The Ancient Weapons of Old Civilizations

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Since ancient times, some of us have distinguished ourselves by being overly violent and conquering anything in our sight. Others live lives without violence, or intent to be subjected to violence.

In case you were wondering, a mindset of not being subjected to violence actually worked for many groups. An example can be found in the Wogies, located on the west coast of modern-day USA. Yet still, many resorted to engaging in elaborate war techniques to secure the survival and expansion of their community.

While today the world can basically be demolished with one button, ancient civilizations didn’t have such a luxury. The question remains, what kind of weapon did they use during their wars? Or even more important for these civilizations, what arms worked best for reaching their goals?

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: 16 Oldest Known Cultures From Around The World

What Was the First Weapon Ever Made?

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Ancient Greece Neolithic Stone Tools and Weapons

It seems only logical to start at the beginning. However, pinning down what exactly was the first weapon ever made is close to impossible. Simply for the fact that we are discovering new things every day, and the current oldest weapon might become dated at some point in the future.

But, of course, we have knowledge about the ancient weapons that are currently considered to be the oldest. This honor goes to something that became known as the Schöniningen spears. While at first glance it might be hard to identify them as a weapon, archeologists do agree that these are the oldest weapons used for combat.

The Origin of the Schöningen Spears

The spears are believed to be an astonishing 300.000 years old. It’s highly unusual that anything made of wood could survive for such a long period of time. Yet, the archeological site in Germany has yielded by far the largest and most important record of wooden tools and hunting equipment from the Paleolithic age.

Although you could describe them as a spear, the first weapon ever made is believed to be used as a throwing stick. They wouldn’t be considered for the price of the deadliest ancient weapons, however.

They are believed to be mainly used for hunting and to a lesser extent for actual wars between human communities. Protecting yourself from deadly animals might be more of a priority around 300.000 BC.

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Prehistoric hunt, a painting by Emmanuel Benner

The First Ancient Weapons Used for Warfare

The first weapon in existence that was used for specifically killing a human being was, most probably, a bit different. We can generally make a distinction between prehistoric weapons and weapons used from 3000 B.C. onwards.

Prehistoric Weapons

So the first weapons are believed to be the wooden sticks as just described. Later on, other weapons specifically for fighting gained popularity in ancient civilizations. Still, these had generally little potential for mass destruction.

About 150.000 years after the wooden spears, ancient civilizations attached a fire-hardened point to the throwing sticks, making them necessarily more deadly. The fire arrows were certainly used in pre-dynastic Egypt and had a piece of flint at their tip, which could be lighted.

Also, Egyptians would be the first ones to use shields instead of some form of armor on their body. Walking around in the Sahara with extra layers of clothing wasn’t really desirable, so they developed a relatively novel way to protect themselves in the form of shields.

Yet, the fire arrows weren’t considered to be very useful for close combat. Therefore, about 80.000 years ago, communities would begin to use an unusual weapon for the time: stone axes.

After the development of the stone axes for close combat, a revolution in the art of fighting would present itself in the form of the bow and arrow. This weapon would increase the deadliness of the throwing sticks by making it infinitely more accurate.

The throwing stick itself also saw quite the evolution and became more of a javelin or dart. Many of the world’s most dominant forces would later use these techniques to conquer vast territories. More on that later.

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Neolithic stone axes

Weaponry in the Bronze Age

Enter the Bronze Age, starting around 3000 BC. During this time, military technology was greatly advanced, making arms and armor more powerful. Not only did they become more powerful, but the Bronze Age also saw the first mass production of weapons.

While in the past people occasionally made a spear or arrow to attack their enemy, this would quickly become part of history.

The most notable weapon manufactured were swords. These were distinguishable because of their sharpened, long, blade, and handle made of metal. Cavalry was also becoming increasingly popular, and the combination made it easier to exercise power over your opponent due to a quick and armed force.

Although called the ‘Bronze’ Age, in 1200 BC iron became increasingly popular for any weapon. All and all, armies grew and fortifications became larger. This also meant that these fortifications needed increased protection, leading to the introduction of weapons like catapults, ballistae, and battering rams used by the Romans and Chinese.

What Weapons Did Ancient Rome Use?

War was abundant during medieval times, meaning that ample weapons were used to destroy enemies and siege their forts. The weapons did not only become more abundant, but they also became more lethal.

The Romans played a big part in this. Really, the history of the Roman empire seems to be related to anything, including the ways in which they would destroy their enemies. Indeed, ancient Roman weaponry also epitomized the way to go about the war for a long time.

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Ancient Roman weapons

READ MORE: The Complete Roman Empire Timeline: Dates of Battles, Emperors, and Events

The Roman Spirit

Romans were all about conquest, which goes to show in the vast empire that the Romans were able to gather over the centuries. The first military concept adopted by the Republic was designed to consolidate and strengthen its territory.

Rome got inspired by the Greeks. Because of this, they established a group of colonies around the city for protection. From 338 BC onwards they would install permanent armies in enemy land and pursue conquering vast territories.

The Weapons of Ancient Rome

The Romans had a wide array of ancient weapons that they used in their attacks. The number of attacks and the body of weapons only grew bigger when specialized units were introduced, like the cavalry. This led to the necessity to develop weapons that were unique and apt whilst riding a horse.

Gladius and Spatha

As with many types of ancient weapons, the Romans would use swords in combat. The gladius was the primary weapon of the Roman legions. It was short, two-sided, and between 40 and 60 centimeters in length. The rise of the gladius is in fact parallel with the earliest Roman kingdoms, emphasizing the innovative nature of the Romans.

READ MORE: Roman Legion Names

The gladius consisted of several components, including the hilt, rivet knob, pommel, handgrip, and handguard. It is more than probable that they were imitating some form of ancient Greek swords, as the Romans did with so many things.

Another similar weapon that was used goes by the name of spatha, which was usually a bit longer and close to a meter in length. It was used at a later stage of the Roman empire, predominantly used by legionary infantry in the third century CE and later.

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The so-called “Sword of Tiberius” from the early 1st century

Pilum

The pilum might be one of the ancient weapons that initiated mass destruction and murder in the wars that the Roman empire engaged in. It was introduced in 315 BCE and would make up the front line of the Roman infantry for centuries. But, that doesn’t mean they had the greatest risk of dying. Well, not necessarily.

Indeed, to fire a javelin would already kill a fair bit of the enemies’ army before even engaging in hand-to-hand fights. It is one of the main reasons why Rome was able to exercise such a vast amount of power over its history. Soldiers would fire the pilum around twenty-five to thirty meters, weighing roughly two kilograms.

The pilum had two general functions in battle. One, of course, was killing. The second one had to do with the metal shank of the javelin. The metal was soft, meaning that on the impact it would warp and bend.

Because of this, the ancient weapons could penetrate the enemy soldier’s shield and were almost impossible to remove. The shields simply became useless, clearing the way for a victorious hand-to-hand battle.

Pugio

Although there are many more ancient weapons from Rome to discuss, the pugio will also get the honor to be discussed here. The Roman dagger was usually fifteen to thirty centimeters long and five centimeters wide. The daggers could be used in very close-quarter combats.

The pugio was mainly used as a backup if their main weapon was lost during the battle. But, it also had a more functional reason. While in today’s day and age, we can basically mass produce anything, the Romans didn’t necessarily have the same luxury. If they lost their cool blade weapons today, they wouldn’t get one before midnight if they opted for the fast delivery.

Rather, it took some time to make the weapon, a craft that needed specialization. Therefore, the Romans would use different weapons in different instances. While the gladius was the best weapon to use, you also wanted it to be sustainable. If the enemy had little armor, it was better to use the pugio instead of the gladius.

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Ancient Roman pugio

What Weapons Were Used in Ancient Japan?

When talking about ancient weapons, the Japanese and their Samurai are quite notorious. They gained power through their combat techniques, which mainly involved some sort of sword or blade.

Japanese Swords

The Japanese have a rich tradition of swords and using them in wars and battles. They perfected the ancient weapon from something that was used quite recklessly to something elegant, efficient, and effective. Three ancient weapons in particular are acknowledged for their important role in combat.

Katana

One of the most important and famous blades that the Japanese samurai used is known as the katana. It’s a sort of curved, slender sword with a single blade. It normally has a circular or squared guard and a long grip. Because of that, the Samurai were able to hold the sword with two hands instead of one.

The katana rose in popularity because of its convenient usability. Samurai could draw their weapon and strike the enemy in one single motion, something that is also reflected often in modern popular culture. Really, the samurai and their katana are quite synonymous, and they believed that their soul was actually in the weapon itself.

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Japanese Katana

Wakizashi

The samurai usually wore two sorts of blades. One being the katana and the other one being the wakizashi. The combination is known as daishō which translates to ‘big-little’. The wakizashi was shorter and slightly curved with a square-shaped hilt, oftentimes hidden under clothing.

It was normally used as a backup weapon, which is also reflected in Japanese tradition. Samurai would have to leave their katana at the doorstep of any house or building but were allowed to wear their wakizashi.

Naginata

The last blade we will discuss was specifically for the female warriors by the name of onna-bugeisha.

The sword itself was called naginata and is a sort of long-bladed pole weapon, with a long handle. Quite a bit longer than the other two swords. It was also considered heavier and slower, with a blade smaller to compensate for the average woman’s height.

Other Weapons of Ancient Japan

There are some other weapons to be distinguished when it comes to ancient weapons from the old Japanese civilizations. The first one is the yumi, an asymmetric Japanese longbow. It was quite important during the feudal period of Japan and was traditionally made of bamboo, wood, and leather.

The bow has a long history in Japan, as the samurai were mounted warriors who used the bow and arrow as their primary weapon while on horseback. The art of using a sword correctly was highly appreciated, but the art of archery was generally considered a more vital skill. It became a symbol for the professional warriors of Japan.

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Ancient Japanese bow

Kabutowari

Another ancient weapon that was unique to Japan was the kabutowari. They were weapons that were shaped like knives, carried as a side-arm by the samurai. It literally translates to skull breaker.

This bizarre name has a reason, of course, and you don’t have to be creative to understand why it’s called like that. The blade of the knife was indeed designed specifically to split the helmet of the opponent and with that its head.

What Weapons Were Used in Ancient China?

There is another realm of ancient Asian weapons that we should dive into. That is the oriental arms that were used over the span of Chinese history.

Because of the different cultural backgrounds, the weapon of choice for Northern China did differ from the ones in Southern China. The latter were adjusted for some sort of city life, while the former was adapted to the countryside.

A Weapon for Martial Artists

Arms became synonymous with martial arts in China. Generally speaking, a trained martial artist was able to carry three kinds of weapons and use them correctly. The weapon of choice was often a saber, staff, or spear. These ancient weapons were considered to have the most killing potential and would be the first any martial artist would carry.

A secondary weapon used by the warrior was normally hidden under their clothes, for example, a whip or an iron chain. Sometimes, darts were also the second weapon of choice, especially when the enemy was further away. They were easy to hide and easy to use, making them a popular choice for martial artists.

In choosing his weapons, a martial artist generally considered three factors. First, what weapon suits his physical stature? The ancient weapons should be correctly adjusted to the height and weight of the person. Also, the strength of the person was of importance, as well as the conditions in which the upcoming battle was fought.

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Chinese saber with scabbard

Arrows and Crossbows

Still, the things that were used by martial artists were more so for man-to-man battles, not for a great war. In such instances, the Chinese army would rather use the bow as the most common weapon of all.

Especially during the Shang Dynasty between 1600-1046 BCE, it became a weapon of high esteem. The crossbow was considered the most lethal weapon out there. Really, to a certain extent, these can be seen as the guns of that day and age.

A specialized warrior would fire the spear and bow at the beginning of a war. It is somewhat comparable with the techniques that the Romans used, but just way more sophisticated and originating from an earlier period.

While the Romans used a sort of javelin, the Chinese had full-blown crossbows and could take out many enemies before they were able to engage in the fighting. The nature of the ancient Chinese people is generally believed to be less violent than e.g. the Romans, but their ability to create a new kind of weapon wasn’t limited because of it.

Catapults

Some other arms that were used by China include single-armed catapults, which were used to fire all types of different things. Mostly these were used during sieges, catapulting stones, missiles made of metal or terracotta, incendiary bombs, and even bombs that were made with gunpowder.

The use of gunpowder also makes it questionable whether we are still talking about ancient weapons, ending the search for the earliest and most important arms that were used in ancient times.

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