A cement is a binder, a substance that sets and hardens and can bind other materials together. The word "cement" can be traced back to the Roman term opus caementicium, used to describe masonry resembling modern concrete that was made from crushed rock with burnt lime as binder. The volcanic ash and pulverized brick supplements that were added to the burnt lime, to obtain a hydraulic binder, were later referred to as cementum, cimentum, cäment, and cement.
Cements used in construction can be characterized as being either hydraulic or non-hydraulic, depending upon the ability of the cement to set in the presence of water (see hydraulic and non-hydraulic lime plaster).
Non-hydraulic cement will not set in wet conditions or underwater; rather, it sets as it dries and reacts with carbon dioxide in the air. It can be attacked by some aggressive chemicals after setting.
Hydraulic cements (e.g., Portland cement) set and become adhesive due to a chemical reaction between the dry ingredients and water. The chemical reaction results in mineral hydrates that are not very water-soluble and so are quite durable in water and safe from chemical attack. This allows setting in wet condition or underwater and further protects the hardened material from chemical attack. The chemical process for hydraulic cement found by ancient Romans used volcanic ash (activated aluminium silicates) with lime (calcium oxide).
The most important uses of cement are as a component in the production of mortar in masonry, and of concrete, a combination of cement and an aggregate to form a strong building material.