When thinking of ancient Rome, many of us picture the savagery of gladiators fighting it out in the Colosseum, or the prowess and awe of the highly-organized Roman legions as they confronted their enemies and expanded their territory across much of the Western ancient world.
Ancient Rome spans three distinct periods in European history: the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. In all, this time period stems from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD.
While coming from humble beginnings, Rome quickly evolved into a formidable regional power with a strong emphasis on tactical land combat.
The primary and auxiliary weapons Roman soldiers used on the battlefield led to great success.
As Rome continued to expand and came into contact with other people, Roman armies often adapted both the types of weapons they used as well as the reasons why they used them.
Let us examine some of the most important weapons of ancient Rome as we seek to better understand why this fighting force was such a powerful and feared presence during this period of history!
Many historical images of Roman soldiers on the battlefield portray them in action holding a rather short-looking sword.
This sword, known as the gladius, has its roots in the Iberian region of modern-day Spain and was widely adopted by the Roman legions by the time the Romans fought Carthage.
In fact, it was during the Punic Wars that roman soldiers first came into contact with this uniquely designed piece of metal for close-range combat. The gladius would go on to be used in numerous wars as it stayed as a primary weapon during both the Roman Republic and Roman Imperial period.
There are widely believed to be four main versions of the gladius, each with different dimensions and unique characteristics. The four variations are typically categorized as, in order of shortest to longest, the Pompeii, the Fulham, and Mainz, and the Hispaniensis.
The gladius was a formidable weapon for Roman infantry as regardless of which variation, the size and general shape made it suitable for easily stabbing their enemies.
Often, the main aim for a soldier was the abdomen or neck areas of the enemy where a stab from the gladius there was almost always fatal. In addition to its use as a stabbing weapon, it was able to slash and block.
Roman soldiers were highly trained and adept at fully utilizing this sword. The gladius’ versatility was especially useful in close-quarter combat when Roman and enemy forces clashed in such a manner that spears and longer swords became much less effective.
As Roman armies came into contact with those on their borders, there was a great exchange of ideas. Part of this exchange of ideas led to the Roman army adopting and incorporating certain weapons from those they initially fought.
This is what happened with the Spatha, which would eventually go on to replace the original gladius for much of the Roman infantry. This sword became a common weapon amongst Rome’s Celtic auxiliary forces as the auxiliaries began to be incorporated into Rome’s army during the early Imperial period.
The Spatha was longer than the Gladius, nearly 1.5 times longer (about 30 to 40 inches), and was better suited for slashing than the Gladius was.
Sometime between the 2nd and 3rd century AD, the Spatha had become a primary sword of Roman infantry and cavalry.
Since the Spatha had a longer reach and could also be used for slashing, Roman cavalry especially preferred this sword over the Gladius.
It is widely believed that the Spatha was the foundation for the subsequent Viking swords and long and broad swords carried by medieval knights.
Being able to inflict damage on your enemy from a distance has always been important on the battlefield.
Acting as a sort of Roman dart, the Plumbata served as a medium to long-range option for Roman soldiers. Plumbata were not usually fatal and could not pierce enemy armor, but they did serve to disorient and inflict pain on the enemy and their horses.
Eventually, this foot-length dart would be phased out to throwing spears, but not until they saw significant usage from both Roman and Byzantine armies.
Roman soldiers carried several Plumbatae nested into the interior of their shields. Interestingly, Roman soldiers practiced both overhand and underhand throwing techniques.
Since Plumbatae were cheap to make and the training to be able to effectively use them was minimal, they were easily deployable in battle.
Each Plumbata consisted of a tip made out of iron, had a lead weight, and was attached to a wood shaft with feathers or wood endings (fletchings) similar to an arrow.
The pilum, or heavy javelin, was another main weapon carried in the Roman army.
The pilum was essentially a long wooden rod with an iron shaft and barbed tip, which was capable of piercing armor. Pila were generally 7 feet in length, with the shaft around 4 feet and the tip about 3 feet.
The shaft and tip were devastating in battle, as not only were they able to pierce enemy armor, but they often became stuck to enemy shields and made the shields much more difficult to use.
In addition, when the nearly seven-foot pilum struck a target, it often warped and bent, which made it almost impossible for the enemy to pick it up and throw it back at the Romans.
Pila were the most devastating when used in groupings at a distance of around 50 feet. Thus, Roman legionnaires would often stand disciplined in the face of an oncoming enemy assault until their enemy was within this range.
Once the enemy approached this close, the Roman soldiers would release their pilum as the enemy would experience a barrage of Pila reigning down on them.
Pila were not solely a throwing weapon, although that was their primary use. As cavalry began to become more prominent on the battlefields, Pila could be used to repel such attacks.
Soldiers could aim their Pila up at an angle, while anchored into the ground, and use it to aim at charging horses. The effects here, especially when used in an organized mass, could be devastating.
It is believed that Roman legionnaires carried two Pila into battle. While they generally threw them at the enemy before advancing into hand-to-hand combat or used them to repel cavalry, as stated above, Pila could also be used for closer quarters.
There is evidence to show that this was the case during the Siege of Alesia as well during the Parthian campaign. It can be seen just how versatile and excellent of a weapon the pilum was.
Hasta literally means spear in Latin. At about 2m in length, the hasta was the early long-spear of the Roman infantry. This weapon typically consisted of an ash body and an iron tip.
Hastae were generally light, allowing for a Roman soldier to carry a shield in one hand while wielding their spear in another. Unlike the pilum, the hasta was a thrusting weapon that allowed the soldier to cover a greater distance than they could with their gladius or spatha.
The Roman army, especially in the early Roman Republic years, deployed a particular soldier known as the Hastatus (plural Hastati). Hastati would use the hasta as a close-range weapon, utilizing the thrusting capabilities as they stabbed towards their enemies.
Hastati were often made up of poorer men from the Republic and used as the first line in the battle against an enemy.
As Rome progressed from a Republic to an Empire, and reforms were made across the army, the hastae were phased out.
However, towards the end of the Roman Empire, there was a reintroduction of this weapon as cavalry became more and more utilized on the battlefield (due to the hastae’s long reach capabilities).
The Roman Scutum was a crucial piece of equipment that allowed the Romans to be incredibly effective in battle. The Scutum, or long shield, served both to protect the individual as well as the group.
Scutum was generally constructed via a series of several wooden planks being glued together. The rectangle cone-shaped pieces of wood were then bound in leather or another durable material such as canvas.
Finally, the scutum would be reinforced with metal borders and spikings. When complete, this shield was extremely durable and well-designed. The prowess of the scutum shields extends back to the Punic Wars as it was another weapon instrumental to Roman history.
Many historians have written about the effectiveness of the scutum shield throughout various Roman battles since the Punic Wars.
Roman soldiers were highly trained in tactical formations, and when joined together, the shield walls that were created were difficult to penetrate, both laterally and from above.
Scuta could also be used offensively, as the metal reinforcements throughout, and the sturdy build, allowed for soldiers to inflict blunt force trauma onto their enemies.
Ballistae were effective siege weapons used in ancient Rome, and arguably the most famous of all artillery used by the Romans.
These machines were capable of launching bolts (large javelins) or stones several hundred meters and with great velocity. Ballistae relied on the torsion that was generated from the kinetic energy stored in coiled springs.
While the ballista undertook many redesigns over the centuries of use by the Romans, it always remained a central and important weapon for the Roman military.
The ballista had several important uses in battle. This weapon could be used to knock down walls and fortifications or to attack large numbers of enemy units. A bolt from a ballista could take out several enemy soldiers at a time, especially if fired into an enemy formation.
The ballista is especially famous for its effectiveness during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in Britain. Subsequent emperors recognized just how powerful of a weapon this was, and it became a mainstay in the Roman siege arsenal.
Another torsion-powered weapon deployed by the Roman military was the Onager. The onager was a large machine that projected heavy objects from a bucket or sling at the end of a long arm.
The Onager was difficult to aim for and was not as mobile as some of the other siege weapons. Where the onager lacked in accuracy and mobility, it made up for its ability to knock down enemy walls and fortifications.
A single Onager required more than half a dozen soldiers to operate. Onagers were rather imposing and when used for initial defense in battle, often struck fear into the enemy.
While not particularly deadly, it was this scare tactic that the Romans were able to heavily utilize in their initial struggle against the Goths at Adrianople.
Eventually, the onager would be phased out for the more mobile and easier to operate mangonel.
Imagine a giant, highly accurate, highly powered early version of the crossbow that could be mounted to various siege weapons or towers. The Scorpio, also referred to as Scorpion, was a smaller siege or artillery weapon that could be operated by just one soldier.
Essentially, the Scorpio was a miniaturized version of the ballista. Each legion has several dozen scorpions attached to them.
Unlike other Roman siege weapons, these weapons were much more precise than other siege weapons and were capable of targeting enemy units for up to 300 yards. With each unit being able to fire several bolts a minute, it is clear just how lethal this weapon was.
The Scorpio was a highly sophisticated and delicately designed machine.
As such, the ability to use this weapon in battle was at times negated due to extreme weather conditions. This might be one reason why the Scorpio began to fade out of use towards the end of the Imperial period and into the Early Middle Ages.
The ancient Romans were not considered to be dominant at sea. In fact, it wasn’t until the empire-building periods that the Romans began to put more emphasis on their navy.
Typically, Romans relied on others within their borders to help control the seas, much like they included axillary units to boost their army ranks.
However, during their fight with Carthage, the ability to flex their muscle beyond their land-based prowess was necessary. In fact, during the First Punic War, one auxiliary weapon, in particular, the Corvus, was instrumental to Roman success.
The Corvus was a unique naval weapon that was heavily relied upon when battling Carthage during the First Punic War.
Essentially, the Corvus was a bridge that allowed Roman sailors and soldiers to board enemy vessels. The bridge sat at the prow (front) of the Roman ship and was operated through a series of pulleys and ropes.
Once deployed, the Corvus used its metal spikes underneath to slam into and lock on an enemy vessel.
While this auxiliary weapon helped to secure victory during the First Punic War, it had its drawbacks (namely, it made navigation more difficult and ships more unstable during storms). As such, the Corvus was eventually removed from use by the Romans.
As seen, the Romans trained in and utilized a variety of weapons to help them gain dominance on the battlefield. Many of the weapons that the Romans used did not actually originate in Rome itself.
The Romans were adept at recognizing the effectiveness of the various weapons of those they conquered or fought and then adapting them for Roman needs.
This approach to warfare, combined with the highly organized and highly trained Roman legions and auxiliary forces, helped Rome to dominate much of the Western ancient world for centuries.