FERRARIVS

Roman Hasta

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Hi guys,

I notice a few people talking about making Roman spearheads, so I thought I'd show my latest accurate recreation- a Roman hasta head from Newstead, Scotland, dated to the 2nd century CE (the fort was finally abandoned in 180CE). That's a full-sized printout of the original that I used to shape mine- it's forged from low-carbon steel as that's the closest thing to what was really used, and really the only thing I adjusted was the length of the socket- I didn't end up with as deep an interior space as I'd intended, so added 1cm of length to compensate.

It's a pretty standard shape for 2nd century CE hasta heads- earlier ones seem to be more broad at the base rather than widening at about 1/3 of the way to the point. This is one of the larger examples though- blade length being a bit more than 22cm- many are rather shorter and narrower.

Matt

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How do you know what material the originals were made of? I've searched in vain (so far) for any definitive statements about whether Roman spearheads would've been steel or iron. (Someone on another board suggested that they might've been phosphorus iron, which apparently work hardens to a fairly high degree.)

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I always thought a lot of Roman era weaponry (spearheads and small swords) were often bronze because iron was so danged expensive to produce in quantity. Is that assumption incorrect?

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The "Roman era" lasted a very long time, so it's usually risky to generalize. But AFAIK the Iron Age came to the Italian peninsula well before the founding of the Roman Republic. This is a 2nd century AD spearhead, and there's no doubt that the Bronze Age had been over for the Romans for a long time by that point.

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How do you know what material the originals were made of? I've searched in vain (so far) for any definitive statements about whether Roman spearheads would've been steel or iron.

One excellent book (Mike Ameling has already suggested it elsewhere) is Iron for the Eagles by David Sim and Isabella Ridge -- it delves into most aspects of ferrous metallurgy with regards to the Roman Army. Unfortunately it's out of print so try libraries. Beyond that there are many academic books and papers dealing with specific topics, e.g. typological studies of Roman swords but they tend to be quite dry and not readily available outside of academic and personal libraries.

(Someone on another board suggested that they might've been phosphorus iron, which apparently work hardens to a fairly high degree.)

A very interesting topic is phosphoric iron. It's harder than pure iron but prevents carbon migration, so you can't really turn it into steel. Pragmatically it's just as good as steel for the right applications and with somewhat primitive metallurgical knowledge and equipment it's easier to produce. That said for a lot of applications such as projectile points (which are typically disposable and so don't need to be able to hold an edge) bloomery iron is sufficient; it in fact has an advantage in fact in that it can deform on impact preventing the enemy from returning the favour.

I always thought a lot of Roman era weaponry (spearheads and small swords) were often bronze because iron was so danged expensive to produce in quantity. Is that assumption incorrect?


Iron and steel were very widely used by the Roman Empire. Iron is sometimes known as the 'democratic' metal as its ores are much more commonly found than copper-yielding ones.

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Everything Matt wrote is quite correct- I'd add that:

Arsenic I think is also suggested, along with phosphorous to significantly affect the harness of iron- David Sim published a study of various pieces of Roman iron armour, and a section of segmented armour plate he found was nearly pure iron, with some P and As, but had a hardness far greater than it should have done with almost no carbon. He also demosntrated that sectionally, most of these artifacts (helmet, scale armour, shield boss, etc.) had very little in the way of slag inclusions and varying amounts of carbon suggesting high quality ironworking.

Generally speaking, modern mild steel is the best choice given that wrought iron is near on impossible to find (and may not be so correct), and higher-carbon and alloyed steels are definitely way off.

Another good book that describes variations in iron weapons, albeit briefly, is Bishop and Coulston's Roman Military Equipment (2.ed.).

And as for iron being expensive vs. copper alloys, it was definitely the other way around- copper and tin, especially, are far, far more valuable. The Romans are known to have dumped literally hundreds of tons of iron at various sites, and that's what's survived for 2000 years so one can only imagine how much there might've been originally- that in itself shows it wasn't particularly costly. Copper alloys, on the other hand, are suggested to have been often recycled rather than discarded. It was also used for decorations and in particular money, which iron certainly was not. Roman coins, for example, often seem to have had real physical worth due to the amount of metal, rather than just an assigned value as our money has. The sestertius, for example, was a honking great chunk of brass often weighing around 25g.

Oh and thanks Matt, I appreciate the compliment.

Edited by FERRARIVS

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May I commend to your attention "The Celtic Sword" Radomir Pleiner as a good metallographic work on the metallurgy of those weapons that were used against the romans.

Why would wrought iron not be as correct? It was what the romans used after all even if they were using high grade versions. Or are you trying to say that low grade wrought iron would not be close to what the Romans used? If so you could refiine the wrought iron to get it to a state closer to what they used. More work but a more "accurate" material.

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Well that's based on what I understand is the problem with wrought iron- it's difficult to find and thus one has to contend with quite variable quality. Sim contends the Roman stuff he analyzed was quite good. I wasn't commenting on further refinement since that has its own issues I should think.

I'll see if I can get the paper you suggest though as I'm certainly interested to know what else has been found.

Edited by FERRARIVS

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Roman weapons form the period that the traditional hasta was used(pre-Marius or roughly "Republican Rome") seem to indcate a mix of carbon contents in the metal itself. I feel like it is safe to say that whatever carbon content you choose to make a reporoduction from is fine even just plain ol' mild steel(the closest thing most of us have to raw iron).

You did a really nice job on the socket - I can barely see the weld. It looks great! Good shape too.

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I have always assumed that due to the difficulties in making higher carbon steels that 1018 would be a fair approximation of early steel for this era of weaponry. No doubt that there were finer steels made for finer blades, but the Empire would have been outfitting the legions with what was cheap, so they would have likely used a low grade steels for disposable weapons like this. Wrought may have been used early on, but by the latter end of the empire, much progress would have been made in metallurgy of steel, and smiths no doubt had discovered some variety of carburization. Jack Whyte wrote a very interesting and well researched series of books on the later years of the roman empire in Britain, and a few of his characters were blacksmiths, and he goes into some fairly detailed discussions regarding making swords of the era. I can't quote the passage, but the gist of it is "nobody knows how or why, but for some reason, leaving iron in a cool fire for several hours, then beating on it and quenching it makes the iron harder than unburned iron, we call this white iron because it is lighter in color. I always took it to be him touching on an early form of blister steel. For anyone interested in the King Arthur tales, I highly recommend the series as it is a very historically accurate rendition of how the legend likely arose. of course, he does take some creative liberties, but overall, it is very well written, and quite a likely tale.

On another note, I too have played with roman spears, having made a couple pila, both tanged and socketed... some day I'd like to make a sarissa, and maybe a spatha as well...

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Sounds a bit bogus to me; by the end of the empire, piling was a common technique and even earlier the celts are going towards pattern welding. "The Celtic Sword" Radomir Pleiner is a scholarly work on the metallurgy of their ferrous swords of that era and includes much information on carbon and phosphorus content---Phosphorus is a bad contaminant nowadays but back then it was a hardening element like carbon. As well as their construction with higher C or P material selected for the edges.
An early bloomery can produce anything from "mild" wrought iron through cast iron. learning how to work and treat higher C alloys was a bigger problem perhaps than making them. (Note the mythical importance of a sword reforged from the broken remains of a previous blade---why would it break? Too brittle. What does forge welding tend to do? Lower carbon content. So not only do you start with material that is apparently higher in carbon content you then get to do a re-do on the heat treat with it a bit lower in C.)

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