(photo credit: Wikipedia)
A gladius. This is the main weapon of the Roman Legionaries. Of the famous Preatorian Guard. What is this weapon, that it helped Rome to conquer the known world? Was it some leaf-shaped slashing weapon as used by the Spartans? Was it a huge, long but straight sword as used by the Gauls and other Barbarians? No. In fact, the Gladius was little more than a dagger. It would have been about a foot and a half long; not what you would call awesome, but it served the purpose of the legion.
The normal deployment of the legionaries was to have them advance towards the enemy either with their shields up, or in Testudo formation (where they lock together their shields together so they are covered with them on the front, top, and either side). When they come near enough to the enemy lines, they take out their Pila and throw them into the enemy lines, ‘softening up’ the enemy before the real fighting begins. Now the legion continues to advance, shields in front of them, no longer in testudo formation. They lead with their shields, gladius in the other hand, behind the shield and at waist level. When they come into contact with the enemy lines, they push with their shield whilst stabbing at the stomach with the gladius. Once the enemy line is disrupted, the gladius can be used for slashing as well, as there is more room in which to fight.
Cavalry, as they were not bunched up in tight formation, could make use of a longer sword, called a Spatha, and were basically the same as a gladius except way longer.
Even though they were small, the galadius had to be strong to be used to better effect. The Greek xiphos was made of bronze, which is actually very hard, harder than the iron used in the swords. Well, not harder than ALL of the iron, as you know that iron can be hardened by adding carbon, or softened as well. By the time of the empire came along, the Romans had discovered all this hard-soft stuff, and I’ll give you a quick overview on that.
In the original smelting, the furnaces were actually not hot enough to melt the iron, just get it to the point were it was a sort of sludge, and separate from the slag (the other stuff mixed in with the iron) and then fall to the bottom to be picked up (with tongs, of course) my the////// smelters. This iron is extremely high in carbon, and so is very brittle. The carbon can be “beaten” out, and so is placed on an anvil and whacked multiple times with a hammer, knocking the carbon out until the metal is a desired hardness. I’m not kidding about that, by the way.
Anyway, for the gladius, five strips of metal, in varying hardnesses, are used. The softest one is used for the center of the blade. The other strips are “pressure welded” (basically a fancy term for “whacking together”) to the center strip, then the thing is pounded into shape, sharpened on a grinding wheel, and given a handle. This a Roman sodier takes into battle, doing a surprising amount of damage for such a small thing.