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Uncrossed gladius.jpg
Replica pseudo-Pompeii gladius.
Type Sword
Place of origin Ancient Rome as gladius,
origins in Celtic Europe earlier.
Service history
In service 4th century BC - 3rd century AD.
Used by Legionary in Roman service, Roman-influenced other forces.
Wars Roman Republic and Roman Empire
Weight 1.2–1.6 kg (2.6–3.5 lb)
Length 64–81 cm (25–32 in)
Blade length 60–68 cm (1.97–2.23 ft)
Width 4–8 cm (1.6–3.1 in)

Blade type steel of varying degrees of carbon content, pointed, double-edged.
Hilt type Wood, bone or ivory.
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Gladius (Latin language: glădĭus) was one Latin word for sword and is used to represent the primary sword of Ancient Roman foot soldiers. 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 early part of the conquest of Hispania. This sword was known as the Gladius Hispaniensis, or "Spanish Sword".[1] A fully equipped Roman legionary was armed with a shield (scutum), one or two javelins (pila), a sword (gladius), often a dagger (pugio), and perhaps, in the later Empire period, darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, the javelins would be thrown to disable the shields and disrupt the formation of the enemy before engaging in close combat, for which the gladius would be drawn. The soldier generally led with his shield and thrust with his sword. All types of gladius appear to have also been suitable for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting.[2]


The name is a Latin o-stem noun, its plural being gladii. Gladius is used in literature as early as the plays of Plautus (Casina, Rudens).

Words derived from the word gladius include gladiator ("swordsman") and gladiolus ("little sword," from the diminutive form of gladius), a flowering plant with sword-shaped leaves.

Gladius is generally believed to be a Celtic loan in Latin (perhaps via an Etruscan intermediary), derived from ancient Celtic *kladi(b)os or *kladimos "sword" (whence Modern Welsh cleddyf "sword", Modern Breton klezeff, Old Irish claideb/Modern Irish claidheamh [itself perhaps a loan from Welsh]; the root of the word may survive in the Old Irish verb claidid "digs, excavates" and anciently attested in the Gallo-Brittonic place name element cladia/clado "ditch, trench, valley hollow").[3][4][5][6][7]

Predecessors and origins

A sword of the Iron Age Cogotas II culture in Spain

Livy[8] 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[9]). 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, hence the name, torquatus.[10]

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. Ennius attests the word. Gladius may have replaced ensis, which in the literary periods was used mainly by the poets.[11]

The exact origin of the gladius Hispanus is a debated topic, while it is likely that it descended ultimately from Celtic swords of the La Tene and Hallstat periods; it is unknown if it descended directly from Celtiberian troops of the Punic Wars, or through Gallic troops of the Gallic Wars.


By the time of the Roman Republic, which flourished during the Iron Age, the classical world was well-acquainted with steel and the steel-making process. Pure iron is relatively soft, but pure iron is never found in nature. Natural iron ore contains various impurities in solid solution, which harden the reduced metal by producing irregular-shaped metallic crystals. The Gladius is generally made out of 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 resulting pieces were called blooms,[12] which were further worked to remove slag inclusions from its porous surface.

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 Hispaniensis from 4th century BC Chiusa, gives some insight concerning the manufacture of Roman swords.[13] 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 (22.8 in) long.[13]

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 (15.7 in) 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.


The word gladius acquired a general meaning as any type of sword. This use appears as early as the 1st century AD in the Biography of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius Rufus.[14] The republican authors, however, appear to mean a specific type of sword, which is now known from archaeology to have had variants.

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.

The hilt of a Roman sword was the capulus. It was often ornate, especially the sword-hilts of officers and dignitaries.

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.[15]

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.[16]

Towards the end of the 2nd century AD and during the 3rd century the spatha graudually took the place of the gladius in the Roman legions.


Several different designs were used; among collectors and historical reenactors, the three primary kinds are known as the Mainz gladius, the Fulham gladius, and the Pompeii gladius (these names refer to where or how the canonical example was found). More recent archaeological finds have uncovered an earlier version, the Gladius Hispaniensis ("Hispanic sword").

The differences between these varieties are subtle. The original Hispanic sword, had a slight "wasp-waist" or "leaf-blade" curvature.[17] 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 Pompeii 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.[18]

Descriptions of the main types follow:

  • Gladius Hispaniensis: Used from around 216 BC until 20 BC. Blade length ~60–68 cm (23.6 to 26.7 inches). Sword length ~75–85 cm (29.5 to 33.5 inches). Sword width ~5 cm (1.9 inches). This was the largest and heaviest of the gladii. Earliest and longest blade of the gladii, pronounced leaf-shape compared to the other forms. Max weight ~1 kg (2.2 pounds) for the largest versions, most likely a standard example would weigh ~900g/1.9 pounds (wooden hilt).
  • Mainz: Mainz was founded as the Roman permanent camp of Moguntiacum probably in 13 BC. This large camp provided a population base for the growing city around it. Sword manufacture probably began in the camp and was continued in the city; for example, Gaius Gentilius Victor, a veteran of Legio XXII, used his discharge bonus on retirement to set up a business as a negotiator gladiarius, a manufacturer and dealer of arms.[19] Swords made at Mainz were sold extensively to the north. The Mainz variety is characterized by a slight waist running the length of the blade and a long point. Blade length ~50–55 cm (19.6 to 21.6 inches). Sword length ~65–70 cm (25.6 to 27.6 inches). Blade width ~7 cm (2.75 inches). Sword weight ~800g/1.76 pounds (wooden hilt).
  • Fulham or Mainz-Fulham: The sword that gave the name to the type was dredged from the Thames near Fulham and must therefore date to a time after the Roman occupation of Britain began. That would have been after the invasion of Aulus Plautius in 43 AD. It was used until the end of the same century. It is considered the conjunction point between Mainz and Pompei. Some consider it an evolution or the same as the Mainz type. The blade is slightly narrower than the Mainz variety. The main difference is the triangular tip. Blade length ~50–55 cm (19.6 to 21.6 inches). Sword length ~65–70 cm (25.6 to 27.6 inches). Blade width ~6 cm (2.36 inches). Sword weight ~700g/1.5 pounds (wooden hilt).
  • Pompeii (or Pompeianus or Pompei): Named by modern historians after the Roman town of Pompeii, this Gladius was by far the most popular one. Four instances of the sword type were found in Pompeii, with others turning up elsewhere. The sword has parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip. This is the shortest of the gladii. Observe that it is often confused with the spatha which was a longer, slashing weapon used by the auxilia from horseback. Over the years the Pompeii got longer, these later versions are referred to as semi-spathas. Blade length ~45–50 cm (17.7 to 19.7 inches). Sword length ~60–65 cm (23.6 to 25.6 inches). Blade width ~5 cm (1.97 inches). Sword weight ~700g/1.5 pounds (wooden hilt).

The Mainz and the Pompeii are the two main classification types and served side by side for many years and it was not uncommon to find 4th century legionaries carrying the earlier model.

See also


  1. Penrose, Jane (2008). Rome and Her Enemies: An Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Osprey Publishing. pp. 121–122. ISBN 1-84603-336-5. 
  2. Vegetius De Re Militari 2.15
  3. McCone, Kim, "Greek Κελτός and Γαλάτης, Latin Gallus 'Gaul', in: Die Sprache 46, 2006, p. 106
  4. Schrijver, Peter, The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Latin, Rodopi, 1991, p. 174.
  5. Delamarre, Xavier, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, Errance, 2003 (2nd ed.), p. 118.
  6. Schmidt, Karl Horst, 'Keltisches Wortgut im Lateinischen', in: Glotta 44 (1967), p. 159.
  7. Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 215
  8. Livius, Titus. "The History of Rome, Vol. II". 7.10. Retrieved 25 November 2010. 
  9. Livy's term (link). Most authors use Hispaniensis but a few use Hispanus. Both are adjectives of the same meaning, that is, they refer to Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula.
  10. Livy 1982, p. 109
  11. This theory is stated in Note 80, Page 191, of faculty dissertation RUNIC INSCRIPTIONS IN OR FROM THE NETHERLANDS by Tineke Looijenga, University of Groningen.
  12. blooms
  13. 13.0 13.1 Walter NICODEMI, Carlo MAPELLI, Roberto VENTURINI and Riccardo RIVA: ISIJ Int., 45 (2006), 1358 . The reader should be aware that this article is written in technical metallurgical language.
  14. "Copidas vocabant gladios leviter curvatos, falcibus similes: "They called their lightly curved, sickle-like swords (gladios) 'copides'."
  15. Histories, Book 31, Chapter 34.
  16. See under gladius in Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities.
  17. Compare, for example, the Spanish Falcata, which is not a gladius and is not an ancestor of the gladius, but has nevertheless the wasp-waist.
  18. A comparison of the outlines can be found at the museo de arma blanca site. The text is in Spanish.


External links

The articles in the links below often differ both in theory and in detail. They should not necessarily be understood as fully professional articles but should be appreciated for their presentational value.

Pictures of ancient swords

Reenactments, reconstructions, experimental archaeology

Articles on the history or manufacture of the sword

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