The Roman gladius is one of the most famous weapons in the Roman arsenal, with soldiers carrying these swords for hundreds of years. But how long were they?
The gladius refers to a double-edged pointed sword that varied significantly in size over the course of its use in the Roman military. They were about 85 cm long when first adopted in the late 3rd century BC and varied in length between 60 cm and 85 cm, with a blade between 45 cm and 68 cm.
To find out more about the Roman gladius and its history, read on.
History of the Roman Gladius
Little is known about swords in early Roman history, but according to Livy, in the 6th century BC, Roman king Servius Tullius ordered some of his soldiers to carry swords. They are thought to not have been widely used at this time, with early Roman soldiers seeming to favor the use of spears.
These swords would likely have been quite different from how we imagine Roman swords to look, perhaps looking like those favored by the Greeks. However, it is thought that after contact with the Celtiberians during the Second Punic War in the late 3rd century BC, Romans started to use their sword designs in typical Roman adaptive fashion, with these being called a gladius Hispanienses (a Spanish sword).
Gladius is also the root of the word gladiator, meaning a swordsman. While the weapon is thought to be Hispanic in origin, the word is thought to have come from the Celtic word for sword, kladimos (the modern Welsh word is still cleddyf, pronounced klethiv), with the word first appearing in Latin in the 1st century AD to refer to a type of sword in a biography of Alexander the Great.
It is possible that the gladius Hispanienses was adopted after the Romans encountered Carthaginian mercenaries using them during the First Punic War. They were generally leaf-shaped swords made using steel and were of good quality that proved effective in close combat, being efficient weapons in stabbing (primarily in the abdomen) as much as they were in slashing.
For a period of around 500 years, from the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC up until the 2nd century AD, the gladius was the favored Roman sword. It was subsequently replaced by the spatha.
Types of Gladii
A gladius featured a double-edged steel blade and a tip designed for stabbing, with grip provided by a knobbed and often ornate hilt called a capulus, as well as a pommel at the end. These could be very ornate if the soldier had a high enough rank and would sometimes feature grooves for the comfort of the user.
Four main types of Roman gladii have been found, with the earliest being the gladius Hispanienses, thought to be inspired by Celtiberian swords after campaigning in Hispania in the 3rd century BC. These were around 85 cm in length in total, with a blade 68 cm long.
Later examples found around the turn of the millennium include the Mainz pattern gladius, which had a leaf-shaped blade 50 to 55 cm long, being 65 to 70 cm in total.
The Fulham gladius was used in the 43 AD Roman invasion of Britain and was used up until the end of the 1st century AD, with a triangular tip and no leafed shape. It had a blade of 50 to 55 cm and was 65 to 70 cm long in total.
However, the most popular gladius and perhaps the one we most often think of is the Pompeii gladius, with many found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii among other locations. It was the shortest of the gladii, with a non-leaf-shaped blade of 45 to 50 cm long and being 60 to 65 cm in total.
From around 200 AD, however, the gladius became less popular and Roman swords became longer. The longer spatha replaced the gladius in Roman warfare, with the gladius not really being used again for the rest of the empire’s history.
How Long Was a Roman Gladius?
In short, the length of a Roman gladius varied significantly over history, although they were generally between 60 and 85 cm in length.
They also varied in shape and design, often reflecting the importance of the owner for higher-ranked users. Regardless of length, however, they were incredibly efficient weapons, which explains their dominance in much of Roman military history.