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Roman era reenactor holding a replica late Roman spatha Spatha end of second century 1.jpg
Roman era reenactor holding a replica late Roman spatha

The spatha was a type of straight and long sword, measuring between 0.5 and 1 m (19.7 and 39.4 in), with a handle length between 18 and 20 cm (7.1 and 7.9 in), in use in the territory of the Roman Empire during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. Later swords, from the 7th to 10th centuries, like the Viking swords, are recognizable derivatives and sometimes subsumed under the term spatha.


The Roman spatha was used in war and in gladiatorial fights. The spatha of literature appears in the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD as a weapon used by presumably Germanic auxiliaries and gradually became a standard heavy infantry weapon, relegating the gladius to use as a light infantry weapon. The spatha apparently replaced the gladius in the front ranks, giving the infantry more reach when thrusting. While the infantry version had a long point, versions carried by the cavalry had a rounded tip that prevented accidental stabbing of the cavalryman's own foot or horse.

Archaeologically many instances of the spatha have been found in Britain and Germany. It was used extensively by Germanic warriors. It is unclear whether it came from the Pompeii gladius or the longer Celtic swords, or whether it served as a model for the various arming swords and Viking swords of Europe. The spatha remained popular throughout the Migration Period. It evolved into the knightly sword of the High Middle Ages by the 12th century.


The word comes from the Latin spatha, [1] which derives from Greek σπάθη (spáthē), meaning "any broad blade, of wood or metal" but also "broad blade of a sword". [2]

The Greek word σπάθη was used in the middle archaic period for various types of Iron Age swords. The word does not appear in Homeric Greek, but it is mentioned in the works of Alcaeus of Mytilene (sixth century BC) [3] and Theophrastus (fourth century BC). [4]

It is likely that spatha is the romanization of a Doric Greek σπάθα (spáthā). [5] The word survives in Modern Greek as σπάθη and σπαθί . The Latin word became the French épée , regional Spanish Occitan espasa, Portuguese and Spanish espada , Italian spada , Romanian spadă and Albanian shpata , all meaning "sword". The English word spatula comes from Latin spat(h)ula, the diminutive of spatha. English spade, from Old English spadu or spædu, is the Germanic cognate, derived from a Common Germanic *spadō, ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European stem *sph2-dh-. [6]


During the Gallic wars Celtic Mercenaries would introduce the Spatha to the Roman Army. The Spatha was a weapon used by the Cavalrymen, while the Auxilia and Legionaries used the Gladius instead. [7] Eventually, in the 2nd century the Roman Infantry would adopt the Spatha. [7] The Spatha was a very versatile sword, undergoing many changes from its origins in Gaul to its usage in the Roman Military. The blade was 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 inches) long.


The pattern welding was used to strengthen the core of the blade. The appearance of the metal was enhanced due to inlay and contrasting metals. The sword was also made of forged fullers, thus making the spatha a strong and lightweight blade. [7]


Roman Empire

Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha Roman Cavalry 2 - cropped.JPG
Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha
Depiction of swords with hilts fashioned in the shape of eagles' heads (Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, c. AD 300) 7946 - Venezia - Tetrarchi in Piazza San Marco - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 8-Aug-2007.jpg
Depiction of swords with hilts fashioned in the shape of eagles' heads (Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, c. AD 300)

The Spatha was first introduced to the Romans by Celtic Mercenaries during the Second Punic War. The Celts would have used weaponry and armor from their homeland, and one of the Celtic weapons would have been the Spatha. [7] Many believe that the Spatha was adopted by the Romans due to contact with Germania, however this is not true. [7]

The earlier gladius sword was gradually replaced by the spatha from the late 2nd to the 3rd century. From the early 3rd century, legionaries and cavalrymen began to wear their swords on the left side, perhaps because the scutum had been abandoned and the spatha had replaced the gladius. [8]

In the imperial period, the Romans adopted the original Greek term, spáthē (σπάθη), as spatha, which still carried the general meaning of any object considered long and flat. [9] Spatha appears first in Pliny and then Seneca with different meanings: a spatula, a metal-working implement, a palm-leaf and so on. [10] There is no hint of any native Roman sword called a spatha.

Referring to an actual sword, the term first appears in the pages of Tacitus with reference to an incident of the early empire. [11] The British king, Caractacus, having rebelled, found himself trapped on a rocky hill, so that if he turned one way he encountered the gladii of the legionaries, and if the other, the spathae of the auxiliaries. There is no indication in Tacitus that they were cavalry.

The next mention of spathae is in the 5th century, by Vegetius, now as a weapon carried by infantry.

The spatha remained in use in the Byzantine Empire and its army. In the Byzantine court, spatharios (σπαθάριος), or "bearer of the spatha", was a mid-level court title. Other variants deriving from it were protospatharios , spatharokandidatos and spatharokoubikoularios, the latter reserved for eunuchs. One of the more famous spatharokandidatoi was Harald Hardrada. [12]

Roman Iron Age

Replica of a Lombard spatha, on exhibit in the Museo civico archeologico in Bergamo Spadalongobarda.jpg
Replica of a Lombard spatha, on exhibit in the Museo civico archeologico in Bergamo

The term "Roman Iron Age" refers approximately to the time of the Roman Empire in north Europe, which was outside the jurisdiction of the empire, but, judging from the imported Roman artifacts, was influenced by Roman civilization. One source of artifacts from this period are the bogs of Schleswig, Holstein and Denmark. Objects were deliberately broken and thrown into the bog in the belief that they could go with a deceased chief on his voyage to a better place.

A cache of 90 swords was found at Nydam Mose in Denmark in 1858. They were in the form of the spatha and therefore have been classified as "Roman swords". They are dated to the 3rd to 4th centuries. Many connect the Nydam cache with the sword of Beowulf, who was supposed to be a contemporary. [13]

Migration period

Tombstones of Roman cavalrymen buried in Germany: Roman auxiliary, tombstone in Mainz; signifer of a turma, tombstone in Worms Tombstones of Rome horsemen in Germany.jpg
Tombstones of Roman cavalrymen buried in Germany: Roman auxiliary, tombstone in Mainz; signifer of a turma , tombstone in Worms
Alemannic spatha, 5th century Goldgriffspatha.jpg
Alemannic spatha, 5th century

When Germanic tribes began to invade the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries they would come into contact with the Spatha. [7] Surviving examples of these Germanic Iron Age swords have blades measuring between 71 and 81 cm (28 and 32 in) in length and 43 to 61 mm (1.7 to 2.4 in) in width. These single handed weapons of war sport a tang 10 to 13 cm (3.9 to 5.1 in) long and have very little taper in their blades. They usually end in a rounded tip.

Viking Age

Perhaps the most recognisable descendant of the spathae were the Viking Age blades. These swords took on a much more acute distal taper and point. These blades had deep fullers running their length, yet still had single-handed hilts which sported a uniquely shaped pommel, flat at the grip side and roughly triangular early on, with the flat curving to fit the hand later. While the pattern of hilt and blade design of this type might readily be called a "Viking sword", to do so would be to neglect the widespread popularity it enjoyed. All over continental Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries, this design and its variations could be found. Many of the best blades were of Frankish origin, hilted in local centres. These blades had significantly better balance.

During Norman times, the blade's length increased by around 10 centimetres (3.9 in), and the hilt changed significantly. Instead of the Brazil-nut pommel, a thick disc-shaped pommel was attached "on-edge" to the bottom of the iron hilt. In addition the upper guard grew substantially from the near-absent design predating it. Also the blades tended to taper slightly less than those found in the time of the Vikings.

Jan Petersen in De Norske Vikingsverd (The Norwegian Viking Swords, 1919) introduced the most widely used classification of swords of the Viking Age, discriminating 26 types labelled A–Z. In 1927, R. E. M. Wheeler condensed Petersen's typology into a simplified typology of nine groups, numbered I IX.

Norman swords

The transition from the Viking age spatha-inspired sword to the High Medieval knightly sword took place between the 10th and 11th centuries. The main development was the growth of the front handguard into a full cross-guard, and the reduction of the typical Viking-era lobated pommel into simpler brazil nut or disc shapes. The sword of Otto III, preserved in Essen, is such an example of the emerging arming sword, although it has been encrusted with decorations during the centuries it was conserved as a relic (total length 95.5 cm). [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

A sword is a bladed melee weapon intended for cutting or thrusting that is longer than a knife or dagger, consisting of a long blade attached to a hilt. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographic region under consideration. The blade can be straight or curved. Thrusting swords have a pointed tip on the blade, and tend to be straighter; slashing swords have a sharpened cutting edge on one or both sides of the blade, and are more likely to be curved. Many swords are designed for both thrusting and slashing.

<i>Gladius</i> Sword

Gladius is a Latin word meaning "sword", but in its narrow sense, it refers to the sword of Ancient Roman foot soldiers. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those of the Greeks, called xiphe. From the 3rd century BC, however, the Romans adopted a sword based on the weapons used by the Celtiberians in Hispania late into the Punic Wars, known in Latin as the gladius hispaniensis, or "Hispanic sword".

Hilt Handle of a sword or similar weapon

The hilt of a knife, dagger, sword, or bayonet is its handle, consisting of a guard, grip and pommel. The guard may contain a crossguard or quillons. A tassel or sword knot may be attached to the guard or pommel.

This is a list of types of swords.

A longsword is a type of European sword characterized as having a cruciform hilt with a grip for two-handed use, a straight double-edged blade of around 85 to 110 cm, and weighing approximately 1 to 1.5 kg.

Swordsmanship or sword fighting refers to the skills of a swordsman, a person versed in the art of the sword. The term is modern, and as such was mainly used to refer to smallsword fencing, but by extension it can also be applied to any martial art involving the use of a sword. The formation of the English word "swordsman" is parallel to the Latin word gladiator, a term for the professional fighters who fought against each other and a variety of other foes for the entertainment of spectators in the Roman Empire. The word gladiator itself comes from the Latin word gladius, which is a type of sword.

Glaive Type of pole weapon

A glaive is a European polearm, consisting of a single-edged blade on the end of a pole. It is similar to the Japanese naginata, the Chinese guandao and pudao, the Korean woldo, the Russian sovnya, and the Siberian palma.

Classification of swords

The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise and has varied widely over time. There is no historical dictionary for the universal names, classification or terminology of swords; A sword was simply a double edged knife.


The term kopis in Ancient Greece could describe a heavy knife with a forward-curving blade, primarily used as a tool for cutting meat, for ritual slaughter and animal sacrifice, or refer to a single edged cutting or "cut and thrust" sword with a similarly shaped blade.

The talwar, also spelled talwaar and tulwar, is a type of curved sword or sabre from the Indian subcontinent.


The pugio was a dagger used by Roman soldiers as a sidearm. It seems likely that the pugio was intended as an auxiliary weapon, but its exact purpose for the soldier remains unknown. Officials of the empire took to wearing ornate daggers in the performance of their offices, and some would wear concealed daggers for defense in contingencies. The dagger was a common weapon of assassination and suicide; for example, the conspirators who stabbed Julius Caesar used pugiones. The pugio developed from the daggers used by the Cantabarians of the Iberian peninsula.

Seax Bladed weapon

Seax is an Old English word for "knife". In modern archaeology, the term seax is used specifically for a type of small sword, knife or dagger typical of the Germanic peoples of the Migration period and the Early Middle Ages, especially the Saxons, whose name derives from the weapon. These vary considerably in size, but are mostly all-purpose tools and weapons, often carried by women as well as men.

Viking sword Sword

The Viking Age sword or Carolingian sword is the type of sword prevalent in Western and Northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages.

Model 1832 foot artillery sword Short-sword

The Model 1832 foot artillery sword was a 25-inch (64 cm) short-sword with a straight, double-edged blade and brass-mounted leather scabbard.

Roman military personal equipment

Roman military personal equipment was produced in small numbers to established patterns, and used in an established manner. These standard patterns and uses were called the res militaris or disciplina. Its regular practice during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire led to military excellence and victory. The equipment gave the Romans a very distinct advantage over their barbarian enemies, especially so in the case of armour. This does not mean that every Roman soldier had better equipment than the richer men among his opponents. According to Edward Luttwak, Roman equipment was not of a better quality than that used by the majority of Rome's adversaries. Other historians and writers have stated that the Roman army's need for large quantities of "mass produced" equipment after the Marian Reforms and subsequent civil wars led to a decline in the quality of Roman equipment compared to the earlier Republican era:

"The production of these kinds of helmets of Italic tradition decreased in quality because of the demands of equipping huge armies, especially during civil wars...The bad quality of these helmets is recorded by the sources describing how sometimes they were covered by wicker protections, like those of Pompeius' soldiers during the siege of Dyrrachium in 48 BC, which were seriously damaged by the missiles of Caesar's slingers and archers."

"It would appear that armour quality suffered at times when mass production methods were being used to meet the increased demand ..." and "...the reduced size curiasses would also have been quicker and cheaper to produce, which may have been a deciding factor at times of financial crisis, or where large bodies of men were required to be mobilized at short notice, possibly reflected in the poor-quality, mass produced iron helmets of Imperial Italic type C, as found, for example, in the River Po at Cremona, associated with the Civil Wars of AD 69 AD; Russel-Robinson, 1975, 67"

"Up until then, the quality of helmets had been fairly consistent and the bowls well decorated and finished. However, after the Marian Reforms, with their resultant influx of the poorest citizens into the army, there must inevitably have been a massive demand for cheaper equipment, a situation which can only have been exacerbated by the Civil Wars..."

Migration Period sword Sword

The Migration Period sword was a type of sword popular during the Migration Period and the Merovingian period of European history, particularly among the Germanic peoples and was derived from the Roman era spatha. It later gave rise to the Carolingian or Viking sword type of the 8th to 11th centuries AD.

Swords made of iron appear from the Early Iron Age, but do not become widespread before the 8th century BC.

A parazonium is a long triangular dagger, wide at the hilt end and coming to a point. In Roman mythology, it is frequently carried by Virtus, particularly in early representations. It is also sometimes carried by Mars, or Roma, or the emperor, giving them the aura of courage.

In the European High Middle Ages, the typical sword was a straight, double-edged weapon with a single-handed, cruciform hilt and a blade length of about 70 to 80 centimetres. This type is frequently depicted in period artwork, and numerous examples have been preserved archaeologically.

Turko-Mongol sabers Type of Cavalry Sabre

These swords were used by the Turkic nomads of the Eurasian steppes primarily between the 9th and 14th centuries. One of the earliest recorded sabres of this type was recovered from an Avar grave in Romania dating to the mid 7th century. Although minor variations occur in size and hilt, they are common enough in design across 5 centuries that individual blades are difficult to date when discovered without other context.


  1. spatha, Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. σπάθη, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  3. "Χαλκίδικαι σπάθαι" (Chalcidian spathai), Alcaeus, 15.6
  4. Theophrastus, Characters, 25.4, original Greek text, on Perseus Digital Library
  5. recorded in the accusative plural, as σπάθας (spáthās). AP6.288 (Leon.) LSJ, s.v. "σπάθη".
  6. Villamor, Fernando (2017). 2500 Pie Roots Deciphered. Getafe.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Bishop, M.C (2020). The Spatha: The Roman Long Sword. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN   978-147-283-240-5.
  8. Lesley Adkins, Roy A. Adkins, Handbook to life in ancient Rome, Oxford University Press, 1998 ISBN   978-0-19-512332-6, p. 87.
  9. An online version of "Middle Liddell" is offered at, referring to the middle of three sizes in which the most commonly used lexicon by Liddell & Scott has been published. The unabridged is preferable for research, as it lists all the uses in ancient Greek of the word.
  10. An interactive Latin dictionary, Lewis & Short, based on Andrews, is given at, but any good printed Latin dictionary also states the various uses and sources of spatha.
  11. Annales 12.35.
  12. Kekaumenos, Strategikon, "Oration of Admonition to an Emperor", para. 81
  13. A professional site may be found at das Nydam Moor . German is required but a good picture of a sword is shown. Another site is to be found at Genealogies, Maps, Glossary & Pictorial Guide to Beowulf . It presents the ancient Germanic sword vocabulary and shows a picture of a Nydam spatha but does not connect it to a specific name.
  14. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-05-08. Retrieved 2005-08-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)