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 Hispaniensis 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.
Design & Effectiveness
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)
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 Hispaniensis exemplifies 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)
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.