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Ahmad Tabari




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 12:08 pm    Post subject: Roman criticism of Gallic swords         Reply with quote

I was reading Plutarch's life of Camilius when I came across a passage depicting a battle between a Roman army and an unprepared Gallic force. According to Plutarch, one of the reasons why the Romans scored a crushing victory was due to the fact that the gallic swords bent upon striking Roman helmets and shield rims:
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Finally, when Camillus led his men-at‑arms to the attack, the enemy raised their swords on high and rushed for close quarters. But the Romans thrust their javelins into their faces, received their strokes on the parts that were shielded by iron, and so turned the edge of their metal, which was soft and weakly tempered, so much so that their swords quickly bent up double....

While I am sure that unquenched iron swords were prone to bending upon impact with a hard surface, there seems to me a bit of an exxaggeration in this account. If the slashing iron swords wielded by the Gauls were that vulnrable then I doubt such weapons would have continued to be so popular by this people for centuries.

Any thoughts?
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Antonio Ganarini




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 3:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm not an expert of iron forging techniques, but with greek literature I'm a bit better... Wink I think it could be an exaggeration, since the primary goal of Plutarco was not to give an exact historical account of the facts but to compare different characters.
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Lafayette C Curtis




PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 3:34 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Remember that pretty much all] accounts of very early Roman history tend to be a bit dodgy. Even Livy admitted that he didn't always have full confidence in his sources for the period before the turn of the 3rd century BC or so, and that's said more than two thousand years ago by a man who had incomparably better access to many sources (including folk legends and stories passed down the generations among the most prestigious families about their origins, illustrious ancestors, etc.). So whenever we read accounts of such an early period we must be prepared to assume that an unknown proportion of the tale has been made up or at least heavily embellished later on.

This is particularly important since Camillus's legend is an important part of the Roman attempt to allay the shame of their defeat by the Gauls a short while earlier. A number of important military reforms have been conveniently ascribed to him (or at least his era) when in fact it's likely that these changes happened far more gradually over a much longer period of time, and the chronicle of his campaigns has almost certainly been doctored to build a better and more dramatic narrative of Rome's rise back from the ashes. Even by Livy's time many of these embellishments and flat-out inventions have become indistinguishable from the truth.

Not a direct answer, I know, but I hope it can be useful to add some background over and above the pure arms-and-armour perspective.
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Ryan S.




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 4:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think there are other sources that say the Celts had soft blades and they would have to straighten them. I will have to look up the source, but it could be that the swords lacked quality control, so that at least some of them were soft.

here is from an Icelandic saga "So then befell a great battle, and Steinthor was at the head of his own folk, and smote on either hand of him; but the fair- wrought sword bit not whenas it smote armour, and oft he must straighten it under his foot."

http://sagadb.org/eyrbyggja_saga.en
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 5:10 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There was definitely a wide range of quality in ancient blades. That said, I vaguely recall an ancient source saying that the Romans put a line of spearmen in their front rank to "blunt the Celtic charge" or something like that. The theory is that other Roman writers such as Plutarch picked up on that and blew it into "blunted their swords by whacking at Roman spearshafts", and got further from reality with each telling. This could all be bunk, though! Peter Connolly writes of seeing original swords dredged from a lakebed that would flex almost double and spring back to straight, so clearly there were some VERY good ones. I suspect there were some NOT so good ones, too!

I am firmly waffling in my answer, so there.

Matthew
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Ryan S.




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 5:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Other theories to explain it is the misinterpretation of the practice a bending swords to sacrifice them, because some swords have been found bent up double. Also, Plutarch describes it as bending when hitting iron, so perhaps it was good against wooden shields, and Gauls and Celts didn't really wear armor right? Then it wouldn't be a problem till the Romans came around. So it is possible that the barbarians would have used inferior swords lacking anything better. The main reason to doubt Plutarch's account is that we know at least some of them were good with iron.
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Ruel A. Macaraeg




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PostPosted: Fri 11 May, 2012 5:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

* Allen ill. Reynolds 2002 p24
"Archaeological evidence has proved that Celtic swords were of high quality, flexible and with a sharp, strong cutting edge, contradicting Polybius' comments that in battle the blade quickly became so bent that the warrior had to straighten it with his foot. Confusion probably arose over the practice of ritually 'killing' a sword by deliberately bending it as part of a burial ceremony or sacrifice to the gods."
http://www.forensicfashion.com/BC225GallicMercenary.html
http://www.forensicfashion.com/ReferencesInPrintEnglishA.html

Polybius was describing the Battle of Telamon (Romans vs Gaesatae), 225BC.

http://ForensicFashion.com/CostumeStudies.html
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Ahmad Tabari




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PostPosted: Sat 12 May, 2012 11:47 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A lot of good replies gents. Yes it would seem Roman propoganda coupled with a misunderstanding of Gallic custom had a lot to do with the spread of the idea that the swords wielded by the Gauls were of poor make. Even though it was mentioned by Plutarch and Polybius, the idea that Gallic swords were poorly tempered seems a bit contradictory with the fact that the Gauls were particularly famed for the quality of their iron work.

While iron age swords were no where near the quality of high medieval and even viking era swords, I highly doubt that blades made of wrought iron were as bendy as people believe. It would be very interesting to see how a sword forged out of bloomery iron (without quenching) would fare when tested against helmets and other hard metal objects.

Any volunteers? Wink
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James Arlen Gillaspie




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PostPosted: Sat 12 May, 2012 7:05 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

At one of the Sword Study Days at the Wallace Collection in London, either in 2000 or 2001, Dr. Alan Williams was one of the presenters, and spoke on the results he had obtained metallurgically on some La Tene culture swords. The fact that he was mostly working with broken blades may have skewed his results, but I was surprised that he found that they were not iron - carbon alloys, but iron - phosphorus alloys! In modern steels, phosphorus is typically regarded as a contaminant (with some very interesting exceptions), but it seems that phosphorus has some effects on iron that are somewhat similar to carbon, as long as carbon content is kept low. In addition, it adds greatly to corrosion resistance. See the article below for some fascinating insight into the use by ancient smiths (in this case Indian) of iron-phosphorus alloys.

http://www.ias.ac.in/matersci/bmsaug2003/483.pdf

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Lancelot Chan




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PostPosted: Sat 12 May, 2012 11:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think we shouldn't neglect that there was another method of hardening, which works with low carbon content steel / iron.... That was "work hardening". It also did not require high heat to work with and produce something similar to heat treated. So I don't think the swords back then would be overly soft and bendy, regardless of the carbon content.
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Ahmad Tabari




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PostPosted: Sun 13 May, 2012 9:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

James Arlen Gillaspie wrote:
The fact that he was mostly working with broken blades may have skewed his results, but I was surprised that he found that they were not iron - carbon alloys, but iron - phosphorus alloys! In modern steels, phosphorus is typically regarded as a contaminant (with some very interesting exceptions), but it seems that phosphorus has some effects on iron that are somewhat similar to carbon, as long as carbon content is kept low. In addition, it adds greatly to corrosion resistance.

Thats very surprising. Adding phosphorus to iron may improve corrosion resistance but does it not also weaken the blade?

Quote:
So I don't think the swords back then would be overly soft and bendy, regardless of the carbon content.
I agree. Just because iron age blades were not tempered in the way they were in the middle ages does not automatically mean that they were ineffective. Had they been as bendy and yielding as the sources would have us believe, such swords would have dropped out of use. Like you said work hardening would have greatly improved their quality.
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David Gaál




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PostPosted: Sun 13 May, 2012 10:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think it's not so easy and unequivocal as most of the things are today and in the past, I guess there were relatively lower and higher quality steels used that time too. But before I go into self opinions I think it's better to see analysis and concrete facts. I recommend the 1.2 Chapter from Alan Williams Knight and the blast furnace: http://books.google.hu/books?id=GpVbnsqAzxIC&...mp;f=false

"Pleiner has written the most detailed book yet about Celtic swords'. These, the first iron swords in Europe, were often made out of several pieces of iron and steel forged together, although seldom quenched.
He summarises the analyses of 119 Celtic swords from sites all over Western and Central Europe, of which 59 were examined in section. Of these 21 were made merely of iron or low-carbon (< 0.3%C) steels. All but 3 of these were made of several pieces of metal forged together.
Another 38 contained some layers of steel of higher carbon content (< 0.8%C) out of which:
12 had one hard edge—6 of these were carburised single-piece swords;
26 had two hard edges—4 were made of single pieces.
Out of these 38 that were hardenable, only one is described as having a martensitic ("fully-quenched") microstructure; at least 4 others had undergone some sort of accelerated cooling, short of a full quench ("slack-quenched"), to increase their hardness to around 300-400 VPH.
Another 23 were examined in only one cutting edge and 18 of those were made merely of iron or low-carbon (<0.3%C) steels (It cannot, of course, be determined whether they were made up of one or several pieces of metal). Another three were apparently quenched to give martensite, giving an overall total of 4 fully-quenched and 4 slack-quenched, i.e. less than 7% of all the 119 swords.
Pleiner also carried out some practical tests with simulated Celtic blades made of low-carbon (0.2%C) steel, and found that these blades could be notched and bent by vigorous strokes, but that the bending was of the order of 10 mm rather than the extensive folding which Polybius alleged for the Gauls' swords.
Even some Roman swords were made of unquenched steel, although by then quenching techniques were well known.
Many smiths evidently (and understandably) preferred a blade of moderate hardness but reliable behaviour to one of
greater hardness but possible brittleness. A sword made of a very hard steel would take a very sharp edge, and would
not bend in combat, but on the other hand it might snap, which would be considerably more embarrassing for its owner.
Lang's paper recounts the analysis of six Roman swords from the British Museum. Three consisted of piled structures, which were not quenched. The other three were quenched so that the edges were harder than the cores."

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James Arlen Gillaspie




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PostPosted: Sun 13 May, 2012 11:27 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ahmad;
"Thats very surprising. Adding phosphorus to iron may improve corrosion resistance but does it not also weaken the blade?"

Please read the article I referenced. It shows that while this is true for modern steels that have carbon content much over, say, 0.1%, the automobile industry actually has chosen an iron/phosphorus alloy for deep drawing, because it is FAR LESS brittle than other options.

Also; work hardening shows up under metallographic analysis because it distorts the microstructure of the iron/steel, and one of the most consistent features of the items Dr. Williams has examined is that they are almost always heated and air cooled if they are not subjected to some sort of hardening treatment. Having worked with old charcoal-smelted iron, I can tell you that it does NOT like to be cold-worked. It makes it much more brittle!

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Peter Johnsson




PostPosted: Sun 13 May, 2012 1:44 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

One thing to consider is the practice of ritual "killing" of swords.
This was often done by chopping the edges into saws, or bending into hoops or S-shape.
*But* It may have involved simply annealing with no further destruction involved.
The structure found as being the result of heating and air cooling could be the result of just such a ritual killing. Such annealing could also negate any cold working and remove traces thereof in the blade, as the steel is heated through the re-crystallization phase during the annealing.

Many of the swords that are analyzed are found in a situation where ritual deposit may have been the purpose. A ritual killing of the sword by annealing (heating to dull or medium red) may therefore have been preceding the depositing into water. Those cases where only one edge i hardened seems to me also as possible candidates for ritual annealing of one edge being pulled back and forth through the glowing embers.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Sun 13 May, 2012 3:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As David said, the best book on the subject is Radomir Pleiner's The Celtic Sword. Just like swords from everyone else, some were excellent and some were not. Their best swords were as good as anything produced at the end of the Middle Ages. The Roman descriptions of celtic blades should be considered in the same light as everything else they wrote about non-Romans.
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