Lead pipe in Roman bath in Bath, Somerset, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Roman Empire, like other nations, needed quite a variety of metals, such as lead, tin, copper, gold, silver, and iron.
Lead was used in plumbing, as it was soft and melted at a low temperature, so it was easy to solder. It was used in the making of pewter, and was used for a variety of things that did not need much strength, and yet could be used for molding things, or even sealing things closed, like a coffin, for instance. Also, one of the main reasons lead was mined actively is because it is most commonly found in the form called galena, a mixture of silver and lead; double gain for the mining overseers.
Tin’s main use was in the making of bronze, as bronze is made when tin is alloyed with copper. In the as you know, in the iron age bronze was not in use very much, though because it was more expensive than iron, Roman Centurions often wore bronze helmets and used bronze swords. Other than for bronze, tin was used in a variety of little things, like cups and small decorations, and also for casting into little statues.
English: Snake-type bracelet Bronze Pitalpin near Dundee (found in 1732) Dated Iron Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Copper is, as you know, the other metal used in the making of bronze. That said, it was also used in jewelry and decoration, due to it’s gorgeous reddish gold. I myself know that copper is fun to work with, and it nice and malleable, so it could used then to make snake bracelets, so-called because it was basically a long strip, sometimes made into a snake, and wrapped in a spiral up and around the arm. Very fashionable.
Gold was the leading metal for jewelry and coins, because of its warm golden glow, its rarity, and the ease of which it is to work. Gold does not oxidize, so one needs not worry about the heat source burning the metal, and it is fairly soft, so it is easy to work, and yet hard enough so as not to fall immediately apart. One of the methods for mining this valuable metal was called hushing, where first a fire was made against the rock, under which there was ore, and then it was doused with water, making the rock brittle and ‘crumbly’. Then a flood of water (brought by an aqueduct) was washed over the area, digging down a few feet to the ore. This they do as many times as it takes to get down to the ore. Once they had reached the ore, again a fire was made against the ore and doused, making the rock very brittle once again. The ore is then broken up, and panned for gold.
Silver was used much the same as gold, though less in value, as well as being subject to tarnishing. Despite this, it was highly prized, and often was alloyed with gold to make electrum, which was used in coinage. One of the main sources of silver were the mines near Athens, which were very rich in silver. In the prime of the Hellenistic age, these mines made Athens very rich, and in the Roman conquest, it was the Romans who got that wealth.
Iron. As I hope you know, iron was used mainly for war. From swords and javelins to chain mail and helmets, iron was vital to the Roman conquest of the world. In fact, during the rise of Rome, regulating carbon amounts in the iron to make steel was developed, hardening and tempering that steel, and techniques on sword making were perfected. One could well say that the Romans knew nearly all of the techniques then developed, as their Empire spread from Persia (with the secrets of Damascus steel) to wild Gaul, (with the perfections of chain mail). It was Rome’s ability to adapt to the surrounding and copy their enemies designs, rather than stick with one metal and one soldier type, and never change. This was the outcome of the fall of the Greeks, who preferred to stick to the old ways of the Hellenistic age, rather than copy the strong points of those enemies who came before them.