Greek & Roman Swords – Weight, Characteristics, Use

When we think of ancient Greek swords then we usually imagine the Kopis, a type of sword that especially movies like 300 have made famous. And when we think of a Roman sword we usually think of the short Gladius. And while both weapons were used (in the case of the Gladius quite extensively) other swords were also used by Greek and Roman warriors. And some, like the Xiphos, were even a lot more commonly used by Greek Hoplites than the Kopis.

So in the following, I would like to present the different types of swords that the ancient Greek warriors used (the Xiphos and the Kopis) as well as the types of swords that Roman soldiers used (the Gladius and the Spatha). For that purpose, I will focus on the characteristics of each type of sword, how it was best used, and also its weight.

And since the weight of swords is a topic that is oftentimes wrongly portrayed in movies I would start out by giving you a brief overview of the weight of Greek, Roman, and for better comparison also medieval swords.

  • Xiphos: 1-2 pounds (0,45-0,9 kg)
  • Kopis: up to 2 pounds (0,9 kg)
  • Gladius: 2,2 – 3,5 pounds (1-1,6 kg)
  • Spatha: up to 2 pounds (0,9 kg)
  • Medieval swords: 1,7 – 3,5 pounds (0,8-1,6 kg)

So let’s now dive into the characteristics of the different types of swords and find out how they were best used! Let`s start with the swords used by ancient Geek warriors, the so-called Hoplites.

Ancient Greek swords: The Xiphos and the Kopis

When we talk about ancient Greek swords then we basically have to look at two different types of swords that were used by ancient Greek warriors. The Xiphos, a weapon mostly used by Hoplites and lighter types of Infantry, and the Kopis, a sword that Greek generals mostly saw as a sword for cavalrymen.

However, especially in later periods the Kopis, usually a shorter version of it, was also used by Greek Hoplites and Macedonian Phalangites. Over the course of the ancient Greek expansion and the Greco-Persian wars the use of the Kopis spread throughout the Mediterranean and was also adapted by the Persians.

So let`s first take a look at the Xiphos, the sword more commonly used by Greek Hoplites.

The Xiphos: The sword of the Greek Hoplites

The main weapon of the Greek Hoplites was the spear, the so-called dory. The dory was 8.2-14.8 ft (2.5-4.5 m) long, had a diameter of 1 in (2.5 cm), and had a leaf-shaped spearhead on the one end and a spike called sauroter (lizard-killer) on the other end. As a secondary weapon, the Greek Hoplites mostly carried a sword called Xiphos.

The Xiphos was a bronze sword with a double-edged, mostly leaf-shaped blade that was rarely longer than 20 in (50 cm), not wider than 2 in (5 cm), and weighed 1-2 pounds. Greek Hoplites used it as a secondary weapon after the spear (dory) and carried it under their left shoulder. The Xiphos was ideal for both stabbing and slashing.

While a blade with a length of only 20 inches might sound more like a short sword to us, the Ancient Greeks considered it a normal length for a regular sword. And especially the Spartan Hoplites were famous for using an even shorter version of the Xiphos that was only 12 in (30 cm) instead of the more commonly used 20 in long.

But while the Xiphos was the sword that Greek Hoplites used most commonly it is usually not the sword that we imagine when we think of ancient Greek swords. Instead, we usually think of the Kopis.

So let`s now look at the Kopis!

The Kopis: An ideal weapon for mounted warfare

The Greek sword that movies like 300 have made famous is the Kopis.

The Kopis had a single-edged recurved iron blade with a length of up to 25.6 in (65 cm) and weighed up to two pounds (0.9 kg). It was ideal for cutting and chopping. While the Kopis was occasionally used by Greek Hoplites it was best used in mounted warfare (like the general Xenophon recommended).

While the blade length of 25.6 in (65 cm) puts it at a similar length to the Roman Spatha (more on that sword later) we can assume that versions of the Kopis used by Infantrymen were much shorter. Indeed the Kopis was mostly used as a cavalry weapon since the advantages of the concave-shaped blade could be used to a much greater advantage in mounted warfare than in infantry warfare (as pointed out by the ancient Greek general Xenophon).

Despite that, many depictions of Greek art show Persian warriors fighting on foot and wielding the Kopis instead of the straight-bladed Persian swords.

But the story of the Greek-Persian interactions and the reasons why the Greco-Persian wars started in the first place is a story for another time. Here you can find out my article with more information on what started the Greco-Persian Wars.

For now, I would like to move on to the Roman swords.

Ancient Roman swords: The Gladius and the Spatha

When we talk about Roman swords then the first thing that comes to mind is the Gladius, the famous sword of the Roman Legions that was also used by several of the most popular types of Gladiators.  

Do you want to find out more about how the Roman Legions fought and why the Pilum, a light Javelin, was just as important for the Sucess of the Roman armies than the Gladius? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. And here you can find out more about the reasons behind the success of the Roman army in general and why nobody tried successfully copied the Roman army despite that success.

But apart from the Gladius, there was another type of sword, the Spatha, that would eventually not only supersede the Gladius as the weapon used by Roman infantry but would eventually also develop into the early and high medieval swords.

But more on the medieval swords later. For now, I would like to start this chapter by talking about the Gladius.

The Gladius – the Roman Infantry sword

While the secret of making Steel had already been known long before the Romans started to put their mark on the Mediterranean the best Roman gladii were not only made from Steel but from so-called Noric Steel (Ferrum Noricum). You can find out more about the Ferrum Noricum and the production of Steel in Antiquity and the Middle Ages in my article here.

The Gladius had a total length of 27-29 in (70-75 cm) of which the double-edged iron or steel blade made up 19-21 in (50-55 cm). It weighed 2,2-3,5 pounds (1-1,6 kg) and had a tapered point which made it ideal for stabbing while the double-edged blade could also be used for cutting or slashing. According to the Roman author Polybios, the Romans adapted the Gladius from Iberian tribes.

By the way, the Gladius was not the only piece of equipment that the Roman military adopted from its former enemies. Almost all of the weapons and armor that a Roman soldier used were adapted from former enemies of Rome. Here you can find out more about the weapons and armor that Roman soldiers used until 107 BC and how that equipment was standardized through the Marian Reforms of 107 BC.

The Gladius was mostly an infantry weapon ideal for combat with large shields (the so-called scutum) and in close formations. While due to its double-edged blade the Gladius could be used for cutting and slashing its tapered tip made it ideal for stabbing while thrusting in close combat. Especially stabs into the abdomen or the upper thighs caused fatal wounds.

Here you can find out more about how Roman legionaries fought. And here you can find out more about the casualty rate of Roman battles.

But while the Gladius was a great sword for an infantryman it was less suitable for mounted combat. For that purpose, the Roman cavalry, most of it consisted of Auxilary troops, used a longer sword, the so-called Spatha.

The Spatha – first a cavalry sword, later also an infantry sword

Like most other parts of the equipment that Roman soldiers used the Spatha was also not a Roman invention. Instead, the Roman army was probably first introduced to the Spatha during the Second Punic War by Celtic Auxiliaries.

The Spatha was a double-edged sword with a total length of up to 47 in (110 cm) of which the iron or steel blade made up 39 in (100 cm). It was best used for chops and as such the preferred sword of cavalrymen serving in the Roman auxiliaries. It weighed up to 2,2 pounds and would gradually replace the Gladius as the sword used by the Roman infantry during the 2nd and 3rd century AD.

Later, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of Antiquity, the spatha slowly developed into the Viking Age / Carolingian sword which in return developed into the arming sword during the 11th century.

But the wide variety of swords that were used in the Middle Ages is a story for another time. For more information on that topic, I would like to recommend you my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).

Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).

Richard F. Burton: The Book of the Sword (London 1884).