The Romans had gods and goddesses for everything, even minor deities for minor matters. Security, however, was not a minor matter, and its gods figured prominently in the Roman pantheon. Securitas was the Roman goddess who was the personification of security. Janus was the god of doors and thresholds, gates and locks, whose symbols were the key and staff, to open doors and to ward off those not entitled to enter. His temple in Rome was open in times of war for those who would pray to keep enemies outside. It was closed in times of peace, but Roman policies being what they were, was rarely closed.

Content This is a presentation of Roman security hardware from my own collection, with illustrations of several important related items from other sources. This is not intended to be a survey of all known types; descriptions, images and analyses mostly refer to owned items. There is a bare minimum of literature citations and copyrighted material is used only in reference. Although many web references are appended, I have not made links to all sites mentioned. Any inaccuracies of fact or interpretation are my own. Some items presented are Byzantine, and this is noted wherever possible. The attributions of dealers are of variable quality, and should be accepted cautiously. It is concluded by Vikan (Security in Byzantium) that on the basis of specimens of keys and lock plates found, slide key locks did not transfer appreciably to Byzantium.

Fabrication The casting and working of bronze is, and was, not a high tech business and was widely practiced in the ancient world. For a detailed discussion of Roman bronze casting, see Strong & Brown and Needham. In histories of the lock it is always pointed out that the Romans did not invent them, but that they did develop metal locks with complex mechanisms, and spread the various types all over the map of the Mediterranean region and much of Europe. Just who did the actual development of any particular feature will of course remain forever unknown. Metal work was labor intensive and expensive, and it is likely that security products that involved metal work were pretty much for the small elite classes who had costly possessions to secure. No doubt most Romans made do with locking devices no more sophisticated than a simple wood bar for the door, and perhaps a latch lifter, as did the poor in more recent times.

All the same, it's evident that metal working was a large and widespread industry. Coins, of course, were made in the millions, but other small items such as the fibula or garment fastener, strigil, stylus, buckle, handles and ornaments for horses, chariots, shields, belts, containers and furniture are plentiful. A great deal of artistry went into the design of such metal artifacts, and skill into their fabrication. It's clear that a lot of talent was wasted in menial, poorly rewarded tasks, but that's a modern concept that may have been unfamiliar to the Romans.

Most of what is known or said of Roman locks and lock making is based on archaeology, deduction and speculation, since we are troubled by the lack of written records of crafts and craftsmen. Those Romans who were literate and could afford security hardware wouldn't have been very interested in the mechanics of its production, and certainly not in the efforts of lower classes trying to make a living. No doubt locksmiths were members of trade/craft guilds, called collegia, but I've not examined that relationship.  All we really have are the locks themselves, and mostly fragments at that.

We know very little about the methods that artisans used in antiquity. To classical writers, such matters would have been beneath contempt! If you have a noble world-view, you don't think much about all those sweaty guys in their squalid workshops making locks and keys, much less write about them! Nevertheless, we can see here a crew of Romans doing blacksmith work

And finally, I'll show one more time that famous image from a locksmith's grave stone that actually shows Roman lock makers at work! Note especially the completed door lock on the lower right. The bellows and tools: hammer, tongs and file, are immediately recognizable, and remain much the same for the next 1500 years and more. Notice also the design oŁ that little furnace, made like a miniature temple.

Collecting A word about the collecting of ancient locks. Since locks and lock making were and are regarded as minor crafts rather than art, archaeologists normally record them only in passing. Many locks and keys remain in the collections of local museums near their find spots, whether displayed or not. Most locks and keys appearing on the market at this time have been found by individuals with metal detectors, and appear with little or no provenience. Fortunately, these are regarded as mere "collectibles", having relatively low monetary values and relatively low interest to the general public. National governments of the places of origin do not regard them as national treasures, place few or no restrictions on their export and certainly have no interest in their repatriation from other countries. We are blessed by neglect and indifference and may sail serenely below the radar of nationalist art advocates.

Since the recovery of Roman security hardware is loosely related to archaeology, let's note in passing two terms that collectors will encounter. Provenance has been defined as "the history of successive custody of a particular item or collection". Provenience is simply a record of the place where an artifact was found (find spot). Provenance will become increasingly important for special items of high value as they are documented and pass from owner to owner, but doesn't appear to me to be very important at this time. Still, better keep all that paperwork and don't entrust it all to digital files, either!

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the collecting of Roman locks and keys. At this time, most Roman security hardware is probably in private hands and progresses rather quickly from finder to dealer to collector. In general, archaeologists deplore collectors and the collecting of antiquities: they are regarded as encouraging looting and the consequent destruction of sites that would otherwise have provided valuable information about ancient cultures. I agree with that, but it is also true that a great number of finds of locks and keys with suitable provenience languish in museum vaults and are unavailable to most persons interested. In my opinion, collectors who publish or allow access to their material can perform a considerable service to students of technology and history. They provide places where many examples of their obsession are gathered together, permitting a comparison and survey of the subject. The other side of that coin is that collections with casual protection and security provide places where many artifacts can be destroyed simultaneously! This can be a disaster when one-of-a-kind specimens are involved, as is often the case with Roman materials.

Although the provenience may be lost, this has not been regarded as a great problem in the special case of Roman security hardware since the technology of their design and production seems to have been uniform throughout the empire. However, I have to admit that metal artifacts without context do not allow dating, and provide no information on the historical development of this hardware. Although such information is very widely scattered, I believe that given sufficient interest and resources, it would be possible to write a history of the development of Roman locks from archaeological information.

A ring key similar to several examples that will be shown later (224,279,etc.) has been found by Soren and James at Kourion, Cyprus, in a context that can be securely dated to July 21, 365 CE.  Of course the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum provide another fixed point for the dating of styles, but we do not yet have access to all the security hardware recovered there. Any volunteers to take on the history project?  It would probably be most suitable for a European with better physical access to museum collections. How about a doctoral thesis?

It is usually stated by lock historians that they were derived from Egyptian and Greek sources.  Well, maybe so, but metal locks were used by the Etruscans (,  Mysterious Etruscans), so the concepts and some of the technology may have been inherited by the Romans from their former masters. For example, the Etruscan demon goddess Vanth is depicted with her attributes of snakes, torches and keys.

Condition The preservation and recovery of ancient locks is largely a matter of chance, but amazing survivals are possible under the right conditions. Bronze persists fairly well in the soil. Iron and wood depend on special conditions. For these, there must be a location were there is little oxygen, which can be in the presence of organic matter such as peat or in mud or other waterlogged soil. The Thames mud is celebrated for finds of artifacts from all periods. The abundant leather and metal ware found at Vindolanda are a tribute to the preservative effects of waterlogged soil. As we will see, some few locks are even known with associated surviving wood and wood impressions. The locks recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum are a special case, and have provided a great amount of material that is still being analyzed and published. We are greatly indebted to Alberto Biasiotti for his work with this material, and for the use of several of his images.

Ancient locks and keys of iron are relatively few, due to rapid corrosion in soil containing water and oxygen. Those that have been recovered are usually in poor condition, and it is not uncommon to find bimetallic iron/bronze keys in which the iron is nearly completely gone, leaving a key handle. Another problem with iron is that the Romans could not achieve temperatures high enough to melt and cast it. All iron artifacts had to be forged and finished with hand tools.

It is necessary to conserve iron articles from further deterioration, which at the very least involves coating with wax or resin. Surviving iron keys and lock parts are not as pretty as bronze, and therefore not so desirable to collectors.

Collectors greatly prefer that ancient bronze security hardware be uniformly coated with a smooth greenish patina, acquired during many centuries of corrosion in the ground. In addition to its appealing color, it is to some extent a badge of authenticity. Specimens covered with rough mineral concretions or that have not developed the outer green coating are less desirable. The second preferred coating is the thin reddish cuprous oxide layer that forms next to the metal surface. Complete removal of all corrosion layers is considered a fault, to be avoided if possible.

Conservation. Ancient bronze locks and keys recovered from soils often have embedded chlorides, and exposure to air leads to a progressive and catastrophic reaction known as bronze disease. Spots and areas will turn into a fluffy, bright green powder. If the artifacts have been recently excavated, this may develop while they are in in your possession. It is the duty of collectors to stabilize such articles, and preserve not only their appearance but also their value. Treatments for the condition are available. I advise collectors to do an online search on "bronze disease" and select the treatment that seems most reasonable. Once stabilized, items should be coated with microcrystalline wax. Renaissance Wax is preferred for this purpose, and may be obtained from many sources. Consult your favorite internet search engine.

Use of this material. All is copyrighted. Text and images from this site, other than copyrighted material from other sources, may be downloaded for personal use. However, they represent a considerable investment in time and effort, and may not be published elsewhere in any form without permission. No permission will be given for commercial purposes. Items presented here are not for sale or trade. Additional information, comments, constructive criticism and corrections are welcome, but keep in mind that I will not open any attachments unless I know you pretty well. I've made so many statements here that some of them must be wrong, so please let me know which ones they are!