Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Why did the Roman Legionary wear the gladius on the right hip?

Why did the Roman Legionary wear the gladius on the right hip?

Why is it a puzzle in the first place? Because a right handed man wearing a sword on the right hip cannot possibly draw and strike as one action. This simple and well known fact is why all other cultures wore the sword, regardless of design, on the left hip. Except the Roman legionary. To deliberately and consistently wear the weapon at the right hip there must be a compelling reason to do so. It is not a passive act. The discipline and organization of the legion does not permit that there not be a positive gain, advantage or benefit that enhances the effectiveness of the fighting force. And yet, there is no gain in that regard. No other sword-using military force wore the sword on the right hip, simply because there is no clear combat related gain to doing so. Accepting that, then perhaps the answer might be found in a non-combat situation.

A great deal has been written about the gladius elsewhere and I feel little need to recap, other than to make a few comments that inevitably lead to my conclusion. The gladius is used almost exclusively in organised warfare; gentlemen did not stroll around Rome wearing the weapon as an indication of status, means of protection, nor duel with the weapon. It is not a defensive weapon; the design of the gladius promotes a killing thrust. While the edges were sharpened, the length of the weapon and the standard grips do not promote a chopping action. Nor does the straight blade promote the slice. It is a weapon of war for stabbing and killing. Any successful strike is likely to be fatal. The weapon is not used to curb or suppress an enemy as with other sword weapons. There is little chance of inflicting a deliberately non fatal wound.

Now, lets just look at the single defining consequence of wearing the blade at the right hip. A right handed man cannot draw and strike in one smooth action. The problem, the very thing that causes the question to be asked, is the solution to the question. Why do Roman legionaries wear the sword on the right hip? They do so that they cannot swiftly draw the weapon and strike in one fluid motion in non-combat situations. The act of drawing the weapon is disconnected from the attack. It is impossible for the ranking soldier to draw the weapon and strike in one smooth action should tempers flare. There is a moment for him to regain control of his temper, and for the rest of the unit to react and intervene.

That tempers flared, that there would be cause for individual conflict, can hardly be in dispute. The body of work detailing camp life and the daily life of the legionary gives clear indications of potential sources of conflict. That the individual soldier was armed more or less at all times is also fairly clear from the material available. That tensions would often run high cannot be in doubt. That the punishment for killing a fellow soldier was death is known. That both deaths would cause further tension among the men who knew them and thus lead to further conflict is inarguable. One soldier killing another is bad for discipline and moral. That the unnecessary losses and damage to discipline and moral, plus increase in tensions among the comrades of the slain men, is detrimental to the unit is absolutely clear.

There is one further relevant point. The centurion wore the gladius in the left hip. If there were a combat advantage (and I think it is certain that there is no advantage to making a weapon more difficult to clear) to wearing the weapon on the right hip, why the change with the raise in rank? A further mark of rank, doubtless, but also precisely so that he could draw and strike in one movement; this to show that he was above the enforced discipline of the ranker, that he was now, instead, a responsible enforcer of that discipline. A legionary could not draw and strike in one fluid action, but a centurion or an officer could. I think that that fact alone is quite compelling.

The Romans were Stoics by nature; an incredibly practical and pragmatic people. This is a simple preventative measure, a pragmatic solution to a discipline issue. As theories go, I like it. I think it's true. With the theory in mind, there may even be some evidence found to support it. I would like to think so.

I'd like to refer you to the work which permitted me to make the Socratic leap to this solution. The piece by Colin Jensen can be found here:


  1. I think that they wore it on the right hip because it's easier to draw that way. Their large shield would possibly get in the way if they drew across their body, and the gladius' short length allows it to be drawn upwards in a way that you can't easily do with a longer sword (which could be a reason why the position was unique to the romans). The centurian uses a shield with rounded edges so maybe it wasn't a problem for him.

    1. Edit: I can't seem to find any reference for centurions using slightly rounded shields, and I'm not sure where I heard it. Your idea was cooler anyway!