This article is about the sword. For other uses, see Gladius (disambiguation).

Replica pseudo-Pompeii gladius.
Type Sword
Place of origin Ancient Rome as gladius.
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 0.7–1 kg (1.5–2.2 lb)
Length 60–85 cm (24–33 in)
Blade length 45–68 cm (1.48–2.23 ft)
Width 5–7 cm (2.0–2.8 in)

Blade type steel of varying degrees of carbon content, pointed, double-edged.
Hilt type Wood, bronze or ivory.

Gladius (English pronunciation: /ɡldiəs/;[1] Latin: glădĭus, pronounced [ˈɡladiʊs]) 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 "Hispanic Sword".[2]

A fully equipped Roman legionary after the reforms of Gaius Marius 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.[3]


The name is a Latin masculine second declension noun, its plural being gladiī. However, the word gladius in Latin refers to any sword, not specifically the modern definition of a gladius. 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.

Predecessors and origins

Further information: Iron Age sword
A sword of the Iron Age Cogotas II culture in Spain

Livy[4] relates the story of Titus Manlius Torquatus accepting a challenge to a single combat by a large Gallic 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).[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

The exact origin of the gladius Hispanus is an argued 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.

The Celtiberian source of the weapon has been reinforced during the later decades. Recent findings of very early Roman gladii highlights that they were copies of Celtiberian models. The weapon was developed in Iberia after La Téne I models, which were adapted to traditional Celtiberian techniques during the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC.[8] These weapons are quite original in their design, so that they cannot be confused with Gallic types.


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. The resulting pieces were called blooms,[9] which were further worked to remove slag inclusions from its porous surface.

A recent metallurgical study of two Etrurian swords, one in the form of a Greek kopis from 7th century BC Vetulonia, the other in the form of a gladius Hispaniensis from 4th century BC Chiusa, gives some insight concerning the manufacture of Roman swords.[10] 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 (23 in) long.[10]

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 (16 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 in 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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 claim 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.[14]

Towards the end of the 2nd century AD and during the 3rd century the spatha gradually 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, which was used during the republic, had a slight "wasp-waist" or "leaf-blade" curvature.[15] 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.[16]

Descriptions of the main types follow:

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. "gladius". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Penrose, Jane (2008). Rome and Her Enemies: An Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Osprey Publishing. pp. 121–122. ISBN 1-84603-336-5.
  3. Vegetius De Re Militari 2.15
  4. Livius, Titus. "The History of Rome, Vol. II". 7.10. Archived from the original on August 30, 2002. Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  5. Livy's term (link). Most authors use the term Gladius Hispaniensis but a few use Livy's term, Hispanus. Both are adjectives of the same meaning, that is, they refer to Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula.
  6. Livy 1982, p. 109
  7. 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.
  8. Archived October 2, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. blooms
  10. 1 2 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.
  11. "Copidas vocabant gladios leviter curvatos, falcibus similes: "They called their lightly curved, sickle-like swords (gladios) 'copides'."
  12. Vegetius, De Re Militari, Book I: "a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal."
  13. Histories, Book 31, Chapter 34.
  14. See under gladius in Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Archived October 4, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. 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.
  16. A comparison of the outlines can be found at the museo de arma blanca site. The text is in Spanish. Archived October 25, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.

^ Please note that this is only true for the nominative case; For more information, see the Latin declension page.


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