The Gladius vs. The Sarissa

By Terikel Grayhair

The sarissa was a four and a half meter (fifteen-foot) wooden pole topped with a bronze or iron spearhead encasing the top of its shaft. Upon its butt was a spike, useful when grounding the spear to prevent moisture from invading the lower end- which would lead to rot. It needed two hands to hold it, and was a simple thrusting weapon- albeit a very long one. One did not wield the sarissa from its very end, so one was forced by the laws of physics to hold it about two thirds of its length from the tip. This provided a killing zone about ten to twelve feet from the wielder. Outside of this lethal radius the sarissa could not reach; inside of this it was as effective as a long stick.

The gladius was a sword- a blade about fifty to eighty centimeter (two to two-and-a-half feet) long with a handle. It was relatively heavy for its small size, being thick and wide across the blade, yet had a balance point close to the hilt enabling it to be wielded deftly and accurately with one hand. It had a lethal range of about a meter and a half (depending on the arm holding it), but unlike the sarissa, it was lethal from its outermost range to well within thirty centimeters of the man wielding it- and that area was occupied by the shield.

These two weapons met across the battlefield in the years 280 BCE to approximately 168 BCE in clashes that would decide the Masters of the Mediterranean world.

Any fool knows that one-on-one, the wielder of the gladius would kill the wielder of the sarissa. The very length of the Macedonian spear was both its tremendous strength and its awful weakness. Once the swordsman got inside the lethal radius, the sarissa was relatively useless. The swordsman can still cut, stab, and parry with his smaller blade, albeit in a much smaller area- but when he brings that area inside the operational range of the sarissa, the spear man is a dead man. However, these weapons were not used one on one- they were used by opposing teams, and these teams used tactics and complementary articles to emphasize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.

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The earliest recorded battles in Europe were mainly heavily armed noblemen engaging their opponents in a series of single combats, before cheering crowds of farmers and artisans whose sole purpose on the battlefield was to help chase down the broken men of the other side once their nobles fell. The crowds were mostly armed with farm implements, hunting weapons, or tools, and called to arms only after the spring planting, and were released to their field for the autumn harvest.

Among their arms was the spear. This weapon was used since the Stone Age for hunting. As the Bronze Age began and metal was identified as superior to stone, bronze-headed spears became weapons of war. As time went on, and the crowds became trained and better equipped levies of citizens, the spear became a weapon of note and the primary weapon of infantry.

The spear itself is a rather versatile weapon. One could throw it, stab with it, or parry incoming blows. By bracing it against the ground, a spearman can gain some protection from cavalry. It was also comparatively cheap and easy to make- a leaf-shaped head fixed to a wooden shaft- which made it ideal for equipping armies, as a city could produce thousands in relatively little time. And it was relatively easy to use-thus making training of its wielders relative quick and simple as well. This made the spear an ideal weapon for many armies.

As the spear became more and more widespread and popular, tactics were invented and adapted to capitalize upon it. Men were formed into lines, then thicker lines with second ranks. Then third ranks were added. And armor. The trend continued until the earliest phalanxes emerged, and with it a new sort of war.

The phalanx was the climax of spear warfare. No longer were only the heavily armed and armored nobles the centerpiece of the battle- that title had shifted to the professional and well-equipped phalanx of hoplite spearmen. This formation created a bristling wall of layered spear-points, almost impenetrable to the enemy, as the spears of the rearward ranks covered the dead space behind the lead rank’s spear points. This teamwork made the phalanx the powerhouse of the ancient battlefield.

The hoplites of the phalanx were trained to stand shoulder to shoulder, in ranks of four to sixteen men deep, and strictly disciplined to hold formation. It was imperative that the phalanx hold its ranks- the strength of a phalanx lay in its formation. Break the formation, and you broke the phalanx.

Phalanx-on-phalanx battles were relatively rare in ancient warfare, as the phalanx was a slow block of men (slow so as to retain its formation) that could only move forward- and even then it drifted to the right as men sought cover under the overlapping shield of the man to his right. It also required a battlefield free from obstructions that could hamper that necessary formation. As such ground was relatively rare in mountainous Greece where the phalanx ruled supreme, battles between them were thus rare as well- whole generations could go by without any battles.

A phalanx battle was basically decided by who broke formation first. Two phalanxes would march towards each other from opposite ends of the battlefield, then begin a pushing contest with spears darting back and forth seeking blood. Here the deeper formation- the one with more ranks than the other- would often win out as depth equated to impact and pushing power. The side that lost was the side whose formation became disrupted and lost the will to fight. Most fleeing men threw away their heavy aspis (shields) so that they could gain speed, knowing the victorious troops would not do so and therefore be slowed by their own equipment- thus the Spartan saying ‘Come home with your shield, or upon it.’

Since the battle was decided by breaking a formation, the side with the longer spears in better position would inflict casualties sooner than a less-mobile phalanx with shorter spears. This led to Iphicrates instituting reforms among the Athenian hoplites, reducing the weight of their metal aspis and bronze armor, replacing them with the lighter but smaller pelte shields and quilted armor shirts to increase their mobility, and lengthening their spears to twelve feet (three and a half meters). Epaminondas added to this by deepening the phalanx to up to fifty ranks to increase impact power, and won a spectacular victory over the Spartans at Leuctra and another at Mantinea.

The trends of longer spears and deeper phalanxes continued to develop over time, though the fifty-rank deep phalanx of Epaminondas was not used again after his death. Sixteen ranks became the standard. Towards the end of the phalanx’s dominance, spears had given way to Philip II of Macedon’s sarissa, a spear so long it forced its wielder to hold it with both hands, hanging his shield by a strap around his neck, and bracing himself against his fellow phalangites. Despite this tiresome positioning and usage, the unwieldy and cumbersome sarissa reigned supreme upon the field of battle when used correctly, as demonstrated by its creator Philip II of Macedon at Chaeronea but above all by his son Alexander over all of Asia Minor and Egypt.

The sarissa was best employed by the Macedonian syntagma, a block of 16 files 16 men deep, the building block of the Macedonian phalanx. Syntagmas could be arrayed in a straight line to form a conventional phalanx, or in crescents, or wedges, or squares. They were flexible enough to be able to lift their long sarissas, turn to the right or left or rear, and lower them to face the new direction rather rapidly. But it was still, like the phalanx, dependent on a tight formation of men to present the deadly spear wall. After Alexander, the use of the syntagma fell into disuse and phalanxes reverted to long blocks of men, incapable of assuming any other deployment. This led directly to their downfall, as you will soon see.

Each hoplite had, in addition to his sarissa, a sword for close combat. This sword was called a kopis, or falcata, and was often but not always curved. It was used almost exclusively for hacking and slashing. It was weighted toward the tip, and unwieldy when in the tight press of a phalanx. It was almost never drawn in anger, as the sarissa did most of the killing, and if a phalanx broke, its men fled rather than draw their useless swords. Thus the phalangite practiced hours drilling with his long, unwieldy sarissa, and hardly ever touched his falcata.

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On the other side of the Adriatic, the peoples of Italia were taking their cues from the Greeks. The Romans in particular, modeled their army so closely after the Greek model that the legions of King Servius Tullus were known as phalanx legions.

These legions were drawn up five hundred men abreast, in six ranks. They were grouped into ranks named hastati and principes for the younger men, and the triarii for the oldest. Each was armed with the hasta (spear), a sword, and a dagger. For fighting in the flat lowlands, these phalanx legions worked well, but Italia is a rocky land and much of the fighting occurred higher up. Here the phalanx legions were sorely pressed on the uneven terrain- as demonstrated by the defeats by the Samnite hands at Caudine Forks (321 BC) and other humiliating defeats. A new method had to be found if the Romans were to survive.

The sword was the first weapon ever designed specifically to kill people. All other weapons until this time were variations of tools, farm implements, or hunting weapons. The sword, however, was designed not to chop wood, or kill animals, or harvest wheat- it was designed to slice and kill humans. It derived from a combination of axe and knife, though took on a shape all its own. Most swords were leaf-shaped blades, which had the narrow blade emerge from the hilt before widening out, creating weight at the upper end, before tapering to a point. This extra weight near the tip provided extra impetus in a slash, much like the handle of a hammer adds force to the hammerblow. This type of sword was excellent at slashing arms and legs and heads from foes.

The Romans were if anything an adaptable people, and after the painful encounter with the Gauls at Allia, they recognized the superiority of the sword over the long spear. Marcus Furius Camillus set in motion a makeover of the Roman phalanx legion using the new weapon, but he realized that the sword alone was not sufficient. Thus began a long process of trial and error, tempering weapons to tactics and tactics to weapons until the Camillan legions were a fact.

The Gallic swords, and those of the Iberians, were also designed to stab. Their balance point was closer to the hilt, making the sword easy to handle for thrusting, though it lost some impact power in slashing. The bitter lesson from Allia opened the eyes of Camillus, who began his reforms. The Greek-like sword used by the phalanx legions was discarded, and a new sword based on the legend of Torquatus was adopted. Though the Gladius Hispaniensis (or Gladius Iberius as it was also known) was wickedly sharp, the huge scutum carried by the legionaries hampered its usefulness as a slashing weapon. Likewise, the close formation used by Romans and Greeks alike made lengthening the sword preposterous. The answer lay in the thrust, which Camillus was wise enough to see.

Held at the waist with the tip slightly up, the gladius could be used in combination with the scutum quite easily. It was simply move up to the opposing force, hide behind the large scutum, and stab outwards and upwards with the gladius, inflicting a painful and lethal abdominal injury to the foe. Repeat as necessary, until tired (after about fifteen minutes) and the centurions would rotate the front line with a fresh line. Being used in this stabbing manner, the men carrying the gladius were far less tired than men swinging huge blades or carrying long pikes, leaving the Roman legionary in better shape to pursue or flee, depending on the battle.

The gladius was made in pieces, welded together to form a blade fifty to seventy centimeters long and able to be sharpened to a keen edge- and hold that edge, unlike softer iron or bronze. It was mostly straight for its length, tapering to a narrow point. It lacked a crosshilt, but so did many other swords of the era. And neither the Romans nor the Greeks considered it a short sword- in those days, it was the average length of a sword in the civilized world.

The new legions were deployed about 300 BC, and were almost immediately thrown into battle against Pyrrhus of Epirus. The Romans left the battlefield of Heraclea in Epirote hands, but inflicted far more casualties than they sustained. A second battle against Pyrrhus at Asculum in 279 BC, again resulted in a Pyrrhic victory- Pyrrhus won, but at such a cost that it was no victory. It seemed that the phalanx was still supreme over the innovations of Camillus, though the sands were shifting underfoot as something new emerged.

Camillus and his successors were not yet finished with tweaking the combination. They added the pilum to the mix, a heavy javelin that broke or bent upon impact, denying the enemy the chance to throw it back. Its wooden rivet often broke, leaving the pilum hanging from a shield by its iron rivet, encumbering the shield and the man carrying it. Other tactical necessities, such as forming the legions into maniples of two centuries, were developed and practiced.

Eighty-odd years later, the Romans fought phalanxes again at the Battle of Cynoscephalae 197 BC. The result was a massacre. Philip V set his phalanx of sixteen thousand hoplites upon a hill and had seven thousand five hundred other troops and allies to his flank. The Romans came at him with two legions (eight thousand four hundred legionaries) and ten thousand allies. The battle was a stand-off for a while, but as the forces closed over the uneven ground, the phalanx lost some of its rigidity. Roman pila, thrown by the Roman right, created more gaps.

Into these gaps leaped the Roman legionaries, who used their large scutum and small gladii to fend off the long sarissas and move close to the spearmen themselves. Once past the spearpoints, the spearmen were almost helpless, forced to discard the spear and draw his falcata- with which he had not trained nor could wield properly in the press of the formation.

The result was his impalement upon the gladius as the Romans tore them apart.

The formation broke, and the victorious Roman right began chasing the fleeing Macedonian left off the field. The scutum was less trouble to bear than the heavy Macedonian aspis, and the legionaries’ use of stabbing left them less tired than their hoplite foes. Many hoplites were slain in this portion of the battle, but far less than what happened next.

While the Roman right had broken its foe and began chasing them from the field, Roman left was in deep trouble. The allies were pushed steadily back, and their phalanx threatened to break. An anonymous tribune, seeing this, demonstrated the beautiful flexibility of the Camillan system by peeling off twenty maniples of legionaries from the pursuing Roman right to hit the Macedonian right in its exposed rear. The hoplites, engaged in the front and now in the rear, were slaughtered almost to a man.

Many regarded this victory of Rome as a fluke, thinking that maybe Philip V was awed by the recent defeat of his ally Carthage at Roman hands and therefore deployed poorly. Nothing, they obstinately thought, could defeat a phalanx except another phalanx when it was properly deployed. Such has it always been, so shall it always be. However, the so-called fluke of Roman victory with the gladius over the sarissa was repeated at Thermopylae in 191 BC, Magnesia in 190 BC, and finally at Pydna in 168 BC. In each battle, the Romans capitalized on uneven terrain and a shower of pila to open rents in the phalanx, into which the gladius-armed swordsman could push past the deadly hedge of sarrisas to reach the soft man behind. And each occasion resulted in Roman victory.

Shortly thereafter, phalanxes went out of fashion as the nations employing them succumbed to Roman rule.

The gladius/scutum/pilum combination proved itself a formidable replacement to Greek phalanx as the dominant weapon combination of the Mediterranean world. This combination held sway over the known world for about five hundred years until the coming of the Age of Cavalry necessitated a change to newer tactics and weaponry.


West Point Military History Series, Warfare in the Ancient World
John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World, Gladius article, Gladius Iberius article