Gladius is a Latin word for sword. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those used by the Greeks. From the 3rd century BC, the Romans adopted swords similar to those used by the Celtiberians and others during the conquest of Hispania. This kind of sword was known as the Gladius Hispaniensis, or "Hispanic Sword." It was once thought that they were similar to the later Mainz types, but the evidence now suggests that this was not the case. Rather these early blades followed a slightly different pattern, being longer and narrower, and were probably those that Polybius considered good for both cut and thrust. Later extant Gladii are now known as the Mainz, Fulham and Pompei types. In the late Roman period Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus refers to swords called semispathae (or semispathia) and spathae, for both of which he appears to consider gladius an appropriate term.
A fully-equipped Roman soldier would have been armed with a shield (scutum), several javelins (pila), a sword (gladius), probably a dagger (pugio) and perhaps a number of darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, the javelins would be thrown before engaging the enemy, at which point the gladius would be drawn. The soldier generally led with his shield and thrust with his sword. Contrary to popular belief, all types of gladius appear to have also been suitable for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting.
Words derived from the word gladius include gladiator ("swordsman") and gladiolus ("little sword," from the diminutive form of gladius). Gladiolus is also the name of a flowering plant with sword-shaped leaves.
The Hispanic sword was probably not acquired from Hispania and not from the Carthaginians. Livy relates the story of Titus Manlius Torquatus taking up a Gallic challenge to a single combat by a large-size soldier at a bridge over the Anio river, where the Gauls and the Romans were encamped on opposite sides of the river. Manlius strapped on the Hispanic sword (Gladius Hispanus). During the combat he thrust twice with it under the shield of the Gaul, dealing fatal blows to the abdomen. He then removed the Gaul's torc and placed it around his own neck, whence the name, torquatus.
The combat happened in the consulships of C. Sulpicius and C. Licinius in about 361 BC, much before the Punic Wars, but during the frontier wars with the Gauls (366-341 BC). One theory therefore proposes the borrowing of the word gladius from *kladi- during this period, relying on the principle that k becomes g in Latin only in loans. Ennius attests the word. Gladius may have replaced ensis, which in the literary periods was used mainly by the poets.
The debate on the origin of the gladius Hispanus continues. That it descended ultimately from Celtic swords of the La Tene and Hallstat periods is unquestioned. Whether it did so directly from Celtiberian troops of the Punic Wars or through Gallic troops of the Gallic Wars remains the question of the Hispanic sword.
Etruscans held funeral ludi of an unknown provenance. They passed the custom on to the Romans. In Roman gladiatorial theory, prisoners of war were to be sacrificed as a duty to the deceased warrior; hence the games were called munera, "services." Over the centuries services were rendered through many forms of combat. The sacrificed went by many names.
Even among the Romans combat and weapons were of many forms. That being so, the choice of the word gladius needs to be explained. It must have been appropriate when displays began at Rome. Games were held first by Latin speakers at Capua, a renamed Etruscan city. Livy explains that in 308 BC the Samnites were defeated by the Campanians, who captured a large cache of new and ornate arms, only acquired by the Samnites in 310 BC. The Campanians gave these to their gladiators, innovating a new class of gladiator, the Samnites. They fought with the gladius.
When the Romans instituted the games at Rome in 264 BC, they displayed 3 pairs of matched gladiators. They were probably called gladiators then, though the only evidence is Livy's word for it. He may have been speaking anachronistically; however, his description of the Gallic combat above matches the use of the gladius. The dates 139B.C.-25A.D., certainly, are right. In that same year, the Punic Wars began.
The Chalybes of the Caucasus region were metallurgists for Iron-Age Europe and they had found that increasing carbon content produced harder steel. In Roman times ore was reduced in a bloomery furnace, as the blast furnace had not yet been invented, at least in western society. The temperature did not become high enough to actually melt the metal. The result was pieces of slag, or blooms, which were forged into the desired shape. Forging continued until the metal cooled (cold forging).
A recent metallurgical study of two Etruria swords, one in the form of a Greek kopis from 7th century BC Vetulonia, and one in the form of a gladius Hispanus from 4th century BC Chiusa, gives some insight concerning the manufacture of Roman swords. The Chiusa sword comes from Romanized Etruria; thus, regardless of the names of the forms (which the authors do not identify), the authors believe the process was continuous from the Etruscans to the Romans.
The Vetulonian sword was crafted by the pattern welding process from five blooms reduced at a temperature of 1163 °C. Five strips of varying carbon content were created. A central core of the sword contained the highest: 0.15–0.25% carbon. On its edges were placed four strips of low-carbon steel, 0.05–0.07%, and the whole thing was welded together by forging on the pattern of hammer blows. A blow increased the temperature sufficiently to produce a friction weld at that spot. Forging continued until the steel was cold, producing some central annealing. The sword was 58 cm long.
The Chiusian sword was created from a single bloom by forging from a temperature of 1237 °C. The carbon content increased from 0.05–0.08% at the back side of the sword to 0.35–0.4% on the blade, from which the authors deduce some form of carburization may have been used. The sword was 40 cm long and was characterized by a wasp-waist close to the hilt.
Roman swords continued to be forged both as composites and from single pieces. Inclusions of sand and rust weakened the two swords of the study and no doubt limited the strength of swords during the Roman period.
Gladii were two-edged for cutting and had a tapered point for stabbing during thrusting. A solid grip was provided by a knobbed hilt added on, possibly with ridges for the fingers. Blade strength was achieved by welding together strips, in which case the sword had a channel down the center, or by fashioning a single piece of high-carbon steel, rhomboidal in cross-section. The owner's name was often engraved or punched on the blade.
Stabbing was a very efficient technique, as stabbing wounds, especially in the abdominal area, were almost always deadly (see the quotation from Vegetius under pugio). However, the gladius in some circumstances was used for cutting or slashing, as is indicated by Livy's account of the Macedonian Wars, wherein the Macedonian soldiers were horrified to see dismembered bodies.
Though the primary infantry attack was thrusting at stomach height, they were trained to take any advantage, such as slashing at kneecaps beneath the shield wall.
The gladius was sheathed in a scabbard mounted on a belt or shoulder strap, some say on the right, some say on the left (refer to the articles cited in the notes). Some say the soldier reached across his body to draw it, and others affirm that the position of the shield made this method of drawing impossible. A centurion wore it on the opposite side as a mark of distinction.
Towards the end of the second century A.D. the spatha took the place of the gladius in the Roman legions.
The differences between these varieties are subtle. The original Hispanic sword, had a slight "wasp-waist" or "leaf-blade" curvature. It was used in the republic. The Mainz variety came into use on the frontier in the early empire. It kept the curvature, but shortened and widened the blade and made the point triangular. At home the less battle-effective Pompei version came into use. It eliminated the curvature, lengthened the blade, and diminished the point. The Fulham was a compromise, with straight edges and a long point.
Descriptions of the main types follow:
The Latin word for the scabbard is vagina and some weapons experts and enthusiasts refer to the scabbard of a gladius by this Latin word. The modern English word vagina is derived from this source by analogy. The Romans did not generally use the word in this anatomical sense, but it does show up as a joke in Plautus, Pseudolus 4.7.85: "Did the soldier's 'sword' fit well into your 'sheath'?"
The hilt of a Roman sword was the capulus. It was often ornate, especially the sword-hilts of officers and dignitaries.
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