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THE ROMAN DAGGER: THE PUGIO

The powerful Roman Empire has always fascinated the human race. Screeds have been written in determining its evolution and trying to analyse the reasons why it became the greatest global power in history. Without a doubt, the war was one of the main factors which led to its expansion and it is for this reason, that military history is one of the main areas historians have focused their attention on. The gladius or Roman sword, shield, helmet and dagger or pugio are some of the most popular weapons included in Roman military equipment. In this case, the weapon which we will focus our attention on is the pugio.  

Roman pugio with seath

The Roman pugio is a dagger that was employed by the Roman legions

The term pugio derives from the Latin term pugnus meaning fist. The word refers to the shape of the hand in the closed position necessary to hold this Roman sword. The origins of the Roman pugio are still the subject of much debate in historical research; and this is the case mainly due to the lack of information available.

Trawling for information through ancient texts, archaeological remains or iconographic documents we find few references to the Roman pugio and its link to other predecessors. Nonetheless, there are more and more theories pointing to its Hispanic origins. The immediate predecessor of the Roman pugio seems to be the so-called double-globular or Celtiberian bidiscoidal dagger. As early as the end of the 4th century BC and the beginning of the 3rd century BC there was evidence of the presence of the Celtiberian dagger on the Iberian Peninsula, however, the Roman pugio was not documented until the end of the 1st century BC.


Roman warrior with pilum, gladius and dagger

Funerary stele of Quintus Petilius Secundus, first-century military d. C. The iconography shows a soldier armed with pilum, gladius and pugio (on your left)

Following this theory, the Romans began to use this dagger as a result of the Celtiberian Wars which took place on the Iberian Peninsula on the occasion of the landing of the Romans in the year 218 BC. These battles extended throughout most of the Hispanic territory and were fought between the indigenous tribes who inhabited the Peninsula and the Roman army who were attempting to conquer the territory. During the Sertorian Wars (1st century BC), with Hispania as one of the main settings, the Romans had begun to use the dagger. However, it wasn?t until the end of the Republic with the predominance of Julius Caesar and the beginning of the Empire with Augustus (coinciding with the turn of the millennium) that the Roman pugio became more widespread throughout the Empire. The fact that Rome included Roman auxiliary troops (auxilia) in its army led to cultural contact and the assimilation of different technologies into the same. The auxiliary troops were soldiers recruited by Rome from amongst the non-citizen population, usually from the provinces of the Empire, and even from towns that had not been subjugated (the barbarian ones).

The pugio was an important dagger for the romans 

Recreation battles staged by the Roman army along the ends of the Mediterranean

The distribution of the Roman pugio was very widespread, reaching all the confines of the Empire, with a special presence in the area of the limes, in other words, in the border areas of greatest conflict with the indigenous populations and which therefore, required greater presence from Roman military forces. The limes of the Rhine and Danube were especially significant.

The Roman pugio is a double-bladed dagger with a leaf-shaped blade and a length exceeding 20cm. Some examples of the pugio have also been found with a triangular blade especially in the area of the British islands. This was a weapon that was longer than the Celtiberian dagger, which was around 15cm long. The blade is covered from one end to the other with a central nerve or with several which cross the blade in a parallel way offering greater solidity and consistency to the piece. The morphology of the pugio?s blade has barely changed over the centuries retaining its "S" shaped profile.


 Pugio´s sheath decorated

Roman pugio with decorated sheath

As regards the hilt of the pugio, it has three main morphologies: semi-disc, hoof or hybrid semi-disc. The hoof handle, also called the Künzing type, as indicated by its name has a knob in the form of a hoof, a central joint in the shape of a diamond and hilts that are straight and transversal to the blade. The semi-disc hilt has a knob in the shape of a semicircle, a central discoidal joint and a cross. Finally, the hybrid semi-disc hilt displays a proto-discoidal knob with a circle that doesn?t close. In all cases, its design always made it easier to grip the dagger or knife preventing it from slipping during use.

The Roman pugio was kept in scabbards which were usually richly decorated with metals and precious stones. Originally, the scabbards were manufactured with a metallic structure covered in wood and lined with animal skins. However, the scabbards evolved over time to be manufactured with assorted metal plates such as silver, brass and tin. The plates which formed the scabbard were often decorated with engravings and even with incrustations of precious metals. At the beginning they usually incorporated four rings on both the lower and upper sections to facilitate fastening to the waist or balteus using leather straps. However, from the 1st century AD it became harder to find pugios with four rings, as they tended to only have two on the upper section.

The Roman pugio was used in the Roman Empire 

The seaths that protected the Roman dagger used to be decorated with inlaid metals such as silver, brass or nickel

Historians have not reached a consensus as to the function of the Roman pugio. Its strong links to the world of war are clear, based on the simple fact that it is called pugio which makes reference to the military field. However, there are some who believe that the function of the pugio could be merely symbolic, in other words, it was an element of prestige which indicated the status of the soldier who carried this sword. This would explain the rich decoration on its scabbards and handles. However, other researchers believe that the only function of the pugio was as a weapon for fighting; this dagger was used as an auxiliary weapon during combat.

 The dagger was an important part of the warrior equipment

The role of the Roman pugio would be mainly military

 

Perhaps both opinions have something of truth in them. The Roman pugio, undoubtedly, would have formed part of the Roman military equipment, and was therefore assigned a military value. On the other hand, the fact that these daggers were richly decorated seems to indicate that a special value was given to the pugio. Furthermore, it was only those who formed part of the militia who could use this type of weapon, thereby granting them a distinction compared with the rest of Roman society.

During the 2nd century AD the use of the Roman pugio amongst the legions started to become less common, however, throughout the 3rd century AD the pugio made a significant comeback as demonstrated by different archaeological discoveries such as the Künzing arms depot (Germany).

The handles of the pugio was decorated

Roman pugio with decorated handle and sheath

The arrival of new technology from the so-called ?barbarian? towns led to the adoption of new types of swords and daggers by Rome such as the so-called spatha. The Roman spatha is a sword with a long blade (80-100cm) the design of which responded to the new requirements of the Roman army. Progressively, in its confrontation with the barbarian towns, war strategies started to change. Hand-to-hand fighting was replaced by battles on horseback and combat at a greater distance. Therefore, the blades of swords and daggers increased in length, making way for the future swords which played a leading role in medieval fights.

Roman sword 

The roman spatha was employed by the Roman legions from the first century B. C.

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