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


Iberian falcata image via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Luis Garcia

During Scipio’s time, many of Rome’s enemies (think Gauls) were slashers, slashing down with their long swords, beating through helmet and shield. But then Scipio encountered the staunch Celtiberians, who fought with their cleaver-like falcatas. The Celtiberians used their double edged blades to stab and thrust as well as slash, making them a fearsome combatant.

Scipio so admired the falcata that he developed a new falcata-based Roman sword, the famed Gladius Hispaniesis (see The Three Generals by Martin Tessmer).


Roman gladius image via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Pumont.

This wasp-waisted, double edged sword meant his men could stab and chop (shudder!) as well as slash, if necessary. The design facilitated the fearsome shove-and-stab fighting tactics of his legions:

…the Roman soldier was trained not to use it as a slashing weapon … The shield parry followed by a sharp underthrust to the chest or belly became the killing trademark of the Roman infantry. Richard Gabriel. Great Captains of Antiquity.

Scipio’s legions became threshing machines of death, holding their shield walls while they punctured stomachs, thighs, arms — any vulnerable spot. They knew that blood loss was as deadly a weapon as any, weakening their opponents and leaving them open for a killing stroke.

The historian Livy records the dismay the Macedonians felt when they viewed their dead warriors, killed by the gladius-wielding Romans. Rather than a collection of spear-punctured corpses, their men were chopped into pieces. (see Livy, Histories, Book 31, Chapter 34).

Scipio’s gladius-wielding soldiers went on to defeat the Celtiberians, Iberians, and Carthaginians, wresting control of Spain from Carthage (see The Three Generals, by Martin Tessmer). Gabriel opines that “More soldiers died of wounds inflicted by this murderous meat cleaver than were killed by any other weapon of the ancient world” (Ibid). Even in 200 BCE, advances in weapons technology could easily turn the tide of battle — and nations!

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s