The Dolabra

The tool that built the Roman Empire — The Dolabra
The gladius gets the most fame and glory for being the implement of empire building when it comes to ancient Roman history. However, credit for literally building the Roman Empire is more deserved for a handy multi purpose tool called the dolabra. With a pick on one end and an axe head on the other, the dolabra has filled many roles and purposes throughout Roman history. It could be used for chopping down trees or chopping wood, breaking up stone, breaking up tough soil, and could be wielded as a formidable weapon. It has been used by Roman woodsman, carpenters, miners, farmers, shipbuilders, construction workers, engineers, soldiers, it was even used by ritual priests to slaughter large animals for sacrifices.

For the Roman legions the Dolabra was an indispensable tool and weapon. While Roman soldiers are famed for being among the best soldiers in the ancient world, Roman soldiers were also master builders. When in war the Romans built extensive fortifications. When on the march, the Romans would surround their nightly encampment with a stockade so that they could rest within the safety of a fortified camp. During the Siege of Alesia in 52 BC, soldiers under Julius Caesar built an 11 mile long wall around Alesia to besiege the defenders. Simultaneously, they built another 13 mile long wall to protect themselves from outside counterattack. This wall included a palisade with battlements and towers, a series of trenches, and various booby traps.

Another famous example was in 66 AD when Roman forces laid to siege to the fortress of Massada, held by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt. In order to capture the fortress, the Romans built a 375 foot tall ramp.

When not at war, Roman soldiers were often used as laborers on public works projects such as roads, bridges, walls, aqueducts, docks, and canals. Thus, the dolabra and other common tools were standard issue items for the Roman soldier.

While the dolabra was primarily used as a tool, there were many occasions when it was also pressed into service as a deadly weapon. During the Gallic Wars in 57 BC, Roman soldiers were busy building their nightly fortifications when they were ambushed by an army of Belgic tribesman. In a snap instance the Romans hastily formed battle formations and lacking time to retrieve their weapons and armor successfully fought off the assault with their building and entrenching tools. Another instance occurred in 21 AD during the Florus and Sacrovir revolt, where enemy rebels used heavily armored gladiators called crupellarii as their front ranks. The Romans could not pierce the armor of the crupellarii with their swords, so they retrieved their pickaxes and mattocks to batter the rebel gladiators into submission.

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