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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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A Query for Classicists and Archaeologists
"Swords like those we sent you are useful," Aska said. "They are
made by the Romans, and are vastly better than any we have. With
one of those you might chop down as many saplings in a day as
would build a hut, and could destroy any wild beasts that may lurk
in your swamps. (G. A. Henty, Beric the Briton [1893])


The speaker is an Iceni chief bartering with some fen-dwellers in the wake of the defeat of AD 60/1. The swords were captured from the Romans earlier in the campaign, and are presumably standard-issue legionary weapons, which I think of as designed more for stabbing from between the serried shields of a Roman line than waving about or chopping down saplings, but which I'm willing to believe could have done any of these things (though for chopping I'd rather have a hatchet).

My question is this. Is it likely that a British chief of this era (putting all partisanship to one side, for Henty's officer class is nothing if not realist) would consider a standard legionary sword to be "vastly better" than anything Made in Britain? Was Roman sword-making technology noticeably superior to that of the British, speaking in terms of quality rather than their ability to churn the things out on a large scale?
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As best as I can make out, Roman swords did have a reputation (amongst the Romans) for being better than the La Tene swords employed by Gauls of Cisapline and Transalpine origins, and this is probably what Henty is reflecting. However, this seems to have been nothing to do with their ability to chop down trees (both Romans and Gauls used axes for that purpose, and would only employ swords in emergencies), but because it could be used as both a cutting and thrusting weapon in combat, where the Gallic sword, lacking a point, could only cut, leaving soldiers vulnerable (i.e. while a Gaul is raising his sword to strike, a Roman can thrust under his guard). Archaeological examination of La Tene swords suggests that this is not entirely fair on all examples.

I suspect quality of Roman swords would vary quite a bit, depending on the skill of the smith. The Romans clearly had ideas about where the best iron ores came from, but I suspect only a few rich and privileged Romans could have swords made from such ores. New swords would generally be made locally. There were sword-makers in the army, and most forts would have had manufacturing facilities in the local vicus, either military or civilian (there's evidence from Hadrian's Wall for these). In time of war, when large quantities of swords were needed, they could be demanded from local cities (in the run-up to the Jewish revolt of 132, cities in Judaea from whom weapons were demanded purposely churned out shoddy goods).

Also, whilst I doubt that in 60 the army would import new swords from outside, quite a few soldiers would be carrying sword of continental manufacture, perhaps having been in service before the war, or have had them passed on from others.

There's an article in Britannia for 1988 by Janet Lang that's worth consulting.

Edited at 2013-03-17 09:28 pm (UTC)

Thanks - that's really helpful. I shall chase up the Lang article. (Actually I don't need to chase it up, as sovay has kindly sent it me!)

Edited at 2013-03-17 09:34 pm (UTC)