Roman Legionaries: Weapons

Before heading into battle, every soldier needed to be adequately equipped. Throughout the centuries, the gear of Roman legionaries underwent frequent changes. However, it was after Marius’ reform that the Roman army truly gained significance. With thorough training and impeccable equipment, combined with skilled soldiers, they formed an impenetrable barrier on the battlefield.


The term “Gladius” originates from Latin, simply meaning ‘sword’. During the Roman Republic, the designation “gladius Hispaniensis” (Spanish sword) specifically denoted a short sword, approximately 60 cm (24 inches) in length, wielded by Roman legionaries starting from the 3rd century BC. This weapon held the status of being the primary armament for soldiers in warfare. Subsequently, various renowned designs emerged; among them, the Mainz gladius and the Pompeii gladius, which follows the Mainz type. The Mainz gladius itself traced its lineage back to the Hispaniensis, named after its discovery in Spain.

Recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed the existence and appearance of the earlier Hispaniensis gladius. Legionaries commonly wore their gladii secured on their right hips. Crafting a gladius with the optimal balance of strength and flexibility required skilled blacksmiths to utilize harder steels for the outer layers of the sword while employing softer steels for the blade’s center.


In late Latin, the term “spatha” could encompass any type of sword, although it typically referred to the longer swords prevalent during the middle and late Roman Empire. During the 1st century, Roman cavalry began adopting these longer swords, and by the late 2nd or early 3rd century, Roman infantry also transitioned to longer swords, alongside a shift from carrying javelins to spears.

Shorter weapons, such as short swords or potentially daggers, were referred to as “semispathae” or half-swords. A significant discovery in the 3rd century at Künzing included a triangular-bladed short sword and several narrow-bladed short swords, ranging from 23 to 39 cm in blade length. Scholars like Bishop and Coulston suggest that some or all of these weapons might have been repurposed from broken spathae.


A pugio, employed as a dagger by Roman soldiers, likely as a secondary weapon, underwent alterations during the 1st century, akin to other gear used by the legions. Typically featuring a broad, leaf-shaped blade measuring between 18 to 28 cm in length and 5 cm or wider, with a raised midrib running along each side, either prominent or delineated by grooves. Modifications included slimming down the blade to approximately 3 mm, and crafting the handle from metal. Initially, the tang was broad and flat, with the grip riveted through it and the blade’s shoulders.

Around 50 AD, a rod tang was introduced, eliminating the need to rivet the hilt through the blade’s shoulders. While this alteration did not drastically alter the appearance of the pugio, subsequent blades were sometimes narrower (under 3.5 cm wide), with reduced or minimal midribs.

Throughout this period, the hilt’s design remained relatively consistent, comprising two layers of horn, wood, or bone enclosing the tang, each topped with a thin metal plate. Often adorned with inlaid silver, the hilt measured 10–12 cm in length overall, with a relatively narrow grip, ensuring a secure hold. A central expansion or lump in the handle further enhanced the user’s grip.


Derived from Latin, “hasta” denotes a spear primarily used for thrusting. Early Roman legionaries, known as camillan, commonly carried hastae, particularly the soldiers known as hastati, who lent their name to the weapon. However, during the Republican era, hastati were re-equipped with pila (javelins) and gladii (swords), leaving only the triarii to continue utilizing hastae.

Typically measuring about 1.8 meters (six feet) in length, a hasta featured a shaft commonly crafted from ash, while the head was typically made of iron. However, in the early Republican period, hastae might have had tips made of bronze.


While Romans commonly used the term “pila” to encompass all thrown javelins, the term “pilum” specifically denotes the heavy Roman throwing javelin utilized by the legions. In contrast, lighter and shorter javelins were employed by the velites and early legions, known as “verutum.”

As time progressed, the late Roman army adopted other types of javelins influenced by the weaponry of Italic warriors. Among these were the “lancea” and the “spiculum,” which differed in design and function from the traditional pilum. These diverse javelins served various tactical purposes on the battlefield, contributing to the adaptability and effectiveness of Roman military strategy.


The pilum (plural pila) was a formidable javelin extensively employed by the Roman army in antiquity. Typically measuring just under two meters (6 ft 7 in) in length, it consisted of a wooden shaft affixed with an iron shank approximately 7 mm (0.28 inches) in diameter and 60 cm (23.6 in) long, culminating in a pyramidal head. The iron shank was either socketed or widened into a flat tang. Pila typically weighed between two and four kilograms (4.4 and 8.8 lb), with later versions during the empire era being somewhat lighter.

Designed to pierce both shields and armor, thereby inflicting injuries on the wearer, pila were engineered to lodge firmly upon impact, making extraction difficult. It was believed that the iron shank would bend upon striking the target, weighing down the enemy’s shield and hindering immediate reuse of the pilum. Some variants of the shaft may have detached upon impact, leaving the enemy with a bent shank embedded in their shield. However, recent research suggests that many types of pila did not bend upon impact but rather disrupted the effectiveness of enemy shields due to the shape of their larger heads and thin shanks. Indeed, there were instances where the entire shank was hardened, rendering the pilum more suitable as a close-quarters melee weapon and potentially usable by enemy soldiers.

Further studies indicate that sturdy pila were unlikely to bend under their own weight upon striking a target or the ground. Instead, any bending observed may have been a result of human intervention, such as improper removal of a stuck pilum. Numerous historical Roman texts corroborate the notion that pila were frequently used as weapons in melee combat. For instance, Caesar’s accounts in “The Gallic Wars” describe troops utilizing pila as spears or pikes. Similarly, Plutarch recounts instances in “Life of Pompey” and “Life of Antony” where soldiers jabbed upwards at the faces of enemy cavalry with their javelins. Arrian, in “Array against the Alans,” instructs the first ranks of a formation to wield pila like spearmen, while the remainder should employ them as javelins.


The sagittarius, armed with an arcus (composite bow), wielded a formidable weapon capable of shooting sagittae (arrows) made from horn, wood, and sinew, bound together with hide glue. However, Vegetius recommended training recruits with wooden bows, referred to as “arcubus ligneis.” Despite this, reinforcing laths for composite bows were prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, even in regions where wooden bows were traditionally used.

Roman Crossbow

Occasionally utilized by the Romans, the cheiroballistra, also known as the manuballista, represented an early form of the crossbow. The ancient world boasted a variety of handheld mechanical weapons akin to later medieval crossbows. Roman authors like Vegetius frequently mention the use of arrow-shooting weapons such as the arcuballista and manuballista. While scholars agree that these terms refer to handheld mechanical weapons, there is debate over whether they were flexion bows or torsion-powered, as seen in recent discoveries like the Xanten find.

Arrian’s records in his Tactica depict Roman cavalry training in the use of mechanical handheld weapons from horseback. Additionally, sculptural reliefs from Roman Gaul illustrate crossbows being utilized in hunting scenes, bearing remarkable similarity to their later medieval counterparts.


Late Roman infantrymen often carried plumbatae, lead-weighted throwing darts with an effective range of approximately 30 meters, surpassing that of javelins. These darts were typically carried clipped to the back of the shield, providing soldiers with a versatile ranged option in combat.