The pugio was a small dagger used by Roman soldiers as a sidearm. It seems likely that the pugio was intended as an auxiliary or backup weapon, but it found many uses, especially as a utility knife. Officials of the empire took to wearing ornate daggers in the performance of their offices, and some would wear concealed daggers as a defense against contingencies. The dagger was a common weapon of assassination and suicide; for example, the conspirators who stabbed Julius Caesar used pugiones.


Like the gladius, the pugio was a stabbing weapon, the type preferred by the Romans. Of them Vegetius says:
A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, .... On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. ... the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans ....



The word pūgio descends from the Indo-European root *peuĝ-, "stab, stick. The root is the same as in English pugilist, "boxer." It is still possible to use punch and stab synonymously in many Indo-European languages; hence, Latin pugnus and Greek pygme mean "fist." The Smith article cited below proposes that the pugio was the weapon grasped by the fist; however, the Latin word for swordplay was pugna, an exchange of thrusts without the intermediary of fists, although it could also be a fistfight.

Before 50 AD

Originally, the dagger typically had a large, leaf-shaped blade 18 cm to 28 cm (7 in to 11 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) or more in width. A raised midrib ran the length of each side, either simply standing out from the face or defined by grooves on either side. The tang was wide and flat initially, and the grip was riveted through it, as well as through the shoulders of the blade.

According to the Latin dictionaries, such as Lewis & Short, the term first appears in the late republican author, Marcus Tullius Cicero, with reference to the dagger used by Marcus Brutus to stab Julius Caesar. Suetonius confirms that all the conspirators used the pugio on that occasion and some later killed themselves with it. In the pages of Cicero the pugio appears to have been the favored weapon of high-ranking assassination and suicide because it was so easily concealed in the folds of flowing Roman garments.

At 50 AD and after

Like other items of legionary equipment, the dagger underwent some changes during the 1st Century AD. About 50 AD a rod tang was introduced, and the hilt was no longer riveted through the shoulders of the blade. This in itself caused no great change to the pugio's appearance, but some of these later blades were narrower (under 4.5 cm (1.75 in) wide), with little or no waisting, or reduced or vestigial midribs.

Throughout the period the outline of the hilt remained essentially the same. It was made with two layers of horn or wood sandwiching the tang, each overlaid with a thin metal plate. Occasionally the hilt was decorated with engraving or inlay. Note that the hilt is 10 cm to 13 cm (4 in - 5 in) long overall and that the grip is quite narrow; it will always seem to be too small.

References to the pugio are more common in the literature of the empire, especially in Tacitus and Suetonius. Tacitus reports that Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo had a soldier executed for not wearing a sword while digging a trench and another for wearing only a pugio in the same activity, from which it can be deduced that all soldiers wore them.

The pugio became an ornate sidearm of officers and dignitaries as well, a custom reminiscent of the daggers after which the Saxons were named. These Germanic mercenaries served in the Roman army. The emperors came to wear a dagger to symbolize the power of life and death. The emperor, Vitellius, attempts to resign his position and offers his dagger to the consul, but it is refused and Vitellius is forced to stay by popular acclaim and the Praetorian guard. Tacitus also relates that a centurion, Sempronius Densus, of the Praetorian guard drew a dagger to save Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus momentarily.

In modern times, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, attempted to recapture the spirit of the Roman military by instituting the dagger salute, a double line of soldiers crossing daggers over the head of the dignitary passing beneath them.



  • PUGIO, article in Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, online at ancientlibrary.com.

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