Written by: Umberto Giano
Images by: Krise Shephard
A brave arm makes a short sword long.
The Gladius was the primary sword of ancient Roman soldiers from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The Romans adopted the gladius, a double-edged short sword, measuring about 20 inches (55 cm) long, with a tapered point, from the Celts during the Roman conquest of Hispania.
As with all short swords, the gladius is versatile in function and easy to wield with one hand, making it ideal for close combat. Used in concert with the scutum, or long shield, the gladius makes quick work of opponents using a long sword or battle-axe, both of which require the use of two hands for wide, sweeping swings, leaving its user open to the quick and deadly thrusts of the gladius. Perfectly suited for the Roman military style of close combat, the gladius quickly edged out Greek-style swords in popularity and eventually became synonymous with the word “sword.”
A well-trained Roman legionnaire could bash his shield against his opponent to knock him off balance, execute a jabbing thrust with his gladius, and still have time to block a hit by his opponent’s long sword in the time it took for the long sword or axe to travel its swinging arc towards him. The stab wounds produced by these thrusts were particularly effective, as witnessed by the Roman writer, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, in his work De Rei Militari:
A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, …. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. … the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans ….
While the gladius was used primarily as a thrusting weapon on the field of battle, it was also used for slashing and cutting, such as slashing at opponents’ kneecaps from under the shield, depending upon the circumstances at play. In Livy’s account of the Macedonian War, he attests to the Macedonian army’s horror at the sight of their comrades’ mutilated and dismembered bodies. Aside from cutting, the gladius’s sharpened double edge is ideal in preventing an opponent from grabbing your sword away from you.
When role-playing with the gladius or short sword remember:
- An important point to remember: when armed with shield and gladius, if you holster your gladius on the opposite side as your shield is carried, a quick draw is impossible. Given that you must draw your sword with the arm which is on the same side in an over-handed grip, it is best to have your sword drawn and ready at the first sign of trouble.
- A gladius is less effective against a long sword or battle-axe without a shield to block their swings.
- Gladii (plural for Gladius) are ineffective against spears, pikes, halbards and any other long thrusting weapon.
- Gladii are little to no protection from cavalry and horse-mounted attacks and projectile weapons such as arrows and javelins.
If you lose your shield and are armed with only a short sword or gladius and attacked by anything resembling the above mentioned weapons, you must role-play (RP) at a disadvantage. Even the most expert swordsmen will find it difficult to achieve victory, given these circumstances. Find a way to make your character’s loss enrich and advance the storyline of your RP.
Here is an example of combat between two opponents using a long sword and gladius:
Vanatosis Arentire lets loose a fierce battle cry and raises his long sword as he charges towards Umberto.
Umberto Giano readies his scutum, shielding his body from the coming blow, and tightens his grip upon his faithful gladius.
Vanatosis Arentire swings his sword down upon Umberto with all the force he can muster, in what should be a crushing blow.
Umberto Giano almost falls to his knees, blocking the terrible force of Vanatosis’s blow with his scutum shield, which causes the long sword to glance off its surface with a deafening clang.
Vanatosis Arentire’s eyes widen as Umberto’s parry causes him to stumble to the side a bit.
Umberto Giano’s face contorts in a vicious grin as he takes advantage of Vanatosis’s momentary loss of balance, delivering a near fatal thrust towards his gut.
Of course, the above scenario, while realistic, doesn’t have to end with a death blow. The gladius could easily be deflected by the long sword wielder’s armor. It should be noted; however, that the gladius’s thrust is deadly without an appropriate defense, and the long sword and most large battle-axes cannot compete with the shield/gladius combination. If your character employs the long sword in combat and is facing such a situation, rethink the match or discuss an acceptable alternative to death out of character in IMs with the other player.
This is the beauty of good role-play combat; two combatants decide an outcome together and then creatively enact it with a give-and-take that has the timing and dynamic of a dramatic dance.
When you wield your gladius in the course of role-play, remember, it is not just a short sword, but a sword of legend. Ironically, this unassuming, diminutive blade is synonymous with the strength and power of Rome. Indeed, the very sight of the gladius struck terror in the hearts of countless barbarians who met their demise at the hands of well-trained legionnaires. Use the gladius to do the same to your character’s enemies and cause them to cower before its fatal thrust.
Used successfully for centuries by the world’s greatest army, the gladius’s reign eventually came to an end by the 2nd century AD in favor of the longer Germanic Spartha sword. The world changed, and the gladius’s effectiveness as a weapon was compromised by an increased use of horse-mounted combat and military dependence on cavalry. Today gladii can only be found safely displayed under glass in museums as fragmented specimens encrusted in rust. The gladius may be long gone, but it left its heroic mark.
Watch any movie set in those ancient times, especially one featuring Romans and gladiators, and you’ll see the gladius. It is iconic of the classical age of empire, when the sons of a proud city in Italy conquered the known world and changed its face forever.
This humble short sword significantly impacted our languages, laws, architecture, and history. And that’s a legacy few weapons can claim.