Replica Pompeii gladius
Place of originCarthaginian Spain as the Celtiberian sword, adopted and modified by Rome
Service history
In service3rd century BC – 3rd century AD
Used by
Mass0.7–1 kg (1.5–2.2 lb)
Length60–85 cm (24–33 in)
Blade length45–68 cm (18–27 in)
Width5–7 cm (2.0–2.8 in)

Blade typeIron of varying degrees of carbon content, pointed, double-edged
Hilt typeWood, bronze or ivory

Gladius (Classical Latin: [ˈɡɫadiʊs]) is a Latin word properly referring to the type of sword that was used by ancient Roman foot soldiers starting from the 3rd century BC and until the 3rd century AD. Linguistically, within Latin, the word also came to mean "sword", regardless of the type used.

Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those of the Greeks, called xiphe (pl., sg.: xiphos). From the 3rd century BC, however, the Romans adopted a weapon based on the sword of the Celtiberians of Hispania in service to Carthage during the Punic Wars, known in Latin as the gladius hispaniensis, meaning "Hispanic-type sword". The Romans improved the weapon, modified it depending on how their battle units waged war, and created over time new types of "gladii" such as the Mainz gladius and the Pompeii gladius. Finally, in the third century AD the heavy Roman infantry replaced the gladius with the spatha (already common among Roman cavalrymen),[1] relegating the gladius as a weapon for light Roman infantry.

A fully equipped Roman legionary after the consulships of Gaius Marius was armed with a sword (gladius), a shield (scutum), one or two javelins (pila), often a dagger (pugio), and perhaps, in the later empire period, darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, soldiers threw pila to disable the enemy's shields and disrupt enemy formations before engaging in close combat, for which they drew the gladius. A soldier generally led with the shield and thrust with the sword.[2]


Gladius is a Latin masculine noun. The nominative plural of it is gladiī. However, gladius in Latin refers to any sword, not only the sword described here. The word appears in literature as early as the plays of Plautus (Casina, Rudens).

Gladius is generally believed to be a Celtic loan in Latin (perhaps via an Etruscan intermediary), derived from ancient Celtic *kladi(b)os or *kladimos "sword" (whence modern Welsh cleddyf "sword", modern Breton klezeff, Old Irish claideb/Modern Irish claidheamh [itself perhaps a loan from Welsh]; the root of the word may survive in the Old Irish verb claidid "digs, excavates" and anciently attested in the Gallo-Brittonic place name element cladia/clado "ditch, trench, valley hollow").[3][4][5][6][7]

Modern English words derived from 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.

According to Polybius, the sword used by the Roman army during the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC, though deemed superior to the cumbersome Gallic swords, was mainly useful to thrust.[8] These thrusting swords used before the adoption of the Gladius were possibly based on the Greek xiphos.[9] Later, during the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, they found Hannibal's Celtiberian mercenaries wielding swords that excelled at both slashing and thrusting.[9] A text attributed to Polybius describes the adoption of this design by the Romans even before the end of the war, which canonical Polybius reaffirms by calling the later Roman sword gladius hispaniensis in Latin and iberiké machaira in Greek.[9] It is believed Scipio Africanus was the promoter of the change after the Battle of Cartagena in 209 BC, after which he set the inhabitants to produce weapons for the Roman army.[10][11]

In 70 BC, both Claudius Quadrigarius and Livy relate the story of Titus Manlius Torquatus using a "Hispanic sword" (gladius Hispanus) in a duel with a Gaul in 361 BC.[12][13] However, the Gladius was not yet used by the Romans in the 4th century BC, and because of that this has been traditionally considered a terminological anachronism caused by the long established naming convention.[8] It's possible that the Celtiberian sword was first adopted by Romans after encounters with Carthaginian mercenaries of that nationality during the First Punic War (264-241 BC), not the second.[8] In any case, the gladius hispaniensis became particularly known in 200 BC during the Second Macedonian War, in which Macedonian soldiers became horrified at what Roman swords could do after an early cavalry skirmish.[9][8] It has been suggested that the sword used by Roman cavalrymen was different from the infantry model, but most academics have discarded this view.[8]

Arguments for the Celtiberian source of the weapon have been reinforced in recent decades by discovery of early Roman gladii that seem to highlight that they were copies of Celtiberian models. The weapon developed in Iberia after La Tène I models, which were adapted to traditional Celtiberian techniques during the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC.[14] These weapons are quite original in their design, so that they cannot be confused with Gallic types. As for the origin of the word gladius, one theory proposes the borrowing of the word from *kladi- during the Gallic wars, relying on the principle that K often became G in Latin. Ennius attests the word gladius may have replaced ensis, which until then was used mainly by poets.[15]



Gladius blades of the Mainz type

By the time of the Roman Republic, which flourished during the Iron Age, steel and the steel-making process was known to the classical world. 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 was generally made out of steel.

In Roman times, workers reduced ore in a bloomery furnace. The resulting pieces were called blooms,[16] which they further worked to remove slag inclusions from the 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 Clusium (Chiusi), gives insight concerning the manufacture of Roman swords.[17] The Chiusi 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 1,163 °C (2,125 °F). 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.[17]

The Chiusian sword was created from a single bloom by forging from a temperature of 1,237 °C (2,259 °F). 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 that 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.

Romans continued to forge swords, 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 craftsmen with the strategic task of making the gladii were called gladiarii. They were part of the Roman legions as fabri, enjoying the status of immunes. There were also public workshops, fabricae, dedicated to the making of the gladii. Epigraphic attestations of the gladiarii have been found in Italy, especially in areas of ancient metallurgic tradition such as Capua and Aquileia.[18]


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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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 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.[22]

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.

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. 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.[23]

Gladius Hispaniensis

The gladius Hispaniensis was a Roman sword used from around 216 BC until 20 BC. Its blade had a length of 60–68 cm (24–27 in), and the sword was 75–85 cm (30–33 in) long. The width of the sword was 5 cm (2.0 in). It was the largest and heaviest of the gladii, weighing 1 kg (2.2 lb) kg or 900 g (2.0 lb). This gladius was also the earliest and longest blade. It had a pronounced leaf-shape.

Mainz Gladius

The Mainz Gladius on display at the British Museum, London

The Mainz Gladius is made of heavily corroded iron and a sheath made of tinned and gilded bronze. The blade was 50–55 cm (20–22 in) long and 7 cm (2.8 in) in width. The sword was 65–70 cm (26–28 in) long. The sword weighed 800 g (1.8 lb). The point of the sword was more triangular than the Gladius Hispaniensis. The Mainz Gladius still had wasp-waisted curves. The decoration on the scabbard illustrates the ceding of military victory to Augustus by Tiberius after a successful Alpine campaign. Augustus is semi-nude, and sits in the pose of Jupiter, flanked by the Roman gods of Victory and Mars Ultor, while Tiberius, in military dress, presents Augustus with a statuette of Victory.

Fulham gladius

The Fulham gladius or Mainz-Fulham gladius was a Roman sword that was used after Aulus Plautius' invasion of Britain in 43 AD.[24] The Romans used it until the end of the 1st century. The Fulham gladius has a triangular tip. The length of the blade is 50–55 cm (20–22 in). The length of the sword is 65–70 cm (26–28 in). The width of the blade is 6 cm (2.4 in). The swords weighs 700 g (1.5 lb) (wooden hilt).[25][26] A full size replica can be seen at Fulham Palace, Fulham.

Pompeii gladius

Re-enactor with Pompeii-type gladius

The Pompeii gladius was named by modern historians after the Roman town of Pompeii. This type of gladius was by far the most popular one. Four examples of the sword type were found in Pompeii, with others turning up elsewhere. The sword has parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip. This is the shortest of the gladii. It is often confused with the spatha, which was a longer, slashing weapon used initially by mounted auxilians. Over the years, the Pompeii got longer, and these later versions are called semi-spathes. The length of the blade was 45–50 cm (18–20 in). The length of the sword is 60–65 cm (24–26 in). The width of the blade is 5 cm (2.0 in). The sword weighs 700 g (1.5 lb) (wooden hilt).

See also


  1. ^ Penrose, Jane (2008). Rome and Her Enemies: An Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Osprey Publishing. pp. 121–122. ISBN 978-1-84603-336-0.
  2. ^ Vegetius De Re Militari 2.15
  3. ^ McCone, Kim, "Greek Κελτός and Γαλάτης, Latin Gallus 'Gaul', in: Die Sprache 46, 2006, p. 106
  4. ^ Schrijver, Peter, The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Latin, Rodopi, 1991, p. 174.
  5. ^ Delamarre, Xavier, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, Errance, 2003 (2nd ed.), p. 118.
  6. ^ Schmidt, Karl Horst, 'Keltisches Wortgut im Lateinischen', in: Glotta 44 (1967), p. 159.
  7. ^ Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 215
  8. ^ a b c d e Quesada Sanz, F. "¿Qué hay en un nombre? La cuestión del gladius hispaniensis" (PDF). Retrieved August 7, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d Quesada Sanz, F. "Gladius hispaniensis: an archaeological view from Iberia" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 10, 2018. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  10. ^ M. C. Bishop (2016). The Gladius: The Roman Short Sword (in Spanish). Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-14-728158-6-6.
  11. ^ Flavius Vegetius Renatus (1996). Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (in Spanish). Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-08-532391-0-9.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Livius, Titus. "The History of Rome, Vol. II". 7.10. Archived from the original on August 30, 2002. Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  14. ^ [1] Archived October 2, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ This theory is stated in Note 80, Page 191, of faculty dissertation RUNIC INSCRIPTIONS IN OR FROM THE NETHERLANDS Archived 2006-07-28 at the Wayback Machine by Tineke Looijenga, University of Groningen.
  16. ^ blooms
  17. ^ a b Nicodemi, Walter; Mapelli, Carlo; Venturini, Roberto; Riva, Riccardo (2005). "Metallurgical Investigations on Two Sword Blades of 7th and 3rd Century B.C. Found in Central Italy". ISIJ International. 45 (9): 1358–1367. doi:10.2355/isijinternational.45.1358.
  18. ^ The Road of Amber, Maurizio Buora, A.G.F., University of Wisconsin - Madison, 1996
  19. ^ "Copidas vocabant gladios leviter curvatos, falcibus similes: "They called their lightly curved, sickle-like swords (gladius) 'copides'."
  20. ^ Vegetius, De Re Militari, Book I Archived July 16, 2012, at the Wayback Machine: "a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal."
  21. ^ Histories, Book 31, Chapter 34.
  22. ^ See under gladius Archived October 4, 2006, at the Wayback Machine in Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities.
  23. ^ "Museo del Arma Blanca". Archived from the original on October 25, 2006. Retrieved December 15, 2006.
  24. ^ Luis, Salva (2013). Viriathus and the Lusitanian Resistance to Rome 155-139 BC. Great Britain: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-78159-128-4.
  25. ^ History of the Roman Legions.
  26. ^ Ramsay, Syed (2016). Tools of War: History of Weapons in Ancient Times. India: Vij Books. ISBN 978-938-601-980-6.

^ This is only true for the nominative case; For more information, see the Latin declension page.


The articles in the links below often differ both in theory and in detail. They should not necessarily be understood as fully professional articles but should be appreciated for their presentational value.

Pictures of ancient swords

Reenactments, reconstructions, experimental archaeology

Articles on the history or manufacture of the sword