Ask any person about the most impressive weapon ever invented, and you’d get a range of responses, although I suspect many of them would center around NUCLEAR MISSILES.
Duh. Most powerful weapon ever!
I disagree. Nuclear arms are certainly the most stand-alone destructive thing we’ve ever invented, but their possession alone deters other powers that also possess them. They are more a tool for destroying the world than conquering it, and any idiot can be taught the sequences of buttons that need to be pushed to make them work.
To me, ‘impressive’ arms combine simplicity of make and use with the power of human ingenuity and will. They harness those qualities and characteristics that helped us advance from our pre-civilized state to successfully compete with far more naturally talented predators and hunt the massive Pleistocene animals, through the use of team-work and developed skills.
Take, for example, the weapon featured in my podcast logo: the Roman gladius.
Most folks have no idea what it was or why it was uniquely important. Ask them about ‘impressive’ weapons and not only will it miss their “off the top of the head” general list; it (or even a mental approximation of it) probably wouldn’t even pop up if they were asked specifically about impressive ancient and medieval weapons. In that sub-category, we have favorites from vague memories of fantasy/medieval movies, paintings, or maybe the odd Renaissance festival or two: the huge swords, axes, lances, and blunt destroyers wielded by knights, Vikings, and barbarians.
Looked at up close, the glades is unassuming: a short, broad-bladed and heavy sword. It’s ugly, thick, and decidedly inglorious. I mean, really, when you watch Braveheart and get a look at that crazy awesome claymore William Wallace is swinging around, would you trade that in for a gladius? Roman soldiers look cool and all, but what’s cooler than that giant sword and all of those sweeping, body and head-cleaving shots?
A lot, it turns out, to my mind.
The tribal, clan, and feudal cultures that produced weapons like the claymore have a romantic appeal to them. Huge swords are a thrill and rely on the skill and bravery of the individual heroic warrior: the Achilles or the dragon-slayer of our fantasy novels. Read Beowulf, for example, and you’ll observe that the best swords all have names that reflect the reputations of their smiths and their owners. Others fade into the background and the shadows cast by the kings and the chiefs. It’s a cool story to imagine living… if you’re the king or the chief, of course.
And what happens in those stories when the great king or chief falls? The Geats of Beowulf are doomed; the Greeks of the Iliad are helpless; The Scottish bid for independence (upon which Braveheart is very, very loosely based) founders for a decade. The grand weapons some of those ancient heroes carried were rare and very expensive to make. Even if men of equal valor and skill could be found to replace the heroes, their weapons could not be produced and deployed in numbers great enough to subdue hordes of enemies and safeguard a people.
Enter the Romans and their ugly and (comparatively) little weapon. The practicality of Roman imperial enterprise was remarkable and it increased in power and prestige by leaps and bounds when it mass-produced the gladius and the other accoutrements of the Roman legionary warrior for large-scale deployment. This became especially true when ambitious generals opened the ranks to volunteers from the poorest groups of society. These men were handed the gladius, a giant shield called the scutum, and drilled in marching and tight formations. Through these simple innovations, the Roman Legion (the basic infantry division of the time) became the most feared unit of at least half a millennia.
Advancing in a tight line, each Roman legionary covered a large part of himself with his shield and held his gladius low. Another section of his body was covered by the man to his right. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his brief and excellent breakdown of legionary combat titled Roman Warfare, details the brutal simplicity of the gladius: while Rome’s tribal enemies, reliant on the huge slashing weapons of their best warriors (who often towered over the grain-fed legionary), rushed forward and looked for the sweeping head shot, the legionaries stayed tight, pushed forward with their shields, and stabbed straight for the torso.
A stab in the guts doesn’t make for a great movie shot or a stirring campfire verse, but done with a heavy, brutal blade like the gladius, it drops your opponent, however brave, huge, and skilled he might be, and often fatally wounds him. The legionary could step over his man and push forward to the next unfortunate tribesman in the mass. The key to this, of course, is the teamwork of the legion itself, maintaining the integrity of its line. One on one and separate from his formation, a legionary was vulnerable to these heroes (as would be demonstrated in the massive ambush of the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9), but when allowed to deploy effectively, the Legion was utterly dominant for a very long period of time.
When one would be destroyed in a one-off disaster, the Roman military machine would learn from the situation that created the defeat, recruit new men, train them, and always return for ultimate triumph. Often the forces of the Romans in the field would be outnumbered by a degree of two, three, or even four to one by their tribal enemies, and with the basic elements of gladius, scutum, and discipline, produce overwhelming and decisive victories. For as long as the Roman ethos itself held, along with that discipline and attention to detail, this remained true. As discipline, tax money, Roman citizenship, and solidarity became diluted further and further, it is interesting to observe their military history evolve (devolve?) toward longer swords, specialized groups of heavy mounted horsemen, and… defeat. The legions the Goths destroyed at Adrianople bore very little resemblance indeed to the large, tight, gladius-and-scutum units of Rome’s great success.
For the gladius itself was a great metaphor for Rome’s military success: practical, produced en masse with basic skill, infinitely replaceable, and perfect for its function. Made not for great movie scenes, but great achievements, not for the highly specialized chief, but for the grunt, deployed not to conquer the hearts of campfire storytellers, but to conquer the known world and to hold it with discipline and resolve for centuries, bequeathing us civilization as we know it.