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Spatha vs. Gladius

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Roman soldiers can often be seen in ancient art carrying one of two sorts of weapons. In this lesson, we are going to check out both and see how they are similar and different.

Roman Swords

The Roman military had to be ready to fight basically all the time. The Romans controlled a vast empire, full of people who weren't always pleased about being conquered, and a resulting war was common. Roman soldiers had to be prepared to fight, whether it was in the hills of the eastern Mediterranean, the forests of Britain or the river lands of Germany. This meant that they needed to be versatile, and their weapons reflected that. They say that for every job there is the proper tool. Well, the Roman tools of empire were deadly effective.

The Gladius

To start, let's check out the ubiquitous Roman sword: the gladius. The gladius was a relatively short sword (roughly 25 inches in length) with double cutting edges and a short handle. The technical name is the gladius Hispaniensis because the Romans adopted this style of weapon from Iberian Celts during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE.

Relief of a Roman wearing a gladius
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So, why was it so short? The gladius was designed for close-quarter hand-to-hand combat, the sort that you'd normally get when two armies crash into each other on the battlefield. Longer swords needed room to wield, and swinging one often meant that you had to shift your shield, thus leaving your body exposed. The shorter gladius eliminated this problem. A Roman soldier would lead into a fight with his shield, then thrust or cut around it with the gladius. For roughly 400 years, this was the definitive weapon of Roman soldiers, and the tool that expanded the empire across Europe.

The Spatha

The gladius may have been a popular weapon, but it wasn't the only one. Romans also fought using a spatha. The spatha was similar to the gladius in many ways. It was double-edged, with a short handle and a tapered point. However, it was longer, roughly 30-40 inches long. This gave the spatha more reach than the gladius. As such, it was very popular with cavalry units.

Roman emperors wearing spathae on their belts
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Just as the gladius was based on swords the Romans encountered in battle, the spatha was inspired by the long swords of Celts in Germany and Britain. Germanic warriors who fought as allies of the Romans kept their longer swords, and the practice seems to have rubbed off onto the Romans.

Which Sword is Better?

The Romans had the gladius and the spatha. So, which was better? It depends on how and where you're fighting. The gladius was the main Roman sword from roughly the 3rd century BCE to 2nd century CE. During this time, it was very effective in close-quarter combat across Southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. It worked well against empires who fought in similar ways as the Romans.

Roman mosaics of gladiators fighting with gladii
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