Set between 80 - 90 A.D. in Rome, present day Italy. A mysterious object falls from the sky and lands next to a gladiator, he was about to be mauled to death by 2 lions. The object is actually a sword with the blade made of super dense depleted adamantium that always maintained an extremely low temperature slightly above absolute zero; the handle is safe to touch. How would such weapon fare in the battle?
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This answer is being written by a physcist who studies materials and also practices Historic European Martial Arts.
I'm running under the assumption that the adamantium in this sword:
- Has a very high modulus of elasticity, strength, hardness, and toughness. This makes it very resistant to bending and would help it hold an edge. Not to mention it could practically never be scratched or dented. Its a "legendary" material, after all.
- Is denser than most materials of the time; denser than iron, steel, or even bronze.
Also, if you don't know the anatomy of a sword, here is a good diagram. I should also add that the "true edge" is the side facing your knuckles and the "false edge" is the side facing you while holding it.
There are some crazy sword designs out there, especially coming from Europe.
Some blades were like the Sica or Falx, whose blades curved forward and supposedly were good against those using shields.
Other blades were short and straight, like the gladius.
Some blades had only a true edge, like the falcata.
The material a blade is made of limits its shape, but adamantium would not really limit what shape you can make it. It certainly would enable large falx/sica types of blades, because adamantium could handle it.
The other worry is the increased density. Too much weight in a blade is bad; designs which require lots of material quickly make the sword unusable. A shorter sword may be better, but make it too short and you now have a dagger, and can be easily killed by any punk with a pilum. Cross section will be important here, too. Thus:
Swords have different cross sections, and these give different benefits. Here is a sample for double edged swords:
Adamantium seems like it would favor the broad-fullered cross-section, because it can maintain stiffness while using less material than the other cross sections. This also makes the blade lighter, which is helpful because this sword is dense!
If it's too heavy, you can't swing it, in which case this sword becomes a liability. If it's too light, it can be easily knocked around, so your cuts have no force behind it. (This is why cutting with a rapier is usually a silly idea- they're for thrusting!) Anything above ~4 lbs is far too heavy for an effective 1 handed sword; two handed swords can range from 4.4-7 lbs.
There were many types of gladiator out there. Some were very specialized, "career" gladiators who trained and were like modern sport stars. Others were slaves, thrown in to get killed for the amusement of others. In any case, the fighting style of the gladiator comes into play here. If the weapon is a shape the gladiator is unfamiliar with, the gladiator may not know how to use it to maximum effect.
There are actually very few fighting treatises which even go back to the Viking Era, and none (that I know of) from the Romans. (Sheesh, romans, anticipate that someone ~2,000 years from you wants to know how you fight!)
So let's assume our fighter is a murmillo or some other gladiator who focuses on using a sword, and our heavenly sword is in a shape he's familiar with. How does he do?
A little unknown fact, but too much stiffness is a sword is a bad thing. Stiffness does not help when:
- Your sword gets stuck in a shield; if the shield twists or moves (which is easily done), your sword can go with it.
- If your cut is slightly off, your sword gets stuck. Some bend allows for a larger range of angles of attack. (Katanas suffer from being too stiff; they get bent when cuts are off.)
- Your sword depends on bending to cut other people (such as scimitars or patas, which are sometimes described whip-like).
The Cold Enchantment
This cold is obviously magical. In spite of the heat of the world being slowly (well, quickly) draining into it, it never raises its temperature. How does this help a fighter?
- It does not help; it kills and freezes the cells in any wound given by it, preventing infection and bleeding. Oh, JasonK also mentions that various fluids (gases and liquids, anything really) would encase the blade, making your nifty sword into a very cold club. If the sword was on the border of heavy before this, this only makes it more heavy. This casing would only get thicker and heavier with time; you said the sword never gets above a few K above absolute zero. All the heat in the world would eventually go into the blade, freezing everything, including gases.
- It does not help; if it can cool metal quick enough, it could kill any exposed skin, which looks like a win, except that people generally wore cloth under their metal armor! (Gambesons would come later, but lorica segementata, a popular armor of the time, would likely have some extra padding underneath.) This sword may be near absolute zero, but it still takes time to transfer heat. More time than a sword's strike, I wager. Not to mention the large surface area of the metal exposed to distribute the heat... No, it likely won't help in the heat of combat!
- It doesn't help, because it limits half-swording, because the gladiator can't grab the blade. Okay, this technique may or may not have been known at that time, and likely not known, but it helps while grappling and against heavy armor. Sword-grabbing and capture was likely not a common practice, but it could have happened and makes sense with some types of swords in particular situations. Someone had to have figured it out...
- It helps make things brittle. Certainly, the sword could make other metals brittle because of the extreme cold, which is helpful for breaking out of places.
- It looks freaky, which scares people. It's continually freezing gasses, which then boil off in the atmosphere. So the blade is always in a cloud of freezing/expanding gases. Crazy! Don't mess with him!
I would expect:
- the weapon to be broad-fullered to maintain weight and length.
- the cold enchantment to be more of a liability than a perk in actual combat, but can be used to intimidate really, really well.
- the romans to treat this man like a god. A sword from the sky killed the lions which would eat him and he got a sword FROM THE SKY. Give him his rudis and laurel crown and let the crowd give him more money than he knows what to do with. Maybe get him on the Cursus Honorum and hope his popularity works out. Also, get everyone on figuring out how to stop the cold enchantment before everything freezes over.