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Roman Gladius and Scutum: Carving out an Empire

By Jon Guttman 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: August 13, 2010 
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The heavy scutum enabled a legionary to fend off and then bring his gladius to bear. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)
The heavy scutum enabled a legionary to fend off and then bring his gladius to bear. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)

At the height of Rome's conquests, the Roman foot soldier dominated the battlefield with disciplined coordination of the weapons in his arsenal—first by hurling his thin, iron-tipped pilum (javelin) at the enemy and then deciding the issue at close quarters using gladius (sword) and scutum (shield).

The gladius was a cut-and-thrust weapon, with a double-edged, pointed steel blade about 2 feet long. The scutum, originally elliptical, had assumed a rectangular shape by the early days of the empire. An imperial scutum comprised strips of bentwood, steamed over a form into a convex curve to deflect blows and missiles. The face was covered in hide, its edges bound in rawhide or iron, with a round central boss of bronze, brass or iron. A surviving example found in Syria was 43 inches high and 34 inches wide with a 26-inch gap behind its face.

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In close combat, the Roman legionary used his scutum to batter an enemy or deflect blows while seeking an opening to stab his opponent in the torso with gladius or pugio (dagger). Confident in their combined arms, legionaries scoffed at enemy swordsmen who tried to hack their way through a Roman square, waiting until exhaustion rendered their foes ripe for a killing blow. However, scuta offered limited protection from powerful composite bows, such as those used by the Parthians and Huns.

By the early 3rd century, the Romans had replaced the gladius with the 3-foot-long spatha, a design evolution that would lead to the medieval broadsword. And by the late 3rd century, the scutum had reverted to elliptical or circular form. By that time the empire was in decline, and a new era of warfare was in the offing.

10 Responses to “Roman Gladius and Scutum: Carving out an Empire”

  1. 1
    Jamieson J says:

    The sandles I have read were metal studded soles and if so also effective as a defence weapn. Is this true?
    The moment of turning away the front ranknin contact would surely be the weakest moment in the defence any idea on how it was executed?

    • 1.1
      Marcus Varollus says:

      The front rank didn't ever turn to face away from the enemy. Upon their Centurion's signal, say a blast from a wooden whistle, the front rank side stepped to the left as the second rank stepped forward. The second rank continued stepping abreast of and past the front rank to assume full contact with the enemy. When the first rank was fully behind the second ranks shield and disengaged from the line of contact, he backed away to the rear of the file. As the front ranked stepped back, the third through successive ranks followed the second rank forward. That's when the second rank becomes the front rank and the third rank becomes second. The century's defense was not weakened but the crowding of shields up front restricted swordplay somewhat during that transition until all the ranks finished sorting themselves out
      Jamieson J says:
      5/16/2011 at 10:57 pm

      The moment of turning away the front ranknin contact would surely be the weakest moment in the defence any idea on how it was executed?

  2. 2
    SeptimusSeverus says:

    Roman caligae sandals did have metal stubs, but they weren't really long enough or sharp enough to really be used as weapons. They were only there to act like cleats: to help soldiers gain traction on difficult terrain.

    • 2.1
      Guillermo Horruitiner says:

      I guess that a legionarie in full batle dress, could not jump. And they worked in a wall of scutum. So it would be impossible to tackle somebody. But it is a good question.

  3. 3
    James Creeden says:

    Even so,I would not care to be stomped on with them! Ouch!

  4. 4
    Guillermo Horruitiner says:

    The roman legion was a machine, discipline and effective. It was no place for individual or lonely hero. A machine who works as a chain who cuts meat. The gladium was used to pierce, not to cut like a knight or a mosqueteer. And this machine worked well for centuries.

    • 4.1
      Hans K says:

      While Roman doctrine of swordmanship in formation emphasized the thrust, the gladius hispaniensis was a very capable cutting instrument as well, as attested by numerous quotes by historians. For example Polybious quoted that after a skirmish shortly before the battle of Cynoscephalae, the Macedonians were horrified by the devastating wounds caused by the Roman's 'spanish sword', dismembered limbs, disemboweled torso, heads split in half or nearly severed from the body, etc.

      The legionnaires were also trained to use various cutting moves during their introductory lessons, for those times when the thrust was simply not cutting it. Cutting the tendons at the knee was particularly recommended, especially if the opponents were guarding his torso too closely with his shield for a succesful mortal thrust to be performed.

      • 4.1.1
        Guillermo Horruitiner says:

        You have the information needed in a page like this. Thank to you to bring me and the people who read, more knowledge in a matter i have read since a kid.

  5. 5

    [...] Roman Gladius and Scutum: Carving out an Empire – History Net The Roman gladius (sword) and scutum (shield) enabled the legions to conquer the known world. [...]

  6. 6
    Hidi says:

    Wing! Wing! Herro?

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