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My law precedes humans', though discovered by metal,

I am the first element, though don't look at tables,

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

What am I?

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I would say it's

Zero

I am the first element, though don't look at tables

In programming, the first element of a table is numbered zero.

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

You can find "O" in a dictionary, but it's not really "0".

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

You don't want nothing, but you may want a lot of zero in your bank account.

Romans

Their numeric system didn't have the symbol 0.

Not sure about the first clue.

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  • $\begingroup$ You must have given this answer while I was working on mine (So, +1) $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Mar 7 '18 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ The first clue could be a reference to that law of thermodynamics requiring a mercury thermometer? $\endgroup$ – Sentinel Mar 7 '18 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ I would also change the word to the symbol. The Romans did have a translation for the word. $\endgroup$ – Sentinel Mar 7 '18 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the answer but I suspect the first clue relates to Asimov's three laws of robotics, which were later supplemented by an additional law that came before the original three. That law was created by robots themselves (and unlike the original laws doesn't mention humans, per se) $\endgroup$ – Damien_The_Unbeliever Mar 7 '18 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ I have to admit I guessed the answer just looking at the title, without bothering with the clues themselves. Kudos to those who worked it out from the clues alone! $\endgroup$ – Bill Michell Mar 7 '18 at 17:52
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I got some reasonable guesses for each line separately, but it took some pretty serious stretching to get any one answer to cover every clue. Posting anyway, because why not.

Are you

Earth?

My law precedes humans', though discovered by metal,

“The power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” - The Iron Law of population by Thomas Malthus

I am the first element, though don't look at tables,

The classical elements are Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Quintessence.

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

Dictionaries can be ruined if earth gets into them

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

I don't want to get dirty, but I may want a lot

As for the title, the Romans conquered most, but not all.

..Yeah, probably a bit too stretchy.

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Are you?

Cell

My law precedes humans', though discovered by metal,

Humans are made of cells. Also metal is used in making cells(galvanic cell etc.)

I am the first element, though don't look at tables,

Cell is the basic element but not on the periodic table

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

Cell also refers to prison so be careful

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

Nobody wants to be in prison but we all need cells for living.

And the title reference "I eluded the Romans"

Romans didn't have any prisons(cells). They used to keep accused people under house arrest. Source taken from here

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  • $\begingroup$ Romans did have prison cells in which theykept prisoners until trial: Counterexample Mamertine Prison which had quite a few popular inmates. $\endgroup$ – Narusan Mar 7 '18 at 12:38
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Are you

aether?

My law precedes humans', though discovered by metal,

Alchemists considered aether the first material and tried to discover it through experiments with metal

I am the first element, though don't look at tables,

Aether was considered the first element in some systems of metaphysics, but it doesn't appear on the periodic table of elements

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

Aether can be spelled æther, aether or ether, which significantly changes its place in the dictionary

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

Diethyl ether is an addictive drug. You don't want to get addicted, but if you do, you may want a lot

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  • $\begingroup$ Aether has no law and was not discovered $\endgroup$ – Sentinel Mar 7 '18 at 13:56
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Are you:

zero

My law precedes humans',

a zero law precedes, in importance, the first law.

though discovered by metal,

I'm not sure about this, but there is a proposed chemical element of atomic number zero, neutronium, comprising neutrons only. There is some empirical evidence suggesting that this particle does exist, based on a 2001 experiment by Francisco-Miguel Marqués and co-workers at the Ganil accelerator in Caen using observations of the disintegration of beryllium and lithium nuclei (both of which are metals).

I am the first element, though don't look at tables,

This could be a reference to neutronium, above, which would be first in the periodic table, if it was agreed to exist.
However, I think it more likely that this is a reference to the number zero, which comes before 1, but there is no 'zero times table'

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

zero has many different names by which it is known and may be found in a dictionary by any number of them, for example: nothing, none, nought, naught, nil, love (tennis), duck (cricket), slang words include zip, zilch, nada, and scratch

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

zero is nothing, but a lot of zeros (at the end of a number) indicates a very large number and is very desirable, especially if it refers to currency

lastly, the Romans

had no numeral for zero.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Damien_The_Unbeliever has a better solution for the 'laws' clue. I think he is right and it is a reference to Azimov. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Mar 7 '18 at 15:25
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My law precedes humans', though discovered by metal

Electron . My law is electromagnetism.

I am the first element, though don't look at tables

The fundamental forces prior to unification of electromagnetism

Sometimes you can find me in a dictionary, but be careful...

A dictionary may be electronic, so if you find it you might get a shock

You don't want me but you may want a lot of me.

You just want electricity not electrons.

Romans

Did not discover electric power on an industrial level

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