Ancient Roman technology was made to last and be useful. Roman roads and Roman bridges such as the one Julius Caesar built in record time over the river Rhine are fine examples of Roman technological capability. Such a technical degree was not recovered by western civilisation for many centuries after the fall of the Roman empire.
Roman Inventions and Roman Innovation have been discussed in separate articles. We are going to have a look at two aspects of Roman technology:
- A broad-brush look at the significance of Roman technology for Roman society and the Roman economy
- See various areas and examples of Roman technology.
The socio-economic context of Roman Technology
In order to approach this more easily, it is worth setting down a definition of what “technology” is – and indeed of what “Roman Technology” was. The definition is very much a lively modern debate so, again, we can only take a broad brush approach:
“Technology is the use of knowledge to develop tools and methods which allow individuals and society to solve problems, to adapt to and control our environments”.
So presumably analysis of the socio-economic context of ancient Roman technology also involves understanding:
The point is that technology is not the same as knowledge (or science as we now know it). It is the application of knowledge, and if there’s one thing that the Romans were good at it was the practical application of learning rather than scientific questioning. Our article about Ancient Roman Innovation touches on the concept of knowledge and knowledge transfer in antiquity – much knowledge and science was actually developed by the Greeks and Egyptians who fell under Roman rule, much was stored at the Roman libraries, including at Alexandria. The Romans applied that knowledge masterfully.
What is interesting to observe is the level of technological advancement reached by the Romans and the speed of that advancement at different times. It is equally interesting to observe that it failed to go any further in spite of having so many pieces in place for an industrial revolution. Authorities preferred to keep the cheap and plentiful labour market busy to avoid social unrest rather than foster labour saving technologies and inventions.
Speed of technological innovation in ancient Rome
- The speed of Roman technological advance was “relatively great” in the two centuries BC, which happened to have coincided with:
- the period of the Roman Republic (perhaps the mode of government can be said to influence technological advance?)
- Greece was taken (greater access to knowledge)
- Military victory over Carthage and control of the Mediterranean
- Roman technological advance was “relatively slower” from the 1st Century AD onwards
- Confirmed by Pliny (though it is unlikely he actually ran a census of sorts)
- Perhaps it can be said that technology advances less under imperial/dictatorial rule? This certainly seemed to be the situation in ancient Egypt at Alexandria, in spite of its great library and wealth of knowledge versus the knowledge developed in the free city-states of ancient Greece. Perhaps a similar modern situation was Soviet Russia?
- Technological advance slowed right down and also receded in society after the fall of ancient Rome
- A great deal of knowledge and technology was lost with the fall of the Roman empire, although a great deal was also saved thanks to early Christianity and the monasteries
- However, Christianity also saw to filtering out and deciding what was to be preserved or destroyed according to theological logics ie what might be considered “Pagan” or against the interpretation of scriptures of the time rather than through rational scientific reasoning. Interesting examples of this are “Palimpsests” ie pages of ancient scientific texts reutilized for religious texts. This practice wasn’t just limited to the Christians of course, an interesting example being the “Liber Linteus” a whole ancient Etruscan book which was preserved thanks to its being cut into strips and used to bind a mummy in Egypt!
Level of technology reached by the Romans
Broadly speaking a huge question arises when we consider the extremely high level of technology reached and available to ancient Roman civilization, yet the “little” use to which it was put when we consider what could have been achieved if steam power and mechanics had been put to similar use as they were in the British industrial revolution.
In order to qualify the statement “extremely high level of Roman technology yet little use it was put to” we need but think of a few examples:
- The Antikythera mechanism, probably an orrery (model of planetary motion), had an incredible degree of intricacy and precision, worthy of technology which wasn’t available in the western world for well over another 1000-1500 years.
- The availability of all the necessary elements for steam engines.
- Even the mechanical harvester was relatively little used and of greater benefit during the middle ages than it was to roman civilisation.
So whilst the level of technology reached was great, it seems relatively under-utilised versus what we now know would have been its true potential.
A variety of possible reasons have been considered within our discussion of ancient Roman innovation, a further one worthy of notice within the context of technology is “energy”.
As is suggested by the diagram below technology and the tools which derive from it can be considered as means of harnessing energy with increasing degrees of efficiency. That energy can be harnessed in order to change the environment in some way.
Whilst we know from Pliny that various forms of bituminous petroleum had been found the Romans were still very distant from actually using the highly concentrated energy that can be derived from it. Coal was used to an extent for example in Britain, but not intensively. Animals such as ox and donkey, wood energy, wind and hydro (water) power coupled were more common means of harnessing energy were the norm.
So for example, this might go some way to explaining why the fantastic innovation of a paddle boat described in “de rebus bellicis” in the 4th century would never have actually worked very efficiently – a few ox would be unlikely to provide sufficient power-to-weight ratio.
Perhaps it could be said that the missing technological step was in the use of other energy forms which could provide greater power – such as regular use of peat and coal for example. But it’s just conjecture of course.
Placing Roman Technology within the Roman socio economic context
The image below gives a simplified insight of how technology fits within the grand scheme of Roman social and economic development. The aim is to highlight the implications of Roman technological advance and hence the causes and effects surrounding it.
- The blue column gives a simple description of the link between knowledge, technology and individual “fulfillment” within society – yes a very vague word but different individuals can be driven by different objectives and its not worth getting too caught up!
- The green column shows parallel aspects of the blue column. Technology and tools are actually a means of using and converting energy to use and convert materials and in so doing producing something with “added value”. A technological improvement can make the process more efficient, add more value at less cost. This sounds good but it can also hurt those parts of society whose livelihoods depend on the old technology, causing a social upheaval and catastrophe: Imagine what might happen if all those Roman plebeians and slaves suddenly found themselves jobless and idle because a cheaper, faster means of sowing, growing and harvesting wheat could be found.
- The diagram also suggests that technology was directly linked with the Roman economy and with individual and social goals. As such it was a significant aspect for Roman governors and magistrates to manage. Whether they gave it much thought or not remains to be seen.
- As was already mentioned above, it is a curious coincidence that technology and progress seem to go hand in hand with states that allow personal freedom and less so with states that have an authoritative control over their subjects.
- Pliny’s mention of a variety of inventions and inventors certainly shows that at least in history before him technological innovation was highly regarded. Perhaps it was considered a threat by the authorities?
- It’s pure conjecture, supported by a few incidental remarks by historians but the deceleration in ancient Roman technology in the 1st century AD could well be considered a direct result of the shift to imperial rule : perhaps intentional perhaps unintentional. The interesting remarks relate to Tiberius (the flexible glass instance – he had the inventor killed in order to preserve the gold and precious metal market) and Vespasian (the invention to move large columns with little need for manpower, he paid the inventor off but didn’t use the invention: Suetonius, Life of Vespasian ch18).
|Socio-economic impact is driven by the rate of change of technology.
- a “steady rate” of technological advance can bring continued economic growth for society and the individual within it.
- Particular events and disasters of social impact can act as a catalyst on the spread and development of technology. For example repeated fires in Rome induced Emperor Augustus to create the first organized fire brigade and the great fire of Rome under Emperor Nero’s reign was followed by a reconstruction effort of the city which for the first time was accompanied by coherent urban planning, improved fire safety laws for construction such as improved fire resistance through use of materials such as cement and minimum distances between buildings.
- A “sudden” shift in technology (eg industrial revolution) can bring overall benefit but accompanied by large shifts in social structure as well as periods of recession and possibly economic deflation eg as one industry (and its workers) gets displaced by the new more efficient means of doing that particular job. Society benefits through lower costs but that sector can suffer greatly.
- The effect described has been evident in the aftermath of the British industrial revolution: Overall of great benefit but in the immediate period it brought the “long recession” so painful for many businesses, their workers and their families.
The potential negative effects of advanced technology concerned the likes of Emperors Tiberius and Vespasian of whom there are accounts acting against innovation.
Examples of Roman technology
It is clearly difficult if not impossible to give an exhaustive run down of all ancient Roman technology so we will limit ourselves to some salient examples with the objective of illustrating what has been discussed until this point ie how technology allowed Roman society, Roman military conquest and the roman economy to progress.
My own personal favourite, which is often overlooked is the “corvus”: a mobile bridge fixed at one end to the Roman ships and the other end of which could be dropped onto enemy ships to enable locking them in for hand to hand combat. It was first employed by the Romans around 260BC against the Carthaginians who had hitherto dominated the Mediterranean between Africa, Italy and Spain. The writer Polybius tells us of it but isn’t clear about where the invention came from, the certainty is that the Romans were quick to adopt and adapt it to their own needs, thus minimising their naval inexperience and profiting of their military capability to the full. To add insult to injury the ships which the Romans were so unskilled in maneuvering were modeled and built as a copy of a Carthaginian ship which they had found shipwrecked.
Examples such as this abound in ancient Roman history, others are surprising because they seem to be sitting there waiting to change the course of history, like the reaction necessary for making iron-gall ink which was used from the middle ages through to the 19th century and others still are visible and still in every day use today, like the underground drainage systems or the Pantheon in Rome or the processes involved in producing a variety of highly important materials like improved metals, glass and concrete.
Roman Technology for common use
Within this category we can consider areas such as the great sewage system (cloaca maxima), the ancient Roman baths complete with under-floor heating systems (hypocausts), public toilets (“Vespasians”), urban water distribution even into households, famous roman villas, houses and gardens, complete with metering system and time-based supply contracts. Letters and private notes written on wax covered wooden tablets could be delivered across the empire by post by postmen using Roman road maps. Pliny tells us of the discovery of glass mirrors (as opposed to the traditional polished bronze). Cosmetics were abundant in type and variety Not to mention door locks and keys very similar to those used a hundred years or so ago, Roman glass window panes, signs at the garden gate “Beware of the Dog!” (cave canem) and Roman toys such as jointed toy dolls for children to play with. Small silver spoons, candles, glass jars….
A quick scan of artifacts from ancient Pompeii will show a staggering number of instantly recognizable similarities with every-day objects from our own age whilst at the same time giving its fair share of curiosity.
Military Technology in ancient Rome
Military technology, together with civil engineering and building technology was perhaps the area the Roman empire was best known for. Roman military success was as much as success of their engineering and technology as it was of their training and courage in battle. Ancient Roman weapons, armor and Roman siege engines, war machinery, road building, bridges and forts were a constant source of amasement. Bridges might even be built around pre-fabricated wood and clay structures.
The “corvus” is a small example already mentioned above, and like it the Romans had many other instances of military technologies which gave them a marked advantage. One such example is the pilum spear with its highly engineered shaft and point or indeed the square shields made of tough yet relatively light plywood which used together with the gladius sword borrowed from the Spaniards and thorough discipline gave the Roman legionaries a distinct advantage in battle; similar to that of riot police against disorganized protesting crowds.
Ancient Roman Construction Technology
We know of Roman construction machinery both through written accounts and through relatively descriptive reliefs and mosaics. Without going to extreme lengths of description the principal functions of Roman construction machinery were the following:
Ropes made in a number of different techniques could be rendered more or less elastic so that they were not only used as a means of binding or pulling but also as a spring capable of conserving energy. This last use can be seen in catapults where a number of such ropes would be bundled and fixed taught at either end. A bar passed through them could be twisted and thus creating tensile force in the ropes.
Pulleys were used to great advantage in order to gear force up or down.
In order to apply force the most common methods involved different types of winches which were mounted either horizontally or vertically. In the horizontal type they were actioned by turning the outward spokes of a horizontal wheel. This could be done either by men or oxen. In the vertically mounted type the men or oxen could tread on the inside, rather like a Hampster wheel. The same technique was re-used in later epochs for construction projects such as Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence.
The application of these sub units, ropes, pulleys, wooden structures (with appropriate joinery) and winches allowed the Romans to create the most varied construction machinery which could be constructed on site according to the needs of the moment. Metal was restricted to particular situations and tasks such clasps which allowed cranes to hoist stone blocks into the air or girders to solidly bind wooden structures or even stone blocks.
At times this machinery could be of such enormous size and strength that it would be difficult, given our relative lack of expertise, to replicate the same results without a whole team of engineers and computer aided simulations. These machines replicated the same functions one would expect in modern construction:
Mills (of stone) to ground the raw materials to make mortar, cranes and hoists to lift materials to great heights, solid scaffolding, trusses of wood or ceramics, piles to drive stakes into the ground and so on.
The only real thing missing out of all this is machinery for moving operations. Clearly there were no engines available at the time but large (and in some cases we really do mean extremely big) stone sections would be carried great distances when necessary. This was primarily achieved through the use of man power and teams of Oxen. Smooth ramps allowed large blocks to be shifted on rolling pins or for greater distances on carts or barges via water.