The Roman Gladius in the 21st Century

As we develop and field new technology in conflicts across the globe, we wrestle with the question of who to equip with the latest technology and how to ethically incorporate these added layers of lethality onto the battlefield. Like we said in an earlier article, commanders and leaders have a duty to make sure that the latest, effective technology is available at all levels where it will be useful, and to have their soldiers trained up not only in the use of the new tech, but also in the potential legal ramifications in case an overzealous lawyer or a hot blooded soldier gets a unit in legal trouble. In short, we not only have to field new tech for soldiers to use, we have to continually revise and revamp the Rules of Engagement and Law Of War. Looking at a historical example, the Romans found ways to successfully incorporate new technology into their ranks at a breathtaking speed while also keeping their military policy somewhat in line with their current state of affairs.

The Gladius, the Roman Short Sword that features prominently in many Sword and Sandal epics, historical paintings and other portrayals of Roman martial life wasn’t always the mainstay for the Legions that we picture it as. In fact, up until the early 200’s BC, the Romans used a different type of sword. This sword was mainly effective at thrusting, not thrusting and slashing as the Gladius was. Scipio Africanus, after seeing the successful use of the Gladius by Carthaginian mercenaries and other troops, made the Gladius the mainstay of the Roman Legions after the Battle of Cartagena in 209 BC.

Related image

Soldiers generally led with their shield and followed up with their swords

Developed in Spain, the Romans came into contact with the Gladius when they fought mercenaries aligned with Carthage in the Punic Wars. Seeing the effectiveness of the Gladius Hispaniensis, or “Hispanic Sword” from the Celtiberian mercenaries, the Romans, like with many other of their innovations soon adopted the Gladius for their own. The origins of the Gladius are not entirely clear or concrete, but by the 200’s BC, the Roman Legions were using the sword and it became infamous during the Second Macedonian War in 200 BC. Compared to the wounds and carnage inflicted from earlier weapons, the Gladius was a horrifying new development that shocked the Macedonian enemies.

With the clear effectiveness of the Gladius apparent to both Rome and her enemies, the Roman Generals did not equip a “Special Legion” with the Gladius to make sure it was employed correctly, and they did not keep the old sword and “slowly implement the Gladius, just to make sure we’re good”. No, they equipped their Legions with the Gladius and attacked their foes with tenacity, incorporating the new sword into their arsenal and adapting their tactics and rules accordingly. There wasn’t an outcry from Roman Senators to cease use of this new weapon, or Centurions to “think about their career before using the Gladius”, but there also wasn’t an onslaught of Roman extrajudicial killings as they figured out the Gladius. A better sword was simply fielded and used, with horrifying results on the enemy.

Legally, the Romans viewed war quite differently than their modern counterparts do. With harsh legionary discipline the Romans had strict control over their soldiers, but also engaged in activities such as pillaging, massacres and other sanctioned activities so it would be foolish to read modern moral and legal standards into ancient warfare. The Romans had a series of ceremonies and rituals they would complete prior to the beginning of hostilities, and they also allowed for enemies to surrender and submit to Rome, but once war was thrust upon them, the Romans believed in their superior civilization and waged combat with a fierce conviction.

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms At The Feet Of Julius Caesar Art Print

There was one nation in the world which would fight for the liberties of others at its own cost, with its own labor, and at its own danger. It was even ready to cross the sea to make sure there was no unjust rule anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law would prevail.


During the Third Servile War, the famed “Spartacus” or “Gladiator War”, the Romans fought armies of escaped slaves and Gladiators, and after defeating them, they then crucified the survivors, all 6,000 of them, along the Appian Way. This is how Rome meted out justice and decided the matter finished. This justice may seem barbaric by our current standards, but it was also a common form of punishment, executed against a legitimate military foe. If Rome was willing to crucify 6,000 escaped slaves turned insurgents, they would have no problem fielding the Gladius despite a Macedonian’s blushing. We do not need the same sort of zeal to utilize a new weapon system, but we do need to empower our troops to identify the enemy with the latest tech and to feel confident in killing the identified enemy. Even though we may never feel completely confident in those tasks, striving to reform our training around aggressive combat engagements instead of boxing in limitations would be a good place to start.

We do not see this type of technological adoption in our current military. Special units will be equipped with new technology, and soldiers trained in one new technology may switch to another unit who is also testing another new, but completely different technology. Even then, once we have established that say, the Carl Gustav is the new standard for man portable recoilless rifles, we run into issues with soldiers who don’t feel comfortable employing their new weapon in a combat situation. They may be scared of potential repercussions from command, or have a Squad Leader who always errs on the side of caution, just in case his career is shortchanged with an investigation. We have a slow creep of technology, but we have plenty of new tech clogging the doorway. Once it’s at the unit level though, is it useful, and do we feel comfortable employing it? Only training that would make a Centurion bluff and the tenacity of the Roman Legions will ensure that troops properly employ the latest tech in effective, legal ways.

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