Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Wonder of Rome

This post is part of a blog hop (the first one I’ve ever done), the theme of which is “The Wonder of Rome”. At the bottom of the post you can link to, hop over and read more of what other historical fiction writers interpretation of this theme is. Perhaps predictably, mine relates to war.

There is no doubt that ancient Rome still holds a fascination for us today. The achievement of its Empire and the civilization it created are undeniable, the fact that it’s language-Latin-is still a lingua franca in medicine and science by itself validates the theme of this blog, and there are a myriad of other possible topics that could be described as wonders that still hold the attention and amazement of modern people today. For anyone looking for a quick summary, you can watch this:

However, setting central heating, roads etc. aside, I think I can name one Roman related object that casts a very long shadow that reaches from the 1st century AD through to the vikings and down to the middle ages. By happy co-incidence that would also manage to provide a connection my new book “Spear of Crom”-set in Roman Britain-with my medieval book, “Lions of the Grail”. 

For my “Wonder of Rome”, I’ve chosen the spatha, the long, broad-bladed sword first used by auxiliary cavalry units in the Roman army. 

When we picture the Roman soldier, the image that usually springs to mind is one of the legionary with his rectangular shield and short sword, the gladius. However in terms of longevity and influence (on swords at least) it was the spatha that cast the longest shadow. 
The spatha was about a meter long, making it about a foot longer than the stabbing gladius. The sides of its 4 to 6 cm wide blade were straight and for most of its length almost parallel, then tapered at the end to either a sharp or rounded point, depending on whether it was the infantry or cavalry version.

For the cavalry, the tip of the blade was rounded to prevent a trooper stabbing himself in the foot or accidentally injuring his mount. The purpose of the the weapon was for slashing downward at the enemy from horseback and the blade’s extra length helped with that. The infantry version, which seems to have appeared in service during the 3rd Century AD, had a sharp tip that allowed infantry in the front ranks of battle a longer reach. The name appears to have come from ancient Greek however the weapon itself seems to have come from either the Celts or the Germans. As auxiliary troops from those nations joined the Roman army they seem to have brought their own distinctive sword pattern with them, and this migration began with fighting units that were aligned to the particular talents of those nations. Our modern word “ally” (perhaps most famous nowadays from the Word War 2 Coalition of Allies) derives directly from the name of the cavalry regiments who accompanied the legions: the Allae. The word translates as “wing” rather than “friendly nation” but that is due to the placement of these units on the battlefield, where they spread out like the wings of the eagle on either side of the legionary foot soldiers to guard their flanks from attack. 
The Roman legionaries all had one one thing in common. Every last one of them, from the son of the rich Roman who joined up for adventure, to the merchant who joined the army to escape his debts, to the man who enlisted because he thought it was an honorable career and even right down to the scumbag who had been dragged out of prison and pressed into military service, all of them were Roman citizens. The cavalry came from allied (aka conquered) nations of Rome. They were not citizens, however, through military service (usually 25 years of it) they could earn their diploma, and with it the right to become citizens of Rome. The cavalry around the 1st century were celts and Germans from the newly conquered Gaul and Germania territories and it seems these warriors brought not just their superb horsemanship to the Roman Army but also their characteristic long bladed swords. 
The First Century Roman historian Tacitus first mentions these swords in his account of how the British King Catactacus during a battle in his insurgency against Rome found himself between a rock and a hard place: with the legionaries and their gladii on one side and the auxiliaries and their spathae on the other. A couple of centuries later and the legionaries themselves were carrying the spatha instead of the gladius. This may have been because of the phasing out of the large rectangular shield and the increased need to put some extra distance between the Roman soldier and his enemy.       
After becoming the standard sword of the Roman army the spatha design of sword continued to be produced across Northern Europe (or perhaps the design was perpetuated where it had originally emerged from?). It gave birth to the classic ring sword of the Migration Period (most probably the weapon Beowulf wielded against Grendal’s Mother). As Bram Stoker memorably put it in Dracula, when the vikings “bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come”, they bore with them swords still recognizable as the spatha pattern. The viking sword is regarded as the last recognizable descendant of the spatha, though the half-civilized offspring of French-settled vikings, the Normans, carried “arming swords” across the English channel in 1066 and these weapons represented the final transition of the spatha from viking weapon to what would become the representative weapon of the medieval knight. Indeed, without his sword a knight could not even be a knight, as it was crucial to his vows and the rituals around the making of a knight.

So as this journey ends I urge you to continue to explore the Wonders of Rome by visiting the other authors who are participating in this blog hop. You can "hop" to their own takes on this theme at the links below:


Helen Hollick said...

Tim - hope you enjoy the blog hop!

Tim Hodkinson said...

Thanks Helen. Hope it goes well for you too.

Petrea Burchard said...

I love how we can find what seems like a small detail, like the spatha, and make a study of it. Any topic in history can fill all your hours if it grabs you, but we have so many great details of Roman history available to us.

Ruth said...

Nice link with the Romans and Beowulf, Tim! I'd never thought of them having anything in common before.

Marsha Lambert said...

A very interesting post. I enjoyed learning about the spatha. Fascinating details concerning the spatha and its evolvement over the centuries.

Alison Morton said...

Oh, that Life of Brian video - old but gold.And it does sum up nicely what the Romans did for us. :-)

Fascinating about the spatha and its development, but I think I still like the traditional gladius, preferably the Pompeii pattern.

Victrix said...

The spatha is a lovely blade. In fact I have one. :-) More elegant and shapely than the gladius, in any of its incarnations.

Tim Hodkinson said...

Thanks everyone for all your comments and interest in my post.