The Romans described the civilizations that lived beyond their borders as savage “barbarians,” but these ancient tribes were anything but primitive. The leaders of groups such as the Goths, Celts, Huns and Vandals were often brilliant military tacticians, and their craftsmen were capable of fashioning advanced arms and military technology ranging from blades and bows to siege weapons. Take a closer look at seven weapons the warrior tribes used to take on the Roman Empire.
1. The Battle-Axe
Few barbarian weapons inspired more horror than the axe. While most tribal warriors carried spears or swords into combat, Germanic soldiers were known to wield heavy battle-axes capable of smashing through shield, armor and helmet in a single blow. The Franks, meanwhile, were partial to a lightweight axe known as a “francisca,” which could be used as a hacking weapon or hurled at close range as a projectile. “The iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while wooden handle was very short,” the historian Procopius wrote of the francisca in the sixth century A.D. “And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.” The axe was one of the many barbarian weapons that carried over into the medieval world. It was particularly popular among the Varangian Guard, a band of Viking mercenaries who served as bodyguards for Byzantine emperors in the 10th and 11th centuries.
2. The Long Sword
The double-edged long sword was the main weapon of the Gauls, a collection of Celtic tribal peoples that inhabited what is now France, Belgium and Western Germany. Unlike the shorter Roman “gladius,” which was primarily a stabbing weapon, the iron swords employed by the Gauls were designed to hack and slash at the enemy in a downward stroke resembling an axe-blow. The swords tended to be less effective on packed battlefields where there was not as much room to maneuver, but they were particularly deadly in individual and guerilla combat—the barbarians’ preferred tactics. The long sword figured prominently in the many wars fought between the Gauls and the Roman Republic. When the Gallic chieftain Brennus invaded Italy in the fourth century B.C., his troops famously used their sabers to cut through enemy shields and rout a Roman army along the River Allia. They went on to carry out a grisly sack of the city of Rome.
Barbarian tribes were sometimes known to rush into battle stark naked to intimidate their enemies, but they also possessed a wide range of shields and armor. Among the most effective was chainmail, which may have been invented in Europe by the Gallic Celts in the third century B.C. Most Gallic mail took the form of a short-sleeved shirt or vest made from an interlocking mesh of small metal rings. This provided flexibility while also protecting the wearer from slashing blows by swords and daggers, which would simply glance off its hard outer surface. Chainmail was extremely labor intensive to make—a single vest might include tens of thousands of rings—so it tended to be worn by barbarian chieftains and aristocrats rather than rank and file soldiers. Nevertheless, its effectiveness in combat made it highly prized among the Romans, who eventually adopted a similar mail shirt known as the “lorica hamata” for their legions.
4. The Celtic Chariot
During his campaigns in Britain in 55 and 54 B.C., Julius Caesar became the first Roman general to encounter the war chariots of the native Celtic tribes. These vehicles were usually two-horse affairs with iron-rimmed wheels and sturdy platforms made of wicker and wood. In combat, they functioned as a kind of ancient personnel carrier: drivers would drop a lone warrior near the fighting, race to safety and then return to pick the soldier up if he was injured or needed to withdraw. “They drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels,” Caesar wrote, “and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot.” The British chariot later took a starring role in the 60 A.D. revolt of the warrior queen Boudica, who united several Celtic tribes against the Romans. While she succeeded in razing three Roman Briton cities, her war charioteers were eventually hemmed in and slaughtered at the Battle of Watling Street.
5. The Falcata
When the Romans invaded modern day Spain in 218 B.C., they came face to face with a barbarian tribe known as the Celtiberians. These warriors were renowned both for their guerilla fighting ability and their skill as sword-smiths and metalworkers. One of their most famous weapons was the “falcata,” a curved, two-foot-long steel sword that was single-edged near the hilt and double-edged near the point. The weapon was weighted towards the tip, which allowed it to slash or stab its way through armor with relative ease. It was even known to cut Roman swords clean in half. The falcata served the barbarians well during more than 200 years of warfare with Rome, and it was highly prized by the ancient general Hannibal, who equipped Carthaginian troops with it during the Second Punic War. Celtiberian weapons also proved influential for the Romans. After encountering superior Spanish steel, they adapted a Celtiberian short sword into the famed “gladius” of the Roman legions.
6. The Recurve Bow
In the fifth century A.D., Attila and his Hun steppe marauders invaded Europe from the East and cut a bloody swath across the Roman Empire. The “Scourge of God” and his Huns shocked Westerners with their maneuverable cavalry and hit-and-run tactics, but they also possessed a formidable new weapon: the recurve bow. Most Hun warriors carried composite bows assembled from wood, sinew, horn and bone. Unlike the Western bow, these steppe weapons were made to curve back on themselves at the ends, which generated added torque and made arrows fly with enough velocity to penetrate armor at 100 yards. They were also smaller than typical bows, making them easier to wield on horseback. Hun horse archers were famed for their ability to accurately fire their bows even while at a full gallop. In battle, they often ambushed their adversaries in scattered bands, unleashing devastating hails of arrows before riding back to safety. Once the enemy was weakened, the Huns would swarm them at close range and finish the job with spears, sabers and even lassos.
7. Siege Towers and Battering Rams
Unlike most barbarian groups, the Huns were particularly proficient at siege warfare. They first gained insight on siege technology while serving as Roman auxiliaries, and they may have also relied on Roman prisoners and deserters to help them build war machines. According to the chronicler Priscus of Panium’s description of the 443 A.D. siege of Naissus, the Huns used massive, wheeled siege towers to move protected archers close to the battlements and rain arrows onto the city’s defenders. They also pummeled the city’s walls with huge battering rams, which Priscus described as “a beam with a sharp metal point suspended on chains hung loosely from a V-shaped timber frame.” The Huns’ siege weapons helped them all but obliterate Naissus, and they went on to capture several other Roman fortress cities including Serdica, Philippopolis and Arcadiopolis. The Eastern Emperor Theodosius II brought an end to the destruction by paying out a hefty tribute, but it wasn’t long before Attila the Hun launched another deadly campaign—this time against Western Europe and Italy.