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p577 Gladius

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p577 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

GLADIUS (χίφος, poet. ἄορ, φάσγανον), a sword or glaive, by the Latin poets called ensis. The ancient sword had generally a straight two-edged blade (ἄμφηκες, Hom. Il. X.256), rather broad, and nearly of equal width from hilt to point. Gladiators, however, used a sword which was curved like a scimitara (Mariette, Recueil, No. 92). In times of the remotest antiquity swords were made of bronze, but afterwards of iron (Eurip. Phoen. 67, 529, 1438; Virg. Aen. IV.579, VI.260, XII.950). The Greeks and Romans wore them on the left side (Sid. Apollin. Carm. 2), so as to draw them out of the sheath (vagina, κολεός) by passing the right hand in front of the body to take hold of the hilt with the thumb next to the blade. Hence Aeschylus distinguishes the army of Xerxes by the denomination of μαχαιροφόρον ἔθνος (Pers. 56), alluding to the obvious difference in their appearance in consequence of the use of the Acinaces instead of the sword.

The early Greeks used a very short sword. Iphicrates, who made various improvements in armour about 400 B.C., doubled its length (Diod. XV.44), so that an iron sword, found in a tomb at Athens, and represented by Dodwell (Tour, I. p443), was two feet five inches long, including the handle, which was also of iron. The Roman sword, as was the case also with their other offensive weapons, was larger, heavier, and more formidable than the Greek (Florus, II.7). Its length gave occasion to the joke of Lentulus upon his son-in‑law, who was of very low stature, "Who tied my son-in‑law to his sword?" (Macrob. Saturn. II). To this Roman sword the Greeks applied the term σπάθη (Arrian, Tact.), which was the name of a piece of wood of the same form used in weaving [Tela]. The British glaive was still larger than the Roman (Tac. Agric. 36). In a monument found in London, and preserved at Oxford, the glaive is represented between three and four feet long (Montfaucon,º Supplem. IV. p16).

The principal ornament of the sword was bestowed upon the hilt. [Capulus].

Gladius was sometimes used in a wide sense, so as to include Pugio (A. Gell. IX.13).


Thayer's Note:

a Gladiators, however, used a curved sword: a sweeping statement that is both not at all true, and made all the more curious by the fact that the Dictionary's own illustrations under the article Gladiatores show only straight swords.


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Page updated: 11 Apr 09