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Did the Romans Have Steel?

Did the Romans Have Steel?

While steel may seem like a modern material, it dates back to 2100-1950 B.C. In 2009, archeologists found a metal artifact from a Turkish archeological site.

This metal artifact was made of steel, and it’s believed to be at least 4,000 years old [1], making it the oldest known item made of steel in the world. History tells us that many ancient civilizations found a way to make steel, including the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire was basically a well-networked collection of many typical iron age communities. Although they used iron more often than steel and some other alloys, they knew how to make steel.

What Metals/Alloys Did The Romans Use

The metal artifacts that have been found from the ancient Roman archeological sites are either weapons, everyday tools, or jewelry items. Most of these objects are made of softer metals, such as lead, gold, copper, or bronze.

By the height of Roman metallurgy, the metals they used included copper, gold, lead, antimony, arsenic, mercury, iron, zinc, and silver.

They also used many alloys to make tools and weapons, such as steel and bronze material (a combination of tin and copper).

Roman ingots of lead from the mines of Cartagena, Spain, Archaeological Municipal Museum of Cartagena.
Roman ingots of lead from the mines of Cartagena, Spain, Archaeological Municipal Museum of Cartagena
Nanosanchez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What Type of Steel Did They Use?

Steel is an iron-carbon alloy with higher strength and hardness than both elements, which make it. Before we discuss the type of steel Romans used, it’s important to understand the different steel types.

  • High Carbon Steel: Contains 0.5 to 1.6 percent carbon
  • Medium Carbon Steel: 0.25 to 0.5 percent carbon
  • Low Carbon Steel: 0.06 to 0.25 percent carbon (also called mild steel)

If the amount of carbon in the iron-carbon alloy is higher than 2 percent, it’ll be called gray cast iron, not steel.

The iron-carbon alloy tools that ancient Romans made contained up to 1.3 percent carbon [2]. However, the amount of carbon content in roman steel varied irregularly, changing its properties.

How Was Ancient Roman Steel Made?

The process of making steel requires a furnace that can reach very high temperatures to melt iron. Then the iron is rapidly cooled down by quenching [3], which traps the carbon. As a result, the soft iron becomes hard and turns into brittle steel.

Ancient Romans had bloomeries [4] (a type of furnace) to melt iron, and they used charcoal as a carbon source. The steel made by this method was also known as Noric steel, named after the Noricum region (modern-day Slovenia and Austria), where Roman mines were located.

Romans mined iron ore from Noricum for steel-making purposes. Mining was a dangerous and unpleasant job at that time, and only criminals and slaves used to perform it.

After collecting iron from mines, Romans used to send it to smiths to remove impurities from iron metal ores. Then the extracted iron was sent to bloomeries to melt and turn into steel with the help of charcoal.

While the process Romans used allowed them to make steel, it wasn’t of the best quality of that era. Literary evidence shows that the best quality steel of Roman times was known as Seric steel [5], produced in India.

It’s important to note that Romans also imported many of the raw materials they needed to make steel and other metals from other areas of the world. Gold and silver came from Spain and Greece, tin from Britain, and copper from Italy, Spain, and Cyprus.

These materials were then smelted and mixed with other substances to create steel and other metals. They were skilled metalworkers and used these materials to create a variety of weapons, tools, and other objects.

Did Romans Use Steel to Make Weapons?

Romans used to make many everyday metal objects and jewelry, but they used softer metals and alloys for this purpose. They used to make steel mainly for weapons, such as swords, javelins, spears, and daggers.

Roman Gladius.
Roman Gladius
Rama assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common type of sword that they used to make from steel was called Gladius [6]. It used to be a two-sided short sword with several components, including a handguard, handgrip, pommel, rivet knob, and hilt.

Its construction was very complex, and Romans used both iron and steel to make it flexible and strong.

Although they were good at making steel swords, they weren’t the ones who invented them. According to historical evidence [7], the Chinese were the first to create steel swords during the Warring States period in the 5th century BC.

Was Roman Steel Good?

Ancient Romans are famous for architecture, construction, political reforms, social institutions, laws, and philosophy. They’re not best known for creating outstanding metal crafts, which means that the Noric steel that Romans made wasn’t exceptionally high-quality.

Although it allowed them to make strong and long-lasting swords, it was not as good as the Seric steel that Indians produced at that time.

Romans were decent metallurgists, but they didn’t know the best method to create high-quality steel. Their main focus was to increase steel and iron production instead of improving its quality.

They didn’t innovate the process of iron-making. Instead, they spread it to greatly increase the output of wrought iron [8]. They used to make wrought iron, instead of pure iron, by leaving a small amount of slag (impurities) in it, as pure iron is too soft for most tools.

Final Words

Steel was an important material for the Romans, and they used it to create a variety of weapons and tools. They learned how to make steel by heating iron ore with carbon to produce a material that was stronger and harder than iron.

They also developed techniques for forging and shaping steel into various useful forms. However, the steel that was made wasn’t of the best quality. That’s why the Seric steel Indians produced was brought to the Western world.