Never has the term military machine been more appropriate: the Roman military was the first large professional army, more disciplined and organised than any contemporary opposing force, and it would be 1,000 years before any military matched their size.
The backbone of this power was the legionary. The Legions, elite heavy infantry, were recruited only from Roman citizens during most of the history of the Empire.
What kind of weapons did the Romans use?
There were three essential Roman weapons: the gladius (sword), the pugio (dagger), and the pilum (spear). Body armour was also an essential part of a Roman soldier’s equipment. Equipment changed and adapted during Rome’s more than 1,000-year military history, but these three Roman weapons were the vital tools of the Roman legionary.
Gladius is Latin for sword, hence gladiator from “swordsman”. There were a number of patterns and names for the standard infantry sword, but the most typical is now called the Pompeii Gladius, after the ash-buried city where examples were found.
The Pompeii type was probably in use from around 50 AD (Pompeii was buried in an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD) until the 3rd century. Roman legionaries used it in the Dacian Wars in eastern Europe of the early 2nd century, and in the famous siege of Masada in modern-day Israel in 72 AD.
It was short, at less than 20 inches (about 50 cm), for a sword. It had two sharpened cutting edges while a triangular point made it a deadly stabbing weapon, its most common use. It appears to have refined previous designs.
Gladii were forged from steel, originally from five strips of metal, with the strongest at the centre of the blade. These strips were literally hammered together, though some blades were made from single pieces of steel. A hilt called the capulus – sometimes decorated or with finger ridges – completed the weapon.
The gladius was brutally efficient. Most ancient battles disintegrated into a chaotic scrum, where the gladius came into its own. Safe behind their shields, where longer weapons were useless, the legionary could stab around, over or under his protection to deliver disabling and fatal wounds to the abdomen or weak points in the groin and neck.
It is a sign of the Roman state’s ability to adapt that the weapon that helped them conquer Europe was borrowed, either from Iberian Celts or Gauls. Rome fought them, admired their weapon and made it their own.
The gladius became longer over time and was eventually replaced by the spatha, a longer bladed sword (60 – 85 cm blades), in the late 2nd and into the 3rd century AD. Spatha were brought into the Roman army by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC he was stabbed with pugiones, or Roman military daggers. Like the gladius they were primarily a stabbing weapon, and away from the battlefield would have been a useful piece of kit.
These sharp little weapons were typically between 7 and 11 inches long and about 2 inches wide and are believed to be descended from Spanish models. The blade had a central rib and a handle was riveted on (although these rivets vanished from the 1st century AD, and many later examples are found with replacement handles).
They were carried in sheaths of varying designs, some of them highly decorated, some simple wooden and metal containers. They were designed to be worn on the belt.
Evidence suggests that the pugio was not universally issued. It also went in and out of fashion; during the 2nd century it is believed fewer were issued, but in the 3rd century it returned, with a longer blade.
Their use in battle is not clearly recorded. The rich decoration on some pugione and their popularity with emperors – and the high status conspirators who stabbed Caesar – may indicate they had a very strong symbolic meaning. Being in the military was a noble thing for a Roman citizen to do, perhaps wearing a pugio was the easiest way to show this.
3 . Pilum
With close-quarters combat a strength, the Roman legionary was also a master from a distance. Many foes would never get the chance to engage the pugio and gladius thanks to the pilum, a heavy throwing spear.
Pila were usually about 2 metres (6 feet 7 inches) long with an iron spike at the end of a heavy wooden shaft. Weighing anything from 2 kg (4.4 lbs) upwards, the pilum was designed to be thrown, and its deadly effectiveness was partly a function of some clever technology.
The tip of the iron spike was hard, and wider than the shank that followed it. The iron of the shank was softer, making it a one-shot missile that bent on impact and couldn’t be thrown back. If it stuck in your shield, it would remain there. Some pila had spikes at the other end of the shank to make them stick in the ground.
The pilum was an improvement on a previous stabbing spear called the hasta. It was replaced by the speculum, a slightly shorter variant, after 250 AD. In time, Roman legionaries came to carry two pila, one light and one heavy. The first would be thrown at an advancing enemy at under 30-metres distance; the second could be used for a second, closer volley or as a stabbing weapon.
Two volleys of pila from just 10,000 Roman legionaries were said to have been enough to halt the advance of British rebel leader Boudicca’s much larger force in 60 or 61 AD. They are recorded being used in hand-to-hand fighting during the Siege of Alesia (probably in Burgundy in France) in 52 BC.