Jan 292013

Although the Roman period is very well documented indeed, especially the activities of its soldiers and armies, there is still a lot we don’t know, or at least, cannot be sure of. For these things, we have to thank a particular breed of historical re-enactors who would be better labelled as ‘living archaeologists’. They look at the things that would be available during the time period, and what we do know from primary source documents, and use the objects to find out how they would be used. It is because of Roman military enthusiasts that we can guess so accurately the things we can never know about the time period because of unfortunate gaps in the historical records. So, if you’re reading bits of this and questioning whether it was ever mentioned in a primary source document, all I can tell you is that people with more knowledge and resources than myself say it’s the best guess they can make.


The sword that was used almost exclusively during the the time of the Roman Empire – by Romans at least – was the Gladius. After spending a lot of time looking at ancient and medieval weapons in various museums I think I would rank it as one of my favourite swords. True, the hand and half sword of the Holy Roman Empire has its charm, but for pure elegant simplicity of design, you can’t do much worse than the gladius.

It needed to be simple to make it in huge quantities as it would be given to every member of every legion. When they were performing combat drills they used wooden versions of this sword with a lead weight core to simulate the feel of actually wielding it, without as much danger of real lasting physical damage. Along with the armour, shield and javelins, it was an essential bit of kit, and not having it about you at all times while serving was unheard of.

Before we get into how it was used, this articles subtitle should probably get explained. I love the idea of larping (Live Action Role Playing), and if money was no object, I’d be more than to happy to join in. What would make it such a bother for me though, is that I’m such a fan of the Roman style of sword play, and that style is decidedly dangerous with LARP safe weapons. They are usually carbon cored, and wrapped in molded latex, painted and sealed. They are great for slashing and hacking, but you are really not supposed to stab with them. The latex is strong, but too much pressure and the core will push out the end of it and could do some actual damage to your opponent. And stabbing was what a gladius did best…

It was a short blade with a wicked point, designed to enter flesh as easily as it could.

Click image for source

Click image for source

When we look at the formations that the legions would fight in, there was little room indeed to swing a blade, even one as short as this. In close formation, with large shields locked (more on shields to follow, but the way they were used by the legions was just as unsafe for LARP) the enemy tiring itself out attempting to batter its way through, a sudden, strong underarm stab to the stomach or armpit was very effective. Not just that, but it was also efficient. It required a lot less energy to cut into flesh this way than with a slash. All of the strength is focused down the length of the blade, instead of across it, and this means no energy wasted, and the point has less area, meaning less force required to break the skin.

A stabbing blow – if administered correctly – had an extra hint of lethality to it as well. Opening the wound is one thing, but twisting before pulling out means it will bleed a lot more, do considerably more damage to any internal organs struck by it, and – if the victim survives the blow – makes it considerably harder to treat afterwards. All good stuff, but as you can imagine, not so useful with a foam weapon.

In pen and paper RPGs though, you should all be taking advantage of this. Not every system takes into account special combat moves such as these, but take the time to explain to your GM what you’re doing, and why, and I’m sure that they’ll cave and allow you to do the damage that one would expect. Don’t push it though, this isn’t about playing the system, just having fun. It’s only a little personal gripe of mine that short/small swords seem to get a bum rap in the damage tables.

It is of course worth bearing in mind that it’s rare for player characters to fight in close, well drilled formations, such as one would find in the legions. That’s fine, as stabbing is still stabbing, no matter when or where you do it. I would still advise using a shield, but unless you have at least a line to join, go for something a bit smaller than a tower shield to maintain mobility. Since you’re not in formation, you can also swing the gladius too.

Although it lacks the weight of broadswords and other such weapons, and suffers quite a bit for lack of reach, swinging can still be somewhat effective. I would say that if you get the chance, stick to the stab attack, but if you’re going to swing, don’t even think about doing it the same as you would with a larger sword. Getting close enough for it to be effective is far too risky, and you won’t do anywhere near as much damage. Instead, just keep reminding yourself that end two inches of your sword are the most dangerous, and use this to rake across your enemies. True, you’ll lack the bone breaking, internal organ crushing of Dave the Barbarian and his broadsword, but you should still be able to open a significant wound, and have little problem getting past soft armour. Just keep the point well honed.

I hope that some of that was of use to my readers, as always, feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences below, and check back regularly for the follow up article on Roman shield techniques.

  2 Responses to “Fighting the Roman way. Or; why I will almost certainly never LARP. Part one: Swords”

  1. The gladius may be a very practical sword, but it’s not a very prestigious sword, at least to the modern audience. Throughout history, famous swords like Excalibur and Durendal have been longswords, as have famous fictional swords like Narsil (Sting is the only famous short sword I can think of, but it’s famous for an entirely different reason). Long swords look cooler, just like two weapon fighting looks cooler even though it’s pretty difficult to pull off. The rule of cool trumps realism.

    I think another reason it’s not as popular is because most people watching a fight (especially a fight in a movie) don’t realize the tactical benefits of a short sword aside from its small size. And although some RPGs have had rules for smaller weapons being able to land attacks more quickly, I don’t know any that have considered how much space you have to work with.

    And like you pointed out, many shortsword tactics don’t work when using standard LARP equipment.

Leave a Reply