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Gladius vs. Katana

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Wars are a part of history, which means that a lot of our past was defined by tools of destruction. In this lesson, we'll look at two of the most influential swords in history and see how they compare.

Swords of the World

A good sword needs to do more than simply look cool. Craftspeople and soldiers throughout history molded and shaped these weapons through countless experiments and iterations. The sword helped define the fighting style of each soldier, the tactics of the military, and that culture's definition of the ideal warrior. With all of the work that went into them, swords were not only invaluable to ancient armies, but were also some of the most enduring pieces of remarkable craftsmanship in militaristic cultures.

Two weapons that have had more impact than nearly all others in world history are the gladius and the katana. Both are swords, and both were effectively used as tools of destruction for centuries. However, they are very different weapons.

Description

Let's start with a physical description of each sword. The traditional gladius, known as the gladius Hispaniensis, is a double-edged weapon made of steel. The katana is made of much higher quality steel, but is only sharpened on one edge. The gladius is generally straight, although in some versions the blade flares towards the end. The katana is curved, particularly on the edged side.

The gladius
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There's one other clear way that the swords differ. The gladius generally has a blade that's 2-3 feet long, with a short hilt. The katana, on the other hand, may have a hilt that's up to a foot long, followed by another 3-4 feet of blade. When it comes to sword types, this is a big difference.

The katana
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History

These are clearly two different weapons. One is short and double-bladed, while the other is long with a single, curved blade. So, how did each one come to be? Let's start with the oldest one, the gladius. The oldest version of the gladius was developed by Celtic peoples in what is now Spain (hence the Hispaniensis in the sword's name). The Romans adopted this weapon from the Celts during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), while fighting the invading Carthaginians. For the next 400 years, this was the definitive weapon of the Roman military. They reshaped their tactics around this weapon, built the largest military machine Europe had ever seen, and rose to dominate the Mediterranean.

The gladius was the definitive Roman sword.
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Now let's jump to the other side of the world. The katana is a Japanese weapon, developed much later, around 1400 CE. It was wielded, not by any soldier, but by an elite class of the warring nobility known as the bushi, or samurai. The closest equivalent in European culture would be the knights of the medieval era. Samurai were wealthy enough to afford a high quality sword, and maintained their noble rank through their prowess in battle.

Use of the Weapons

So, why did the Romans and samurai develop different swords? In essence, because they were used differently. The gladius, with its short handle and relatively short blade, was made to be wielded single-handedly. So, what did the Roman soldier do with their other hand? Generally, used it to hold a shield. Roman fighting styles were based around leading with the shield, then jabbing with the sword. Since the gladius was so short, the soldier could wield it without ever having to move the shield away from his body. This proved to be very effective against armies with larger, more unwieldy weapons. With these tactics, the gladius was capable of slashing, but was more often used for stabbing.

The katana was used entirely differently. It was a long sword that was very often wielded with both hands. It was relatively lightweight for such a lengthy weapon, but the samurai still had to perfect fluid swings to cut and return to a defensive position. They also relied a lot more on dodging and weaving to avoid enemy attacks. Due to the need for more mobility, and the fact that the katana blade was so refined that it could penetrate practically any armor, samurai did not generally carry shields.

The katana was very important to the samurai and Japanese culture.
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