Steel may seem like a relatively modern creation, symbolizing a society’s advancement and modernity. However, steel-making has existed for thousands of years as it dates back to around 1800 B.C. Numerous cultures have discovered the methods used to turn iron into steel, including the Roman Empire.
The Romans had steel, though they used iron more often than steel. Roman steel was inferior to the steel of most other contemporary empires, but it sufficed their needs.
This article will examine the methods that the Romans used to make steel and what they used it for. It will also evaluate the quality of Roman steel compared to steel from other regions.
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Did the Romans Have Steel Weapons and Armor?
While the Romans had steel, they did not use it for many products besides swords. Iron and bronze were softer and easier to work with than carbon steel. Consequently, softer metals were the main material used to craft weapons and armor.
The Romans had steel weapons, and armor parts were made of rolled steel. Steel was often reserved for swords, while Roman armor was typically iron, bronze, leather, and wool.
The most important use of Roman steel was for the standard sword carried by all soldiers, called a gladius. The gladius was a steel shortsword worn by Roman soldiers on the right hip.
These swords were not typically made from a single piece of steel but several pieces with different amounts of carbon. The different compositions of these layers made the blade lighter and more flexible, making it easier to carry and wield.
Common Roman weapons include daggers, longswords, spears, javelins, bows, and crossbows. These weapons typically used iron instead of steel.
Roman armor did not include steel very often. Many Roman soldiers wore very little armor as it was too heavy and restricted their movement. Those who did wear armor wore bronze and iron, and less commonly steel.
One form of armor was called the lorica segmentata. It was made of metal strips and leather straps overlapping on the torso. The inside plates were most commonly iron, and the outer plates were rolled mild steel.
Another common armor type was chain mail. It is made by linking tiny iron rings. Chain mail was flexible and strong but was laborious to make. Another common type of Roman armor was scale mail made of iron or bronze scales sewn onto fabric.
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How Did the Romans Get Steel?
People have been turning iron into steel for thousands of years. The process requires the furnace to reach high temperatures. When hot iron is cooled rapidly by quenching, carbon gets trapped. Carbon turns the soft iron into hard, brittle steel. The Romans heated their iron in furnaces called bloomeries and used charcoal as a source of carbon.
The Romans got steel by heating iron to high temperatures with charcoal. The charcoal contains carbon, an element required to transform iron into steel.
Roman steel is often called Noric steel, named after the Noricum region, where the Romans mined for iron. Noricum is in modern-day Austria and Slovenia. The ground in this region is rich in iron and gold.
Steel-making in Noricum predates the Roman Empire, as there is archeological evidence of Noric steel from around 300 BCE. The Romans did not invent Noric steel, but they were the ones who popularized it.
Mining was an unpleasant, dangerous job, typically given to slaves and prisoners. The slaves used picks and shovels to mine the iron from the earth. Afterward, smiths processed the iron ore to turn it into ingots. First, the smiths heated the iron in a special furnace known as a bloomery. It could get hot enough to separate the ore from its impurities.
After the iron was extracted from the ore, the smiths heated the iron. They hammered it over charcoal, causing the carbon from the charcoal to turn the iron into steel. Sometimes, only the outer layer of the metal became steel, while the inner core remained soft iron.
Additionally, the Romans may have traded with other countries for steel, but they were best known for their Noric steel. Several other civilizations had the knowledge and technology to make steel, including China, India, and Egypt.
Some literary evidence suggests that the Greco-Romans were familiar with steel from India and thought very highly of it. However, it was more cost-effective for the Romans to use Noric steel than trade with India to obtain large quantities of steel.
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How Good Was Roman Steel?
The Romans are not best known for being good metal-workers. Their strengths were organization, rule, and trade, not metal craftsmanship. Consequently, Noric steel was not exceptionally high-quality.
Roman steel was good enough to use for weapons, but it was not better than steel from India. The Romans did not innovate with steel-making. They were competent metallurgists, but they did not create the best steel at the time. Roman steel does not compare to modern steel.
As the Encyclopedia Britannica delicately puts it, “The Romans, who have never been looked upon as innovators but more as organizers, helped spread the knowledge of iron making.”
The Romans’ focus was on the mass production of iron and steel, not on inventing new methods to improve steel. Even the Romans’ famed Noric steel was not their own. The people of Noricum made steel before they joined the Roman Empire.
Roman steel was not nearly as good as modern steel. Ancient steel varied in carbon content. Because the process was not regulated, not all Roman steel was high in carbon. Many swords only had a small layer of steel around an iron core rather than solid steel throughout.
The Romans were better known for their wrought-iron than for steel. Wrought iron, or “worked” iron, was made using a hammer to remove the slag and impurities from the heated iron ore.
It had a small amount of slag distributed throughout because pure iron was often too soft to use for tools. While steel was reserved for special objects like swords, the Romans used wrought iron for most other objects.
The Romans had steel that they used for swords, but it was not better than their contemporaries. Noric steel is adequate at best.
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