The formidable Roman empire possessed extremely well-disciplined armed forces, and the weapons used during their numerous battles were, needless to say, state-of-the-art.
The Roman empire – one of the greatest military powers of the ancient world – rose from present-day central Italy. The ancient Romans have a history of hundreds of years of warfare and conquests. By subduing the neighboring lands in numerous wars, and establishing their sway over them, the Romans had virtually conquered the entire region of Italy by 264 B.C.
At its peak, the frontiers of the mighty Roman empire extended from the north of England across the North Sea, along the Danube and Rhine rivers to the Caspian Sea in the East, to the African coast (including Egypt) in the South, to Spain and France, along the Atlantic, in the West. Undoubtedly, the Roman empire had one of the strongest military powers in the ancient world, owing to their superior weapons and ingenious war tactics.
The Roman army was open-minded enough in adopting the war tactics and even the weapons of their enemies, if they could benefit from them.
Weapons of Ancient Rome
Initially, the Roman military used weapons which were primarily Greek and Etruscan in origin. However, numerous new weapons were adopted by the Roman military, whenever they came across better and more effective ones. It has been suggested that the ancient Romans were largely influenced by the designs of the weapons of the Celts and the Carthaginians, as we find striking similarities between these weapons.
Interestingly enough, adopted/influenced weapons were then manufactured and distributed amongst a large number of Roman soldiers, thus becoming standard weapons used by the Roman military. Swords and spears were the main assault weapons of a Roman soldier. Given below, are some of the most commonly used weapons
- The gladius was a miniature form of a sword, having a short blade, about 20 to 25 inches long.
- This was one of the basic weapons of the Roman foot soldiers, used primarily for stabbing the enemy.
- Gladii had two sharp cutting-edges and a sharp-pointed end, designed specially to have a lethal impact on the enemy, when stabbed.
- The design of the hilt was an indicator of the rank of the soldier who used it. So, it may be inferred that a gladius bearing an ornately embellished hilt may have belonged to a high-ranking officer.
- Otherwise, the hilt of the gladius, also known as capulus, generally had a rounded grip having four ridges, made for resting fingers. This kind of design facilitated a firm grip on the weapon.
- Though the traditional way of wearing a sword is to the left side, it has been suggested by some, that the gladius was worn on the right side. It was sheathed and then mounted, either on a belt or on a shoulder strap.
- The centurions, however, wore it at their left hip, so that they could be identified as ranked officers of the legion.
- The gladius remained the standard weapon of the Romans up to nearly the middle of the second century A.D., when it was replaced by a larger and longer sword.
- The spatha was a sword, longer than the gladius. It bore a straight blade, measuring about 30 to 39 inches in length.
- It was used widely by the Roman infantry and cavalry, from the second century A.D. until the sixth century A.D.
- Unlike the gladius, which was worn at the right hip, the spatha was worn at the left hip, as was traditionally the practice.
- The word ‘spatha’ is derived from the Greek word spáthē, which refers to any metallic or wooden blade that is broad. The term also signifies an object that is long as well as flat.
- The point of the blade of the spatha was much smaller than the gladius, but sharp enough to cut through the flesh of the enemy.
- The Roman spathae had wooden handles carved in the shape of an eagle head, to facilitate a firm grip.
- It has been suggested that spathae might have had Germanic origins, owing to the fact that it was from their Germanic foes that the ancient Romans had adopted the weapon.
- A pilum was a kind of javelin, little heavier than the normal one, commonly used by the Roman legionaries.
- A pilum generally weighed between two to four kilograms, which made it heavier than all the other javelins used during that period.
- It had a thin iron neck, about seven millimeters in diameter, and a pointed iron tip.
- The iron neck of the pilum, or the shank as it may be called, was fixed into the socket of a wooden shaft (two meters in length), which acted as its handle.
- When a pilum was thrown towards an enemy, with force, the impact on the target was almost fatal. Owing to the speed and the force of the throw, it could easily penetrate the body armor and shield of the enemy and injure him terribly.
- Moreover, if a pilum simply got stuck into the shield, it could not be easily removed because of its pyramidal top, which had two sharp points at the base that would get stuck and destroy the shield. The enemy was then compelled to throw the shield off.
- Even if the enemy managed to remove the pilum from his shield, he could not reuse it as its head would then bend inwards, leaving it useless.
- Some references mention that after the war was over, these used pila were collected from the battlefield and were taken to the blacksmith, so that their points could be straightened and the weapons could be reused in the subsequent battle.
- The verutum was also a type of javelin, but it was much shorter and lighter than the pilum.
- It was used by the Velites or the light infantry, and was specifically used for diverting the attention of the enemy.
- It was much smaller than the pilum, in that its shaft was only about one meter long, half the length of the shaft of the pilum.
- Sometimes, the verutum would have an iron shank that would then terminate into a pointed tip. However, some evidences also show tapering metal head fastened to a wooden shaft.
- In the second and third centuries B.C., when the Roman light infantry would carry up to seven veruta with them, they proved to be very effective weapons, especially in keeping away the enemy’s war-elephants from advancing towards the army.
- In the latter half of the second century B.C., the verutum was discarded as a weapon of war from the Roman army, and so was the light infantry. It was then almost completely replaced by the pilum.
- Hasta is a Latin word for ‘spear’.
- During the Roman empire, there was always at least one battalion of foot soldiers, who carried the hastae and were thus known as the Hastati.
- Unlike the pilum, which was a javelin intended to be thrown at long distances, the hasta was a spear and thus was intended to smack the enemy violently, so much so, that he would be badly injured.
- Hasta measured approximately six feet long, had a wooden shaft generally made from ash.
- Its iron head was triangular in shape and had a sharp tip.
- During the period of the Roman republic (509 B.C. to 100 B.C), the hastae were almost discarded as weapons of war and were replaced largely, by gladii and spathae.
- However, during the period of the late Roman empire, beginning from the third century A.D., the hasta was reintroduced in the army.
- Not surprisingly, it proved to be one of the most effective weapons that could be used efficiently for attacking the cavalry of the enemy, thus reducing their strength.
- The pugio was a type of small dagger that the Roman soldiers used as their sidearm.
- It was most probably an auxiliary combat weapon that the Roman soldiers carried to the battlefield to protect themselves, when they ran out of weapons.
- A pugio, traditionally, had a large, broad blade that was leaf-shaped.
- The blade of the pugio would be about seven to eleven inches long and approximately two inches wide.
- It also had a raised midrib that ran vertically from the center of its base to its tip. This meant that the blade was thinner and sharper at the edges and thicker in the middle and had a sharp, pointed tip.
- The hilt of the pugio would either be metallic or wooden, and often bore engraved or inlaid designs. Also, the hilt would be four to five inches long and would have a narrow grip, which allowed the attacker to remove it from his sidearm with ease, and strike his opponent with maximum force.
- The scabbards, or the covers of the blades of the pugiones, were either made of leather or wood that was covered with embellished metal plates.
- They also had suspension loops at their edges, so that they could be easily hooked to the belts of the soldiers.
Bow and Arrow
- The bow (arcus) and the arrow (sagitta) was used by the Sagittarii.
- The term Sagittarius is Latin for ‘archer’. So, sagittariorum was a term used to refer to a battalion from the cavalry specializing in the art of archery. Sagittarius, in short, refers to mounted archers.
- The composite bow was commonly used by the sagittarii and was constructed from wood, horn and sinew, fastened together with the help of a glue which was made from animal hide.
- A string was attached to the two ends of the bow, on which the base of the arrow was placed, and it was then stretched so that the arrow could be released with force.
- The arrow, on the other hand, comprised a wooden shaft and a sharp, pointed, triangular head made of iron.
- There are references indicating that the archers were officially trained by the state, before they could be recruited in the army.
- Plumbatae, a.k.a. martiobarbuli, can be described as a form of darts, which were used by the late Roman infantry.
- These darts had sharp, pointed heads, capable of cutting through the enemy’s shield.
- In order to increase their impact, when they are forcefully thrown towards the enemy, weight was added to the center of the dart with the help of lead.
- The name ‘plumbata’ seems to have been derived from plumbum, the Latin name of lead.
- These were used as weapons of war, especially during the later period of the Roman empire, which rose during the middle of the second century A.D.
- The contus was a heavy lance that the soldiers from the Roman cavalry carried in their hands.
- This Roman lance was about six feet long and, owing to its weight, it had to be held with both hands.
- The contus was one of the most effective weapons of the cavalry, as it could be used for both, stabbing as well as hurling in the direction of the enemy, like a javelin.
- The contus bore a heavy iron head with a sharp, leaf-shaped pointed tip and a long wooden shaft.
- It was used to subdue the advances of animals (camels, horses and elephants) as well as infantrymen on the battlefield.
- A caltrop consisted of four sharp nails. It had a stable base from which one of the nails always pointed upwards.
- They were scattered on the surface of the battlefield and caused immediate injury, the moment any horse/elephant/foot soldier of the enemy stepped on it.
- The use of caltrops enabled the Roman legionaries to buy more time for planning their strategies, after having gauged the actual strength of the enemy on the battlefield.
The ancient Romans also used some complex weapons such as ballista and onager. These were nothing but ranged weapons, which served the purpose of throwing large explosives with maximum accuracy at distantly set targets. These complex weapons also ensured that the damage caused to the opponent was huge.
Roman legionaries also used an array of protective gear. These included armors, helmets, shields and so on. Added to this, in order to march through the ranks of the enemy with success, the ancient Romans had formulated some of the best war formations ever used in world military history. One such war formation, which is worth a mention, was the testudo or the tortoise formation, which was virtually impregnable.
If we think of all the technological advancements that followed their era, the weapons of war used by the ancient Romans may seem very rudimentary. But, the weapons were definitely effective in those days, and the successful history of Roman warfare stands testimony to this fact. The mighty Romans were also extremely good in making and implementing war strategies, one of the very important reasons they managed to hold sway over such a large territory for so long a period of time.