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Gladius Sword Explained: 3 Types of Short Roman Swords

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: June 20, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

One of the primary weapons of the Roman legions, the gladius sword played a role in creating the mighty Roman Empire. It also served as the deadly weapon of the gladiators who fought to the death in the arenas of Rome. This article discusses the unique characteristics of the short sword, its history and evolution, and why it became the favored weapon of Roman soldiers.

Different Types of Roman Gladius Swords

Different Types of Roman Gladius Swords
( Source)

The Roman gladius underwent a series of changes during the years of Republican and then Imperial Rome. It evolved from the long-pointed variant into a short-pointed type with parallel edges. Here are the three types of the Roman short sword:

1. Gladius Hispaniensis

Gladius Hispaniensis

The “Spanish sword” of the Republican legionary, the gladius Hispaniensis was the earliest type of Roman short sword. It was the longest of the three blades, measuring between 64 and 69 centimeters long and around 4 to 5.5 centimeters wide. It had a narrow blade with a long point and a large pommel at the end of the hilt which served as a counterweight.

2. Mainz Gladius

Mainz Gladius
( Source)

Also known as the Fulham gladius, the Mainz gladius was a shorter and stockier sword. It had a slightly waisted blade and a long, tapered point. The short sword measures about 50 to 60 centimeters long and 5 to 6 centimeters wide. The Mainz gladius was a highly maneuverable and efficient close-quarters weapon, with its sharp point efficiently dealing with armored enemies. 

3. Pompeii Gladius Sword

Pompeii Gladius Sword

By the 1st century CE, the Pompeii gladius replaced the previous two types, having parallel cutting edges and a short triangular tip. Modern writers named it Pompeii after a few sword examples found in the city. 

The Roman short sword was further reduced to around 42 to 55 centimeters, making it a lighter and faster weapon. The Pompeii gladius would serve the Roman Army until the mid-2nd century CE before the longer sword spatha replaced it.

Characteristics of the Roman Gladius Sword

Gladius and scabbard mounts - of the 'Pompeii' type (50-100 AD)
Gladius and scabbard mounts – of the ‘Pompeii’ type (50-100 AD) ( Source)

The Roman gladius was a type of short sword with a double-edged blade. All of them were excellent combat weapons, but the Pompeii gladius serves as the model of several replicas today. Here are the unique characteristics of the short sword:

Metal and Construction

The cross-sections of the gladius blade suggest that there was no way of forging it. The Roman swordsmiths used the so-called piling technique by forge-welding harder high carbon steel edges to softer cores to create a strong and flexible blade.

Blade Shape and Appearance

Based on the gladius Hispaniensis, the Roman short sword had a narrow blade and a long point. Its blade shape eventually evolved from the waisted Mainz style to the straight-edged Pompeii type with a short point.

The blades typically featured a central ridge, but the advanced techniques later used on the spatha, like pattern welding, were not used for the gladius. With its sharp point, the sword was efficient for stabbing and thrusting, though the Roman soldiers also utilized it for slashing.

Size and Length

Throughout history, the Roman gladius continued to reduce in size. The earliest type had a blade length between 64 and 69 centimeters, but later examples were about 42 to 55 centimeters long. The Pompeii gladius was the smallest and the lightest of the three blades. However, the blades of later Roman swords, such as the spatha, were significantly longer.

Sword Mounting

Mainz Gladius Sword Mounting
Mainz Gladius Sword Mounting ( Source)

The Roman sword had a spherical pommel, ivory or wooden hilt, and a small wooden guard. Ergonomically designed, the handgrip measured between 7 to 10 centimeters, close to the average width of a male hand. Most sword scabbards were organic, made from wood, and covered in leather. Some ceremonial gladius had a wooden scabbard decorated in silver and gold.

Facts About the Roman Sword

The term gladius, plural gladii, is a Latin word for sword. Here are some interesting facts about the Roman short sword:

The gladius served as both a stabbing and slashing weapon.

A Roman legionary (an armored foot soldier) fought with the short sword that has a sharp point indicating that the gladius was primarily a stabbing weapon. Still, the Romans likely used the sword for powerful slashes while delivering thrusting attacks and splitting light mail armor.

The Roman soldiers wore their gladius swords on their right hip, not their left.

Drawing the sword from the left would have endangered the soldier standing to the legionary’s immediate left. Scabbards were generally positioned on their right hip, in which the opening was above the waist and the pommel near-armpit level.

The Roman centurion wore his gladius on his left.

The Roman centurion was a commander of a centuria—a unit that consisted of 100 men. A Roman legion had 60 centurions, who distinguished themselves from lower-ranked soldiers by wearing their gladius on their left. A commander typically drew his centurion gladius across himself to achieve the same end. During the time of Julius Caesar, centurions already wore their gladius on the left side of their body, as shown on their gravestones the next century.

The Roman legions had a strategic attacking formation.

The Roman legions were the most feared fighting force in the ancient world. The leader who carried the battle standard or the military flag led the attack, followed by gladius-wielding legionaries and supported by the spearmen. When archers and javelin-throwing troops disrupted the enemy, the foot soldiers would fight in close formation to overwhelm them.

The gladius swords were the personal property of soldiers—not by the Roman Army.

The Roman soldiers provided their own gladius sword for service, most probably bought from retiring soldiers or military suppliers. Hence, they also personalized their blades and scabbards to indicate ownership. Manufacturers tended to stamp sword blades, but individual sword owners marked them differently with some scratching their name into the metal or forming the letters out of a series of dots.

The gladius was just one of the weapons of the Roman legionary.

Apart from the short sword, Roman legionaries went into battles armed with the pilum javelin and scutum shield. Roman soldiers also carried a pugio dagger, worn at the left hip. It served as a backup weapon when the swordsman could not deploy the sword.

The shield served as a complementary weapon to the sword.

Unlike other swords, Roman swords cannot withstand metal-on-metal contact, so the soldiers never intentionally used them for parrying or warding off the opponent’s weapon. Instead, they fought with their shield as a complementary weapon to the gladius. Also, the short sword only had a small handguard, which was unlikely to protect the swordsman’s hand.

Roman soldiers used wooden staves in training.

In mock battles, Roman infantry utilized double-weight wooden staves to wield real swords easily. However, no wooden training equipment has survived from the Roman period. Also, there are no surviving first-hand accounts and technical manuals on how the Romans used their swords.

The long sword spatha later replaced the gladius.

Roman auxiliary sword or spatha, from the Roman site at Newstead, 80 - 100 AD
( Source)

The short sword gladius served as the primary sword of legionary and auxiliary infantry for more than three centuries, but they eventually adopted the longer cavalry sword spatha. Unlike the short sword, the spatha allowed a greater reach and sweeping slash strokes from the horseback.

History of the Roman Gladius Sword

The Roman gladius was the sword that had conquered the world. Interestingly, the Romans likely adopted the short sword from their enemies and used them in building an empire.

The Spanish Origins of the Gladius Sword

The Romans believed that their short sword originated in Iberia, a region in Europe occupied by Portugal and Spain. Hence, the name “gladius Hispaniensis” suggests its Spanish origin. The Celtiberian ‘antenna’ swords, along with a Castilian La Tène sword, were likely the inspiration for the Roman short sword.

During the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE, the Iberians, fighting as allies of the Carthaginians, used short swords. A shorter blade had an advantage over a longer blade, especially if an opponent had no space to swing his long sword. After the war, the Romans abandoned their ancestral swords, allegedly the Greek xiphos, and adopted those of the Iberians.

However, experts argue that calling the gladius ‘Spanish’ is inaccurate, as the Celtiberian warriors who used the prototype swords were linked to broader Celtic technological traditions of central and western Europe. More than that, the double-edged short swords with a long point had a long history even before the Romans arrived in Spain.

Evolution of the Gladius Sword

The Fulham Sword
( Source)

By the Early Imperial Period, the blade length of the gladius sword was reduced in size but retained the shape of the gladius Hispaniensis. The size reduction was probably due to the way the Roman infantry fought. These were the Mainz-Fulham gladii the Romans used through Augustus’ years of territorial expansion.

However, the shorter sword was less efficient to cavalrymen who needed a long reach. So, they adopted the spatha with a longer blade. The spatha was simply a Romanized version of the long Iron Age swords of the Gallic and Iberian cavalrymen. During the High Imperial Period, the Pompeii gladius with parallel edges emerged.

Gladius in the Gladiatorial Arena

Gladiatorial fighting started in the 3rd century BCE at private events, but it developed into public games played in arenas. The Roman gladiators were prisoners, volunteers, or slaves who fought for entertainment. Repeated victories brought freedom to the slaves and social standing for the volunteers.

Since some Pompeii-type swords were found in the gladiatorial barracks, many have regarded it as a gladiator sword. Although the gladius gave its name to the gladiators, only a few fought with the short sword while others fought with daggers, tridents, and other weapons modeled based on fisherman tools. Thus, they were called the retiarii or net men. The dimachaeri, which means “bearing two swords” used a sword in each hand.

The Decline of the Gladius Sword

Iron sword (spatha, or long sword) and wooden scabbard
Iron sword (spatha, or long sword) and wooden scabbard ( Source)

The short sword served as the primary blade of the Roman legionary and auxiliary infantry for more than three centuries. By the 2nd century CE, the spatha, a longer cavalry sword, replaced short swords of all kinds.

Since a longer blade was more challenging to draw from the right, soldiers carried their swords on their left hip. However, the cavalry remained to carry them lower on their right hip. In the 3rd century CE, a semispatha, often a cut-down spatha, came into use, suggesting the return of the short sword.

The Early 19th-Century French Sword

Gladius or 'coupe-choux' or 'cabbage cutter'
( Source)

In 1816, the French infantry soldiers utilized a fascine knife modeled on the Roman short sword. Its unofficial nickname was coupe-chou, meaning cabbage chopper. The French sword was also called the Gladius since it featured a Pompeii-type blade, yet its tip was much less pronounced.

With a blade length of about 48 centimeters, it is similar to its Roman predecessor but with a heavy blade, making it used less for combat. In 1831, the French produced a new version and it was later copied by the Americans.

The Roman Gladius Sword in Modern Times

Several European museums have at least one gladius in their collection, with the Sword of Tiberius as the most famous sword to have survived from the Roman world. Still, the gladius remains relevant to modern times as it is often seen in films and stage combats.

In Pop Culture

Today, it is not uncommon to see modern reenactments of Roman battles, whether by Hollywood filmmakers or in live-action role-play (LARP) combat. There are several replicas of the Roman short swords often for display purposes and cinematic props. Today, modern-day swordplay gives the actual appearance of war and reminds us of the legacy of the gladius.

Conclusion

The gladius served as the deadly weapon from battles to the gladiatorial arenas of Rome. The short sword helped the Roman Army become one of the most formidable in history. So, it is unlikely that any sword was as influential in Western warfare as the gladius. Many historians also agree that this incredible sword has killed more soldiers than any other weapon until the invention of firearms.

Sources Cited
  1. McNab, C. (2014). A History of the World in 100 Weapons. JG Press.
  2. Bishop, M. C., & Dennis, P. (2016). The Gladius: The Roman Short Sword. Osprey Publishing. 
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