient Roman foot soldiers. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those of the Greeks, called xiphos. From the 3rd century BC, however, the Romans adopted swords similar to those used by the Celtiberians and others during the early part of the conquest of Hispania. This sword was known as the gladius hispaniensis, or "Hispanic sword".
A fully equipped Roman legionary after the reforms of Gaius Marius was armed with a shield (scutum), one or two javelins (pila), a sword (gladius), often a dagger (pugio), and, perhaps in the later empire period, darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, soldiers threw pila to disable the enemy's shields and disrupt enemy formations before engaging in close combat, for which they drew the gladius. A soldier generally led with the shield and thrust with the sword.
Gladius is a Latin masculine second declension noun. Its (nominative and vocative) plural is gladi?. However, gladius in Latin refers to any sword, not specifically the modern definition of a gladius. The word appears in literature as early as the plays of Plautus (Casina, Rudens).
Gladius is generally believed to be a Celtic loan in Latin (perhaps via an Etruscan intermediary), derived from ancient Celtic *kladi(b)os or *kladimos "sword" (whence modern Welsh cleddyf "sword", modern Breton klezeff, Old Irish claideb/Modern Irish claidheamh [itself perhaps a loan from Welsh]; the root of the word may survive in the Old Irish verb claidid "digs, excavates" and anciently attested in the Gallo-Brittonic place name element cladia/clado "ditch, trench, valley hollow").
According to Polybius, the sword used by the Roman army during the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC, though deemed superior to the cumbersome Gaul longswords, was mainly useful to thrust. It was possibly based on the Greek xiphos. Later, during the Battle of Cannae in 215, they found Hannibal's Celtiberian mercenaries wielding swords that excelled at both slashing and thrusting. A text attributed to Polybius describes the adoption of this design by the Romans even before the end of the war, which canonical Polybius reafirms by calling the later Roman sword gladius hispaniensis in Latin and iberiké machaira in Greek. It is believed Scipio Africanus was the promoter of the change after the Battle of Cartagena in 209 BC, after which he set the inhabitants to produce weapons for the Roman army.
In 70 BC, both Claudius Quadrigarius and Livy relate the story of Titus Manlius Torquatus using a "Hispanic sword" (gladius Hispanus) in a duel with a Gaul in 361 BC. However, this has been traditionally considered a terminological anachronism caused by the long established naming convention. Still, some believe the Celtiberian sword was adopted after encounters with Carthaginian mercenaries of that nationality during the First Punic War (264-241), not the second. In any case, the gladius hispaniensis became particularly known in 200 BC during the Second Macedonian War, in which Macedonian soldiers became horrified at what Roman swords could do after an early cavalry skirmish. It has been suggested that the sword used by Roman cavalrymen was different from the infantry model, but most academics have discarded this view.
Arguments for the Celtiberian source of the weapon have been reinforced in recent decades by discovery of early Roman gladii that seem to highlight that they were copies of Celtiberian models. The weapon developed in Iberia after La Tène I models, which were adapted to traditional Celtiberian techniques during the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC. These weapons are quite original in their design, so that they cannot be confused with Gallic types. As for the origin of the word gladius, one theory proposes the borrowing of the word from *kladi- during the Gallic wars, relying on the principle that K often became G in Latin. Ennius attests the word. gladius may have replaced ensis, which until then was used mainly by poets.
By the time of the Roman Republic, which flourished during the Iron Age, the classical world was well-acquainted with steel and the steel-making process. Pure iron is relatively soft, but pure iron is never found in nature. Natural iron ore contains various impurities in solid solution, which harden the reduced metal by producing irregular-shaped metallic crystals. The gladius was generally made out of steel.
A recent metallurgical study of two Etrurian swords, one in the form of a Greek kopis from 7th century BC Vetulonia, the other in the form of a gladius Hispaniensis from 4th century BC Chiusa, gives insight concerning the manufacture of Roman swords. The Chiusa sword comes from Romanized etruria; thus, regardless of the names of the forms (which the authors do not identify), the authors believe the process was continuous from the Etruscans to the Romans.
The Vetulonian sword was crafted by the pattern welding process from five blooms reduced at a temperature of 1163 °C. Five strips of varying carbon content were created. A central core of the sword contained the highest: 0.15-0.25% carbon. On its edges were placed four strips of low-carbon steel, 0.05-0.07%, and the whole thing was welded together by forging on the pattern of hammer blows. A blow increased the temperature sufficiently to produce a friction weld at that spot. Forging continued until the steel was cold, producing some central annealing. The sword was 58 cm (23 in) long.
The Chiusian sword was created from a single bloom by forging from a temperature of 1237 °C. The carbon content increased from 0.05-0.08% at the back side of the sword to 0.35-0.4% on the blade, from which the authors deduce that some form of carburization may have been used. The sword was 40 cm (16 in) long and was characterized by a wasp-waist close to the hilt.
Romans continued to forge swords, both as composites and from single pieces. Inclusions of sand and rust weakened the two swords in the study, and no doubt limited the strength of swords during the Roman period.
The word gladius acquired a general meaning as any type of sword. This use appears as early as the 1st century AD in the Biography of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius Rufus. The republican authors, however, appear to mean a specific type of sword, which is now known from archaeology to have had variants.
Gladii were two-edged for cutting and had a tapered point for stabbing during thrusting. A solid grip was provided by a knobbed hilt added on, possibly with ridges for the fingers. Blade strength was achieved by welding together strips, in which case the sword had a channel down the center, or by fashioning a single piece of high-carbon steel, rhomboidal in cross-section. The owner's name was often engraved or punched on the blade.
The hilt of a Roman sword was the capulus. It was often ornate, especially the sword-hilts of officers and dignitaries.
Stabbing was a very efficient technique, as stabbing wounds, especially in the abdominal area, were almost always deadly. However, the gladius in some circumstances was used for cutting or slashing, as is indicated by Livy's account of the Macedonian Wars, wherein the Macedonian soldiers were horrified to see dismembered bodies.
Though the primary infantry attack was thrusting at stomach height, they were trained to take any advantage, such as slashing at kneecaps beneath the shield wall.
The gladius was sheathed in a scabbard mounted on a belt or shoulder strap, some say on the right, some say on the left. Some say the soldier reached across his body to draw it, and others claim that the position of the shield made this method of drawing impossible. A centurion wore it on the opposite side as a mark of distinction.
Towards the end of the 2nd century AD and during the 3rd century the spatha gradually took the place of the gladius in the Roman legions.
Several different designs were used; among collectors and historical reenactors, the three primary kinds are known as the Mainz gladius, the Fulham gladius, and the Pompeii gladius (these names refer to where or how the canonical example was found). More recent archaeological finds have uncovered an earlier version, the gladius Hispaniensis.
The differences between these varieties are subtle. The original Hispanic sword, which was used during the republic, had a slight "wasp-waist" or "leaf-blade" curvature. The Mainz variety came into use on the frontier in the early empire. It kept the curvature, but shortened and widened the blade and made the point triangular. At home, the less battle-effective Pompeii version came into use. It eliminated the curvature, lengthened the blade, and diminished the point. The Fulham was a compromise, with straight edges and a long point.
Descriptions of the main types follow:
The Mainz and the Pompeii are the two main classification types and served side by side for many years and it was not uncommon to find 4th century legionaries carrying the earlier model.
The articles in the links below often differ both in theory and in detail. They should not necessarily be understood as fully professional articles but should be appreciated for their presentational value.