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Gladius is a Latin word for sword. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those used by the Greeks. From the 3rd century BC, the Romans adopted swords similar to those used by the Celtiberians and others during the early part of the conquest of Hispania. This kind of sword was known as the Gladius Hispaniensis, or “Hispanic Sword.” It was once thought that they were similar to the later Mainz types, but the evidence now suggests that this was not the case. Rather these early blades followed a slightly different pattern, being longer and narrower, and were probably those that Polybius considered good for both cut and thrust. Later extant Gladii are now known as the Mainz, Fulham and Pompei types. In the late Roman period Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus refers to swords called semispathae (or semispathia) and spathae, for both of which he appears to consider gladius an appropriate term.
A fully-equipped Roman soldier would have been armed with a shield (scutum), several javelins (pila), a sword (gladius), probably a dagger (pugio) and perhaps a number of darts (plumbatae). Conventionally, the javelins would be thrown before engaging the enemy, at which point the gladius would be drawn. The soldier generally led with his shield and thrust with his sword. Despite the gladius being designed for thrusting at the enemy from behind the protection of the shield, all types of gladius appear to have been suitable for slashing and chopping motions.
The name is a Latin o-stem noun, its plural being gladii. Gladius is used in literature as early as the plays of Plautus (Casina, Rudens).
Words derived from the word gladius include gladiator (“swordsman”) and gladiolus (“little sword,” from the diminutive form of gladius). Gladiolus is also the name of a flowering plant with sword-shaped leaves.
Origin of the word can be derived from the level of weapon finish technology (smooth finishing) in ancient Indo-European languages : Proto-Germanic *glaðo- (“‘smooth’”), from Proto-Indo-European. Cognate with Old High German glat (“‘smooth’”) (German glatt (“‘smooth’”), Old Norse glaðr (“‘smooth; happy’”), Old Bulgarian: ?????? (gladak) (“‘smooth’”).
According to Julius Pokorny the term would be of Celtic origin, from Gaulish *kladyos, cognate to Welsh cleddyf and Bretion kleze (Old Irish claideb is from the Brythonic, compare claymore), all meaning “sword”, ultimately from a base *kelad- (extended from a root *kel-) cognate to Latin clades “injury, damage, defeat”. Gladius could also be a term used to describe a dagger, Pugio.
The Hispanic sword was probably not acquired from Hispania and not from the Carthaginians. Livy relates the story of Titus Manlius Torquatus taking up a Gallic challenge to a single combat by a large-size soldier at a bridge over the Anio river, where the Gauls and the Romans were encamped on opposite sides of the river. Manlius strapped on the Hispanic sword (Gladius Hispanus). During the combat he thrust twice with it under the shield of the Gaul, dealing fatal blows to the abdomen. He then removed the Gaul’s torc and placed it around his own neck, hence the name, torquatus.
The combat happened in the consulships of C. Sulpicius and C. Licinius in about 361 BC, much before the Punic Wars, but during the frontier wars with the Gauls (366-341 BC). One theory therefore proposes the borrowing of the word gladius from *kladi- during this period, relying on the principle that k becomes g in Latin only in loans. Ennius attests the word. Gladius may have replaced ensis, which in the literary periods was used mainly by the poets.
The debate on the origin of the gladius Hispanus continues. That it descended ultimately from Celtic swords of the La Tene and Hallstat periods is unquestioned. Whether it did so directly from Celtiberian troops of the Punic Wars or through Gallic troops of the Gallic Wars remains the question of the Hispanic sword.
The gladiator generally was a slave (more rarely a free volunteer) who fought to the death using a gladius in a display called a ludus, “game”—in origin held as part of the funeral celebration in honor of a notable warrior. The time the custom began is lost in the prehistoric Bronze Age.
Etruscans held funeral ludi of an unknown provenance. They passed the custom on to the Romans. In Roman gladiatorial theory, prisoners of war were to be sacrificed as a duty to the deceased warrior; hence the games were called munera, “services.” Over the centuries, services were rendered through many forms of combat. The sacrificed went by many names.
Even among the Romans, combat and weapons were of many forms. That being so, the choice of the word gladius needs to be explained. It must have been appropriate when displays began at Rome. Games were held first by Latin speakers at Capua, a renamed Etruscan city. Livy explains that in 308 BC the Samnites were defeated by the Campanians, who captured a large cache of new and ornate arms, only acquired by the Samnites in 310 BC. The Campanians gave these to their gladiators, innovating a new class of gladiator, the Samnites. They fought with the gladius.