Iron of the Empire
The History and Development of the Roman Gladius
An article by Patrick Kelly
Yes, Romulus did reign as one of Rome's rulers. Other than this there isn't more than a shred of truth in the aforementioned tale. I must admit though that a story of teat-sucking wolf boys does have an air of sauciness to it. How then does one explain the rise of a small village on the western coast of Italy from relative obscurity to world domination? We will attempt to answer this question while exploring the history of one of that empire's foremost symbols: the Gladius. First, a bit of historical background is in order.
The Roman saga begins, traditionally, in the year 753 BC. Rome began as a member of a group of hilltop villages that grew on the left bank of the Tiber River near the west-central coast of Italy in an area known then as Etruria. A seafaring people known as the Etruscans held the main power in the area. As with most of the other peoples in the region, the Romans warred against the Etruscans. At the close of the 7th century the Etruscans conquered Rome and established a military dictatorship. This situation prevailed for perhaps a century until the Roman people expelled their Etruscan overlords. Much of the arms and armor of this period was very similar to the rest of Villanovan culture with swords being fashioned of bronze. Patterns were very similar to the bronze "antennae" hilted weapons in use by other peoples of the age.
By the 2nd century B.C. Rome had entered the infancy of its Republican era and the classic Roman legionary was feeling his birth pangs. Though now a republic, Rome still held to a class system and military service was the province of the rich and well-off (how times change!). A citizen was responsible for supplying his own arms so, consequently, the front ranks where manned by the most affluent. The Greek phalanx had been abandoned and the standard Roman square was now in use. The long spear and argive shield were gone, replaced by the large oval (later square) scutum and the deadly pilum. It was at this moment in history that our topic made its appearance. During Rome's incursions into Iberia (Spain) they were introduced to that most worthy of opponent pokers: the gladius hispaniensis. In short order the earlier patterns were abandoned and the gladius became the norm. During this period the Roman army also underwent a massive change known as the Marian reforms. Under Marius the class system that had plagued the army was abolished and enlistment was open to all citizens. Equipment and training were standardized and the legionary began to assume his familiar form. Standard equipment became a bronze helmet of "Coolus" design, mail lorica as body armor, a large rectangular scutum, pila as projectile weapons, and of course the gladius.
Why did the gladius gain dominance? I highly suspect that issues of practicality were of great influence. While the earlier sword designs were good performers they would also have been more difficult to manufacture. The leaf blade of the xiphos and the forward curving blade of the kopis are more complex and time consuming to produce than the straight, double-edged blade of the gladius. The earlier types also used primarily metallic components for their hilts. Those of the gladius were natural materials. These materials would be much more easily obtained and worked. Although the design saw change throughout the centuries the basic design aspects remained the same. As has been stated the blade of the gladius was doubled-edged, of usually diamond cross section and somewhere around nineteen or twenty inches. The hilt components consisted of an upper and lower guard fashioned of some kind of locally obtained hardwood with a grip fashioned from bone although wood could also be substituted at need. The sword's upper guard would be typically spherical in shape though at times other designs were used. The lower guard, being that closest to the blade would be hemispherical in shape with a bronze plate inset into the surface flat onto which the blade butted. Blades were normally similar to our wrought iron although pattern-welded examples have been found. Blade quality would undoubtedly vary according to location and ability of the maker/makers. As we discuss the various designs of gladii we will refer to them by specific names. These names indicate the find place for the initial examples of the given type.
The first true gladius and, to my mind, the classic type is known as the Mainz. The Mainz is the largest of the gladii types and the most elegant. The blade, typically of twenty to twenty two inches in length, features a wasp waisted profile that tapers to a long and deadly point. This design would have been deadly against the armor typically worn by Rome's enemies. The hilt tends to be a bit more massive as well when compared to later designs. All in all, it's a very well proportioned and intimidating looking weapon. The scabbard that housed the Mainz would usually be faced with a plate of tin or some other type of metal. This plate would be embossed with decorative designs that, perhaps, indicated an engagement in which the legionary had distinguished himself. It was not uncommon to award a gladius as the equivalent of today's campaign medals. This was the sword in use during Rome's civil wars and would have been carried by the legions of Julius Caesar during his invasion of Britain.
The second pattern, a contemporary of the Mainz, is known as the Fulham pattern. I have never cared for the Fulham design. It lacks the grace of the Mainz and the utilitarian appeal of later types. Neither fish nor fowl. The Fulham follows the same basic pattern as the Mainz yet on a smaller scale. It is also more angular in construction and lacks the sweeping lines on its predecessor. The hilt is also depicted in contemporary art as being much more angular and squarish. This may be a quirk of some local design or perhaps a means to simplify production while staying with the basic design.
The third and final type is also one of the most common and is quite symbolic of Rome's later era of empire. This third type, known as the Pompeii, is a departure from the earlier graceful designs. Indeed, one can hardly call the Pompeii graceful: stark perhaps, definitely utilitarian, but never graceful. The Pompeii is smaller in overall scale than the Mainz (like the Fulham). It features a straight, double-edged, blade with a shorter more angular point. This blade is usually somewhere around nineteen inches in length. The standard Pompeii scabbard would have been leather-covered wood with decorative bronze furniture. It has been surmised that these changes were due to different body armor being used by Rome's opponents. This is a valid position considering that Rome did indeed change armor design in direct relation to new weapons that were encountered. In the case of the gladius I feel that this is untrue. In my opinion these changes in design were due primarily to economic factors. When comparing the various types of gladii it is obvious that the Pompeii is the one that is far easier to produce. During Rome's age of empire massive amounts of troops needed to be equipped, both legionary and auxiliary. Every shortcut in production would have been utilized. The Pompeii became and remained the standard legionary side arm throughout the remainder of Rome's heyday as a world power. As time progressed the Roman empire became stretched to incredible limits that forced it to rely on mercenary and auxiliary troops. These troops typically relied on weapons of a more native design due to familiarity and supply. In time the Roman legionary faded from the battle field and the gladius went with him.
We have discussed the "why" now let us ask the "how". How did a small town come to dominate much of the known world? Were their weapons more effective than those of their enemies? Was the Gladius itself the parexcellance of ancient warfare? In point of fact, Rome's weapons were no more effective than those of their opponents when taken in kind. The gladius wasn't vastly superior to other edged weapons of the day. The gladius was merely part of a weapons system that included the legionary himself. The Romans had no sentimentality towards their weapons. There are no Roman Excaliburs or Durandels. The gladius, like the pilum and scutum, was simply a toll of the trade. Rome also had no hesitation in adopting superior weapons and the methods in which to employ them. The gladius is a perfect example of this.
One thing and one thing alone allowed Rome to dominate, the discipline of its legions. The steel that ran through the veins of the legionary was more important than the iron in his fist. The Roman soldier worked in concert with his fellows. He sought neither individual glory nor fame. The legionary was the world's first truly professional, retirement-bound soldier. As sword collectors and historical enthusiasts we admire the utilitarian appeal of the gladius. We also marvel at what yet remains of the achievements of Rome. While this is all well and good we must never forget the other side of the coin. While the Romans were ingenious and highly adaptive they were also brutal and cruel. In many ways the Roman legionary was the ancient equivalent of the nazi storm trooper. While it's true that many of the cultures that came under Roman control did benefit from the association we must also consider that it wasn't done through freedom of choice.
Long ago the Roman legionary marched away across the dusty plain of history and he took his cruel gladius with him. This is as it should be.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.