Saturday, November 3, 2012

IMMORTUI – Fighting the Undead: Roman Weapons


This is the first post in a short series that will be looking at some aspects of the world of IMMORTUI, Part I in the Carpathian Interlude series of novellas.

When Optio Gaius Justus Vitalis and his men set out to confront legions of zombies in a dark valley of the Carpathian mountains, there is one thing that really enables the Romans to hold their own: weapons.

The Roman army was one of the most disciplined, well-organized and well-armed fighting forces of the ancient world and their weaponry evolved over time as they adopted the best from each nation they conquered.

In IMMORTUI, I have tried to use the Latin names for all the weapons and articles of clothing. After all, this is a story, not a history lesson! However, for those of you who may not be familiar with the world and weapons of ancient Rome, here is a crash course in case you ever find yourself facing down legions of undead.

Pompeii style Gladius
First, and most importantly, is the gladius. This is the Roman soldier’s (legionary’s) sword. The word ‘gladiator’ is derived from this word. This weapon has been called the ‘meat-cleaver’ of the ancient world because of its brutal efficiency. It was primarily a stabbing weapon, worn on the soldier’s right side. The style varied slightly from the Republic to the Empire but the effect for each was the same. The gladius was indeed an extremely deadly weapon.

In the ancient world, shields were of primary importance for defending the bearer against all manner of attacks from arrows and sling stones, to cavalry charges and a rush of roaring Celts. The Roman legionary’s shield was called a scutum. This was a very large, heavy rectangular or oblong shield with a large boss in the middle that could be used to smash the face of an attacker. It would protect more than half of a soldier standing up, and was used to great effect in military formations such as the tustudo, or tortoise formation.

What ancient warrior’s kit would be complete without a spear? The Roman solider’s spear was called a pilum. This differed from the spears of the ancient Greek hoplite in that it was much lighter and could be used only once. It was however, very effective at piercing armour and flesh because of its fine point. A hail of these was truly deadly and was the Romans’ first offensive weapon after artillery. And, once thrown, it could not be picked up by the enemy and thrown back due to the special design that ensured the tip broke off or bent upon impact making it useless. 

For an optio, like Gaius Justus Vitalis in IMMORTUI, a hastile was carried instead of a pilum. The hastile was a staff carried by that particular rank of officer and though it was symbolic of his rank it could also be used as a weapon if need be.

Optio carrying hastile
When the fighting inevitably came to close quarter combat, and pila and gladii were spent or lost, the Roman dagger called a pugio was what was called for. This blade, apart from having practical uses such as cutting meat or sharpening a stake, this could be thrust into the side of an enemy when he came too close for comfort. The pugio was worn at the soldier’s left side, secured tightly at the waist for a quick and easy draw.

So there you have it! These are the main weapons of a Roman legionary which they would carry with themselves on the march and into battle. They would never leave his side whether he was sleeping or digging ditches and ramparts at the end of the day.

Roman Pugio
The question you have to ask yourself is whether these weapons, honed and perfected over centuries of use, would be enough to defeat an enemy that feels neither pain nor fear, an enemy that will keep coming at you until you do one thing…

Well, you will have to read IMMORTUI to find out.

Tune in next week for the second post on the world if IMMORTUI in which we will look at Roman armour and clothing.

Legionaries in 'Testudo' formation

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