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Xiphos vs Gladius: Comparing Features, Histories, and Combat

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: January 21, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The xiphos and the gladius are two of the most famous swords used in ancient European history. The xiphos was the iconic sword of the Greek Athenians and Spartans, while the gladius was the weapon of the Roman legionaries.

This article will examine their differences, historical significance, and how they would fare in a duel based on their unique combat preferences.

Xiphos Comparison
Xiphos
Gladius Comparison
Gladius
Origin
Xiphos
7th century BCE
Gladius
3rd century BCE
Use
Xiphos
Cutting, Thrusting, Sidearm
Gladius
Cutting, Thrusting, Primary Weapon
Average Length
Xiphos
17.7 to 24.6 inches (45 to 60cm)
Gladius
17.7 to 27.5 inches (45 to 70cm)
Weight
Xiphos
1.3 to 2.4 lbs (0.6 to 1.1 kg)
Gladius
1.3 to 2.2 lbs (0.6 to 1 kg)
Blade Type
Xiphos
Straight, Double-Edge, Leaf Shaped
Gladius
Straight, Double-Edge
Construction
Xiphos
Bronze, Iron, High-Carbon Steel
Gladius
Iron, High-Carbon Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Xiphos and Gladius Characteristics
The major differences between a xiphos and a gladius

Xiphos is an ancient Mycenaean word used in modern Greek alongside spathi (sword) and can be traced back to the Greek literary piece Homer’s Odyssey. It translates to sword, sharp and pointed, and it represents bravery or power.

The term gladius comes from the Latin language. Its origins trace back to the Celtic kladimos, Gaulish kladyos, and old Irish claideb and its etymology was used by the Romans to refer to any of their swords. Today it specifically describes the main shortsword used by the Roman legionaries.

Today, we refer to the xiphos and the gladius as shortswords due to their smaller dimensions compared to later historical blades such as the arming sword or the longsword.

Blade

Main Ancient Leaf Shaped Classic Hoplite Sword With Scabbard
“Ancient Leaf-Shaped Hoplite Sword” with a reinforced mid-rib (Check Product)

The Greek xiphos can be made of bronze, iron, and steel, depending on the time. Its iconic ancient leaf-shaped blade is thinner near the hilt and tip while broadening towards the center.

The xiphos sword has a double-edged blade with a reinforced mid-rib that strengthens it when used for cutting or stabbing. Its length can vary, as well as the amount of taper.

The gladius Roman sword was made of iron and steel, depending on the century. It is a double-edged blade with a diamond cross-section that emphasizes its durability and is especially effective in stabbing attacks.

It could also have different cutting edges, such as gladius hispaniensis, mainz gladius, fulham gladius, or Pompeii gladius, which differ in the taper level near the tip, thickness, and length.

Hilt

Main Roman Gladius Sword by Legacy Arms Gladius Sword with Scabbard
“Roman Pompeii Gladius Sword” with a capulus hilt and a cut-and-thrust blade (Check Product)

Both the xiphos and gladius swords were one-handed weapons with hilts that ensured a firm grip. 

The more complex hilt of the xiphos consisted of a small crossguard for protection, resembling a bridge, and a rounded or square pommel.

Gladius swords had a larger rounded pommel without a handguard. Its handle could be wooden or bone and had finger grips. It broadened near the top in a style known today as capulus

Scabbard

Xiphos and Gladius Scabbards
The scabbard of the Gladius carried on the right side – Credits: WH_Pics

The Greek xiphos was carried on the belt on the wielder’s left side and strapped to his shoulder, allowing for quick unsheathing and a downward stab.

The gladius of the Roman Empire was strapped on the user’s belt and usually carried on the untraditional right side. This allowed it to be unsheathed with the right hand while holding the larger scutum shield near the body with the left.

Size and Weight

Size and Weight of Xiphos and Gladius
The size differences between early xiphos, Celtic, and gladius swords – Credits: Res-Bellica

The xiphos and gladius are shortswords with similar dimensions from 17.7 to 27.5 inches (45 to 70cm). Their light weight was also similar, ranging from 1.3 to 2.2 lbs (0.6 to 1 kg), making them easy to maneuver. 

Historical Significance

History of the Xiphos and Gladius
Celtic swords with xiphos-like leaf-shaped blades and a gladius-like pointed tip – Credits: Wiki Media

The Greek xiphos appeared as early as the 7th century BCE in possibly bronze or iron with characteristics inspired by Celtic Hallstatt swords with leaf-shaped blades. The xiphos were used beside the curved kopis outside ancient Greece, spreading across many regions. The xiphos was also used in warfare by the early Romans Etruscans.

The gladius appeared around the 3rd century BCE and was made from iron. It was also inspired by the Celto-Iberian and Germanic blades of the Iron Age. It was easier to mass distribute and was effective in the Roman army’s close-quarter fighting style, especially during and after the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE).

The Romans conquered the Hellenic world with the gladius, making it one of the most significant weapons in ancient history. It was also used by the Roman legions, foot soldiers, and slaves, spreading across Europe, North Africa, to modern-day Iran.

Over time, the gladius evolved into the longer spatha to meet cavalry needs for protecting the Roman borders against invaders, influencing European swords from the Viking era to the Renaissance.

Summary
Both being crucial in warfare, the Greek xiphos first appeared in the 7th century BCE, and the Roman gladius in the 3rd century. Influenced by earlier Celtic designs, these swords evolved, impacting the armaments of various European cultures.

Combat Preference

Combat Preference of Xiphos and Gladius
The Roman testudo formation with the core being a Gladius and a hoplite using his Xiphos sidearm – Credits: Trajans Column

The xiphos and gladius were used with similar motions due to their broad blades and strong tapered tips, making them ideal cut-and-thrust weapons.

The xiphos was a reliable sidearm of the Hellenic hoplites and a beloved secondary weapon next to the dory (spear) or the sarissa (polearm). Its compact size made it perfect for shield-to-shield combat.

The gladius was used with a pilum (throwing javelin) or a hasta (spear). From the 3rd century BCE onward, Rome became a sword-using culture, and the gladius sword was a primary weapon of war.

It was used in close-quarter formation fighting with a scutum (large shield). Soldiers were trained to use it primarily as a weapon to be thrust at the torso and as a slashing tool. The gladius had a very large shield, and the Roman legionary didn’t focus on attacking the enemy from the front. Instead, he targeted to his right.

Xiphos vs Gladius (Duel Winner)
In an unarmored duel, the battle between the xiphos and the gladius largely depends on the combatants’ skill and physical abilities, as both swords have similar features. In a formation battle, the Romans would likely have an advantage with their specialized training and tactics using the gladius.
Sources Cited
  1. Anglim, S. (2002, January 1). Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000 BC – AD 500.
  2. Howard, D. (2011, January 1). Bronze Age Military Equipment. Casemate Publishers.
  3. Matyszak, P. (2020, July 30). Greece Against Rome. Pen and Sword Military.
  4. Powell, J. (2010, January 1). Weapons & Warfare: Ancient and medieval weapons and warfare (to c. 1500).
  5. Summer, G., & D’Amato, R. (2009, September 17). Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier. Frontline Books.
  6. Snodgrass, A. M. (1999, January 1). Arms and Armor of the Greeks.
  7. Connolly, P. (1998, January 1). Greece and Rome at War. Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal.
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