Elite units of the ancient world usually gain their elite status by being wealthy enough to afford the best arms and armor, such as cataphracts of the eastern powers, thus allowing them to have the highest impact in a battle. For the Iberian light infantry armed with the lethal falcata, elite status was born out of sheer talent on the battlefield. The second Punic War gave Iberian warriors a stage to show their prowess and the agonizingly difficult conquest of Spain by the Romans showed how well these men could hold their ground.
Like the Celts and Gauls, the Iberians were a fragmented tribal people. Northern and central Iberia were home to Celt-Iberians who held their own identity and were known as the most aggressive of any Iberian regions. southern and eastern Iberia are where the full Iberian tribes were found. These tribes had the advantage of plentiful resources to make high quality arms and armor. The falcata was one of the highest quality blades of the Mediterranean when made by expert Iberian smiths. To test the quality a soldier would place the blade flat on his head and pull down on the tip of the blade and the end of the handle until they touched his shoulders. Upon letting go the sword sprung back to its original shape with no hint of a bend.
The falcata was shaped with a straight single edge for the first half or so of the blade before bending slightly, widening and gaining a double edge which led to a sharp point. The blade was thinner in the middle with a bulge near the tip which gave the blade good weight and momentum for swinging blows while still allowing for quick thrusts. The hilt was made with the same piece of metal as the blade and almost always wrapped around to form a handguard. The quality of the sword combined with the design allowed it to function as a light sword, but with the power to cut through shields or shatter inferior weapons. It was especially adept at lopping off spear points as the widest part of the blade acted as a hatchet.
The Iberians had heavy infantry who wore a vest of mail, greaves and a large shield similar to a Roman’s scutum, but these heavily armored troops were not the most impressive of the Iberians. The lighter infantry wore just a short tunic with a wide leather belt and often no armor at all, but occasionally a bronze cap. They carried the falcata and a small buckler style shield called a caetra.
Being so unburdened the Iberians were known to fight so elegantly that it was referred to as “acrobatic”. In battle the Iberians would throw a thin javelin of solid metal which could pierce through shields and men, then they would close in on the enemy and fight as individuals. Using combinations of quick thrusts, slicing counters or bashing overhand strikes, the Iberians overwhelmed their opponents. Because of their skill in battle these very lightly armed men were often counted as heavy infantry and Hannibal used them, along with other heavily armored Celts, to anchor the center of his line at Cannae against 80,000 Romans.
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