Swords of the Romans
I wrote this essay awhile back as a tie-in to my review of the movie Gladiator. Hopefully it will be of interest for the history buffs out there.
This essay is a brief discussion of the swords used by the Romans of the early Imperial period, especially as shown in the movie Gladiator. The accuracy shown there, by the way, is very high. Now, though, let us consider in greater detail Roman swords and their uses.
The basic sword used by the Romans was the gladius. This was a one-handed shortsword, the blade being about 1—1 1/2 feet long, and the handle about 10 inches in length. The blade narrowed slightly towards the middle, and broadened again near the point. The crossguard was a single piece of rounded wood about the same width as the blade. Thus in appearance the gladius is more daggerlike than the cruciform swords with which we are more familiar. As should be obvious, “gladiator” derives from gladius, meaning literally “swordsman”. Also, the gladiolus flower takes its name from this, the name meaning literally “little sword”, which, indeed, is the shape of the leaves.
The longsword or broadsword was known as the spatha (pronounced SPAH-tah; in Latin, th is pronounced the same as plain t). The sword that Maximus brandishes from horseback in the early scenes of the battle with the Germani in the movie seems to be a spatha. The spatha had a pommel, grip, and crossguard identical to that of the gladius and was also wielded with one hand but was about a half-foot or so longer and was straighter. Interestingly, the word goes through a Middle French form something like espathe and eventually becomes the modern word epée, the fencing sword which is rather unlike the old Roman blade.
Ironically, the gladiatorial games were the main places where these swords were used. In the Roman military, the sword was considered an auxiliary weapon. In typical combat, siege machines and war engines (catapults of various sorts, crossbows, incendiary devices containing a naphtha derivative known as Greek fire, and so on) were used to soften up the foe. The opening sequence of the movie demonstrates this well. Then, the infantry would march in under the cover of archers and slingers. The infantryman’s main weapon when he met the foe was the pilum, or spear. The pilum was about 10—12 feet long and was made of a sharpened point connected to a long wooden shaft. When the infantry marched into battle, their shields were held locked in formation and the pila were held straight forward. Since the shields protected against arrows and the spears were held ahead, the foe had two choices. They could either retreat, or be cut to pieces on the spear points before getting to within even a dozen feet of the Romans. The neck of the spearpoint was soft, so that once it penetrated a shield or armor corselet, it would bend off, remaining to hamper the opponent even more (assuming he lived).
The gladius was much like a service pistol in a modern army. When the battle was well advanced and the two or three pila which each soldier carried had been used, the swords were used for hand-to-hand combat in the mopping-up phase of battle. Although the gladius was quite capable of cutting, it was mainly a thrusting sword, its point designed to slide between plates of leather or metal on an opponent’s body armor. The spatha was less frequently used, being mainly issued to cavalry or to auxiliaries who needed a longer cutting sword to use from horseback or in combat situations where a spear was too long and a gladius too short. It was also a preferred weapon of mercenaries, who often preferred swords to spears. I would point out, though, that the early scene in Gladiator in which Maximus is wielding what appears to be a spatha while galloping along from horseback is unhistorical on several counts. First, the horse is depicted with stirrups, which were not in use in the 2nd Century AD; second, horses were mainly used for reconnaissance, not pitched combat; third, the weapon of choice for mounted soldiers was the bow, since to strike one’s opponents with a sword or a lance risked knocking oneself off the horse (remember, no stirrups); and fourth, if a mounted soldier were in a situation demanding use of a sword, it would probably be one where the horse was standing and the soldier was locked in combat with anther soldier, mounted or otherwise, since this would minimize the chances of being forced off the horse. Despite a few such flaws, the movie is by and large a good one.
As mentioned, the main uses of swords in Rome were in the games. Ever practical people, the Romans preferred the spears and engines that helped them win the known world for actual combat. In the games, though, since there was an emphasis on man-to-man contests, the swords were better suited to the spectacle. Though practical, the Romans also had a flair for the dramatic, when it was called for. The analogy would be that in the typical Western, the showdown is always fought with revolvers, never rifles!
- The Ancient Engineers, by L. Sprague DeCamp, though not dealing much with swords, is one of the best books on the technology (combat and otherwise) of Roman and pre-Roman times.
The Museum Replicas catalogue, put out by Atlanta Cutlery, has an extensive list of many fine books dealing with swords throughout the ages.