RomanArmyTalk

Full Version: Is the Short Sword and Shield Overrated?
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Disclaimer: Not an expert, just leaving my ideas here for discussion


The common perception of the roman army these days tends to be a linear formation of tightly packed legionaries creating a wall with their shields and stabbing through the cracks as they roll over waves of unarmored barbarians. Unfortunately I'm not quite sold on its effectiveness.

The first problem I have is the idea of Romans forming up shield to shield and fighting 'like modern riot police'. Most Barbarian warriors were not suicidal and would not have been dumb enough to body-slam themselves into a wall of metal swords. If the Romans ever did try to fight with a riot police-like shield wall using only their short swords, the enemy would have charged up to within a few feet and then stopped to smash the Roman shields with war axes and stab around them with spears leaving the two foot roman swords completely useless. A shield wall like that will generally only work properly if you have spears of your own to keep the enemy away.

So what sort of formation does it take for the Roman sword to be effective? A couple of sources such as Polybius have mentioned Roman soldiers actually being spaced 3 feet apart to either side so that they could swing their swords. This formation would probably be more effective however it would have to remain very aggressive and fluid, if it slowed down and enemy warriors were able to get into the cracks it could prove very problematic, so using it defensively is out of the question. Not to mention that the enemy formation would have to be disrupted in order to make any headway in the first place. (Note: an being unable to create a defensive line would mean that the Roman army was inefficient an inflexible)

I think part of the issue might be the idea that the gladius was somehow the epitome of sword design, as near as I can tell the exact opposite was true. The gladius was more of a transitional sword, it came into prominence because it was much more devastating than the even shorter bronze swords that came before it, and likewise it was eventually replaced by longer swords such as the spatha.



To be clear, I don't think that the Romans or the Roman army was stupid, but rather that the way we think of them might be somewhat flawed. I'm guessing that the pilum or other spears played a far bigger role among the legions than they tend to get credit for, even in close combat.
I'm not an expert myself, but from what I've learned (here, mostly), the main thing is there was no shield "wall", more like a "dozer blade", i.e. pushing, not standing in place. When the enemy stops (and it would require good organisation and discipline to bring the rushing warriors to a stop), the Romans would not stand there and wait until the enemy finds a way to overcome them, they would push.
Also, the enemies Romans faced probably didn't have any "war axes" that could outreach the short swords. Certainly not something in the way of a five ft two-handed double-sided axes.

In the time gladii were in use and for the way they were used they must have been effective, otherwise they would be replaced by another sword. As things changed in the later centuries, the gladii were gradually phased out by spathae, serving the needs of that time better than gladii.

Others will surely have more to say in this matter. I hope I'm not making something up and if, someone please correct me.
It's a small point, but AFAIK the predecessor of the gladius in Roman use is thought to have been a Greek-style iron leafblade that was about the same size and shape, rather than "even shorter bronze swords."
I always thought they threw a volley of armour-piercing javelins and then aggressively charged in. Isn't the slowly advancing shieldwall a modern "re-enactorism"?
Quote:I always thought they threw a volley of armour-piercing javelins and then aggressively charged in. Isn't the slowly advancing shieldwall a modern "re-enactorism"?
Well, we hardly advance slowly. :wink: We throw the pila, draw gladii, and charge. Sometimes as alternating checker board lines, sometimes as a shield wall.
The shield wall would definately form as you made contact with te enemy, but the idea of the short swords advantage was to get inside the reach and effectiveness of the longer weapons fielded by many of Romes enemies.

must have worked, the record seems to speak for it self. Smile
Ave!

Other folks have made good points here, I'll just toss in a few more bits. One thing to remember is that we really can NOT be sure what happened on a man-to-man level when 2 ancient armies met. I think we *can* be pretty sure that (wait for it!)---it varied!! There are SO many subtleties of formation, equipment, training, terrain, morale, etc., that almost anything *might* have happened at some point or other. However, ancient sources can give a lot of clues. And we have to be careful of impressions gained from movies or wargames!

Quote:Unfortunately I'm not quite sold on its effectiveness.

As others have said, just ask the millions of people who lived in the Roman Empire, ha!

Quote:Most Barbarian warriors were not suicidal and would not have been dumb enough to body-slam themselves into a wall of metal swords.

Except that with the large shields they typically carried, such a charge is not an impossible way to defeat a Roman army quickly. Roll over them like a human tidal wave! We know it worked against the Romans more than once. It was also "standard procedure" for a number of non-Roman cultures, encouraging and taking advantage of their innate aggression, size, and need to show courage. And it would be hard for such cultures to make a radical change of tactics when suddenly confronted by Romans.

Quote:If the Romans ever did try to fight with a riot police-like shield wall using only their short swords, the enemy would have charged up to within a few feet and then stopped to smash the Roman shields with war axes and stab around them with spears leaving the two foot roman swords completely useless.

As has been noted, the Romans were charging, too! One more step would bring them right to where they wanted to be. And stopping a charging army just short of contact would have been nearly impossible. Deliberately swinging an axe at a shield may not be the safest move, since it could easily stick there long enough for the Roman to gut the wielder like a fish.

Quote:So what sort of formation does it take for the Roman sword to be effective? A couple of sources such as Polybius have mentioned Roman soldiers actually being spaced 3 feet apart to either side so that they could swing their swords.

I believe he actually says that there is 3 feet of space allowed for each man, meaning they are reasonably close together with only small gaps between shields, but enough elbow room to fight effectively. It's also easy for a man to slip back out of line between his buddies if he is wounded or exhausted. Remember that barbarians with spears and longer swords would need just as much elbow room to fight, if not more. The advantage of the gladius is that it can still be used very effectively if the Romans get packed more tightly in combat, whereas longer weapons become much harder to use properly in a bad crush. So you aren't going to get too much of the problem of barbarians "slipping into the cracks" any more than a Roman could do the same thing.

Quote:I think part of the issue might be the idea that the gladius was somehow the epitome of sword design, as near as I can tell the exact opposite was true. The gladius was more of a transitional sword, it came into prominence because it was much more devastating than the even shorter bronze swords that came before it, and likewise it was eventually replaced by longer swords such as the spatha.

Actually, the Imperial gladius was *shorter* than the earlier hoplite swords, and shorter than the gladius hispaniensis used by the Romans between the Punic Wars and the first century BC. (Heck, even a couple types of bronze sword are longer!) So as the army became more professional and disciplined, the blade was deliberately shortened. And it stayed that way for a good 300 years or more, while at the same time longer swords were used by Roman cavalry and barbarian infantry, so all we can conclude is that it worked for them!

Quote:To be clear, I don't think that the Romans or the Roman army was stupid, but rather that the way we think of them might be somewhat flawed.

Oh, that happens all the time! But usually a close look at the literature, art, and archeology will point us in the right general direction at least. And we need to keep in mind that our modern ideas of "practical" and "logical" may not be the same as those of the Romans! They had very different needs and outlooks.

Does that help? Vale,

Matthew
Quote:
Forty-One:2ekz9wyg Wrote:the idea of the short swords advantage was to get inside the reach and effectiveness of the longer weapons fielded by many of Romes enemies.

… which in most cases would not have been swords, but spears. The blades found on both sides of the Limes dated to the Principate were not much different to each other, “Gleichläufig[keit]”, according to Miks. At least the northern borders’ situation cannot not prove a superiority of shorter swords.

Saying short sword worked because it was used is an argument that could be make for every weapon; likewise I wonder how long a weapon needs to be used to be considered ‘successful’ – a hundred years? Two-hundred?
I rather think it is telling that Romans got rid of it once and for all when their armies suffered their worst defeats in the 3rd century, i.e. when the opposition got a lot more capable, especially in the east.
Quote: As others have said, just ask the millions of people who lived in the Roman Empire, ha!
Unfortunately, their opinion seems to conflict with the millions of people who came before and after them, even later Romans.
Compared ancient and medieval armies the Romans tend to stick out like a sore thumb. No one else seems to have used the short sword and shield nearly as much as the Romans, in fact, almost no one else seems to have used swords much as all, throughout the middle ages swords in the infantry would be worn primarily as sidearms as soldiers preferred to rely on spears or polearms.

Quote: Except that with the large shields they typically carried, such a charge is not an impossible way to defeat a Roman army quickly. Roll over them like a human tidal wave! We know it worked against the Romans more than once. It was also "standard procedure" for a number of non-Roman cultures, encouraging and taking advantage of their innate aggression, size, and need to show courage. And it would be hard for such cultures to make a radical change of tactics when suddenly confronted by Romans.
Not all barbarians are going to react the same way, the fact is that most are afraid of death and will try to keep their distance from a dangerous foe. This would also be true of many Roman soldiers.


Quote: As has been noted, the Romans were charging, too! One more step would bring them right to where they wanted to be. And stopping a charging army just short of contact would have been nearly impossible. Deliberately swinging an axe at a shield may not be the safest move, since it could easily stick there long enough for the Roman to gut the wielder like a fish.
That would depend largely on the shield's construction, a solid wooden shield might split and get a weapon stuck if hit in the right way and if it's made without a rim, but such a shield was generally poor as preventing penetration from arrows and other weapons. A composite shield (like the kind generally used) on the other hand made of a thin wooden backing and covered with thick leather and rawhide probably wouldn't be cut at all, instead the impact might break just the wood leaving the shield together but sort of floppy.

In either case the shield doesn't protect everything, a roman is still at risk of being speared in the unarmored face or legs.

Quote: I believe he actually says that there is 3 feet of space allowed for each man, meaning they are reasonably close together with only small gaps between shields, but enough elbow room to fight effectively. It's also easy for a man to slip back out of line between his buddies if he is wounded or exhausted. Remember that barbarians with spears and longer swords would need just as much elbow room to fight, if not more. The advantage of the gladius is that it can still be used very effectively if the Romans get packed more tightly in combat, whereas longer weapons become much harder to use properly in a bad crush. So you aren't going to get too much of the problem of barbarians "slipping into the cracks" any more than a Roman could do the same thing.
Caesar describes the gauls as fighting in sort of a phalanx tight enough together that their shields overlapped.
Part of the issue isn't so much enemies slipping into the cracks of the formation. As it is that each Roman is going to be facing off against multiple enemies at the same time, what is he going to do if one thrusts at his face and the other at his legs?

Quote: Actually, the Imperial gladius was *shorter* than the earlier hoplite swords, and shorter than the gladius hispaniensis used by the Romans between the Punic Wars and the first century BC. (Heck, even a couple types of bronze sword are longer!) So as the army became more professional and disciplined, the blade was deliberately shortened. And it stayed that way for a good 300 years or more, while at the same time longer swords were used by Roman cavalry and barbarian infantry, so all we can conclude is that it worked for them!
I suppose that it was the earlier gladius that got compared to the swords of hoplites.
The imperial Gladius appeared to have worked, although it is also apparent that it was quickly losing favor to longer swords by 200 AD. Why it was shortened isn't completely clear, perhaps it had something to do with the Marian reforms and the switch to state provided equipment rather than weapons the soldiers supplied themselves.
Well, they certainly managed to win over the longer weapon wielders with it and create an empire that lasted for almost 2000 years. Smile
The semi-spatha was still in use after Adrianopol, which is what I am guessing you refer to?
I use it as an argument because it is obvious it was successful. That it was eventually changed out in overall use does not mean it was not a success.
The Kentucky rifle was a success, but we no longer use black powder muskets. Perhaps the techniques of using longer swords changed, rather than
it being a case of the old style of fighting wit hlong sword and spear, which the short sword was capable of defeating, over came it.
But, I still wonder how a later unit would have fared against the legion which utilised the old method of fighting , with a curved scutum and short sword.
Overall, I don't really see the Gladius as Rome's 'ingenious winning weapon'. If used aggressively it might have been passable in combat, combined with good armor and significant training it might have even been successful but it was far from the ideal combat weapon. Instead I would attribute Roman military prowess more to their use of the pilum, a sturdy javelin which could punch clean through shields and armor yet also made a very effective infantry spear.
Well, I would say it was a case of the overall tactics, with the correct weapon combination, and the Roman agressivness.
Many people used javalins. I think it was the adoption of the hispaniensis which was better quality over the previous weapons which gave them an edge.
The pilum was also phased out. I would not under estimate the use of the short sword at all.
Many people used the short sword as well, many even used javelins similar to the pilum.

Roman tactics were superb, but equipment-wise the weapon combination does have something to do with roman effectiveness, the fact that they had a decent sword to fall back on enabled them to utilize javelins in the first place, but it was the pilum that was their primary weapon and the one they relied on to spearhead their attack or hold off the enemy during a defense.
Eventually the pilum was replaced by smaller projectiles and the standard infantry spear, likely due to durability issues. However the sword still wasn't the Roman soldier's primary weapon.


If Augustean Roman soldiers fought later-period Roman troops armed with only the gladius and scutum I imagine they would be badly outmatched, If they had their pila though and were careful about how they used them I think they might stand a chance.
Quote:
Roman tactics were superb, but equipment-wise the weapon combination does have something to do with roman effectiveness, the fact that they had a decent sword to fall back on enabled them to utilize javelins in the first place, but it was the pilum that was their primary weapon and the one they relied on to spearhead their attack or hold off the enemy during a defense.
Eventually the pilum was replaced by smaller projectiles and the standard infantry spear, likely due to durability issues. However the sword still wasn't the Roman soldier's primary weapon.


It was the primary weapon. The javalin was used to blunt the enemy attack, before going in for the kill.
It could be used as a stabbing spear when required, but usually on special instruction. i.e. GJC at Pharsalus.
it's a complicated thing

we don't seem to have a real good set of specific details as to what tactics and techniques were used, but we can get a couple of idea and possibilities.
So that said I tend to agree with the notion that Romans encountered a variety of attacks thrown at them, so eventually they had to be as flexible in their fight as
they could. It appears from wearing the armor and all, that for the most part, your typical Roman soldier is very well protected with shield, armor, helmet (and added bits
that show up over time like manicae and greaves) - But there does seem to be an emphasis on a "frontal" focus to both defence and offense.

I don't agree with this notion of a tighly-packed formation to the extent that shields overlapped. You need a little bit of elbow room to be effective, and that 3-foot spacing seems
to be just enough to work, as has been mentioned, plenty of room to fight in, to cover your buddy, and, to retire if needed either injured or exhausted.

Having a super-tight (shoulder-to-shoulder) formation seems to work 'best' with something like Hoplite/Phalanx fighting, since the emphasis is primarily with the spear, thrusting at the enemy face, but that the shields overlap and protect the other person and the mass of people helps to support itself. (and hope your friends wear cologne!)

But the scutum is comparatively huge, and it's encompassing at least 3/4 of the front of one's body (if you're squared up shoulder-across to someone, but I think it's more likely a Roman could turn slightly and cover more of his body very easily), so there doesn't seem to be a need to cover another's exposed side, when the shield is easy enough to move side-to-side, et cetera, to cover any gaps and be pretty flexible.

The other advantage of how the Romans seemed to have operated is by being in deep formations. If you have 80 men in a century, let's say 40-abreast, 40-deep, that's a lot of men to have at one's disposal, combine that with the "conveyer-belt" tactic of refreshing-ranks, say every 5 minutes, you have a seemingly unending supply of "fresh" troops ready to bulldozer over an enemy, but that could just as easily "spread out" in a wider formation inasmuch as staying "tight". Whereas the Phalanx, you have to stay tight and it's very tough to maneuver quickly while staying in that tight formation. It gets 'clunky' when everyone's moving around and bumping into each other, even if they're well trained.

It was also mentioned that Romans were aggressive fighters, they too were charging, or marching at a constant pace, not stopping. You have a huge shield that can act like a plow, pressing into the enemy. But you can also use the shield as a weapon. You can VERY easily smash knees of an enemy, smash faces and jawbones, do all sorts of nasty tricks with a shield with little effort. You also have the Umbo boss - smash that into a guy's face and see how he does. You can use the edges and corners of the shield to "grab" someone's arm or body, pull him around, turn him and all the while stabbing away with reckless abandon. Sounds like a horror show to me, but...um...deadly effective.

Swords and shields were in use for hundreds of years, I think that shows the "system" or "technique" has a lot of merit.
I have a fair bit of first hand experience on this particular issue. I fight in a competitive live steel combat group. I use a gladius and a flat oval shield. In the group I've had the opportunity to test the style against a long list of ancient and medieval combat styles in both single and group combat (with various compositions of troop types).

I have found this style of "sword and board" to be highly effective against all comers.

Fighting defensively:
D1. The large shield covers most of the body (3 inch face target from looking around the shield, and 4-12 inches of Tibia) and will keep you alive long enough to find and exploit a weakness with the VERY fast short sword.
D2. For some users the shield can even be held out parallel to the ground creating additional standoff distance.
D3. A shield wall so equipped and braced for a charge is impressive to watch.
D4. The meat shield concept for group combat: Heavy infantry protects, support kills (missile troops, artillery, cav, et cetera).
D5. I recommend the full defense when outnumbered tired, and possibly fighting alone or with limited support.

* Note on D4: In my experience WARRIORS from "champion" based cultures while in single honorable combat are highly dangerous but are no match in war when faced with SOLDIERS of lower individual skill. The reason is simple, soldiers will protect one another and help each other by pining enemy weapons while their partners take the kill. WARRIORS fight for their own glory not the success of the team. (**Based on local definitions not the US Army's)

Fighting Offensively:
O1. The best defense is a strong offense. Throw the shield up charge until you are standing on the toes of your enemy. Their long weapons are useless at this range and your kit is ideally suited.
O2. Standing on your opponent's toes will often make them panic. We have a psychological need to keep danger at arms reach. Being hugged by a man with a crazed look in his eye and a long knife makes sane men flee.
O3. Pole arms suck. You have two choices: Option 1 Trap the weapon on your shield and charge up the handle faster then the wielder can back pedal and then stab him repeatedly. Option 2, wait for him to trip you then stab you in the face from a long ways away.
O4. Fighting two handed weapons, punch block and stab. They can only attack or defend, you can do both at the same time.
O5. What I call the viper, the shield hides your fast little blade so they never know when or where its coming from. Deadly.

The cons:
1. Heavy-medium infantry requires make a life style of it. You have to be in shape and live in your armor.
2. A healthy in-shape troop can chase down light infantry. The problem is you have about 20 solid minutes of action time before they MUST be removed from the line to the rear to rest for about 30 minutes. Rotating the line frequently greatly reduces the rest needs and lengthens their action time. Leaving exhausted troops on the line puts the entire line at risk.
3. Although useful individually, professional heavy infantry needs to work in teams to be truly effective.
4. Shields require some degree of minor customization to effective to be effective for
5. Lefties either have to learn to fight right handed or operate on the left flank. Anachronistic I know, but imagine a century of lefties protecting your traditionally weak flank. They'd even have the advantage as you have to use different techniques when fighting LvsR then when you do RvsR or LvsL. The revelation is often deadly for less experienced swordsmen.
6. On a general note it goes without saying effective organized fighting units have to drill frequently and really can't just be levied.

~Kyle
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