Scipio Revolutionizes Sword Warfare

1024px-Uncrossed_gladius“It is very probable that a revolutionary change was made in the type of sword employed, by the introduction of the so-called Spanish sword, which led the Romans to the mastery of the civilized world.”

Howard Haynes-Scullard. Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War.

Scullard is speaking of Scipio’s use of Iberian craftsmen to forge a revolutionary Roman sword, the wasp-waisted, falcata-based gladius hispaniensis.  The sword would revolutionize Roman warfare. A gladius replica is pictured above, although Scipio’s gladius may have had a slightly narrower middle section.

The Iberian falcatas were known for their durability and flexibility. Legend has it that a man could bend an Iberian blade around the top of his head and it would spring back to position when released, owing to the steel-like quality of its carefully forged metals.

Scipio observed the fatal efficacy of these blades as a junior officer, when he watched Hannibal slaughter some 50,000 Roman soldiers at the historic battle of Cannae. The cleaver-like blade pierced through bronze armor, aiding in Hannibal’s resounding defeat of Varro and Paullus’ legions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae).

Were the falcata blades made of steel? Certainly, steel making techniques existed in 210 BCE. India was producing wootz steel in 500 BCE, and the magnificent  Alexander the Great likely borrowed their techniques to develop his own Damascus Steel blades for his Greek army of conquest. In Iberia (ancient Spain), Celtiberians made a carbon-heavy type of Toledo Steel that was the metallic forerunner of the famous Spanish blades from that region.

After conquering Carthago Nova (present-day Cartagena), Scipio immediately set hundreds of local artificers to work on developing a new sword for the Roman army. The blade was modeled after the stab-or-hack capabilities of the falcata, and was made with the local iron alloys, likely a primitive Toledo steel.

As the historian Richard Gabriel notes, the Romans became the first army in history to become sword-centered rather than spear centered. The effect of Scipio’s introduction of the gladius hispaniesis was truly revolutionary. In battle, the Roman army became a brutal thrusting and chopping machine. To quote Gabriel:

“…The Roman legion with its reliance upon the gladius resembled a buzz saw.” Richard Gabriel, Great Captains of Antiquity.

Instead of a battlefield littered with neatly punctured corpses, the gladius-wielding Romans left a butcher’s field of hacked off limbs and heads. Rome’s enemies became daunted by the brutal carnage the methodical Romans inflicted upon their troops (see Livy, Histories, 31, 34).

Scipio’s newly developed sword, along with his numerous logistical and tactical innovations, facilitated his conquest of Iberia (see The Three Generals).

Next: Stab, slash, or chop? Roman fighting tactics in Scipio’s army.

Martin Tessmer is a retired university professor and military training consultant. He is the author of the best selling Scipio Africanus Saga series, which includes Scipio Rising, The Three Generals, Scipio's Dream, Scipio Risen, Scipio Rules, and Scipio's End. The Noble Brute is the first book in his new series about Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus.

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