The Roman army was a very important part of the Roman Empire, and helped succeed it in becoming great. To aid them, the army had different types of weapons, giving them a distinct advantage over their barbarian enemies.
To begin with, soldiers used weapons based on Greek and Etruscan models, but these models developed over time and helped them in many victories against their enemies. The three primary Roman weapons utilized by the military were the pilum, the gladius, and the pugio, but Roman armor also played an important part. Let’s take a look at these in more detail below.
There were two main types of swords used by the Roman army — the gladius and the spatha.
The gladius was a short, two-sided sword, around 40 and 60 centimeters in length, used during the late Roman Republic and much of the Roman Empire. It was the primary weapon of the Ancient Roman legions.
It consisted of the hilt, rivet-knob, pommel, handgrip and handguard. In order to craft a short sword with strength and flexibility, blacksmiths used harder steels on the outer layers of the sword while using softer steels in the center of the blade.
The legionaries wore their gladii on their right hips, and it was often used for close combat.
The spatha was longer than the gladius, closer to a meter in length and was used mostly towards the end of the 3rd century in place of the gladius, in both gladiator battles and war. It was easier to carry than a javelin and could reach further when thrusted at the enemy
The pugio was a dagger and is famous in the fact that it was used for assassinating the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. It was small, around fifteen to thirty centimeters long and five centimeters wide, and therefore easy to conceal. However, it had to be used in close quarters, so therefore was mainly used when a soldier had either lost or was unable to use his gladius.
The hasta was a type of spear which was around 1.8 meters (six feet) in length. The shaft was generally made from ash while the head was usually of iron. Hastae were carried by early Roman legionaries, and was also used by Roman cavalry and auxiliary infantry of the Roman Empire.
The pilum was a long, lightweight javelin which was approximately seven feet long. It had an iron spike toward the end of the long wooden shaft and could weigh anything from 4.4lbs (2 kg) upwards. Despite being heavy, the pilum was thrown at the enemy and designed to penetrate both shield and armour.
However, the pilum was also known to stick in a shield, causing the owner of the shield to abandon it, leaving them less protected in close combat. The Roman’s could then go in with their gladius and fight the enemy that now had much less armor. The wooden shaft was also known to break off form the iron tip, meaning the enemy could not throw it back at the Roman army.
The Roman army often carried lead-weighted darts called plumbata. They usually carried around five or six of these darts at a time, and they were carried clipped to the back of the shield. They had an effective throwing range of around 30 meters, and the soldiers would use them to wound their enemy before they came in contact with other weapons.
The onager was named after the wild ass because of its kick and was a kind of sling that was used hold projectiles (usually stones) that could be fired. It had a large frame and worked by forcing the arm of the sling down against the tension of twisted ropes or springs.
The speed and distance of the projectile depended on the wind and the terrain, but it launched the stones in a high arc.
The ballista was a type of catapult that launched heavy darts called bolts, or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes.
The scorpio was also a type of catapult, similar to the ballista. It fired bolts which were capable of piercing enemy shields and armour. Each legion was supplied with 60 scorpios and they were used to attack and also to defend from the enemy.
Roman soldiers also carried various tools with them, helping with digging and clearing areas. For example, a dolabra was a tool carried by all soldiers — this was double sided with an ax on one side and a pickax on the other side. The falx was also used. This was a curved blade that was sharp on the inside edge and was used to clear overgrowth.
While armor was not technically a weapon used by the Roman army, it did help to protect soldiers in battle.
There were many different types of body armor worn throughout the centuries of the Roman army. Some soldiers even wore little to no armor, which allowed them to move much more quickly while fighting.
In the 1st century this armor consisted of a hardened leather jerkin (vest) which was reinforced with metal plates.
However, it was later replaced with metal strip armor, which went to the hip. Chain mail armor was also used, which was very durable and could be used for several decades. From the hip to the knee the soldiers wore either a heavy woollen tunic or an apron made of leather and bronze strips hanging from a belt.
The design of helmets changed over time. Roman army helmets were largely domed and had hinged cheek pieces to protect the face and a neck guard to protect the back of the neck. Beneath the helmet soldiers would wear padding to ensure that it fit perfectly and also to make it more comfortable.
Officers, such as centurions, wore large crests on their helmets. This allowed the soldiers to see them better in battle.
For most of the Roman Republic, shields were semi-cylindrical. When held to the body, these covered from the chin to the thigh along the whole of one side, giving them a good amount of protection. They were made from light wood bound at the edges with metal with a strong central bronze boss for the internal hand grip.
The cavalry of ancient Rome used a round shield known as a parma shield.
The scutum was also a popular choice for shield, particularly amongst legionaries. It was a large rectangular shield which weighed about ten kilograms and about half a centimeter thick.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Roman Weapons" https://englishhistory.net/romans/roman-weapons/, June 13, 2022