Roman Military Equipment
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Roman Military Equipment

Roman Offensive Weapons:
The Sword (Gladius and Spatha)

see also section for Sword Belt / Cingulum / Balteus ,  Dagger/PugioLance / Spear / Pilum, and in the  Reconstruction Section

The "classical" Roman short sword is called gladius and thought to be of Spanish origin, typical length up to ca. 55 cms. The two main types are the earlier gladius hispaniensis / Mainz with a short blade, broad towards  the handle, while the later type Pompeianus / Pompeii (used from ~ the middle of the first centur AD) shows parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip (the pompeianus type gladius this is the gladius we know so well from Hollywood and Asterix). Ideal for close combat in well organized ranks and for "point" attacks.

The longer sword initially used by the cavalry is called the Spatha. It seems that from the 3rd century onwards the cavalry also used the longer sword, and the short gladius ideal for infantry fighting in closed ranks became obsolete.

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Gladius Hispaniensis (Mainz and Fulham Types)

To the left: The most famous Mainz type example was found in Mainz (nomen est omen)  in the River Rhine, and is now in the British Museum, London: The so called Sword of Tiberius. Highly decorated and thus likely for an office.
To the right: The Fulham Sword (found in Fulham, UK) and also in the British Museum is an example of a subtype of the Mainz gladius, with a blade that is somewhat more "waisted" in the middle part of the blade. (Image also shows one of few known shield bosses of the rectangular legionary shield). Like the Mainz gladius, the Fulham has a long point.

more details of the Sword of Tiberius decoration...



Gladius hispaniensis type Mainz (Speyer Museum), with silver covered handle

Several Sword handles made of bone, possibly also wood (London Museum and British Museum London, UK)

Vindonissa Museum, CH

Scabbard decoration for the Gladius Hispanensis, Leiden Museum, NL

Scabbard decorations from Vindonissa, CH

Scabbard decoration for a Mainz Type Gladius (Bonn Landesmuseum)

RGZM Mainz Landesmuseum Bonn RGZM Mainz

Scabbard decoration. Currently on display at Museum Carnuntinum ( Austria, Bad Deutsch-Altenburg), Private Collection,
Published: Exhibition catalogue "Legionsadler und Druidenstab, F. Humer, 2006," ISBN 3854602294"

Gladius blades from the Republic to the early Principate. Left of line Hispaniensis type, right of line Pompeianus Type; Below sheath decorations and sword handles

Drawings from Roman Military Equipment by Bishop & Coulston, Edition 2, 2006 © M.C. Bishop


Gladius Pompeianus

Left:   Gladius pompeianus scabbard / sheath decoration in tinned bronze, middle a pompeianus chape
Right: Gladius handle in bone and hard wood


Type Pompeius Gladius from the Guttmann collection

Images courtesy David S. Michaels / Julian Dendy, Legio VI VPF USA and Legio XIIII R.M.R.S. UK

decoration from a Gladius pompeianus scabbard

2 chapes, Vindonissa Museum, CH

Sword handles, Aalen Museum

Below several early swords from the Nijmegen museum, NL, showing the handles made of bone/ivory and hardwoord

Augsburg Museum, gladius Pompeianus with various spear/lance war heads, incl. a pilum head

Gladius Pompeianus Blade

image Herrmann Historica Auction 154, 2008

The Spatha (and other late Roman Swords)

The Roman cavalry used a much longer sword, the so called spatha. Towards end of the second century that spatha gradually replaced the short sword also for the infantry. Lengths 75 cms and longer. The shape of the blade is not easy to distinguish from the Germanic swords of the period. With two exceptions:  The first century spatha looking like a longer galdius Pompeianus and the later thrid century spatha type Lauriacum-Hromowka:

Early Spatha, first century:

image Herrmann Historica Auction 154, 2008

Spatha type  Lauriacum-Hromowka:

Here a spatha that resembles the Pompeianus type gladius in its parallel cutting edges and triangular point, but is considerably longer, broader, and shows multiple grooves. This type is called the Lauriacum-Hromowka type and dates from the late third century AD


Later Roman Sword blades
are shown in the graph below, ca. 3rd century AD. Especially the spatha types 6 and 7 from below graph are difficult to distinguish from contemporary Germanic sword blades, and seem to have been used by both cavalary and infantry. The days of the close combat in well organized ranks that suited so well for the "point" attack gladius hispanensis and pompeianus were clearly gone by then.

Drawings from Roman Military Equipment by Bishop & Coulston, Edition 2, 2006 © M.C. Bishop

Typical chape in pelta form in bronze to the left; Chapes made of bone to the left, Augsburg Museum

Cingulum and Balteus Fittings

see also the relevant pages on Cingulum and Balteus

Lugdunum Burial, shwoing sword belt (balteus) and baldric decorations

Drawings from Roman Military Equipment by Bishop & Coulston, Edition 2, 2006 © M.C. Bishop

Balteus Decoration for a 3rd century sword belt, Numerum Omnium type.

red background is RGZM Mainz, white background is Landesmuseum Bonn

  Typical 3rd century balteus fittings
Drawings from Roman Military Equipment by Bishop & Coulston, Edition 2, 2006 © M.C. Bishop

Augsburg Museum, a round silver disk with niello decorations, possibly from a round disk shaped chape, actual size ca. 10 cms


Beautiful Scabbard decoration in guilded silver, 3-4th century AD
RG Museum, Köln

Related Sections of the Roman Numismatic Gallery:

The  Location of Roman Legions from Caesar to ca. 300 AD is summarized in a table. 

Military Equipment 

Military Diploma 

Roman Legionary Bricks 

Countermarks of roman legions on coins are shown in the Legionary Countermark section

Coins making reference to roman legions are to be found in the Legionary Coin section

Wars and Victories on Roman coins. 

Roman Military Main Page