Art

This sword was designed by the famous French artist Jacques Louis David for the students of the École de Mars, a school established by revolutionaries in Paris in 1794 to train young men as soldiers and citizens. It was inspired by Roman swords, and includes Roman motifs like the acanthus leaf on the scabbard (the wood was originally covered in velvet) and the image of the liberty cap, which was a classical symbol of freedom used in both the American and French revolutions.

Manufacture

Swords were made out of steel, not iron. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, which is harder than pure iron. Sword blades and other tools made from steel were tempered under heat to make them less brittle. Below the hilt a narrow rod of iron called the tang was welded to the steel blade. The sword’s handle slipped over the tang which was then peened flat with a hammer to clinch the pieces tightly together. You can see the iron tip of the tang at the very bottom of the grip. The brass hilt was cast in multiple pieces and if you look carefully you can see the seams.

Function

This sword is a deeply impractical weapon. It was modeled after a short sword called a gladius, which was used by Roman Legionnaires for thrusting, not cutting. The students of the École de Mars were also provided with muskets, and this sword was more of an ornament rather than a real weapon. The design was meant to connect the new French republic to those of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Culture

Interest in Ancient Greece and Rome peaked in the late 18th century as the city of Pompeii was being excavated and the revolutions of the period produced the first republics in the modern age. In both the United States and France Roman and Greek designs were popular since they linked these new republics to classical ones. Roman and Greek revival forms appeared across a wide range of objects from buildings, to pottery, chairs, and even military items like this – even though the wars of the late 18th century were fought in a very different way from the Romans.