When most people think of “ancient times,” they often picture rudimentary tools made from crude stone and rough wood, houses of bare branches held together with twine and dung, and utensils made from clay and stone. It’s true that the ancient Romans didn’t have cars, planes, and high-tech computers, but their weaponry was much more advanced than most people realized.
The Romans had two primary steel swords that served them well in battle. The most well-known of these was the gladius, a steel short sword about 18 inches (45.72 cm) long. The spatha, a long, straight steel sword between 28 and 30 inches (71.12 and 76.2 cm) long, was also popular.
The rest of this article will further discuss Roman steel swords and Roman steel in general – how good it was, how swords were made, and more. It’ll also touch briefly on the history of steel swords and provide some other interesting information about Roman weaponry.
Also see Did the Romans Know About China? to learn more.
Gladius vs. Spatha: Similarities and Differences
Both the gladius and the spatha were made of high carbon steel, and the Romans used both weapons regularly in battle. The primary difference between them was their lengths.
The more popular gladius was a short sword most often used in close combat situations. It was a thrusting weapon; Roman soldiers or gladiators would edge in close to their opponents and stab them with the gladius’ blade.
The spatha was about ten (or more) inches (25.4 cm) longer than the gladius and much more suited to fighting opponents from a distance. Because of its triangular-shaped head, it was more suited to slashing than stabbing. 
Eventually, the spatha would all but replace the gladius as the weapon of choice for Roman soldiers and fighters, thanks mainly to its long reach. Ironically, though, the gladius is probably the better known of the two today, likely because of its name and the popularity of Roman gladiators.
Also see Did the Romans Declare War on Neptune? to learn more.
What Other Steel Weapons Did the Romans Have?
The gladius and the spatha are probably the most famous steel weapons, but they weren’t the only ones the Romans had.
Other Roman steel weapons included a long, steel-shafted spear called the pilum, a short, thick, steel-tipped dart called the plumbata, and a short steel dagger called the pugio. The Romans may also have eventually replaced their iron helmets and pieces of armor with steel.
They had other, more sophisticated weapons, as well, but they usually constructed these from wood, leather straps, and iron.  Some of these include the corvus, which they used to help them board enemy ships, the onager, a type of large sling/catapult, and the carroballista.
This last device was a mobile bolt-shooting machine capable of doing a lot of damage to their opponents.
Also see Did the Romans Have Pasta? to learn more.
How Good Was Roman Steel?
Roman steel was excellent for that period in history. While the quality of steel weapons then might not be on par with the quality of steel weapons made today, archeologists have excavated enough remains to show that Roman smiths and metallurgists knew how to make high-quality weapons.
Then again, just because some Roman smiths knew what they were doing didn’t mean all of them did.
In her “Study of the Metallography of Some Roman Swords,” Janet Lang examines five specific swords.  The quality of these swords ranges from “rather bad to perfect.”  That means that, just as is the case today, some Roman smiths and metalworkers were more dedicated to their crafts than others.
How Were Steel Swords Made?
According to Lang’s study, steel swords in Roman times could have been (and probably were) made in several different ways. Each smith likely had their own preferred way of doing things, but there were likely some similarities in the process. 
The following is an example of how a smith could have made a Roman steel sword, step by step:
- They extracted metal from ore and heated it in furnaces.
- They shaped the “bloom” of metal into ingots, bars, etc.
- Smiths worked these pieces in a forge.
- They shaped them, hammered them, flattened them, etc.
- They made some swords by “piling” various metal pieces.
- They made others from a single piece through “folding.”
- The swords were tempered and work-hardened (not quenched).
Scholars believe some Roman smiths created swords with flexible, twisted iron cores and then fitted them with steel blades. The two separate sections (three for double-edged swords) were heated and hammered until they were joined into a cohesive unit.
The smiths would continue to heat, hammer, and temper the blade until it was almost ready. Then, they’d grind, shape, and sharpen the edges to get them precisely right. They did this with files and grindstones.
Finally, they’d attach the blades to a hilt and crosspiece to hold them together securely.
They decorated some swords, but most were relatively plain, especially by today’s standards. They may have also added jewels to blades if they were intended for the Roman elite, but that was also a rarity.
Also see Did the Romans Have a Flag? to learn more.
When Were Steel Swords Invented?
The Romans were among the first people to make steel swords, but they weren’t the very first. That invention, as many innovations are, happened in Asia.
The Chinese invented steel swords in the 5th century BC during the Warring States period. Before that, the Chinese, like the Romans, had been using iron swords.
When the Chinese and Romans first made steel swords, though, they probably didn’t quench-harden them. Although some evidence exists to show that some swords were quench-hardened, it seems most smiths didn’t yet know about the relationship between cool water and hot metal.
In fact, according to D. Scott MacKenzie’s History of Quenching, the art of quenching metal didn’t become truly popular until centuries later. Quenching was used in ancient times, as Homer talks about the process in The Odyssey, but most of the early Chinese and Roman steel swords were work-hardened instead. 
Although their steel might not have been as high-quality as modern-day steel, the Romans did have steel swords, as well as other steel weapons.