Sunday, August 19, 2012

David Black Mastro - The dreaded Roman gladius: the sword that conquered the world

The dreaded Roman gladius: the sword that conquered the world
By David Black Mastro (aka TrueFightScholar)

According to Roman Army expert Peter Connolly in the book "Swords and Hilt Weapons", the gladius Hispaniensis (lit., "Spanish sword") was adopted by the Romans sometime during the First Punic War, when they saw this weapon being used to great effect by Iberian mercenaries in the Carthaginian Army. The Ancient Iberians were among the greatest iron workers & swordsmen of their day, and their genius in edged weapons design is thoroughly manifest in the gladius Hispaniensis -- one of the finest swords ever developed anywhere in the world.

The gladius Hispaniensis had a broad, double-edged blade around 50 cm long. The blade was broad at the base, slightly waisted in the middle, and then swelled at the center of percussion (COP). The point was long and very acute. This brilliant design made the "Spanish sword" brutally effective for both thrusting and cutting -- something that is all-too-often ignored by modern writers, who uncritically typify the gladius Hispanensis as a purely thrusting weapon. Although it was a short sword, the broad blade and swelling at the COP enabled the wielder of this weapon to easily sever limbs. The Ancient author Livy mentioned how the gladius’s chopping power lowered the morale of the Macedonian Army during the Second Macedonian War.

The gladius Hispaniensis (the Roman version is usually referred to as the "Mainz" pattern) was used for hundreds of years, but sometime in the middle of the 1st century A.D./C.E., it was supplanted by a new form of gladius, generally referred to as the "Pompeii" pattern (after examples found at that town). Roughly the same length as its predecessor, the "Pompeii"-type gladius featured parallel edges, and a shorter, more obtuse point. Still an effective cut-and-thrust sword, it was of a simpler design, and thus easier and cheaper to manufacture.

Like their former Iberian opponents, the Romans were very much a swordfighting martial culture, and it was reflected as much in their training as it was in their choice of weapons. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (aka Joseph Ben-Matthias) made the following comment about the Romans:

"Their drills are like bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills."

What did these "bloodless battles" involve? We know from the late Roman treatise, "Epitoma Rei Militaris" ("Epitome of Military Science") by Publius Flavius Renatus Vegetius, that the Romans made use of several training methods for the legionaries. Training began at the palum -- a 6-foot-tall wooden stake, that served as a target. Wielding a wickerwork shield and wooden sword (rudis) that were both weighted to be twice as heavy as a real sword and shield, the recruit would practice all his cuts and thrusts at the palum. Also considered essential was a special drill known as the armatura, about which little is actually known. Eventually, recruits squared off against each other with real swords (rebated with leather covers for safety) and engaged in competitive bouts.

Legionary recruits were taught swordplay by experienced weapons instructors (doctores armorum). As Connolly has noted, Roman Army training methods were based on those of the gladiatorial schools. The gladius’s status in Rome’s martial culture is evident not only from its use by the Legions, but also by the numerous gladiator types who wielded it, including the secutor, myrmillo, and provocator.

Among specific techniques, we know that the Romans preferred to use thrusts to the face and abdomen, cuts to the opponent’s weapon-bearing limb, and the infamous hamstring cut, which retained its notoriety when it resurfaced as a technique used by Renaissance-era European swordsmen, in the 16th century A.D./C.E.


Stickgrappler said...

With kind permission of my friend, David Black Mastro, known on some forums as "TrueFightScholar", I'm going to archive some of his articles here.



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