This article takes a broad look at innovation in ancient Rome particularly as an aspect influencing ancient Roman inventions and ancient Roman technology. A number of significant aspects which influence technology and innovation will be considered:
The subject matter in this article is closely related to the contents of the following pages:
Introduction to ancient Roman innovation
The common view is that the sciences such as mathematics and physics were very much a Greek success rather than a “Roman” one and that innovation was a “foreign” thing which the Romans put to their own use. This article doesn’t attempt to reverse such a view but rather to place some context around the subject so that a broader perspective might be taken.
To begin with it is worth pointing out that with the term “innovation” we are going to concentrate on ancient roman technology as opposed to other forms of innovation, for example in ancient Roman law (which inspired the legal systems of half the world to this day). If we took the broader view we might have considered “innovations” such as:
- Roman law
- Lucretius’ (99-55BC) wonderful poem “On the Nature of Things” which argues in favour of atomism and against the superstition of religion.
- Galen (129-216AD) the most famous exponent of ancient Roman medicine who further supported atomism (which disappeared during the Christianised middle ages and only reappeared in the 17th century – the age of reason)
- The philosophical skepticism of Sextus Empiricus around 200AD (note the importance in modern science of “empiricism” and “method”)
- The neoplatonist philosophy of Plotinus (AD205-270) deeply influential on later religion
- Christianity (a Jewish-middle eastern importation but certainly developed thanks to Rome)
- St.Augustine developed theological thought, often on the basis of classical thinkers and writers such as Cicero. For example his concept of “Just War”.
A short list of inventors and innovators in technology of ancient Rome is given further below.
Clearly, innovation is not limited to the learned “scientists” of society, it is also achievable by those who are engaged in day-to-day jobs and in commerce so long as they have adequate access to knowledge (education), funds, resources, time and a “prize” to go for.
Going a level deeper we can also say that for an innovation to have success it also requires
- fertile ground, ie sufficiently specialised industrial centres into which it can be integrated (and here we have to admit Rome bore some benefit to would-be inventors). What’s the use of an invention without an application?
- a “sufficiently” developed economy. This latter statement is intended to be broad, not only because of the important role that financing plays in innovation but also because of the important role of job specialization in such economies. It only takes a brief look at the variety of ancient Roman jobs to see that the roman economy provided a good humus.
As we have already mentioned, the romans themselves have a reputation for not having been great (technological) innovators; yet for some aspects of Roman technology they did make enormous steps: particularly in ancient roman architecture, ancient roman building methods, civil engineering and military applications such as and .
For example, it is easy to imagine that all the above factors were likely present for innovation in military technology and the evidence is that the ancient Roman army was regularly open to adapt for innovation in Roman weapons, roman armor and strategies.
So how did the factors mentioned above come to play in ancient Roman innovation?
We should begin with some definition and considering that subjects such as technology, mathematics, astronomy, physics and so on were considered “arts”, closely associated with philosophy. This was a reality in Greece and Egypt as much as it was in the rest of the civilized world of the time, including Rome.
Learning to be an was therefore the result of one of two paths:
- Learning through the ancient Roman academic system which happened to be more focused around the ability to debate and be active in public roles.
- Entrepreneurial inspiration as part of your daily work
The degree and mode by which the factors mentioned came together very much depended on which of the two paths you might have followed had you wished to become an innovator or inventor in ancient Rome….
Social context of innovation in ancient Rome
Innovation greatly benefits from the support of the educated and wealthy, which in ancient Roman terms tends to imply the support of the rich Patrician class or of the richer merchants. The Roman nobility and upper classes tended to place great value on military and public roles such as the law or politics. Mercantile trade and industry was considered as inferior and demeaning to the upper class and as such didn’t attract neither the brains nor the funds to bring innovation into daily use.
This social attitude also meant that wealth of the nobility tended to be spent on the creation of large farming estates rather than other types of industry which was rather left to their “clients“, often of foreign provenance.
In spite of the gradual evolution of Roman society over almost 1000 years there was hardly a moment where the balance swung in the favour of innovation for industry.
Knowledge in ancient Rome
“Invention” and discovery are closely associated with (a) access to information and (b) scientific progress.
With respect to (a) it is useful to consider the huge development of ancient Roman libraries, book shops and schooling. Certainly literacy reached great levels, particularly for such an ancient society but was perhaps overly focused on literature and “classics” (yes even the Roman students themselves complained of the excessive focus on traditional texts rather than the more up to date works of the likes of Martial).
So whilst scientific information was certainly available in at least the most important libraries, such as the library of Alexandria, there is little evidence that there was diffuse knowledge or dissemination of technological know-how. Rich Patricians also regarded the possession of a library as something worthwhile and commendable: many of these were transferred to the monasteries in medieval times; and, we might add with a note of Innis’ cynicism, used with much the same objective of holding and wielding earthly power through (scientific) knowledge rather than furthering it for the sake of discovery….
Whilst mentioning libraries it is interesting to note the Library of Celsus in Ephesus (now Turkey) built in memory of a Roman Consul of Greek origin. 120,000 scrolls housed in a public library completed in 135AD at the personal expense of the consul’s son for the common good. “Of course they were Greek!” you might say – but the wealth that enabled it was Roman: Celsus was a military commander close to emperor Vespasian. A great example of how the union of Romanisation with Greek thought enabled culture to spread and grow.
Ancient Roman schooling was largely a private affair, focused around the arts such as philosophy and rhetoric and for those who could afford it, aimed at the development of an individual’s public/political career as Roman magistrates. Learning about technology would have been restricted to learning architecture and construction from a restricted number of architects, or through one’s master in a trade guild or alternatively to military engineers (if you were in the army).
(b) – “Scientific progress” we need but look at a range of the books and a handful of artifacts which have survived through the ages to get a sense of the technological level achieved. For example
Physical artefacts include, bilge pumps in gold mines, piping and valve systems, the Antikythera artefact, descriptions of a ball which self propelled by the action of expanding steam, the Pantheon (which remained the largest single-span dome in the western world through to the 19th century)…
Romanisation, the uniform laws and standardised Roman coinage of the “pax romana” were a perfect environment for the fostering of knowledge and the arts. Ancient Roman Libraries and book shops were to be found in all major population centres throughout the Roman empire even during the gothic wars that brought the fall of the roman empire.
Much of the most advanced knowledge was carefully guarded at sites such as the great library at the city of ancient Alexandria
or sites of learning such as Athens.
Whilst our general tendency is to think of “horse drawn cart”-level of technology we need but look at amazing finds like the Antikythera mechanism to be astounded: it’s complexity is akin to that of the 18thor 19th century. So why didn’t such technology and skill get spread throughout the empire? Perhaps because it’s only recognized use was for intellectual interest: it lacked a useful ready market. It lacked demand.
Knowledge transfer in the Roman empire
Knowledge transfer goes beyond simple communications because we consider that knowledge resides in individuals, tasks they perform and tools they use. It may also be a distributed knowledge across group members and as such it can often be difficult to articulate and communicate in a succinct form.
Taken from a modern standpoint, there is increasing focus around policies which incentivize knowledge transfer between academia, public sector and industry in order to foster wealth and job creation.
The power of knowledge was recognized in the ancient world also: a perfect example of this was the library at Alexandria which was physically linked with the royal palace, although such a close control of the public sphere over the academics can often yield sterile results.
Knowledge transfer within the ancient world was clearly only a shadow of what it might be in the modern world: upper class Roman citizens would necessarily have to take a period of study abroad in order to find the best teachers. The pax romana and the extensive infrastructure built across the Roman empire enabled peaceful travel for those who wished to go to other countries to learn, for example in Greece or north Africa (where there were many recognized schools of Rhetoric).
However, we should not stop at the thought of simply transmitting academic knowledge: Well developed Roman ships and shipping routes allowed mercantile trade to proliferate and with it so too the travel of culture and ideas which could find fertile ground in other parts of the empire.
The written medium was also well developed, usually in the form of scrolls although with time the codex (book) also developed. Wax tablets might also be used although they were clearly more prone to being erased. Having said that, a number of contracts and financial documents have been discovered in the form of wax tablets (actually wood which closes into a 3 part book with wax on the internal face).
Roman emperors such as Augustus, Trajan and Vespasian are all known for their close connection with the transmission of knowledge and learning. Augustus founded some of the first libraries in the forum, Trajan founded the Ulpian library which had separate Greek and Latin wings. Vespasian is known for having done his best to incentivize foreign academics to come to Rome; perhaps more as a means of saving cash outflow from Rome, but even if that were so we can infer that the number of Roman citizens travelling for educational purposes must have been considerable!
Access to resources both financial and material
The ancient Roman economy was based on a relatively well developed banking system, complete with a variety of loan types, also including mortgages. The far reach of the empire, well developed infrastructure, the access to distant markets and access to financing should have provided very fertile ground for a broad range of innovation – perhaps this was most prevalent in certain sectors than others. It certainly encouraged the travel of foreign deities, luxury items and industrial techniques such as Roman glass making. New crops also travelled with the traders and military campaigns such as wine and grain (soft grain induced a revolution in baking and diet not to mention farming and dietary customs in general). The techniques for producing relief decorated pottery (known as “Aretine”) are one example of a local Italian innovation spreading out to other parts of the empire so that competing manufacturing centres were created in places such as Gaul and north Africa.
A brief glimpse at the broad range of every-day artifacts found at Pompeii soon gives an idea of the extreme range of development reached. Highly specialized surgical tools, heating systems, water distribution and even accurate water metering systems to allow for time-based water supply contracts!
Many of these innovations came from abroad, many more were developed locally. Within the lens of “access to resources” it is worth noting that many of the everyday technologies and innovations would have been left in the hands of those who practiced those jobs which frequently implied foreign slaves, freed men or foreign visitors.
At this point it is worth remembering that as the Roman plebeian classes became weaker and poorer they often found it more convenient to sell themselves into slavery and live under the tutelage of a rich patrician. This gives an idea of the likelihood that the right slave with the right knowledge (say a cook, or a doctor or…) under the tutelage of the right master could have access to the necessary resources to develop his tools of the trade.
Drivers for innovation
Job specialization, industrial value chains (ie a cluster of industry around a given raw material or product), entrepreneurial drive were all drivers of innovation in Roman times like in modern times BUT, be it due to social stigma, political will or to social necessities, that drive tended to be diverted towards applications such as civil engineering and military applications, ie furthering conquest, ensuring economic peace within the empire and tending to the needs of the plebeian masses.
There were evidently cases of innovator/inventors such as the cases described further below with Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Tiberius: in both cases the invention in question was suppressed in order to defend other economic interests and at least in Vespasian’s case, for the fear of breaking the social status quo – imagine if the poor masses had had to contend with massive job losses produced by innovation – would the empire’s coffers have withstood the impact?
In the writer’s judgment this aspect coupled with Patrician disdain for basic industry (other than agriculture) was perhaps the most significant drag on Roman ability to innovate.
Famous scientists and innovators of the ancient Roman empire
We mention a few names worthy of note for ancient technology and innovation. The persons involved are Greeks or of Greek roots – it is worth noting that the Greek colonies in southern Italy were completely overrun by the Romans by 264BC. Greece came under Roman rule around 146BC ie Ctesibius left an important technological legacy but was never under Roman rule. Archimedes was actually killed by a Roman soldier when the Greek colony of Syracuse in southern Italy was taken. The astronomer/engineer Hipparchus was already middle-aged when Greece came under Roman control and
- Ctesibius (285-222BC) – can hardly be considered a Roman but his work was extensively used and disseminated within the Roman empire. Water organs were an elitist attraction.
- Archimedes (287 – 212BC) – Killed by a Roman soldier in spite of orders not to harm him when his hometown of Syracuse in southern Italy was taken. His enormous contribution to science, mathematics and technology includes the famous screw pump (for water) which bears his name. His contribution to science was recognised in his day; Cicero gives an account of visiting his tomb.
- Hipparchus (190BC-120BC) – developed trigonometry.
- Hero of Alexandria (10-70AD) – definitely present during the golden age of the Roman empire – generally considered as the greatest experimenter of antiquity
- Ptolemy (AD90-AD168) – A roman citizen of Egypt who worked at ancient Alexandria during the reigns of emperor Claudius and emperor Nero. Wrote a variety of books on subjects such as astronomy, optics and geography which heavily influenced medieval European and Middle Eastern science.
Clearly the list could be made much longer, especially if we take the broad definition of what was considered to fall under the collective term of the “arts” in antiquity.
In terms of strictly “Roman” contribution we should not forget to add the likes of Vitruvius and Pliny who through their works and manuscripts managed to collect and disseminate technical know-how of the day.
Conclusion: Taking a fresh look at Innovation in ancient Rome and understanding the interplay of the driving factors described above
Looking at the list of inventions and coupling that with the technology available to the ancient Romans, one thing is particularly surprising: the fundamental technological elements which would have permitted a Roman industrial revolution were all there to be had. For example, all the elements of a steam engine, and if we couple that with the intricacy and mechanical detail of the Antikythera mechanism (made in Greece in the 1st century BC) we can immediately see that the ancient Romans had access to technology which is easily comparable to pre-industrial western Europe.
There are a couple of clues as to what might have lain in the way of the development of an industrial era in the ancient Roman economy:
- Social issue: Much like the technology in the Antikythera artefact seems to have been restricted to an object of intellectual exercise (planetarium) and other examples of mechanization were restricted to making theatrical props, automata and even coin operated machines
- Christian belief: Lucretius’ book “De Rerum Natura” likewise builds upon Greek (Epicurean) philosophy to expound the fundamentals of atomism. In a sense we can regard Lucretius as being a creationist long before Darwin. His objective was to use science for a human purpose: that of removing the fear of death and belief in superstition/religion – Christianity had the better of his philosophy until the 17thcentury.
- A desire for political and social stability: Suetonius gives an interesting clue to the problem in Life of Vespasian chpt18: “To a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the Capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it, saying: “You must let me feed my poor commons.”
- Tacitus (on Tiberius, chapter 42), Pliny (NH book 36 chapt26) and Petronius Arbiter (Satyricon) all tell an anecdote of emperor Tiberius destroying the secret behind a particular kind of malleable glass by executing its inventor in case it should destroy the market for precious metal ware. Pliny and Petronius tell it whilst casting doubt on its truth.
Why didn’t innovation in Ancient Rome go further? Looking for clues in the European Renaissance and English Industrial Revolution
The most obvious answer seems to be that in ancient Rome there was little or no evident personal or economic stimulus for individuals to use technology as a means of gaining personal advantage. No demand = No supply and so what technology there was was relegated to artifacts which satisfied intellectual curiosity or to military uses.
Or, going beyond the lack of incentive we can consider there was possibly even a disincentive particularly in imperial times: Technology might change the status quo which suited the ruling classes, it might even cause social disorder as slaves and plebeians lose jobs, and hence greater pressure on state finances.
Last but not least the later periods of the Empire had to contend with early Christianity which was generally opposed to philosophical/scientific thought as a threat or heresy.
A further clue as to why innovation didn’t (perhaps) go as far as it could might be had in observing what factors influenced the blossoming of the industrial revolution in 18th century Britain (1750-1830). 1760 is the date most commondly referred to): New advanced banking system, Stability, Capitalism, Capital (competition) entered from the colonies: it doubled prices and incentivised investment, giving the wealthy more money to invest in new ventures. Most importantly, in Britain, the wealthy upper and middle classes saw nothing wrong with investing their wealth in technology and commerce, be it directly or indirectly through the stock exchange. This can be compared to their French counterparts of the time who, particularly the nobility, would indeed have had an issue with “dirty” commerce: a social attitude termed “derogeance”.
A further simple comparison of the Roman and British empires has been outlined to observe aspects of the fall of the ancient Roman empire although the theme clearly deserves more than a couple of half pages to do it justice.