The subject of ancient Roman Inventions is extremely broad and varied. The long duration and broad geographic spread of the Roman empire makes it a vast subject. It was studied in Roman times by the likes of Pliny in his Natural History, through the Renaissance and into modernity. Each period of history has had its own interpretation of what to consider worthy of consideration as a “Roman Invention”.
Scissors, newspapers, paved roads and bound books, not to mention countless weapons and articles of war, medicine and daily life. But what might have prevented the full-blown evolution we saw in the Industrial Revolution when much of the technology and resource lay at hand?
Ancient Roman Inventions is a difficult area to define and study. What do we mean by “Roman” and what is an “Invention”?
“Roman” includes people of many different nations under Roman rule. The timespan is also surprising: In the broadest sense Roman civilisation lasted > 2000 years!
“Invention” can spread to “founding”, “innovating” and “discovery”. Who discovered something is the subject of great legal battles even today.
Ancient Rome definitely provided the environment for the spreading and adoption of great ideas. Understanding why some great inventions never made it big in ancient Rome helps us understand what is needed to successfully “innovate” today.
A long list of Roman inventions is provided below. Many inventions are well known like “roads” and “aqueducts” others are surprising like “scissors”.
The Romans loved practical applications. For example, they developed different ways of mining and extracting metals, or of running large-scale farms to mass-produce corn. The Romans even invented social welfare!
The study of Ancient Roman Inventions is a broad subject of difficult definition: Firstly, what we consider to be Ancient Roman covers over 1000 years time span. A period beginning under influence of the Etruscans and, if we consider the Roman Empire of the East, ending at the Rennaissance.
Thirdly, Roman civilisation was multicultural, so that many important roles and activity in Roman society, Roman jobs and the innovations which ensued were often undertaken by slaves, liberti and clients (free foreigners). These people contributed their personal culture and traditional knowledge to the general melting pot. This is not too different from the modern day world!
A good number of ancient “Roman” inventions were actually innovations thought up and developed by persons of many different cultures. Greeks, Jews or Egyptians, to name a few, absorbed into or enabled to pursue their work under Roman dominion. We should remember that these people could actually be fully fledged Roman citizens “Civis” without necessarily being of Italic origin. St Paul is a famous example.
The social and cultural stability coupled with the concentration of financial wealth brought about by Roman dominion created ideal surroundings for progress and innovation in a huge variety of vocational areas. A particularly singular example of the influence of diverse cultures and absorption by Rome of their inventions and knowledge was the marvelous city of Alexandria.
Another intriguing example of the benefits of the coming together of different cultures is the report we have from the Greek Athenaeus of Naucratis who worked in Egypt around the 3rd century AD, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He tells us that in the 6th century BC the ancient southern Italian city of Sybaris had the first examples of patents for recipe inventions (Sybaris was a Greek colony).
Roman inventions: From local customs to international trade
Much Roman innovation was actually mass popularisation of what had hitherto been local customs. The Pax Romana provided a fertile ground for ideas and commerce to spread. For example, wooden barrels were actually invented by the Gauls, now France. The huge geographical reach of Roman roads and trade routes allowed local goods and ideas to spread right across the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the use of barrels for Roman transportation of goods such as Roman wine was a relatively late development in the empire where amphoras remained popular for an extremely long time.
Certainly, the Romans were extremely practical and relatively uninterested in abstract thought such as pure mathematics or physics. Roman “inventions” and technical advances were by and large practical and utilitarian in nature: at odds with Greek attitude which tended to denigrate menial/practical work. We therefore find significant innovations in engineering and materials technology like public buildings, roads, hydraulics, glass, cement and metal production.
In an artistic and architectural context, history repeated itself during the Renaissance, spurred by the Counter-Reformation: The church’s demand for art (demands of art) coupled with a concentration of wealth, attracted the best and most innovative artists of the time and produced the movement commonly referred to as the “Baroque“. Similar circumstances are to be found today in various countries and cities of the world, such as London or New York for example. So too we can imagine much the same happening in ancient Rome when Greek art and artists from all over the Mediterranean basin found themselves brought together to city’s such as Rome or Pompeii to work on Roman art.
So we can see that Roman hegemony, wealth and the pax romana enabled innovation to proliferate and spread, but only to a degree: the social impact was always first and foremost in the minds of Roman rulers and the potentially negative socio-economic effects of revolutionary mechanisation were a frequent break.
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Ancient Roman Inventions
Having set the background and gained a glimpse of just how thorny the subject could be it seems easiest to change tack and take the loosest of definitions. Listing some of the many things for which Ancient Rome might justly be remembered for….in no particular order:
The standard width of our modern roads and tunnels is based on that of ancient Rome (there was a standard width for cart wheels, essentially based on the need of placing two horses side by side). The worn ruts in the roads made it virtually impossible to use any other measure.
Huge numbers of instruments and tools for engineering, construction and measurement. The Romans were, after all, excellent engineers. For example you could purchase your access to water supply for set hours of the day or set quantities of water, which were dutifully metered and billed, pretty much as you would today, albeit with slighty different technology!.
Medical and Surgical tools (mainly thanks to the Greeks actually but hugely developed as a consequence of the needs generated by Gladiatorial games and continuous war campaigns)
Cesareans – sounds like Caesar doesn’t it? Cesareans were often used to save the baby if the mother died during childbirth.
A conceptual invention which was perhaps more powerful than many engineering innovations was in Roman architecture: A unique synthesis of architecture, engineering, mosaics, paintings and symbolism to convey a powerful, almost mystical, personal experience of inside-out, mundane-divine which was put to use in political-propagandistic buildings at first and then Christian religious needs later. This was employed to great effect in buildings such as the Pantheon, Nero’s domus aurea and the Christian basilicas (triumphal arch brought inside).
Fast curing cement – hugely important discovery which allowed cement to cure and harden in short times and even under water. The ancient Romans realised that adding pozzolanic earth from volcanic regions (Eg Pozzuoli near Naples) to traditional mortar allowed a water proof and extremely solid mix. This could be used to waterproof the interior of aqueduct tunnels or extend the potentials of Roman architecture with important buildings and domes such as the Pantheon.
Reinforced concrete – they introduced metal bars into the concrete in order to gain greater strength.
Innovations in metal smelting such as the crucibles employed, particularly for the process of cementation where a low melting point metal is vapourised and alloyed with annother such as in the production of Brass. Such a technique might have been used for fine glassware which was doped with traces metals such as gold to change its colour behaviour with light.
The Romans invented hydraulic mining, or at least it’s earliest form known as ground sluicing. They diverted rivers in order to erode and dig the ground in surface mines to quarry materials like gold at sites in Wales (Britain) and Spain.
Military engineering and war machines of all sorts and shapes. For example military camps, not unlike small villages, were essentially pre-fabricated and built or taken down in amazingly short times. Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine was built from scratch in a matter of days.
The grid structure of many cities, such as Barcelona or Paris is an echo of their past as Roman military settlements.
Holidays and leisure travel– again, don’t know that you can actually say that they were Roman inventions, but certainly the relative safety and wellbeing generated during the heyday of Roman civilisation meant that holidays and foreign travel became extremely popular. The Mediterranean was known as a Roman pond and sea routes across it became extremely secure and frequent (once Pompey the Great had rid the seas of Pirates).
Wild cuisine: their taste was pretty exotic. The wealth and luxury couldn’t go without weird and wonderful dishes, many of which live on thanks to books such as Apicius’ “De Re Coquinaria”.
The Greeks are generally regarded as the inventors of modern literature and theatre. The Roman contribution was the rather less intellectual but equally powerful “Satire“. Still popular today. In fact, the name Satire is derived from a Roman dish called “Satura” which was a sort of minestrone soup full of just about anything.
Shorthand and symbols such as “&” or abreviations such as “etc.”, “NB”, “PS” and many others.
A huge number of words. Eg Curriculum Vitae, Senator (from Senex – old wise guy), Republic, Plebeian, Prefect, President, Legal, Penal, Judge, Judicial and so on and so on.
Our calendar, thanks to Julius Caesar (who used “foreign” astronomers from Roman dominions to get it right). January was after the two faced god Janus. February was after “Februa” the wips used in a popular festivity held in February. March is for the god Mars (beginning of the war season in fact) and so on. July and August are quite interesting: July was renamed in honour of Julius Caesar and August renamed in honour of Emperor Augustus. September used to be the seventh month way back before the Julian calendar (Septem) October was the eigth, November the ninth, december the tenth. When they shifted to a twelve month calendar based on the Solar cycle rather than the lunar one they simply added the two month without actually changing the old numbered names so the twelfth month was actually called “tenth” and it still is today!
Days of the week too: Monday is the day of the Moon, Sunday they Sun, Saturday is for the god Saturn. For the other days of the week we have to look to Latin languages eg in Italian: Tuesday is Martedi’ (Mars day), Wednesdays is Mercoledi’ (Mercury day), Thursday Giovedi’ is Jove or Jupiter and Friday (Venerdi’) is Venus day.
The Saturnalia were celebrated until the 25th of December and involved an exchange of gifts. Christ and the god Mithras were both born on the 25th. It is not surprising that several old Roman feasts and festivities were absorbed into the Christian religion which eventually prevailed and set many of our modern festivities. Incidentally the 25th is when the days start getting longer again and so it isn’t surprising that a pastoral society should regard it highly from the earliest of times.
Roman numerals – essentially constructed around fingers on the hand: I, II, III, IV, V and X are 1,2,3,4,5 and 10. the V stands for an open hand of fingers whilst the X (10) is two open hands back to back. Not very good for pure mathematics but perfectly ok for counting up your goods as they got stacked up in the warehouse.
Lock and keys for doors – many found in the remains of ancient Roman cities are pretty similar to modern day ones. Not necessarily invented by a Roman of course but in widespread use thanks to them nonetheless.
Roman cities had pavements and pedestrianised areas. In fact, the Via Sacra allegedly had traffic as bad as today’s – could we say they invented road rage too?
Ambient heating (hot air was circulated underneath floors of houses).
Apartment blocks– called “insula”. These are really only found in cities where both land costs and population concentration were high as in Rome and Ostia. Pompeii, for example, had no apartment blocks and all buildings were one or two floors high at the most.
The first public newspaper was the “Acta Diurna” published every day in the Roman forum and stuck on walls so that Roman citizens could know what was going on in the Senate.
Public toilets. Emperor Vespasian placed a tax on using the toilets and on the urine (used for cleaning thanks to the ammonia in it).
Distillation process: first century AD, actually developed by Greeks living in Romanised Alexandria. The first description of distilled water dates back to around 200AD by Alexander of Aphrodisias.
Crucifixion and various other atrocious forms of torture
Socks, especially men’s socks were an item of Roman clothing – long ones for the military in cold northern countries, but also for ancient Roman women or actors of comedy. The latter two were known as “soccus“. Soccus were of wool or Egyptian cotton either natural color or bleached, reaching up to the knee or calf.
Not much in music except a variety of trumpets for military parades. Shame we can’t hear any of it as surely they would have been a very Roman taste in music or at least evolution of it.
Rampant inflation (not sure it was only Roman but they certainly found out what it meant)
Umbrellas for both sun and rain
A huge variety of commercialised creams, lipsticks and cosmetics
Candles – sticks of animal fat which the legionaries could even eat in times of starvation.
Hand mangle for ironing – a flat metal paddle or mallet to hit the roman clothes, removing creases by beating. The “Prelum” was like a wine press with two plates pressed together by a turnscrew.
Mass produced blown glass and sheet glass as used for windows. Glass wasn’t invented or discovered in Rome although the variety of uses and production techniques of ancient Roman glass greatly evolved thanks to the market economy and open trade across the Roman empire. A particularly interesting example of this is mould blown glass which appears to have been introduced to Rome and “took off” during the reign of Emperor Tiberius – during this time various authors suggest that a particularly “flexible” type of glass “vitrum flexile” was invented which, according to Pliny NH Bk36.195 he attempted to repress because of the replacement effect it was having on more traditional luxury metal vessels and indeed Tiberius had the workshop of the inventor destroyed.
Street lighting (only towards the end of the empire) – the reference to check out is Ammianus Marcellinus, book 14.
Unruly supporters and hooliganism at the stadiums – for example the riot at Pompeii’s amphitheatre between the Pompeian and Capuan supporters. This results in various deaths and eventual ten year banning of public games in Pompeii’s amphitheatre by Nero. Sounds quite modern!