Friday, 29 May 2015

Late first century weapons-Celt and Roman

Some Celtic and Roman weapons of the late first century

I've written about weapons in previous posts during the last few years, and parts of this article may appear to be a repetition, but what follows are examples of what some of my characters in The Beltane Choice may have been wielding. 

The Beltane Choice and the other books in my Celtic Fervour Series are set around AD 71 – 84 Britannia. The following information I found useful for this era.

Celtic Weaponry
When facing the shining array of Roman equipment, what would the typical Celt have had to fight with? Would he have looked like this warrior?

Whether clad or unclad, as some Roman historians would have us believe, the weapons carried would have varied depending on the actual location in Britannia, and the warrior's status. The completely naked Celt is less likely in northern Britain, if the weather was fairly similar to that of today. A Celtic warrior may have worn woollen braccae though he may have forgone a tunic and cloak since either, or both, might hamper the wielding of weapons. If, as documented by Roman historians, some Celts painted themselves with woad or some form of bluish dye, then it makes sense to show off those patterns on bare torsos.

Since evidence of the wearing of helmets in northern Britain is scarce and Roman and Greek recorded writings state it wasn’t common, the only headgear worn might have been for ceremonial reasons- perhaps a pre-battle statement by whoever was leading the charge.

Swords were likely to have been carried by only some of the higher echelons of the tribe, since to own a sword would be to possess a valuable item. The typical sword of the era was likely to have been of the longer variety, perhaps some as long as 27 inches, probably double sided and with a hilt generally made from bone, horn or wood.

Wikimedia Commons - Museum of Scotland
Since the use of the small two-wheeled chariot was still a common feature, swords had become longer during the late Iron Age to accommodate the longer stretch to reach an opponent from the chariot. These extremely sharp weapons were carried in a scabbard made from two hinged iron plates hinged which was hung around the waist suspended from a belt of iron links.

Fashioning these swords was a fine skill, the development of a form of steel enhancing the overall capability of the sword wielder as the impact on the enemy was greater and the tougher metal was capable of cutting through chain mail. They were not designed for any stabbing motions and therefore did not have a sharpened point. The slash and cut was what it was intended for. The movements need to use these swords meant that the Celtic warriors needed space to wield the sword and could not easily cluster together like the Romans could with their shorter gladius.
Celtic spearmen were likely to have been much more plentiful than sword wielders. The spearman would have carried a number of these and would have led the charge, running on foot to barrage the enemy with a volley of fired spears. These javelin types were intended for long range reach and the sheer numbers of spears thrown were intended to fell the front ranks of the enemy, or to seriously dent the front line, even if they had huddled in tortoise formations close together to repel an attack as the Romans did.

The Celtic thrusting spear had by late first century developed into something resembling a lance with a slimmer leaf shaped head, suitably sized for piercing the lorica hamata (chain mail)-of the Roman auxiliary and for penetrating between the metal plates of the lorica segmentata (plated mail) of the legionary soldier. The spear head was simply fashioned from iron or steel, attached with a riveted pin through a wooden shaft of ash or a similar durable and strong wood. It seems to have been common for some either very brave, or depending on how you view it, very foolhardy Celtic warriors to have run forward after the first volley was fired to collect up the fallen weapons to reuse them. Scurrying back to a distance far enough off to be able to use them again could not have been easy or even all that successful.

A dagger or a long knife was a likely possibility and this would have had a sharp point, the shorter blade intended for neck slicing or stabbing motions. A leather sheath, hung from a belt at the waist, would have protected the warrior from inadvertent cuts from the sharp blade.

Slings and sling stones seem to have been used frequently, and very skilfully, and these would have been stored in a pouch suspended from the belt or from a thong angled across the chest. The bow and arrow does not seem to have been generally used in battle - it was deemed not a worthy weapon since the need to fire at a great range was not an honourable way to kill the enemy, and the Celt in battle was a fiercely proud warrior. 
Wikimedia Commons

The typical Celtic shield may have been small and circular or oval shaped, generally hide covered over wooden frame, or made from light wood and painted. The spectacular 'Battersea shield' is possibly from an older era but any shield such as this would have only seen ceremonial use. 

The chariots used might be classified as weapons by some enthusiasts. During the era I write about they were two-wheeled, they mostly had light strapped sides and they had a flat bed to stand on. They were drawn by a small Celtic horse, or horses, and were manned often by a driver who was accompanied by a dedicated spearman. 

In battle, the small chariots were used to confront and taunt the enemy front line and to create breaks in the defence wall. After some noisy posturing and skilled taunting, it's thought the driver and spearman would jump from the vehicle to engage in hand to hand combat, the vehicle remaining nearby for a quick getaway. In practice, it seems that the chariots caused a lot of chaos when the horses became disoriented or were injured.

Roman use of the gladius was significant, but it was the whole armour and defensive package which often defeated the Celts during the battles fought in Britannia and across Europe.

Roman Weaponry
The Roman soldier, whether auxiliary or legionary, was significantly different from the typical Celt in what he wore and what he carried. Unlike Celtic warriors, Roman military equipment was standard and the soldier was at great pains to ensure his equipment was maintained to a high standard. The mandatory paying for missing or damaged items was avoided whenever possible. Damage during a battle was unavoidable, at times, but the typical Roman soldier made sure damage was not due to lazy maintenance. That meant unvarying vigilance in certain climates. This constant striving to have the best maintained equipment was for weapons but also for the armour that was constantly worn.
Roman Swords
Wikimedia Commons

Infantry Sword: Gladius

The most typical Roman Gladius, with its searingly sharp double edge and formidable triangular-shaped tip, was not thought to be originally a Roman weapon. The type of blade originated in ‘Hispania’, now named Spain, but was used so effectively against Roman troops during the early Roman conquest of the area that the Romans adopted the shape from the Celtic locals and fashioned their own versions around the 4th – 3rd century BC.

During those earliest Republican Roman invasions of Iberia (Spain) the natives used two types of sword. The first was a hook-handled sword called a falcata. This type of weapon was used to hook and slash, the deadly curve on it being most effective for angled slicing, though it was very effective in disabling a conquering Roman.

The Roman army chose the Celt-Iberian second weapon shape as their new weapon of choice. This second weapon was the gladius.

The gladius had a straight double edged blade but there are sub types of the gladius with marginal differences depending on the location needs when the Romans campaigned in hostile territories. These styles of gladius shapes developed over the centuries of usage.

(Apologies - I'm no artist and my drawings are not great but they help me to envisage what a soldier might be wielding)
  • The Hispaniensis Gladius - the basic version is the one adopted from Spain which was slightly leaf shaped- narrower near the centre. 
  • The Mainz Gladius - this type was used in the northern European regions. It typically had a long point.
  • Pompeii Gladius - the most popular type of gladius. This was the shortest blade length with parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip.  
  •  I also found references to a type named the Fulham Gladius which appears to be the type used in Roman Britain which had straight edges and also a long triangular tip. This type was most likely the one my Celtic Warriors would have had experience of combatting.

The tip could be used for both stabbing motions, particularly useful for gutting an opponent between the ribs, or directly into areas of the body which had the most vital organs. The gladius could also be used for swiping in both directions since each side of the blade had a searingly sharp cutting edge. This was particulary useful for disabling the enemy if a strike was made behind the knees, crippling the opponent before the sword would be used in a stabbing manoeuvre to finish off.

When the Romans adopted their form of the gladius, the soldiers were taught to always draw the gladius from the right side with their right hand (there is a little conjecture over this but the consensus favours the right-hand use). This allowed for effective use in formations where tight clusters were possible, with less chance of a neighbour being accidentally maimed. Since the gladius is designed to be used one-handed, it fit well with the skilled and practised military manoeuvres used to defeat attackers. The light weight of the gladius meant it could be wielded for longer, the user tiring more gradually. More about scutum formation will be covered in another post.

The handles of the gladius were usually formed from hardwoods for the average soldier. Brass, silver and ivory handles were reserved for the officers and higher ranking Romans. The scabbards were often very ornate with metal ornamentation and it was fairly common for the name of the owner to be etched on the blade for identification.

See this site for some fabulous scabbards and decorative elements.
Match the fearsome gladius short sword with the rest of the armour of the Roman legionary, or auxiliary, and the result was almost a foregone conclusion when the soldiers fought in typical Roman formations. However, the Roman infantry soldier who ended up fighting in one-to-one combat often had a harder battle to win, since the unarmed Celt might be fleeter of foot and more able to manoeuvre than the heavily armoured Roman.

Equestrian Mounted Force Sword - Spatha

The Roman Cavalry’s primary sword was the Spatha which had a longer blade, thus a longer reach to the opponent. The straight blade of the Spatha was ideal for thrusting and stabbing movements. Many of the examples of spatha are very ornate.

One of the huge successes of massed amounts of the Roman Empire’s soldiers over the Celts of northern Britannia was due not just to the stabbing gladius but to everything else in the arsenal of the soldier.

In my Celtic Fervour Series, when my Celts in Britannia have engagements with the Roman Army, the leaf-shaped pugio seems to have been part of the uniform for some of the soldiers and mounted cavalry (Late first century AD). What is not clear is whether the pugio was standard issue to some soldiers only, or whether it was an optional weapon of choice by particular soldiers who gained some kudos from the wearing of it. The lack of sufficient written evidence, backed up by physical evidence makes proving this a difficult task.

Wikimedia Commons
The Roman historian Vegetius seems to indicate that the pugio was like the gladius in that the favoured use was for stabbing, though there are depictions of them being used for slashing or cutting. 

However, there is much conjecture over the actual use of the pugio. The name pugio may have its origins in the word pugnus meaning fist- the closed fist position of the hand necessary around the hilt to retract it before using the weapon effectively by the left hand. Alternatively, it could also be derived from the stabbing or punching movement a pugilist would make during a fist fight.

Evidence of pugiones and their scabbards seem to indicate the dagger had more than one function. Some of the daggers have very ornate designs etched on them and many of the scabbards found are works of art. The conclusions drawn are that by the late first century AD the pugio held some prestige value as well as being a secondary weapon- the weapon having gone through some changes in shapes during the first century AD. Two different shapes of blade appear to have been used: the leaf-shaped version and a slimmer version with a tapered point were also used.

Whether the wearing of the pugio was earned, or acquired through having sufficient money saved to purchase one is still undecided. Till conclusive evidence appears of the use of them, we can make our own conclusions.

This site shows some very ornate scabbards for Roman pugiones.

See some examples on my Roman Research Pinterest Board. 


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