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Gladius Hispaniensis › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 15 June 2017
Gladius Hispaniensis (David Friel)
The gladius Hispaniensis or Spanish sword was first used by tribes in the Iberian peninsula and, following the Punic Wars, became the standard sword of Roman legionaries from the 2nd century BCE as its relatively short and double-edged blade made it ideal for cutting and thrusting in the confined space of hand to hand combat on the ancient battlefield.


The gladius Hispaniensi s sword (aka ' Hispanicus' ) probably first came to the attention of Rome during the First and Second Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE when it was used by Iberian tribes fighting as mercenaries and allies of the Carthaginians.The short blade of the gladius Hispaniensis made it an ideal weapon when soldiers were closely engaged with the enemy and gave its carrier a distinct advantage over an opponent armed with an unwieldy and heavier, longer-bladed sword who had no space in which to swing his blade. The Romans were quick to see its advantages and both legionaries and auxiliaries used the sword to good effect in the conquest of Gaul when the local tribes, armed with long swords, could only cut while the Romans could both cut and stab. Legionaries were specifically trained to stab while protecting themselves with their shield rather than expose their torso and arm by slashing.



The standard gladius Hispaniensis did not change very much over the years. Made from iron (with a few examples in Toledo steel) it had a straight blade of up to 65 cm (25 inches), pointed tip ( mucro ) and double edge. Polybius describes the sword thus, "It has an excellent point and a strong cutting edge on both sides, as its blade is firm and reliable" (Polybius 6.23.6-7 in Campbell, 424). The short handle was made of wood and could even be covered in bronze sheeting or plated with silver.Sometimes four grooves were made in the handle to give a better grip. The pommel at the end of the handle, usually a hemispherical or a trilobate form, gave the sword a good balance so that it could be used to slash with great force if necessary.
Livy gives the following graphic account of the effectiveness of the gladius Hispaniensis in battle c. 200 BCE:
[Macedonian soldiers] being accustomed to fight with the Greeks and Illyrians, had seen the wounds which were made by spears and arrows and, on rare occasions, by lance; but now they saw bodies mutilated by the Spanish sword ( gladius Hispaniensis ), arms lopped off at the shoulder, or heads separated from bodies with the neck cut right through, or entrails lying open, and other repulsive wounds, and there was general panic as they began to see what sort of weapon and what sort of men they had to fight.
(31.34 in Campbell, 424)

Roman Beach Attack


Surviving blades from archaeological digs indicate that during the late Republic the blade was longer, in the 1st century BCE the blade became shorter, wider and with a more tapered point - the Mainz type, and in the 1st century CE the blade and point became a little shorter again - the Pompeian type. It is important to remember, though, that soldiers were often responsible for acquiring their own weapons and at no time would entire armies have had their old swords withdrawn and everyone been issued with new standardised equipment. This fact, along with individual preferences and the somewhat random origins of surviving swords with the inherent difficulties in accurately dating them, means an evolutionary timeline for Roman sword design is difficult to establish.
Archaeological finds and better identification of swords already in museums are building a more accurate history of the gladius Hispaniensis, as the historian Simon James here summarises,
This weapon, until recently known almost solely from literary descriptions, is routinely described as a "short, thrusting sword," contrasted especially with much longer Gallic slashing blades. Yet actual examples of the gladius Hispaniensis, recently identified in existing museum collections, show that it was not short at all; it was actually as long as the earliest known imperial spathae, commonly characterized as long slashing swords, recovered from Scotland …Further, the Republican weapon looks as suited to cutting as to thrusting - and, returning to the texts, Polybius makes clear it was actually used in both modes, even if thrusting was tactically preferred against foes like the Gauls to foil the long reach of their blades. The case of gladius Hispaniensisexemplifies a general point; our most cherished received ideas about the classical past are open to challenge from new research, not least in archaeology. (Campbell, 123)
Praetorian Guard

Praetorian Guard

Roman art such as mosaics, wall paintings and tomb sculpture indicate that the sword was kept in a scabbard (of sheet metal or wood and leather) and hung from a wide belt ( cingulum ) via four hoops on the right side of the wearer for legionaries and on the left side for centurions and officers, who often had a silver scabbard and sometimes hung the sword from a baldric ( balteus ) passing over the right shoulder.
The gladius Hispaniensis was not adopted by all, and some Roman infantry did use other types of sword, notably the slightly longer spatha (70 cm blade), which was more common amongst the cavalry. It seems that from the 3rd century CE the longer sword became more common and the gladius Hispaniensis gradually fell out of favour. The two-edged short sword did become popular with Rome's enemies who saw its effectiveness only too closely and who continued to use it from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE.

Galba › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 23 August 2012
Roman Emperor Galba (Carole Raddato)
Galba was Roman emperor from June 68 to January 69 CE. With the death of Emperor Nero on June 9, 68 CE, the Julio-Claudian dynasty officially ended, leaving the Roman Empire without a clear successor to the throne. With the assistance of the army, Galba, governor-general of Spain, quickly rose to fill the void.


Servius Sulpicius Galba was born into an aristocratic family on December 24, 3 BCE to Gaius Sulpicius Galba and Mummia Achaica. An older brother, Gaius, (ten years his senior) would later commit suicide in 36 CE, due to “financial embarrassment,” after incurring the ire of Emperor Tiberius. While little in known of Galba's early years, historian Suetonius in his The Twelve Caesars wrote that Emperor Augustus singled Galba out of a group of young boys and said, “You too will taste a little of my glory, child,” suggesting that Galba would one day be emperor. The news did not seem to impact Tiberius, the eventual successor to Augustus, when he replied, “Very well, let him live in peace; the news does not concern me in the least.” Suetonius added that the future emperor was “a conscientious student of public affairs, and particularly skilled in law…”
As for his appearance, he was completely bald (although coins of the era picture him with hair) and suffered a severe case of arthritis, crippling both his hands and feet – he was even unable to wear shoes. Galba's only marriage (considered little more than a formality – since he was thought to be homosexual) was to Semilia Lepides. After her death and those of his children, he refused to remarry, despite pressure to do so.


With the exception of Nero, the other Julio-Claudians --Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius -- seemed to respect Galba, enabling him to hold a series of public offices. He rose rapidly through the ranks, eventually becoming governor of Africa (44 – 45 CE). Earlier in 40 CE, Emperor Caligula had appointed him commander of a legion in Upper Germany, something that endeared him to the young emperor but not to his men. Suetonius wrote, “In grueling manueuvres (sic) he toughened old campaigners as well as raw recruits and sharply checked a barbarian raid into Gaul.” Early on, he had earned a reputation for both cruelty and ruthlessness. Galba believed any sign of disobedience or disrespect to be completely unacceptable and, therefore, a challenge to his authority. His reputation and ability to command grew. Upon the death of Caligula, many even suggested that he assume the throne; but he refused -- a gesture that earned the respect of Emperor Claudius. For this loyalty, Claudius appointed him pro- consul of Africa with orders to suppress a series of disturbances and native revolts.
Galba abruptly dropped out of public service in 49 AD; supposedly he had rejected the advances of Claudius's wife and Nero's mother, Agrippina the Younger. He eventually returned to service in 60 CE at Nero's request when the governorship of Spain became available. He held the position for eight years, but as the empire began to crumble under the poor leadership of Nero, many of the provincial governors began to call for his ousting. Marcus Salvius Otho, governor of Lusitania, and Gaius Julius Vindex, one of the governors of Gaul, appealed to Galba to overthrow Nero. Suetonius wrote, “…messengers arrived from Rome with the news that Nero, too, was dead, and that the citizens had all sworn obedience to himself (Galba), so he dropped the title of governor-general and assumed that of Caesar.” Galba was also motivated by rumors that Nero had wanted him assassinated.
Map: Year of the Four Emperors

Map: Year of the Four Emperors


With the assistance of Otho (who had been exiled to Lusitania by Nero), Galba raised additional legions and marched into Rome, and with the news of Nero's death verified, assumed the throne. According to Cassius Dio in his Roman History, Nero was at a loss when he heard of Galba being declared emperor by his soldiers. He created a plan to kill all the senators, burn Rome, and flee to Alexandria : “He was on the point of putting these measures into effect when the senate withdrew the guard that surrounded him and then, entering the camp, declared him an enemy and chose Galba in his place.”
Suetonius wrote that his assumption of the throne was not entirely popular: “His power and prestige were far greater while he was assuming control of the Empire than afterwards; though affording ample proof of his capacity to rule, he won less praise for his good acts than blame for his mistakes.” Mistakes? Suetonius added, “He sentenced men of all ranks to death without a trial or the scantiest of evidence… but the most virulent hatred of him smouldered in the army.” He demanded tribute from many of the towns he had conquered, keeping the money for himself. He also seized money from many of the people Nero had lavished; however, the recovered money was not spent on his troops -- an act that alienated his own men. He no longer felt his hold on the throne was dependent upon them, so why should he bribe them. To the citizens of Rome, who had welcomed the death of Nero, he no longer spent money on lavish shows (ie gladiatorial games), considering them a waste of money. Rumors of unrest in many of the provinces, Germany for one, began to emerge.


Because he was in his early seventies and with his hold on the throne tenuous, Galba adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his son and heir, an act that angered his long-time supporter Otho, who had considered himself the rightful successor. With no alternative and the support of the military, Otho bribed the Praetorian Guards (they felt little loyalty of Galba) who murdered both Galba and Piso in the Roman Forum, bringing their severed heads to him. Otho was hailed as the new emperor in January 69 D. Galba had served less than seven months, becoming the first in a line of what would later become known as “the year of the four emperors.”


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