From gladius and spatha to scorpio and ballista, the Roman Empire, at the height of its power, utilized a wide range of weapons, both for offense and defense.
Roman weapons were a crucial part of the Roman military’s success and dominance over their adversaries for centuries.
These weapons, along with the highly disciplined and organized Roman military tactics, played a key role in the success of Roman conquests and their ability to maintain control over vast territories for centuries.
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Roman weapons did evolve and change over the years. But some of the essential equipment did not change over the hundreds of years from the early Roman kingdoms to imperial Rome at the height of its glory. The sword, spear, and javelin seem to have been the most important weapons for a Roman soldier.
The Romans do not seem to have been very reliant on archery. While some of the Roman cavalries were trained in using composite bows or crossbows in the later period, they were not among the most important Roman weapons. The Romans relied on their colonized subjects who formed auxiliary soldiers, like Syrian archers, for support in these fields.
Swords were one of the main Roman weapons and the Roman army used not one but two kinds of swords. The first of these was called the gladius. It was a short, two-sided sword, between 40 to 60 cm in length. It became a primary weapon during the late Roman Republic and was used during most of the Roman Empire. However, the earliest evidence of the use of the gladius can be traced back to the early Roman kingdom, in the 7th century BCE.
It had five key parts: the hilt, the river knob, the pommel, the handgrip, and the handguard. Despite being a short sword, it had both strength and flexibility, which made it difficult to make. The Roman blacksmiths used harder steel on the sides of the sword and softer steel at the center. The legionnaires wore the gladius belted at their right hips and used it for close combat.
The spatha, on the other hand, was much longer than the gladius. This sword was almost a meter in length. This sword came into use much later, at the end of the third century CE, when the Roman Empire was already well established. The spatha was at first used only by the auxiliary units before its use expanded to the Roman legions.
It was used not just in times of war but also in gladiator battles. The spatha could be used in place of either the gladius or the javelins since it had a longer reach. It could easily be thrust into the enemy from a slightly safer range.
The pujio is one of the most famous Roman weapons known to the modern world. The reason for this is that it was the weapon used in the murder of Julius Caesar.
This Roman dagger was very small. It was only 15 to 30 cm in length and 5 cm in width. Thus, it was the ideal hidden weapon. It could easily be concealed on a person’s body. But it also made it a last resort in open battle.
The pujio was mostly used in hand-to-hand combat or when the soldier was unable to use his gladius. It was a good weapon to use in a cramped environment since it had to be wielded at a very close range.
One of the first and most widely used Roman weapons, the pilum was a long but lightweight javelin. These were greatly in use during the time of the Roman Republic, when the armies used a tactical system called the maniple system. By this system, the front lines were outfitted with these pila (plural of pilum).
The front-line soldiers would throw their javelins at the enemies. This gave the Romans an edge before they had to engage in close combat. The pilum were known to stick in enemy shields, which made the owner of the shield abandon it. This allowed the Romans to swoop in and strike the killing blow with their gladius. The spike would often break off from the pole which meant that the enemies could not throw them back at the Romans in turn.
The javelins were about 7 feet or 2 meters long and had an iron spike at the end of a long wooden pole. They weighed about 2 kg or 4.4 lbs. Thus, when thrown with great force, they could penetrate wooden shields and armor. The pilum could be thrown between 25 to 30 meters.
The hasta or spear was one of the other popular Roman weapons. It was similar to the javelin and actually predated the javelin in use. The early Roman phalanx units began using spears in the 8th century BCE. The Roman legionnaires and infantry units continued using hastae (plural of hasta) well into the Roman Empire.
The Roman spear had a long wooden shaft, generally made of ash wood, with an iron head fixed at the end. The total length of a spear was about 6 feet or 1.8 meters.
One of the distinctive weapons of ancient Rome, the plumbata were lead-weighted darts. These were weapons that were not usually found in other ancient civilizations. About half a dozen throwing darts would be clipped to the back of the shield. They had a throwing range of around 30 meters, even more than the javelins. Thus, they were used to wound the enemy before engaging in close-range combat.
These weapons came into use in the late period of the Roman army, after the ascension of Emperor Diocletian.
The Roman Equivalent of Heavy Artillery
The Romans used several different types of catapults and siege engines during their conquests. These were used to break down walls and pierce shields and armor from a great distance. When supported by infantry and cavalry, these long-distance projectile weapons could do a lot of damage to the enemy.
The onager was a projectile weapon that the Romans used during sieges to break down walls. The onager was like other Roman weapons such as the ballista but it was capable of throwing even heavier materials.
The onager was made of a large and strong frame and had a sling attached to the front of it. Rocks and boulders were loaded into the sling, which was then forced back and released. The rocks would fly loose at a swift rate and crash into the walls of the enemy.
The Romans named the onager after the wild ass because it had an enormous kick.
The ballista was an ancient missile launcher and could be used to throw either javelins or heavy balls. These Roman weapons were powered by twisted cords attached to the two arms of the weapons. These cords could then be pulled back to build tension and release the weapons with immense force.
It was also called a bolt thrower because it would shoot bolts, which were like enormous arrows or javelins. Essentially, the ballista was like a very large crossbow. They were originally developed by the ancient Greeks and were used in siege warfare.
The scorpio developed from the ballista and was a slightly smaller version of the same thing. Unlike the onager and the ballista, the scorpio was used to throw smaller bolts, not heavy ammunition like boulders or balls.
The bolts from these Roman weapons were very effective in piercing enemy shields and armor, because of their great speed and force. Each legion possessed 60 scorpios and they were used in both attack and defense.
The first mentions of the scorpio are from the time of the late Roman Republic. In the Roman war against the Gauls, Julius Caesar talks about using scorpios against the defenders of the Gallic towns. It was both a weapon of marksmanship and could be used in precision shooting and also had great range and a high firing rate when the precision did not matter as much.
READ MORE: The Ancient Weapons of Old Civilizations
Other Tools Carried by Roman Soldiers
A Roman soldier not only carried his weapons but also several useful tools with him during the war. This included tools for digging and clearing areas. Ancient writers like Julius Caesar have commented on the importance of these tools while on the march. The Roman soldiers needed to dig trenches and build ramparts for defense when they made camp. These tools could also be improvised as weapons if necessary.
The dolabra was a two-sided implement that had an ax on one side and a pickaxe on the other. It was carried by all the soldiers and used for digging trenches. The ligo, a tool like a mattock, was also used as a pickaxe. It had a long handle and a stout head. The falx was a curved blade, like a sickle, used to clear overgrowth from fields.
Roman military clothing also underwent several changes over the years. But it basically consisted of a tunic, a padded jacket, a cloak, woolen trousers and underpants, boots, and a skirt made of leather strips for protection. The uniform and tools of a Roman soldier were just as important as the weapons and armor that he had. He also carried a leather pack with some essentials.
Examples of Roman Armor
Armor and shields were just as essential to survival as the weaponry of an army. They could mean the difference between life and death for a soldier. Roman armor usually consisted of some type of body armor, a helmet, and a shield.
During the early days of the Roman kingdom, soldiers did not have full body armor and usually only used greaves. This changed later on as the complete Roman army was outfitted with armor by the Roman Empire itself. Later improvements to the armor include a neck guard and armored saddles for the cavalry. However, even then, the light infantry had very little armor to speak of.
Helmets were a very crucial aspect of Roman armor, even in the early days. The head was a vulnerable part of the human body and could not be left unprotected. The look and shape of Roman helmets changed a great deal over the years.
In the days of the Roman kingdom and the early Roman Republic, they were Etruscan in nature. But after the Marian Reforms, the two types of helmets were the light ones used by the cavalrymen and the heavier ones used by the infantry. The heavier helmets had a thicker rim and a neck guard added for extra protection.
Soldiers often wore padded caps under the helmet so everything fit in place comfortably.
Shields in the ancient Roman world were made of strips of wood glued together and were not really waterproof. The Romans would usually stretch a piece of leather over the shield to protect the wood from the elements. They were, for the most part, vaguely oval in shape. There were three types of shields in the Roman army.
The scutum shield was a type of shield used by the legionaries and it originated in the Italian peninsula. It was very large and rectangular in shape and weighed a great deal. The soldiers held the shield in one hand and the gladius in the other.
The caetra shield was used by the auxiliary infantry from Hispania, Britannia, and Mauretania. It was a light shield made of leather and wood.
The parma shield was a round shield that was quite small but effective. It probably had an iron frame with pieces of wood glued together at the center and leather stretched over it. The round shield was about 90 cm across and had a handle.
Body armor became popular in ancient Rome with the rise of the legions. Before that, the militia soldiers usually wore limb armor alone. Early Roman legionaries used a number of different kinds of metal armor to protect their torsos. The most common type of armor worn by the Roman soldiers was ring mail armor or scale armor.
Ring Mail armor was issued to all heavy Roman infantry and auxiliary troops throughout the Roman Republic. It was the standard issue armor at the time and could be made of either iron or bronze. Each piece was made up of thousands of iron or bronze rings, all closely linked together. An average of 50,000 rings were used to make a single piece of ring mail armor.
This was both a flexible and strong type of armor that reached from mid-back to the front of the torso. It was also very heavy. This kind of armor took a lot of effort and time to manufacture but once made could be maintained and used for decades. This is the reason that it remained popular despite the emergence of other types of armor.
This type of body armor consisted of rows upon rows of metal scales, overlapping each other. These scales were attached to a leather undergarment with metal wire and were usually made of iron or bronze. Compared to other kinds of body armor, the scale armor was actually quite lightweight. They only weighed about 15 kg each.
This type of armor was typically worn by standard bearers, musicians, centurions, cavalry units, and auxiliary soldiers. Regular legionaries could wear them but that was uncommon. This type of armor was probably held together by lace ties along the back or side. A complete and intact piece of scale armor had not been discovered yet.
This was a kind of metal armor, made of plates of iron attached to a leather undergarment. This type of armor was made of several individual pieces that could be quickly and easily assembled and disassembled. This made them easier to use and store. This armor was used widely during the early parts of the Roman Empire by the legionaries.
The four parts of the plate armor were the shoulder pieces, the chest plate, the back plate, and the collar plate. These sections were joined together using hooks at the front and the back.
This type of armor was much lighter and offered better coverage than the ring mail. But they were expensive and difficult to produce and maintain. Thus, they were less popular, and ring mail continued to be used by the heavy infantry legionaries.
Evolution of the Roman Army
Anyone who knows anything about the ancient Roman civilization or has picked up an Asterix comic has heard of the famed Roman legions. However, before the creation of the legions, the Roman army was made up of citizen militias. The army went through several changes, depending on the commanders or the emperor at the time. Some of the most significant changes to the Roman army were made by Emperor Augustus. However, through all of this, the Roman military remained a force to be reckoned with.
From Militia to Legions
The ancient Roman army were the armed forces of the Roman Kingdom as well as of the early Roman Republic. These early armies were mostly used for raids on neighboring kingdoms and had both cavalry and infantry. The early Roman soldiers belonged to propertied classes but were not from the uppermost senatorial class.
READ MORE: Kings of Rome: The First Seven Roman Kings
These militias did not make up a standing army, which came much later. They served during the time of war and were equipped with a sword, shield, spear, and very basic armor like greaves. During the early Roman Republic, they were based on Greek or Etruscan army models and adapted the phalanx formation from the Greeks.
It was during the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, when the Roman Republic was fighting the Punic Wars against Carthage, that the concept of the Roman legion appeared. This was when the Roman army changed from temporary militias who were conscripted short term to a permanent standing force. Each legion had about 300 cavalrymen and 4200 infantrymen. They were equipped with bronze helmets and breastplates and often carried one or multiple javelins.
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The poorer citizens who could not afford heavy armor but were still recruited for the legions carried light javelins and shields. They also wore wolf skins tied over their caps for their officers to identify them in battle.
The Late Republican Army
Consul Gaius Marius was the man who overhauled the entire Roman army and made many changes. He was from a locally influential plebeian family. One fun fact about Gaius Marius is that his nephew by marriage was the famous Julius Caesar.
Marius realized the need for large numbers in the army, which could not be met by only recruiting among the patrician classes. Thus, he started recruiting Roman soldiers from the lower classes and poorer unpropertied citizens.
The changes that he introduced became known as the Marian Reforms. The most important of these was that all equipment, uniforms, and weapons would be provided to the Roman soldiers by the state. This was important because formerly the soldiers had been responsible for their own equipment. The richer ones could afford better armor and were better protected than the poorer ones.
The Roman Republic began to properly train its soldiers. There was more discipline and structure within the ranks since the army was now permanent. The soldiers were also expected to carry their own equipment on their backs, thus being nicknamed ‘Marius Mules.’
The Roman army copied various things from the enemies they encountered. They began to use body armor made of chainmail and siege engines and battering rams. The Roman infantry was now also equipped with a neck guard each and swords, while the Roman cavalry had horned saddles and cavalry harnesses.
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What Were the Augustan Reforms?
Significant changes again took place in the Roman army when Emperor Augustus Caesar began his rule. As the Roman Republic changed into the early Roman Empire, it was not just political but also military changes that needed to be made. Caesar was an ambitious man and needed an army that was completely loyal to him. Thus, he soon began to disband the existing legions.
After the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, he disbanded 32 out of the 60 Roman legions. By the 1st century CE, only 25 legions remained. The early Roman Empire made changes so that conscription completely disappeared and only Roman soldiers who had volunteered for the job remained.
The Roman army now also had auxiliary forces. These were imperial subjects of the Roman Empire who could volunteer for the army for a period of time until they were granted citizenship. Syrian and Cretan archers and Numidean and Balearic slingers thus came to be a part of the Roman army in this era.
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The Late Roman Army
The army continued to grow, along with the Roman Empire. During the rule of Septimius Severus, the legions had grown to 33 in number and the voluntary auxiliary forces to 400 regiments. This was the peak of the Roman imperial army.
The Roman Emperor Constantine I made some changes to how the army was run. The legions now became mobile forces that were not tied to any region. They could be deployed at the garrisons on the frontier and usually fought from the vicinity of a Roman fort. There was also an imperial guard, as well as auxiliary regiments in the Roman infantry and as part of the Roman cavalry.
The Roman military clothing saw some changes. The soldiers wore cloaks with brooches, trousers, a long-sleeved tunic, and boots instead of the old short tunics and leather sandals.