Roman Weapons: Sharp Blades to Conquer the Ancient World

The Romans were arguably one of the most successful conquerors of the ancient world. At the height of their power, the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles in the north to Egypt in the south, and from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the Mesopotamia in the east. A number of important factors contributed to their success as a military force, one of which being the weapons that they used.

A Roman Sword – The Gladius

Probably the most iconic weapon in the arsenal of a Roman legionary (a professional heavy infantryman serving in the Roman army after the Marian reforms) was the gladius (which is Latin for ‘sword’). This weapon is known also as the ‘Hispanic Sword’, as it was adapted from the blades used by tribal warriors living in the Iberian Peninsula. It was during the Second Punic War against Carthage that the Roman general, Scipio Africanus , encountered this weapon, took a liking to it, and began equipping his soldiers with it.

Swords were significant Roman weapons. ( AWP /Adobe Stock )

Based on the archaeological evidence, several types of gladii have been discovered, indicating that the weapon evolved according to time. The best-known type is the so-called ‘Pompeii gladius’, as examples of this gladius were found there. This gladius had a blade that was about 50 cm (20 inches) long, which is considerably short for a sword. It was a double-edged sword, and was an effective slashing weapon. It was, however, used primarily for stabbing, and its triangular point did this job perfectly. The gladius was best-used for extremely close-quarters combat, where longer swords or spears were rendered useless due to the lack of room to maneuver.

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Replica pseudo-Pompeii gladius. (Rama/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Protection with the Scutum

Close-quarters combat, however, was dangerous, and the Roman legionaries needed suitable protection whilst approaching the enemy. Therefore, the gladius was paired with a shield known as a scutum. This was a large curved shield that was adapted from the Italic peoples whom the Romans fought against.

The scutum was made by gluing layers of wood together, which was then covered with leather. This meant that the shield was light enough for a soldier to hold it with one hand. To reinforce the shield, metal was added on its outer rim. In the center of the scutum was a metal boss, which allowed the shield to function as an auxiliary punching weapon. The scutum’s boss could be used to knock an enemy to the ground, after which the Roman legionary could finish him off with his gladius.

This shield is the only known surviving example of the examples known as a scutum. It was found at Dura Europos. ( Public Domain )

The Roman Pilum

Another weapon in the arsenal of the Roman legionary was the pilum. This was a wooden javelin with an iron spike, the tip of which was harder and wider than its shaft. This clever design meant that if the spike of the pilum hit an enemy shield of the ground at an angle, it would bend, making it impossible to throw back at the Romans. Each Roman legionary would have two pila at his disposal, which would be thrown at the enemy before a charge. The pila was lethal enough to kill an enemy, or, if it got stuck on a shield, rendered it useless, and made the warrior more vulnerable.

A Roman legionary with a pilum and scutum. (Triarii/ Deviant Art )

Roman Siege Weapons

The Romans also developed a number of war machines that were used on the battlefield. One of these, for instance, was the ballista, which was a giant crossbow-like weapon consisting of two levers with torsion springs, and a slider on which ammunition (either metal darts of spherical stones) was loaded. Although the ballista was a Greek invention, its design and technology was improved by the Romans.

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Reproduction of a Roman ballista. (fuguestock/ Deviant Art )

It is recorded that the ballista was used extensively by Julius Caesar during his campaigns in Gaul and in Britain. Another Roman war machine was the onager , which, like the ballista, relied on torsion for power. Unlike the ballista, however, this war machine was mainly used a siege engine to destroy fortifications and other enemy buildings.

The onager was essentially a type of catapult, consisting of a large frame on the ground, a vertical frame on the front, and an arm in the middle. The onager was used to hurl large stones, which could be set alight to cause more damage. This siege engine was famously used by the Romans against the Greek city states, and during the siege of Carthage.

Onager with sling from Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s book “The Projectile Throwing Engines of the Ancients” (1907). ( Public Domain )

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