The Crossguard #5: Roman Swords

This is the fifth post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The articles so far:

The first three articles already suggest that the regional available resources was one factor in the design of weapons (which is easily understandable), number four gives an overview on steel and sword production, which helps to understand the reasoning and this article here.

The current article looks at Roman, following articles will look into other regions and cultures. These articles are extremely condensed and simplified tiny pieces of complex and rich cultures with a changing history. The ae much too small excursion into the cultures and the sword in the cultures will hopefully encourage the reader to dive deeper in the data available.

Lazy Reader’s Summary

The sword design changed during the history of the Romans as well as the crossbar part of the hilt. The further we get in time, the more iron and finally steel is found in this section of the sword. Actually the further we get in time, everywhere in the known world, the amount of steel in the blade itself and on the hilt rises. And this nearly answers the question, why the Roman swords had no crossbar. It seems it has only been economical and technical factors which determined the design of the crossbar. But this is not true. There is more.

Disclaimer

During my research I stumbled over a huge amount of astonishing good preserved weapons, that even to me looked fake and had suspicious origin. I included only one of these weapons where it could not provide any harm. Sadly I experienced that some websites used the images of these weapons for reconstructions and took them for real. I do not say, that they are not real. But I have the opinion, they are not.

An “interesting” object, that is supposed to be an Roman Officer Short Sword, from the 1st century

Roman Armour

When we see the Roman army march in shining plate lamellar armour, or glittering chain mail, the officers in the muscular cuirass, steel shield bosses protecting them, steel spears and pilum reflecting the sun light, we tend think that the amount of steel should have been far enough to produce some tiny crossbars. But this image belongs to the movies, and not to the reality of history.

Surprisingly, we have only a handful finds of Roman iron armour, although it is said to be used for more than four centuries, and although it is found on any better contemporary depiction of Roman soldiers. This may have one simple reasons: metal can be recycled, iron and steel quite easily. In opposite to the barbarians, who threw the weapons of victory into swamp holes for glorification or because religious reasons, the Romans had been civilised enough to recycle and reuse material, especially when resources became limited or had been expensive. Recycling when the centralisation of the Roman Empire collapsed, still went on, especially of building materials as we see Roman stones in every old building (see Recycling and Reuse in the Roman Economy, ed. by Chloë N Duckworth, Andrew Ian Wilson, 2020).

The famous muscular armour based on the Greek cuirass, was even in its prime time not a mass product and made of bronze or similar metals. The Lorica segmentata we see in every movie on Roman soldiers, was not fully made of iron and rarely from “steel”. Casted copper alloy parts and leather held it together. The Roman scale armour was made from various metals, iron, sheet bronze, copper alloy, or brass, eventually in one scale armour a mix of metal scales. If the Roman Phalerae (a harness of often decorated large metal rings and plates held together with leather stripes) had been used as armour or as a parade decoration, is unknown. From the practical point of view, every piece of metal offers protection.

Loricam tamen induit linteam, quanquam haud dissimulans parum adversum tot mucrones profuturam

C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Galba, chapter 19

If the Romans had textile or leather armour is largely disputed. The quote above talks of a linen Loricam (torso armour), and there are depictions of soldiers, of which the armour material is unknown. But little but none archaeological finds support this. Thick tunicas with long sleeves, as well as thick coats are known. Passages, in which the author describes that soldiers (especially auxiliary troops) had no “real” armour, supports the claim, that soldiers went into battles without metal armour, only with textile protection, which did not count as real armour.

There had been probably leather (or textile armour) covered with piles of tiny copper alloy pins to create a kind of brigantine (found 2011 in an excavation of Roman Armour from Caerleon). This must have looked very similar to mail armour, such that some depictions of armour, which had been thought to be mail, may have been in real a “pin armour”.

Excavation of Roman Armour from Caerleon, Penny Hill, 15 November 2011

Only 10% of steel was found in a study of 40 fragments of Roman mail and loricae armour, and helmets from Britain, Denmark and Germany. The mail had the highest percentage of steel (a third) with an average hardness 300 VPH / 29.8 Rockwell. In comparison: the hardness of pure iron is around 100 on the Vickers Pyramid Hardness. (see The production of Roman ferrous armour: A metallographic survey of material from Britain, Denmark and Germany and its implications, Michael Fulford, David Sim and Alistair Doig, 2004). Absorbing carbon in a high effort and costly process (see previous article) could create a steels from iron with an eutectoid composition or near-eutectoid composition, which could be drawn into thin wires and was ideal for mail armour. Iron-Carbon Martensitic transformation, or simply “quenching” heated material in a cold environment might raise the steel hardness to 600 or even 800 VPH, with the risk of increased brittleness. Successful heat-treatment (tempering) to reduce the hardness while increasing the toughness was difficult to control, and needed experts rarely available. (freely quoted from A Metallurgical Study of Some Viking Swords, Alan Williams, 2009). The technology to produce eutectoid steel was available to the Romans. They could produce it either by themselves or buy as steel ingots.

The huge variation of Roman armour was due the large size of the empire and the embedding of auxiliary troops into the armies. Cultural influences as well as available resources did alter the materials and the design of the armour over the centuries of the empire.

Roman Weapons

With rare exceptions the heads of javelins of any kind, lances and spears had been made from iron, only daggers and swords had been partly from steel. But not only most of the few Roman swords and a good part of the daggers that survived, even tools had been made in pattern welded technology or in simple welded technology, in which a steel edge was welded on the necessary parts (see Paper for special issue on “Aspects of Ancient Metallurgy” Roman iron and steel: A review, Materials and Manufacturing Processes, Janet Lang, 2017).

Metallographically examinations of three steel swords from the 1st century AD gladii displayed pearlitic steel at the core, the cutting edges were quenched to martensite of an hardness of VPH 500–750 / Rockwell 49-62 (see Study of the metallography of some Roman swords, Janet Lang, 1988).

Swords of the same kind are typically very different in their composition and construction”.

Prof. Helmut Föll, if you want to know much more about steel in sword production follow this link: https://www.tf.uni-kiel.de/matwis/amat/iss/

The Romans had not only one sword type, but many through their periods of history. And they had not only one method of production of blades, but many even in the same period as illustrated below. These different production methods had to do with the place of origin (see all the text above) and are seen in the design of the blade itself, even if the outline of the blades looked very similar.

From Pugio – Gladius Brevis Est: History and technology of the Roman battle dagger, Marco Saliola and Fabrizio Casprini, 2012

Roman Crossbars

Roman swords had crossbars (together with pommel and handle in one piece or separately) made from hard wood, bones, ivory. In later periods crossbars from metal like brass, bronze, copper alloy and iron appeared as plates supporting the softer material of the handle.

Bone and Ivory Roman Gladius Pompeianus Sword Hilt, 3rd century, Stuttgart, Germany

It was technically possible, to produce steel crossbars in the medieval design. Furthermore, crossbars did not have to made by steel. The process of case-hardening or surface hardening using organic wastes like horns and bones had been known to the Romans as evidence had shown. But neither steel nor iron was an option for the Romans army.

It is relatively simple to produce iron that can be used in armour or throwing weapons, the effort to produce steel for sword blades is much higher (as told in the previous blog post). Iron that was well structured and treated carefully, could be used for blades as well as for crossguards. But the quality and endurance of such blades and handguards had not been economical satisfying to be a successful product. The iron consisted inclusions, slags and needed careful experienced forging to endure long enough (i.e. the extensive cold working which was already observed in Celtic swords by Vagn Fabricius Buchwald).

Roman Gladius Pompeianus Hilts, 3rd century, Vindonissa Museum, Swiss

Imagine, you can create up to ten Roman iron pilums with the same amount of effort which takes to make a single crucible steel crossbar in the design of the 12th century. Making hardened iron crossbar would need much less effort, but still too much to be of interest to an army, that depended on the regional supplies.

Helmuth Schneider estimated that a fullsize Roman legion required around 38 tons of metal (iron) to equip it (see Einführung in die antike Technikgeschichte, Helmuth Schneider, 1992). This metal was partly imported and traded, but the idea was to have regional fabricae. These are run by the Immunes (soldiers free of soldier duties), supported by local workers.

Roman Gladius Hispaniensis Hilt, London Museum and British Museum 

Depending on local resources, regional trades and expensive imports, running an army was a difficult and money eating business. It is a simple thing to equip a single fighter with the things that are technically possible, but a very difficult thing to equip 4,200 infantry, 300 cavalry, and a retinue of people needing tools to build and repair. A single iron crossbar would need around 220g of carefully forged iron, 4200 crossbars would need nearly a metric ton of iron (steel much less, but a huge amount of more effort and charcoal). A resource much too rare and expensive to be “waisted” for something, that would have brought so little added value to an outcome of any battle.

Evidences

Archeaological finds of hilt parts of the early Roman swords are extremely rare. The sword found from Soknopaiou Nesos from around the 1st century BC has a wooden pommel of extreme hard wood. The handle of the sword had been clothes wrapped around the tang, red textile, which was wrapped tightly around the tang as a thick bundle (You read correctly, a textile handle!). The finds in Mainz and other places show grips of wood or bone as the material. Crossbars were either form the same material, or lost before the sword was buried, or composted afterwards, or did not exist at all.

Roman Spatha of the Nauportus type from Soknopaiou Nesos (El-Fayyum, Egypt)

Gladius Hispaniensis (Mainz and Fulham Types) had been the most common types 2nd century BC to 1st century. In the Saalburg, a nice daytrip in my childhood, the museum has a dagger and a sword form the 1st or 2nd century having a bronze plate as part of the crossbar. A design known already from the 2nd century BCE. The so called Type Mainz was often found with the bronze plate (see river finds in the Landesmuseum Mainz). The Gladius Pompeji was common from the second half of the 1st century to the 3rd century. He is known for the large round wooden knobs as crossguards, but had oval, and more rarely flat guards had been found as well.

Bronze plates on the Saalburg sword and dagger, relief from the balustrades of Pergamon 2nd centur BCE

The so called Roman “Ringknaufschwerter” came up in the 2nd century, having iron crossbars (17 finds up to now in Northern Europe). A design probably taken from the Sarmatians (Iran) and used by the auxiliaries and by the beneficiarii, the state police troops. (see Zum Wandel der Römischen Schwertausrüstung im 2. Jhdt und seinem Stand zur Zeit der Markomannenkriege by Christian Miks). This was around the same time the trip hammer water mills became common, as probably water driven bellows as well.

Ringknaufschwerter Kaufbeuren and Kehlheim, 2nd century

With a larger amount of iron or steel available the amount of steel in the blades increased in general, the swords became bigger, thinner and longer. In late Roman swords and the early Migration Period swords we see more iron crossbars. Still not in the design of the 10th century. But the material change had happened.

Conclusions

Conclusions are difficult to draw on the finds, documents and analytics done. The Roman history is too long, too complex to have one simple answer to “Why did Roman Swords had no crossbar?“. But there are some reasons that come to the mind, that are worth considering.

Economical Reasons

The most obvious, but by far not the only answer is the fact, that the Roman Empire strongly depended on imports of iron and steel (see A Question of Resources) . The organised trade routes of resources supported the fabrics of the empire. If these had been disturbed on sea by pirates, on land by war, or politically by inner trouble, revolts, and civil war, the fabrics totally depended on the uneven distributed local resources they had at hand. Especially in the warry times of the empire, these resources had never been there in abundance.

This explains the various materials used in armour, and the various inner structure and quality of the weapons having the same design. The huge amount of the resources needed by the armies did forbid to introduce any waste of material. It is to assume, that the idea and concept of the crossbar was existent (as it was known from Parthian and Sassanian weapons), but dismissed as economically not realistic or useful at battle. The crossbar would have added little value to the outcome of any battle. An invest in other material was considered to be more effective for the army. If you can feed an army well through winter or buy material for some minor improvements on weapons, it was probably a fast decision to make.

Social And Political Reasons

Next to the economical reason, there is the social one. Keeping to the traditions and standard is certainly an aspect not to be dismissed easily in an strict structured empire. However, the Romans incorporated auxiliary troops and their weapons, and armour into their army. But as a centralized empire, where everyone wanted to be like in Rome, the cultural and political pressure is not to be neglected. The Marian Reforms in 107 BCE standardized the weapons of the Roman army, further reforms followed, issuing regulations. In nearly every empire or nation we see totally unpractical weapon designs used by thousands of soldiers, because it was decided by people in high ranks, who thought it was a good idea (or had been bribed to think so). Why should it have been different in the Roman Empire?

Hilt, covered with Silver Sheet, 1st century, Speyer, Germany

A officer sword would not look different in the practical outer design as a common sword. It would be made from better metals and carry precious decorations (or would have a handle made from silver, like above), but it would be the same type of sword. It was the concept, design and idea of a Roman sword that was carried by the outer form.

Cultural And Religious Reasons

The sword and dagger played a role in cultural and religious rituals. Especially in the extreme common and widely distributed Mithras cult. Sword or dagger are central parts in depicting the killing of Bull in this religion. Single depictions of Mithra (not killing the bull) show the god with a sword and torch.

Mithras killing the Bull with a Gladius

Mithraism had rituals unknown to us, in which a sword played a central role. In at least three cult places theatrical swords had been excavated similar to the one depicted below (but mostly in worse shape). The sword was designed, that a person could appear thoroughly stabbed through.

Cult Sword, Mithras, 2nd to 3rd century, Baden_Württemberg, Germany

The Mithras cult was not the only religious cult favouring swords. but the most prominent one from the 1st to the 4th century. Gladiators or slaves had probably been part of religious duel at funerals (Munus, plural munera) in the centuries before that. However, not only in religious aspects the sword played a role. It had symbolic meanings starting with the sword a young man received.

Sword of a Roman Boy, 2nd to 3rd century, Photo David Xavier Kenney (suspicious origin)

Before the 1st century the Roman army was organized as a militia, in which citizens had provide their own weaponry, supplies and armour. In a society that incorporated the military strongly, the armed soldier and officer held a central role, his weapons a strong symbolic and real meaning. The Roman citizen owned a sword and armour as part of his identity.

The stronger a culture is connected to an object, the slower it changes through times or by outer influences. The cultural meaning of the sword could have hindered a development of improving it in altering the outer form as strongly, as a crossbar would have done it.

Practical Reasons

That high valued fighters had used protective equipment for arm and hand in Roman times is a known fact. The design of crossbars had been known to the Romans by trade contacts and wars fought with people using them. There is not a thing in sword fighting that can be done with the Roman type of crossbars better, than with iron or steel crossbars, which would (if correctly designed) offer more protection to the sword hand. There are no practical reasons.

2 thoughts on “The Crossguard #5: Roman Swords

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