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Old April 18th, 2010, 04:18 PM   #1

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Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


From early Republican days up to the end of the 2nd Century AD, Roman soldiers almost invariably wore their swords on the right side of their bodies. This went not only for legionaries, but also auxiliary troops - both infantry and cavalry - and marines. Depictions of warriors from a barbarian numerus (irregular company) on Trajan's Column show that even allied troops fighting alongside the Romans wore their sword on the right hip.

Roman soldiers, like most soldiers in organized militaries, invariably fought right handed. Presumably left handed recruits were simply forced to fight right handed like everyone else. Therefore, a Roman soldier always carried his shield (and spear/javelins when there weren't in use) in his left hand, and used his right hand for drawing his sword or dagger.

Since a right handed swordsman naturally draws his sword from his left hip, one may wonder why the Romans didn't do it this way. Apparently, this was so was to reduce the risk of cutting the soldier standing to one's left when drawing the sword. If a legionary mistakenly hits the soldier standing to his right with his sword, he will only bump the man's shield - whereas if he inadvertedly strikes the man to his left, he will risk cutting the man's unprotected right arm or side.

Swords were worn on the right by a number of ancient soldiers that fought in tight infantry formations - including the Carthaginians, Spaniards, and other Italian peoples in addition to the Romans. Numerous contemporary artistic renditions confirm that it was also the practice of the Celtic and at least some of the Germanic and Dacian peoples with whom the Romans fought, up until the 2nd or 3rd Centuries.

With barbarian peoples, wearing the sword on the right may have held a different significance. Considering that "barbarians" in fact often fought in tight, phalanx-like formations as well (take the Suebi with whom Caesar fought), this partially explains their bearing the sword on the right as well. But barbarians - at least amongst the lower classes - were not nearly as well-armed as the Romans, and swords were something of a luxury in the ranks of the common warriors. A Gaulish warrior who found himself in possession of a sword might wear it on the the right so that his shield wouldn't obscure it from view - thus rendering his high-class weapon visible for friend and foe alike to see and envy.

Roman soldiers appear to have been wearing their swords on the right side of the body from earliest times. Pictorial evidence suggests that it was not until the late 1st Century BC/early 1st Century AD that legionary centurions were given the privilege of conveniently wearing their swords on the left - this, along with their vitis (vinestaff) and fustis (riot-baton) was one of the indicators of centurial rank.

In the 190's AD, Septimius Severus made a number of military reforms, some of which lightened the discipline in the Army. One of these reforms was to allow common legionaries and auxiliaries to wear their swords on the left side as well. Tombstones indicate that by the first decade of the 3rd Century, soldiers in every corner of the Empire had taken up this practice. The last depictions of barbarians with their swords on the right also date to the 2nd Century - suggesting that they copied their Roman neighbors in the abolition of this old custom.
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Old April 18th, 2010, 04:35 PM   #2

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


So if i get it, a Roman wears his sword left for military efficiency, and a barbarian does it to be cool?
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Old April 18th, 2010, 04:36 PM   #3

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


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So if i get it, a Roman wears his sword left for military efficiency, and a barbarian does it to be cool?
Pretty much, yeah
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Old April 18th, 2010, 11:24 PM   #4

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


There can be many reasons why the Romans wore their swords on the right and changed to left.

In the later empire the swords got longer and it became impossible for a right handed person to draw them on the right any more.

Also armour changed from plate to chain or leather, giving the drawrer more movement to reach across his body to the left.

Finally if you draw a sword from the left it interferes with the man to your if you cut at the same time whereas from the right you can do a batto-jutsu cut as you draw across only your own body.
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Old April 19th, 2010, 12:36 AM   #5

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


Maybe it was more important to hold there shields with there stronger arm, which in many occasions is the right arm (dough in my case the left arm is stronger).
Thats just a guess.
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Old April 19th, 2010, 05:48 AM   #6

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


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Originally Posted by Toltec View Post
In the later empire the swords got longer and it became impossible for a right handed person to draw them on the right any more.
The longer "spatha" used the later Empire was still worn on the right side by cavalrymen in the 1st and 2nd Centuries - look up a reconstruction of an auxiliary cavalryman, or find a picture of a tombstone.

I never considered the factor about the changes in armor style you mentioned, however.
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Old April 19th, 2010, 05:01 PM   #7

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Re: Why Roman Soldiers wore their Swords on the Right


What if you are pressed together so that your shield is being pushed against your body, you can't pull out the sword pinned against your left. If it is on the right, you can draw it. Maybe?
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