The gladius is a short sword, about 2 feet long, used by soldiers in the Roman army. In the hands of trained legionnaires, the gladius was a potent offensive weapon.
Roman soldiers would advance side-by-side with their shield, called a scutum, held in their left hand and a gladius in their right hand. In this position, the sharp tip of the gladius was best used as a thrusting weapon to stab the enemy, aiming for the torso. In ancient times, an abdomen wound was usually fatal.
With a two foot length and sharp double edges, the gladius could also be used as for slashing or cutting. From comments I’ve read, the main use was for thrusting.
Wikipedia describes the various sizes of Gladius:
- weight – ranged from 1.5 up to 2.2 pounds
- blade length – from 18 to 27 inches
- total length – between 24 and 33 inches
- blade width – from 2 to 2.8 inches.
Romans were skilled at working with steel, thus a gladius was made of strong steel, although impurities would undercut the blade’s strength.
Wikipedia reports four variations of gladii are known. They are:
- Gladius Hispaniesnisis
- Mainz gladius
- Fulham gladius
- Pompeii gladius
Wikipedia says the Mainz and Pompeii were the main categories.
Closest illustrations I could find to match the descriptions:
Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak takes a tour of the Roman army from the fictional perspective of a soldier planning to enlist as a Legionnaire. After explaining terms of enlistment and training, the book provides a description of life in the army, both in camp and on campaign. One chapter describes the legacy of many Legions. Various items in a soldier’s kit are described.
The book describes the most important factor for a sword is balance. A soldier can instinctively know the “sense of point” of a balanced sword and thus can tell where the point is and move it accordingly without even seeing the sword. that would be handy in a battle where fractions of a second determine who goes home and who gets buried that day. Also, when well-balanced, a gladius is easier to handle.
Roman swords usually did not contain blood runnels. Suffice it to say that after stabbing your opponent, you would need to sharply twist the sword to withdraw it, thus making it available for the enemy who just stepped into line.
Legionary explains the best grip is bone, which is better than rawhide, which is better than wood.
Before buying a sword, the book recommends making sure the part of the blade going into the handle, or tang, is well attached to the pommel, which is the round part at the back of the sword. The pommel is large to help balance the sword and round for ease of grip when extracting the sword.
The book also says the scabbard should be built specifically for the sword to get the best fit. Too loose a fit may make noise when you want to be silent and too tight means it might be difficult to draw the sword.
Most comments I’ve read say the sword was carried on the right side for ease of draw when holding a scutum (shield) in front of the body. Would be difficult to clear the arm and shield in a cross draw.
A long belt draped over the left shoulder held the scabbard.
On the opposite side of the gladius, a soldier would carry a dagger, called a puglio. That would be used in day-to-day activity.
Update: The Roman Army, The Greatest War Machine in the Ancient World edited by Chris McNab provides a timeline of when different styles of gladii were introduced (yeah, yeah, I had to look up the plural form of gladius again to make sure it was correct):
- Gladius Hispaniesnisis used until around 20 B.C. That is longer one, wider toward the tip and narrower toward the tang (hand grip).
- Mainz / Fulham gladius rapidly adopted somewhere around 20 B.C. These ranged from 16″ to 22″ in length. Discovered examples weigh in at between 2.6# and 3.5#.
- Pompeii gladius introduced sometime in mid 1st-century. This design had straight edges and a short triangular tip. Book says these ranged from 18″ to 22″ and were around 2.2 pounds.
If you want to overlay this with biblical times, the Mainz and Fulham designs would have been the common weapon during the time of the Gospels, when Jesus was residing on earth. The Pompeii design would have been coming into common use during the early events describe in Acts of the Apostles. By the time of most of Paul’s writings, such as Ephesians, the Pompeii design would have been in widespread use. I can only guess whether it would be most common by then. Swords last a long time and would probably be used until they broke.
Other posts on weaponry of a Roman Legionnaire:
- Scutum – shield
- Gladius – sword
- Caligae – Sandals
- Lorica Segmentata – segmented breastplate armor
- Pilum – javelin