The Gladius sword is a short double edged sword that is most popularly associated with the ancient Roman Republic and Roman Empire as a weapon used by gladiators and legionaries. There are currently no surviving martial art manuals that instruct in techniques of using the gladius sword for combat, however there are reconstructions developed by academic study of the weapons. These reconstructions are more creative than interpretations based on actual surviving fight books, such as with the long sword, rapier and military saber however many people in the HEMA community enjoy the challenge of reconstructing a truly lost fighting style such as that incorporates the usage of gladius swords.
You can see an example of one reconstruction effort in the video below,
The History of Roman Gladius Swords
The Roman army held no qualms of adopting weapons and techniques that they found useful, even from their enemies. The famous gladiator sword itself was thought to come from the Iberian peninsula, which is today Spain and Portugal. The sword was then used by the Roman legion and gladiators in ancient Rome from around the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. The full name of the sword, gladius Hispaniensis (Latin for “Hispanic sword”) points to this origin. Previous to the adoption of the gladiator sword the Roman Legion used a sword design based on the ancient Greek Xiphos blades. These blades were long and clunky when used in the close hand to hand style combat that the Roman army favored. It is believed Roman was introduced to these style of short and sturdy blades weapons during the Second Punic War when Roman soldiers fought the Celtiberians that had allied themselves with Carthage, they came against these An officer by the name of Scipio Africanus watched the destructive power of these blades at the battle of Cannae and recognized the efficiency of the sword. After the eventual conquering of Carthage, Africanus hired hundreds of sword makers to reproduce this weapon. The Roman Republic quickly adopted the use of the superior gladius swords and abandoned their bronze blades, and even went so far as to completely redesign their tactical offense to use the full potential of this new iron bladed weapon. This led to Rome becoming the first documented army that was sword centered in combat, not spear centered.
The Gladius sword is thought to have originally developed among the Celtiberian tribes that formed when the Celts from northern Europe migrated to the Iberian peninsula. The mixed ethnic tribes that they created brought with them a completely different set of weapons and forging techniques that were previously unknown to this region. The gladius blade was traditionally forged from iron, with a double edge for slashing and a tapered point for stabbing. The hilt was crafted with wood into a knobbed pommel with finger ridges etched into the handle for optimum grip and balance during combat.
As it spread throughout the empire and each soldier got his hands on the new gladius sword, the hilt could become more personalized by decorating it in bronze sheeting or silver plating if the soldier desired so. The gladius sword was normally hung from a waist belt by some soldiers, with others preferring to hang it from a shoulder belt instead. Centurions wore their gladius sword belt on the opposite side of the regular soldier to denote their rank in battle. Customization was common, so although it was a standard weapon each soldier often had designs denoting rank and title sculpted onto the scabbard or etched onto the blade itself. Some officers with higher rank and more experience could even get a custom sculpted pommel. This said there was great variance in specific styles of blades and gladius sword hilting, as every individual soldier was in charge of the maintenance of care of his weapons and there was no time for the army to inspect every sword, and ensure all such swords were perfectly uniform and identical.
The design of the gladius swords did differ depending on the location and era it was created in. While the use and function of the sword remained the same through all of its incarnations the difference in blade styles shows the gradual evolution of the weapon over the lifespan of the Roman Republic and Empire. The traditional blade style, the Hispaniensis sword, was used from 200 BC until 20 BC. It featured a slight wasp waist curvature to the blade, giving the sword an almost leaf-like shape in appearance. It was also the heaviest and the longest of all the Roman gladius swords. Later evolution of the blade style sword can be grouped into 3 distinct designs; The Pompeii sword, the Mainz sword, and the Fulham sword. Each has been named from the locality the sword was unearthed in by modern researchers and believed to be centrally used in.
The Pompeii sword type was one of the most popular versions of the Gladius sword and widely found around the whole of the empire in the republics later years. This design all but eliminated the curvature of the blade and prioritized a straight and short sword with a triangular tip ideal for thrusting. The shape change was due in part to the era it was made in. Gone were the days of the legion fighting epic battles in other countries, now in the late republic era most fighting was done in local civil wars. The larger Hispaniensis swords had no place in the tight combat and warfare primarily conducted in cities and towns. There was no longer a tactical or military advantage because everyone was trained the same and had the same gear. It is believed that the gladius swords needed to become smaller and lighter, with an increased ability to stab and mortally wound your opponent in a very narrow areas such as streets.
The Mainz sword style is named for the city of Mainz. Mainz was originally a military camp called Moguntiacum and it became important in the making and distributing of gladius swords and other military equipment to the northern border garrisons. This is also where a lot of gladius swords were exported from outside of Roman territories This is thought to be the reasoning for the Fulham blade discovery in Northern Europe and Britain, as this would have been the most likely export locations for such a weapon. As the original military camp turned into the city of Mainz, sword making increased as more sword craftsmen flocked to the city in search of acquiring wealth from their trade. The Mainz blade design kept the curvature of the original blade, only making it shorter and wider, with a long pointed tip better for a piercing when used to thrust or stab.
Example of Mainz style gladius sword blades (source)
The Fulham blade style is believed to date back to the era following Rome’s invasion of Britain. It is so named for the area of the river Thames this style of blade was discovered in, close to Fulham. It is thought that these gladius swords are a bridge between the Pompeii style and the Mainz style blades, but other researchers believe it could be an evolution of the Mainz blade due to how widely distributed this type of sword was based on archaeological dig recoveries of these types. The Fulham blade style was slightly more narrow than the Mainz, and it had a triangular tip on the end that the Mainz did not have.
Transition of the Gladius sword into the Spatha sword
By the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the Roman army was gradually changing into heavy weapon infantry and cavalry. The heavily armored cavalry units needed different weapons and tactics to fight from horseback. The gladius sword blade is thought to be a light weapon for infantry and too short to be used as an effective weapon on horseback, so as cavalry became important it became phased out and replaced by another blade called the Spatha. The Spatha sword is thought to be an evolution of the Pompeii blade, with its straighter and longer design. It was used by infantrymen for thrusting, as their shields had evolved and the soldiers also needed a longer sword to strike enemies while mounted horseback. Calvary men used a slightly different version of the Spatha with a more rounded tip so that they would not accidentally stab themselves or their horse while fighting. This Spatha sword continued to be used up into the early middle ages, evolving into the Carolingian sword type (called popularly a ‘Viking sword’) and the knightly arming swords of the middle ages.
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