The Roman Gladius (Gladius; n Lat; sword) got its origins from the Spaniards when after several conflicts the Romans became impressed with the sword and adopted it for themselves. The only modification that the Romans made was to make the sword somewhat shorter, so that it was easier to wield and thrust.
The gladius also had what is known as a "wasp-waisted" edge in that the blade actually convexed in the center, this apparently helped the sword to slice and also gave it more momentum as it was slashed downwards.
Below is an image of the original looking Gladius Hispaniensis (Spanish Sword) with its longer blade. Some gladii had a more pronounced point, presumably depending on the different swordsmiths and the fact that gladii were made all over the Roman empire, an empire that stretched thousands of miles and included many different countries.
The gladius was a short sword that had a blade between twenty to twenty-four inches long and two inches wide, designed fro single handed use. The blade length actually increased in later centuries to around thirty inches. the gladius was designed explicitly as a thrusting weapon with its long and menacing elongated 'V' point that could easily be jabbed deep into an unfortunate opponent.
It was a lightweight sword, at just over two pounds and could easily be wielded with fast motions. There have been some records though, of gladii weighing as little as one pound, but these can be considered to be large knives rather than not swords.
Below is a YouTube video of a Gladiators sword, the blade is engraved with the words: " AVE CAESAR MORITVRI TE SALVTAMVS " which is Latin for: " HAIL CAESAR, THOSE ABOUT TO DIE SALTUTE YOU " Professional gladiators did not actually say this, only the criminals who chose to fight in the arena or be put to death.
There was some versatility with the gladius as it was double edged and could deliver good slashing action, with the long tip of the blade slicing the opponent through. The gladius was honed to great sharpness by the Romans and was always kept in this condition by constant sharpening and re-honing.
The handles on the majority of a troopers gladius was fashioned from varieties of hardwood, sometimes the scabbard may be a little more ornate depending on the rank within the Roman cohorts. Whilst the better more ornate varieties with brass, silver or ivory handles were reserved for officers and men of rank.
Roman soldiers were trained very hard with maximum discipline and harsh punishment for infractions of military law, sleeping whilst on guard duty for example would have the culprit flogged then put to death. For minor infractions they may lose their rations or some salary. Just to note that the word salary is actually derived from Latin meaning 'salt' as this was traded amongst the Romans.
With their skills as soldiers and battle formations the gladius was an ideal weapon for drawing out in the tight formations that they used to march and indeed fight in. In fact Roman soldiers were trained to wear their gladius on the right side and to draw it with the right hand, this was to stop them from slicing up the adjacent trooper.
To draw the sword with the left hand was seen as "sinister" and is actually the Latin word for "left", so presumably the Romans did not like south paws.
The short gladius was perfect for the Roman soldier as he carried a huge shield called a scutum and troopers could quickly draw their swords for defence or attack behind this big shield. The Romans also used to lock their shields together to form a solid wall of defence or even in a mobile configuration called a tortoise.
The gladius is one of the most important swords in history as it helped to maintain the Romans power and might for many centuries without any real change to its design and serves as a testimony to the five hundred year reign of the Romans. The gladius helped tremendously with the evolution of the sword and its advancement has been historically recorded.
The gladius saw three main levels of evolution with the Romans, from the Gladius Hispaniensis which was the original Spanish sword, to the early Romani Gladuis and then the last version in 79B.C which was the Pompeii Gladius. Of these we get slight variations such as the Spatha, Praetorian Guard and Gladiator gladius.
So basically, the Gladius, evolved from weapons captured during the Romans' campaign in the Iberian peninsula. By the first century A.D. it had been refined to a shorter stabbing blade, slightly wasp-waisted and abruptly pointed.
The gladius had shown its worth in many campaigns, and officer's models were adorned with illustrious embellishments and surprising levels of artistry in their decoration as seen in the image below.
ROMAN SPATHA GLADIUS
The Spatha gladius was used by the Roman cavalry after adopting a similar style from the Celts who were recruited into the legions. The Celts were issued with chainmail armor, oval shields, rounded helmets and were allowed to keep their indigenous swords which of course were the Spatha style.
Early Spatha gladius are actually depicted over tombs and also adorned into other elaborate brickwork around ancient ruins in Greece and Rome, and they often show the similarity between the Roman gladius and their own. It is thought that the auxiliary cavalry units assimilated various versions of the gladius to end up with the Spatha.
It must be remembered too, that saber's and swords that all cavalry troopers used had to have a blade in the region of three foot long or more to be effective. If the blade was too short, then his reach was reduced when tackling the enemy foot soldier. Also as the Spatha was longer than the gladius, it was carried on the left hand side, suspended from a belt or baldric, but was still drawn out with the right hand.
The Spatha actually began to replace the shorter gladius as the primary Roman sword from about A.D100 onwards. The Romans continued to use the Spatha right up until the decline of the Roman Empire, it is though that the Romans simply took a like to the Spartha as it was longer than their standard sword and hence was more effective with the cut and thrust that all swords rely on.
THE PRAETORIAN GUARD GLADIUS
The Praetorian Roman Gladius was named in honor of the Praetorian Guard that was created in 27BC by the Roman Emperor Augustus. It is a Mainz style Roman gladius sword and this type first appeared shortly after Mainz was founded as the Roman permanent camp of Moguntiacum in 13BC by the Roman general Drusus.
The swords made at Mainz were generally sold to the people of the lands to the north of Mainz. They are characterized by a slight waist running the length of the blade and a longer more prominent point.
The Praetorian gladius featured a sharp, hand hammer forged nineteen inch leaf shape blade with the handle having proud brass rings and macassar ebony hardwood and the above image represents this type of gladius, one that the Praetorian Guard carried for many centuries.
It must be said though, that the Praetorian Guard would also have carried the standard gladii as these were more available then specialty ones.
GLADIATOR MAXUMUS GLADIUS
The term Gladiator is directly derived from gladius and means swordsman.
The gladius that Russell Crowe utilized in the movie Gladiator was a film prop that was designed exclusively for the movie. This sword was however a typical style of those that were carried by generals in that they were very ornate and emblazoned with gold and silver emblems, the scabbards were also decorative.
Many gladii had the initials SPQR (For the Senate and People Of Rome) etched or engraved on them. In the arena there was no separate design of gladius that the gladiators used, they would use whatever gladii was issued to them, probably a plain non etched blade with no embellishments and in a plain wooden or leather scabbard. This stands to reason, as an expensive gladius could get damaged during combat in the arena.
As mentioned on one of my other web pages, gladiators were often professional fighters that were paid a fee to fight in the arena and not all bouts were to the death but a spectacle of swordsmanship.
Any way you wish to look at it, the gladius was the ideal weapon to use in close combat quarter fighting as it was light and could be held in one hand whilst the other held a net, spear, trident or other weapon.
Overall the gladius was in use with the Romans for around six hundred years and that is quite a testimony to the design and function of this sword.