Gladius: Roman Short Sword

Gladius is the Latin word meaning "sword". Thus, a gladiator originally meant one who uses swords. In ancient Rome any type of sword could have been called a gladius. However, modern historians have come to commonly use the term to refer to a particular style of Roman short sword. The gladius was made with two sharp edges and it tapered to a pointed end. This made it good for both thrusting and hacking, especially at close quarters. It was carried in a scabbard on the hip.

The Gladius - Roman Sword

Gladii (the plural form of "gladius") were made by heating iron (with a carbon component) to over 1000 ° C and shaping it into a sword. Some gladii were made from five pieces of iron banded together with the higher carbon pieces in the center, while the outer pieces had lower carbon content. (Lower carbon means lower strength and greater malleability.) These swords were made to be a little less than 60 cm or 23 inches. Some swords with a wasp-waist (or leaf shape) were constructed from a single piece of metal. These were generally about 15 inches long.

The origin of this style of short sword is difficult to ascertain. The earliest model was commonly called the "Gladius Hispaniensis" or Spanish Sword. For a long time historians believed that it was derived directly from the Iberian Peninsula during wars fought in that region. However, evidence indicates it came on the scene earlier. The style may have been borrowed from the Celts or the Gauls. The earliest reference to the sword came in about 361 BC when Titus Manlius Torquatus used it in single combat to defeat a Gaul at a bridge over the Anio River.

Several sub-categories of the gladius have been catalogued. They are named for the area in which they were first discovered. The Mainz gladius was slightly shorter than the Hispaniensis. It was also lighter and had a less pronounced leaf shape. It would have come into its own during the Early Roman Empire. The Fulham gladius loses the leaf shape. Its parallel edges meet a triangular pointed end. Shorter yet was the Pompeii gladius which only reached from about 50 to 55 centimeters. The disadvantage in length was made up for by its ease of carriage.

Though it could be used in single combat and self-defense, the gladius was adopted by the Romans mainly because it was an effective weapon for organized combat. The legionaries generally carried a large, heavy shield, spears, and darts along with their gladius. The relatively light weight of the sword made carrying all this gear on the battlefield possible for the average soldier. The Roman formation consisted of three rows of legionaries each with about three feet (or one meter) of space per man. Each row was separated by about six feet (or two meters). When closing with the enemy the heavy spears and darts would be launched to breakdown the opposing formation. The gladius was then drawn and the enemy would be engaged by short sword. This was thrust between shields and an attempt was made to hit the torso of the enemy. The sword could also be employed with a hacking motion going as far as hacking off limbs. Soldiers were even trained to slice at an opponent's legs beneath his shield if this offered the only opening.

In the second century, the gladius received competition from the spatha, a longer sword of similar make for front line work. Nevertheless, the gladius long remained popular for light infantry. There is evidence for its use even in the third century by legionaries. The gladius is one of the most famous sword styles in history.

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Interesting Fact:

The flower "Gladiolus" means "little sword" in Latin. It gets its name from the leaves which are shaped somewhat like a short sword.

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