A Comparative Approach to Understanding Ancient Roman Inventions and Innovation

The Paradox of Ancient Roman Inventions

Discussions about ancient Roman inventions are often riddled with a commonplace paradox: On the one hand, anyone can easily mention some great inventions of ancient Rome such as the roads, military technology, or the system of law that lies at the foundation of many modern nations. On the other hand, there is the common trope that “the Greeks invented everything and the Romans were able to copy cats who stole the ideas”.

Comparing the attitude, successes, failures, and outcomes of different cultures and nations to fostering inventions and innovation can teach us a great deal. Applying “Cultural relativism” can help us appreciate the achievements of the ancient Romans in their own right.

The Process of Invention and Innovation

The act of invention can be undertaken in 2 ways.

  1. Bottom-up: The more classical accretive way, take an existing process or area of life, with established ways of doing things and make improvements to it. In engineering terms, this can be associated with “6 sigma”.
  2. Top-down: The more modern dream of disruptive innovation a-la-Uber or Dyson vacuum cleaner. Rethinking what your consumer would like to actually achieve and using “design thinking” techniques to reinvent it, then work backward to achieving it. Scrap the past if necessary.

The ancient Romans were far more favourable to ‘1’: progressive improvements building on past achievements could be taken to a monumental scale. Abrupt and disruptive change approaches as in ‘2’ could mean unacceptable risks and failures.

Today as much as in ancient Roman times, the process of the invention can be broken down into some simple stages. With this framework, we can better understand how and why the history of ancient Roman inventions turned out as it did. For simplicity, 7 stages of the invention can be outlined:

Ideas generationGreek culture of individualism and independence was more conducive to this than Roman focus on duty to society.
Screening and critiqueRoman critique was particularly negative for anyone straying far from the trodden path. Anything particularly innovative would easily meet with criticism.
R&D/experimentation
Financing and Manufacture at scaleScaling up was certainly a Roman strength
Supply chain to make and distribute
CommercialisationPax Romana created a good trading environment.
Diffusion and social acceptanceNo point inventing, making and commercialising something that no-one uses: But the Romans happily adopted an spread a good innovation

Simplistically we could say the Greeks were generally successful with 1-3, whilst the Romans excelled in 4-7. There were overlaps but the simplification can be helpful to show how the two cultural systems made a successful combination. The simple reason for their difference lay in the underlying moral framework and the system of personal beliefs regarding the individual’s role within society which lay as a foundation for the basic structure of those societies. We list further below many examples of ancient Roman inventions and innovations that lasted at significant scale into our modern times (ie stage 7 above) – a testament that the Romans must have done something right. The paradox described at the beginning is caused by asking the question of ancient Roman inventions as “either-or”, whereas the successful reality is about “and”.

Innovation and successful invention are not only about having great ideas but also about turning them into a scalable reality with the intended social impact.

Comparing Ancient Roman Innovation to Modern Times

Fostering technological innovation and inventions is a live and ongoing theme in most if not all modern societies and a constant within national politics. It is appreciated as a fundamental engine for a growing economy, job creation, and personal wellbeing.

As a consequence, the ‘inventions of ancient Rome’ is a popular research theme drawing many parallels to the modern world from the 17-21st centuries. If that feels like a long period to compare it is worth considering that the Ancient Roman empire in its various guises – Roman empire of the West and Eastern halves – grew, developed, declined, and fell over the course of over 2000 years; so comparing it to the last 4-500 years of our own modern development is no stretch.

Modern Times Showed us that Innovation Also Has Dangers and Carries Social Responsibilities

Unlike in Roman times, modern media and advertising is enhancing the positive advantages of innovation and de-emphasising the disruptive effects and degree of change it inevitably brings to the affected parts of society. If we look back to our recent past we can see with little doubt that the impact of the industrial revolution has been undeniably beneficial to the world population at large. However, a more careful look will also show its darker sides.

  • We can now see that the industrial revolution was developed at the expense of our natural environment. We hope our new technologies and modified behaviours shall be sufficient to repair the damage made.
  • We can sense the impact of new technologies like AI on our future workforce balance. There is an ongoing undecided debate of new job creation vs sweeping job losses. The two sides of the coin may well offset each other but there is probably a time-lag as there was during the industrial revolution. This gap requires the development of suitable job training, mobility, and social change management that is difficult for governments to manage successfully.
    • Classic Dickensian stories like Oliver Twist bring to life how the social disruption associated with deep innovation and technological revolutions can be painful. It requires careful collective attention from the affected parties and labour force.

True Innovation at a national scale is therefore not only a matter of intellectual genius, investment, wealth, and technology but also a matter of culture, morality, and impact on social structures.

The Responsibilities Stemming from Innovation Can Turn into Social Disruption

It is no coincidence that the 18-20th centuries were not only the age of the industrial revolution but also a period where the traditional ruling structures of many major nations such as France, Russia, and China were disrupted through non-peaceful revolutions: The ancient Romans had their own good dose of civil wars contraposing Plebeians and Patricians and were acutely aware of the importance of achieving and maintaining social equilibrium.

With similar logic, the Roman ruling classes and society as a whole preferred to oppose disruptive innovation. They favoured a more gradual accretive approach which minimised disruptive change, lessened risks, and favoured greater social stability. This attitude showed through in various ways, like:

  • a cultural aversion, similar to the French nobility “derogeance” of the 18th century by which the rich nobility would consider it morally beneath them to be involved in certain types of commercial activity
  • recorded cases of some Emperors actively opposing or destroying a given innovation and its inventor.
  • writers such as Vitruvius describing the failed engineering attempt of Paconius as proud folly for wanting to invent a new type of the machine.

2000 years of ancient Roman history shows us how this attitude played out; with highly successful aspects but it also carried limitations that likely accelerated the empire’s decline and fall.

Indicators of Innovation in Ancient Rome

Indicators of innovation trends can be found in various aspects of Roman history and society:

  • Inflationary pressure tends to move in opposition to innovation and economic growth. The reason for this is that innovation tends to improve productivity and reduce the input costs of production. Ancient Rome saw increasing and ongoing inflationary pressures (and presumably decreasing levels of productivity) from around the time of Emperor Nero and the great fire of Rome all the way through to the fall of the western empire 4 centuries later. An indicator of this trend can be seen in the decreasing silver content of the silver Denarius (the backbone of Roman coinage). Lead emission levels measurable in polar ice caps throughout Roman history are also a proxy of smelting and manufacturing emissions and follow a similar trend to the coinage silver content.
  • Population and urbanisation levels can have a degree of correlation with innovation, education, and job specialisation. This roughly moved in line with the expansion of the Roman empire and meeting new cultures and new types of enemies in different terrains. The latter part of the empire on the other hand was a rather more defensive military stance, protecting the ‘limes’ and confines of the empire. Possibly less conducive to developing new technologies and playing a more defensive game. The highly tumultuous 3rd and 4th centuries AD certainly saw a decline of population and urbanisation. In the early middle ages, the population of Rome had dwindled to less than 10% of its heyday.
  • The monumental scale achieved by some Roman technologies is proof of the level of innovation, particularly in the areas of military weaponry and strategy, law, and civil engineering. Roman inventions and discoveries such as waterproof cement and the use of arches and domes in architecture allowed road networks, sewers, aqueducts, huge public buildings, and levels of urbanisation and social order which were not achieved until the industrial revolution 1000 years later.
  • Large scale adoption over time: this is perhaps the greatest testament to the fundamental success of certain Roman innovations. Although other inventions such as the animal drawn/mechanical harvester are known to have been invented but never put into real practice.
In Conclusion:

Roman inventions and technological innovation had many successes which are still visible today. However, it was not sufficient to prevent the decline and fall of the Roman empire.

Bottom-up innovation through the methodical improvement of established technologies enabled enormous social improvements and growth at least into the first century AD. However, the worsening geopolitical circumstance, the impetus to maintain social order, and a cultural aversion to disruptive changes meant the ancient Romans were unable to switch towards a top-down “design thinking” led approach which might have enabled deeper disruptive innovation and, perhaps, a reversal of ever-worsening economic conditions. Modern mathematics, including the use of the number 0 was also not discovered until much later so whilst many elements essential to the later industrial revolution existed the Roman empire never managed to make the leap to greater levels of automation and mechanisation to increase human productivity.

The greatest testament to the success of Roman inventions and innovation is the ongoing practical use of many of them. Bridges, roads, and buildings still standing, carrying everyday traffic and enabling modern human activity.

A list of some of the more well-known and durable ancient Roman innovations is shown below:

A List of Ancient Roman Inventions

  • Military weaponry and techniques
  • Road networks also including built-in reflective surfaces for night visibility
  • Road traffic management
  • Mining, metals and materials working
  • Water distribution networks and centrally managed public utilities
  • Firemen services
  • Waterproof Cement caused a veritable revolution in architecture and building practices.
  • Arches and vaults were taken to unprecedented development. The Pantheon’s single-span dome remained the largest in the world until the 20th century.
  • Highly evolved commerce and markets enabled the development of foreign or imported skills like artworks. A veritable art and literature market developed.
  • Medical practices developed through wars and a thriving market of gladiatorial fights.
  • Tools and instruments such as scissors. Many medical instruments evolved from early Greek prototypes to high degrees of perfection.
  • “Newspapers” (the “Acta diurna” was a regular public update hung in the forum so everyone could be aware of public proceedings and events)
  • Postal services
  • Roman Law” with its notions of civil, criminal, international laws, personal rights, and so on which lie at the base of many modern constitutions.

And more….

Castrum Novum theatre: The architecture and orientation of a newly discovered ancient Roman theatre

The Castrum Novum theatre has recently been resurfaced by archaeological digs at Santa Marinella, on the coast north of Rome. Its site and architectural orientation are particularly noteworthy.

Ancient roman theatre
The Castrum Novum theatre has been unearthed north of Rome. It is similar to the Roman theatre shown above.
It was built to face the sea and its orientation took advantage of the environment: The sunset provided dramatic stage-lighting.

Research by the Finnish University of Pilsen and the Institutum Finlandiae have also unearthed the temple’s lower building work. It had a regular architectural plan and was located some 50 metres from the sea front. The stage was ~30 metres length and there was seating area for ~1000 spectators. Brickwork with “bullae” (stamps) of Emperor Marcus Aurelius suggest this ancient Roman theatre was restructured under his rule and was in full use during the 2nd century AD.

It was oriented to take full advantage of the coastal environment:

  • Illumination: The sun setting with its rays shining onto the actors and “scaena frons” architectural stage rather than blinding the public.
  • Ventilation: The sea breeze would have been used together with savvy use of the rooftop sails to ventilate the cavea and spectators for comfort.

The city of Castrum Novum was an ancient and highly strategic coastal port since the Punic Wars. Its development from the 3rd century BC through ~800 years meant it had a highly developed infrastructure to support its logistical, trade and military function.

Read more about ancient Roman Theatres | roman masks and their role in character projection |

Statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The birth of Rome – a crucible for many ethnicities.

Whilst we think of ancient Rome as a unitary ethnic identity, the birth of Rome was all about assembling a number of sub-cultures into a new whole. This was not simply achieved through ethnic deletion but rather through assimilation and gradual absorption of the many local customs over time.

The approach created opportunity for those populations who had been taken over to actually create their own career and future, reshaping Roman society itself. It wasn’t always pacific and also resulted in revolts, but the approach was largely successful. It remained a characteristic of the later Roman Empire in what is known as “Romanisation”. It was also a bedrock of the shift to Christianity over 1000 years later: rather than delete and replace previous customs it was much more effective to acknowledge them and reshape them towards the new reality; for example replacing the fertility festival of Juno in February with Saint Valentine’s day.

These few notes capture some thoughts and ideas about the birth of Rome and the development of archaic Latin culture in the period from the 8th – 2nd centuries BC. Visiting a range of Italian cities including Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Roman Pompeii, Nocera and Paestum it is evident how a number of local cultures had many similarities yet also their own ethnic differences. Were they simply wiped out? Can they tell us something about the development of their most successful neighbour?

Greek colonies in the south of Italy pushed northwards and spread their own cultural influences. Etruscans, Latins, Sabines, Oscans, Samnites, Lucanians and other Italic peoples were coalescing into local identities, sometimes allied to one another and at other times warring for territorial dominance of resources, waterways, agricultural land and pastures for their cattle. Each of these were themselves an assemblage of smaller local groups, each with their own local characteristic, a village or fortified area on a given hill or mountain. Just like ancient Rome on the Capitoline and Palatine hills.

It is interesting to note how they had their own local languages and alphabets developed: Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Nuceran, Latin and others were very much alive in parallel. Several of them even at the time of Pompeii’s destruction in 79AD. Roman dominance incorporated them into a unitary existence. It was recorded that Emperor Claudius was one of the last to know Etruscan language and wrote books on their culture. On the other hand, there are graffiti in Pompeii written in Oscan. Pontius Pilate was an Equestrian of Samnite origins – as his name suggests he was from the Samnite tribe of the Ponti(!) not Latin.

Visiting the city of Paestum, further to the south of Italy we can see a number of funeral paintings which portray events from every day life. It is interesting to compare them, and their similarities with those of Etruscan cities such as Tarquinia much further to the north. This gives us a sense of the many similarities across these cultures with that of Rome such as a love for Gladiatorial fights at funerals or of hunting and chariot racing.

In conclusion, the birth of Rome wasn’t a case of a culture coming out of nowhere and deleting those around it. It was more a case of various cultural identities coming together over time and the Romans having had the ability to incorporate and thread them together into a form of coexistence. Perhaps this can give us new ideas about the social reasons for the fall of the Roman empire.

Walks of Rome you can easily fold in the back of your pocket

Some ideas for walks and tours of Rome: If I had little time to waste and wanted a short walk to get the main flavour of the city where would I go?

Entire books have been written on the subject and it is almost impossible to do Rome justice in just few pages, or perhaps that is just the way to do it justice: Some indications and then off you go to discover its wonders.

Tip #1: Rome is obviously an intricate mass of different periods of history annexed and built over one another. It is therefore quite difficult to understand and appreciate the wow factor of the bits of the puzzle you’re looking at. So make sure you have a quick cheat-sheet of Roman History and/or Rome Timeline in the back of your pocket!

Tip #2: If you want to ad lib as much as possible read just a little background:

  • Our bluffer’s Rome’s history (a page: but not bad for a couple of thousand years)
  • Bluffer’s guide to Roman architecture – another page giving a quick idea of why Roman architecture was great. A good key to understanding the forumcolosseumpantheon, St. Peter’s and many other buildings.
  • The Bluffer’s Baroque Rome – Rome’s so full of churches you may as well try to understand why they look the way they do – it’s all to do with fighting those protesting Protestant reformers (and power of course).

Tip #3: is to plan each day out, even if just for a minute. Nothing’s to say you can’t change your mind half way through – in fact if you do so much the better: something will have grabbed your undivided attention! What’s it to be? Soak up some Rome culture? Do a quick tour of the antiquities? Shops? Food and hanging out at the Coffee Bars? See below for some planned tour suggestions.

Last Tip #4Avoid going around with your nose stuck in a (guide) book. What’s so wonderful about the “Eternal City” is the innumerable surprises which lurk around each corner. Take a camera and possibly a notepad. Jot a couple of notes of what you really appreciated and read about them in comfort whilst sipping a road-side Espresso at one of our suggested Coffee Bars. They’ll also provide a pleasant memory when you’re on the plane back home.

TOUR NUMBER 1: “I’ve been there too” (1 Day Tour)

This is the “I need to run through the city and take pics of the major bits” sort of tour. Here are the musts which you could probably do in a day. “I’ve done Rome”. Shame to rush about this way but perhaps a good way of getting a taster before delving into the bits you enjoyed best.

Follow the links for a little further detail of the places referred to. Don’t forget the Rome shopping section and into Rome restaurants, these aspects are a must as much as the Colosseum! The areas concerned include Piazza del PopoloPiazza Navona & Forums with a glimpse of Vatican across the river. The area descriptions include sites and notes of particular interest.

We would suggest starting from the Piazza del Popolo and following Via del Babbuino to Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. From there down Via Condotti. You might try a coffee at the Antico Caffe’ Greco. Here’s your chance to look at the luxury designer shops and boutiques, not all of them are overly expensive.

We would suggest brunch in (relatively inexpensive) style at the Caffettiera in Piazza di Pietra, between Via del Corso and the Pantheon. Chance to see the side of a major Roman temple – to Hadrian’s genius, now the stock exchange – and then on to the PantheonPiazza Navona & Campo de’ Fiori.

Get to the Tiber & view to St. Peter’s. Actually going to St. Peter’s would require quite a lot of energy if you’re considering the next part of the trip:

Up to Piazza Venezia, see the balcony of Palazzo Venezia from where Mussolini delivered his speeches. The “Type Writer” monument to the unknown soldier & up the steps to the Capitoline Hill. Great view over the Forum from around the back of the hill (go round the Palazzo Senatorio which faces the steps up to the hill).

Back down the steps and a good walk along the Via dei Fori Imperiali will allow you to see the Forums. The Roman/Imperial forums on the right and Trajan’s on the left, including the famous Trajan’s column which depicts his wars of conquest in Rumania.

Get to the end of the street and you’ll hit your nose against the Colosseum.

You should be pretty tired at this point. Clearly it all depends on a trade-off of speed versus quality time.

A 1 day alternative with less walking about: If you’re intellectually inclined then you might do away with the shopping side of things and go for CapitolPantheon and St. Peter’s. Brunch as above.

The Capitol will afford the view over the Roman Forum whilst a march to the top of St. Peter’s dome will give you a great view over the entire city.

About the intellectually minded: there are important comparisons to be made between the Pantheon and St. Peter’s which will reveal the ingredients which made Rome the “eternal city”. Some research into the two buildings, their history and uses will shed light a perfect blend of engineering with architecture, religion with mysticism and politics with propaganda. Read more.

TOUR NUMBER 2: Rome in a Weekend

  • Breakfast at Barcaccia coffee bar in Piazza di Spagna with view over the Spanish Steps.
  • Via Condotti, Via Frattina, Corso for shopping. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, Campo Marzio, Via del Corso, Piazza Venezia. Capitoline hill, view over Forum
  • Lunch in Trattoria.
  • Piazza del Panteon (Piazza della Rotonda) for coffee. (Caffe’ Tazza d’Oro). Piazza Navona. Cross river to Castel St. Angelo, see the bridge of Ponte St. Angelo. Up the river to St. Peter’s and stop for tea at Hotel Columbus (end of Via della Conciliazione which leads to St.Peter’s itself). St. Peter’s square and into the Basilica. Chance to either go up to the top of the dome – access from outside – or under to see the treasury – access from inside the basilica.
  • Evening out in Trastevere or romantic dinner at Bacaro restaurant (reserve before hand).
  • Day two: breakfast at Rosati in Piazza del Popolo. Up the hill to Villa Borghese. Walk through the gardens. Here’s a chance for a museum, Vatican museum requires at least half a day. Capitoline Museum is good. Lunch at the museum. Quick cabby or even horse drawn carriage to the Colosseum and off home.

TOUR NUMBER 3: Rome in a Week

  • Take with you the appropriate pages out of this guide including bits of the time line attached at the end of the document. You will then be able to place (almost) everything you see in terms of period and events.
  • Get some inspiration from the area descriptions in the chapter above, something might strike a chord of particular interest around which you can generate a more entertaining tour for yourself rather than having to see the “must see”. Surely the most important objective is towards yourself and making sure you take away with you the memories which you are most likely to hold dear in future. You can always come again to see more.
  1. Cut the chase and go to visit the church of San Clemente, not far from the Colosseum. It isn’t the most famous but it has the enormous advantage of containing various levels of history within it: the very bottom level is Roman housing of Nero’s age. Next level up is a temple to the god Mithras which believe it or not was the direct competition to Christianity. The Christians smashed it up. Gives you a good eerie feel of ancient mysticism. Next level up is the early “paleo-christian” church and the top-most level is a medieval church with baroque elements (18th century). The art is well worth having a look at too. It’ll be difficult to get a better feel of “Rome” in a single place. You might be tempted to go “do” the Colosseum as it’s nearby. Check it out on the timeline. For a more in-depth idea read about it in the mariamilani.com website (www.mariamilani.com/ancient_rome.htm)
  2. The next trick is to realise that various parts of Rome tend to have a bountiful supply of this or that period. So start from the Piazza del Popolo (north gate) and choose:
  • – Up the hill to the left for the Villa Borghese gardens
  • – First road to the left of the trident, Via del Babbuino, for Romantic Rome and the Spanish Steps. High class shopping too.
  • – Central road, Via del Corso, to tackle some shopping followed by Ancient Rome, The Capitol, the Forum and Colosseum.
  • – The road to the right, Via di Ripetta, to go via the Campo Marzio, a little shopping, some antiquities and through to the Vatican/Saint Peter’s. Walk up to the top of the dome and get your breath back.
  • – Via del Corso again and swing a right towards the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. This is Medieval Rome. Some good food and a little shopping too.
  • – The Vatican Museums require a whole day unless you’re pretty focused about what you want to see. Half a day’s do-able if you go for Rafael’s rooms and the Sistine chapel. A little research ahead will allow you to stop to pick up the real jems. Watch out for opening times, might be mornings only.
  • – Half a day for the Via Veneto is more than enough. Visit the weird cemetary for that spooky note and then up towards the Spanish Steps again (always a good place to gravitate). Take the opportunity to visit the Caffe Greco.
  • – Follow the river to the bottom of the Aventine hill. This is the Forum Boarium. Visit the Santa Maria in Cosmedin and the Mouth of Truth. There are a couple of interesting Roman temples: a round one and a rectangular one. If you read about them you may well find them pretty interesting. If not walk by and straight up the Aventine hill, pleasant walk with good basilicas at the top and views down.
  • Sounds like not a lot so far but if you’ve got this far you quite likely sped through much of what you saw on the way and have probably been in town for a week. You still haven’t visited the Trevi Fountain, the Capitoline Museums (on the Capitoline hill) and the old Appian way/Catacombs – these are quite resource hungry because of the distance. Your feet are worn out and you realise how you’ve only just scratched the surface. Have you seen the Lateran? Santa Maria Maggiore? There’s loads more but I suggest you select according to taste at this point rather than historical importance. Eg go for an ice cream or cup of tea in the Jewish Ghetto (see section on Coffee Bars).
  • – For a different angle at things you might go for a boat trip along the tiber. Requires a couple of hours.
  • – My favorite spots: Piazza del Popolo, The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, San Clemente and the view from the top of St. Peter’s dome.

TOUR NUMBER 4: Rome by Squares

Another idea is to pick a guiding theme like the Obelisks or squares around Rome.

The Obelisks were brought to Rome by the Emperors as bits of furnishing for the city, often placed in the central spine, called “spina”, of circuses. Later popes recovered them from where they lay abandoned and stood them throughout the city to act as visible landmarks for the pilgrims to follow round the city. A few have since been moved about but in any case you can be sure they still act as pretty good landmarks. You might add the two columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

Following the Squares can be equally entertaining, especially as the “piazze” act as natural focus points throughout the. Follow the tiny streets which run between the hills like streams and converge into the fountains of the many remarkable “piazze”. If we try to combine a tour of the seven hills with the more popular squares we obtain a pretty complete tour (10 squares because I couldn’t cut it down to 7!). A little more about each may be gained from the area descriptions above.

So to the squares walk:

Piazza del Popolo (northern gate of Rome with Obelisk) – Piazza di Spagna (Spanish steps) – Trevi fountain – Piazza del Quirinale – Campidoglio (the Capitoline hill)- Pantheon – Piazza Navona (ancient circus turned into an elongated public square) – San Giovanni in Laterano (the square with Rome’s cathedral – predecessor of St. Peter’s basilica) – Saint Peter’s at the Vatican. Not strictly in this order�

Two more for a good coffee break: Sant’Eustachio and Piazza di Pietra. Two as part of the night life: Campo de’ Fiori and Santa Maria in Trastevere. (Campo de� Fiori can be a little overly lively at times)

TOUR NUMBER 5: Rome by Obelisks

Egypt fell into Roman hands at the time when the first Emperor, Augustus, heir of Julius Caesar, brought his rival Mark Anthony and his lover Cleopatra to heel.

What isn’t obvious is that the obelisks dotted around Rome were already ancient when the ancient Romans began to bring them over to glorify their capital city. This serves to give an idea of the esteem the Romans held for the ancient Egyptian culture, particularly with the regards to the “sciences”.

Obelisks quite evidently hold symbolic meanings. In Egyptian times they represented rays of the sun and glorified divinities. In Roman times this meaning largely persisted but doubled up to constitute first hand evidence of the power of Rome, focused on the Emperor.

As the Empire gave way to the dark ages the obelisks fell off their pedestals but as fortunes picked up again with the papacy so too did the obelisks. Around 1587 Pope Sixtus V gave orders for a number of them to be put to use. They were unburied from their original spots, often in the central spina of the abandoned circuses and transferred with great effort to behave as place markers for the Christian pilgrims to follow and wonder at: a constant reminder of the brutal empire which Christianity had heroically survived.

As the small obelisk in Piazza della Minerva perfectly describes the Obelisks came to hold a new symbolic meaning: wisdom. And more specifically, Christian wisdom.

The major obelisks of Rome (numbers in brackets are height/height with pedestal):

  • Vatican – 25.37/40m moved in 1586 to the centre of St. Peter’s square from where it lay nearby at Caligula’s & Nero’s circus. It weighs 330 tons. No hieroglyphs.
  • Esquiline hill – 14.75/25.53m. moved in 1587. North of Santa Maria Maggiore.
  • Lateran – 32.18/45.7m. The tallest. Stands in front of San Giovanni in Laterano.
  • Flaminio – 23.91/36.43m. Dates back to Ramses II about 1300 BC. It was brought to Rome by Augustus to stand in the centre of the Circus Maximus. It was moved in 1589 to Piazza del Popolo to greet the Pilgrims coming into Rome through the northern gate of the city.
  • Agonalis – 16.53/30.17m. Stands in the centre of Piazza Navona as part of Bernini’s famous fountain of the four rivers (1651). The Hieroglyphs were added about that time ie they’re not original Egyptian but Baroque to glorify the then Pamphilij pope (note the dove and olive sprig at the top). It originally stood in the middle of Maxentius’ circus on the old Appian way.
  • Minerva – 5.47/12.69m – small but striking. Now lovingly known as the “chick” (pulcino) because of the unlikely looking elephant which holds it up on its back. Used to be known as the “piglet” (porcino) for obvious reasons. Symbolises Christian wisdom gained through hard toil and strength of mind.
  • Quirinal – 14.63/28.94m – stands in the centre of the Piazza del Quirinale with the beautiful statues of the Dioscuri twins (the same ones after whom the star sign is named). Moved 1786 from its original location in front of Augustus’ tomb (Piazza Augusto Imperatore).
  • Montecitorio – 21.19/33.97m. One of the most interesting. Stood in front of the Italian parliament on Piazza Montecitorio in 1792, not far from where it once stood in the Campo Marzio since Augustus brought it over in 10BC. It acted as a sun dial designed, by Egyptian astronomers, to cast its shadow on the Ara Pacis altar to peace (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) on the date and time of Augustus’ birthday. It was found amongst Medieval debris and its hieroglyphs were for a long time believed to hide arcane secrets regarding Adam and Eve.
  • Several others�. Eg at the top of Trinita dei Monti, overlooking the Spanish Steps & dotted around the city. Another is that of Sallustius – 13.91/30.45m – Found and believed to have stood in the ancient and wonderful gardens Horti Sallustianii. Re-erected 1789.
  • Last but not least� Other interesting pieces of urban furnishing worth having a look at include:

the Pyramid of Caius Cestius (at Testaccio, south side of the city) and the two enormous columns of Trajan (in Trajan’s forum) and Marcus Aurelius (Piazza Colonna off Via del Corso). Entire studies have been dedicated to the columns so better leave it to you to dig further.

Understanding the future from Ancient Roman history: Historical Methods

History with a capital ‘H’: Many students know something about the philosophy of science, but is there a philosophy of History? Or different types of “Historical Methods”? Might we develop historical methods which take us from interpreting the past to understanding our future in new and different ways? What about cognitive computing applied to history?

Mathematics: This was well ahead of Science, an abstraction akin to Philosophy in that it is, or should be(!) driven by rock-solid logic. The ancient Greeks were straight into the notion of having to develop proofs for mathematical propositions. Indeed a mathematical proof is sufficient; once proven the job is done, no need to run and rerun the hypothesis on a zillion test cases. In Maths there is (nor was) any habit of performing as many sample calculations as possible in the hope of finding one which disproves the theory. Interesting to consider that perhaps modern computing will allow a new approach to maths? Certainly doing quasi-infinite numbers of calculations is less arduous now than it was then.  A famous example of such a situation is Riemann’s hypothesis for Prime Numbers (for which no proof exists yet). The computers hum away and find no dis-proof. But still it’s not enough since one may lie out there at quasi infinity-1. Perhaps this was part of the problem with Science…that maths was a model or system entirely developed through logic and so it might have been concluded that all perfect knowledge could be inferred in a similar way, without a need to pay excessive attention to the often misleading observational evidence.

This is quite the opposite of the notion of science which is rather more utilitarian. 

Science: Science relies on a theory followed by huge effort collecting a body of evidence, in search for that bit of evidence which negates the theory. But even if no such counter-evidence is found, it is clear that the evidence will never be infinite, so the exception could still occur. Science is more utilitarian, closer to ancient Rhetoric and the art of persuasion: if the body of evidence is sufficient and credible; if it ‘works’, then it’s good enough until proven otherwise. It’s a statistical play rather than a perfect mathematical proof.

Science in the ancient world was not even what we would term as science. It took a progressive turn during the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment which followed it; knowledge was somehow ‘democratised’ rather than remaining the domain of a few. Great thanks to the printing press and advances in the printing of images through metal plate etching. Check out William Ivin’s book ‘Prints and Visual Communication’: Words are vague, images more precise and enable a new degree of communication and learning.

Society gradually came to new and different strategies to define ‘knowledge’ and to generate new learning. Names such as Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo spoke of things such as theory, experiment, Deductive and Inductive reasoning. ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’.

The earliest efforts may have been a little odd at times, though we know the overall result has been a good one. See the example below taken from Francis Bacon discussing that very scientific notion of ‘Heat’ in the book ‘Novum Organum’:

“…all dung seems to carry potential heat … and the carcasses of animals likewise have such hidden and potential heat, so that in cemeteries where burials take place every day, the earth gathers a certain hidden heat which eats up any corpse newly interred”

 

But what if we translated this to the study of History?

Understanding History: History abounds with anecdotal evidence of events, each with multiple and imprecise interpretations and viewpoints. It’s like having the experimental results but without knowing what the experiment was in the first place. Rather like Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where the answer was ’42’ yet the question had been forgotten. History is in this sense very much the opposite of mathematics. Closer to science in a way, but a science where you cannot run experiments to validate your theory, checking if the same outcomes will reoccur. It is difficult if not impossible to press rewind and re-observe from multiple viewpoints to have a precise cause-effect detail. Closer to a case in law, one hopes to find a sufficient body of evidence. Ideally evidence which is directly from the scene of the crime rather than hearsay.

Like law, it is possible to write and transcribe the various pieces of evidence and lay out a quasi-rhetorical logical interpretation of events and human motivations for the jury (public at large) to accept or refuse. The interpretation of historical events can sometimes be re-written or re-evaluated. Emperor Nero always the bad guy, but perhaps he got bad press by those who came after him? Perhaps he was too much of a threat to the upper classes who did much of the writing. For sure he was no friend of the Christians who picked up the pieces. The Romans themselves, like the Egyptians, were often pretty good at manipulating History. Erasing the name of one or another uncomfortable predecessor. Issued by Senatorial edict the so-called ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ implied erasing the disgraced individual’s name from public memorabilia. Emperor Domitian did it to his brother Titus out of spite.

But what about using history to learn about the future? Might there be a strategy which allows History to blossom into an era of self-understanding for society? An ability to use the knowledge to manipulate our social environment and futures?

Some philosophers might suggest that history is cyclic; that societies, like the individuals within them, go through some form of lifecycle. Marx developed a theory of ‘Historical Materialism’ which he suggested was an interpretation of real conditions in society of the day;  many of his followers preferred to see it as an interpretation of history, creating a quasi-destiny of social disruption. A theory of social development which some would like to consider a science and others as a misleading pseudo-science.

Leading edge science and mathematics like Chaos Theory will tell us that the smallest change in events can cause the most extreme difference in outcomes. The famous butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane miles away. This would suggest there should be little if any repetition in history. Disaster Theory in Engineering will tell us that any disaster event is actually preceded by a repetitive chain of events, waiting for the fatal trigger to set of the unexpected disaster event: Spot the chain and defuse that trigger and you can avoid disaster. Perhaps the butterfly is the trigger…so the question is “what was the repetitive chain of events which set up the disaster potential?”.  Are there repetitive chains of events in history? Surely, but at what scale are they to be found? Leading edge mathematics and quantum physics will suggest the possibility of infinite parallel universes, each with its own set of events. This notion featured in a couple of great Sci-Fi films like ‘Men in Black’ or more recently in ‘Avengers Infinity War’ where Doctor Strange checks out all the alternative futures. Enticing, but the antithesis of any sense of purpose and destiny. Why bother if everything is subject to random butterflies?

Without being so ‘futuristic’, what about using the evidence and accepting a ‘rough estimate’ of events to help the building of a hypothesis? How about using a similar event that is known about, to suggest some of the features in another event of which we have less direct evidence? A hypothesis built on a similarity of events to provide indications of where to look for fresh evidence. 

Could we use modern technology, “cognitive computing”, “learning machines”, to ingest unstructured data about historical events and spot patterns within them? To draw parallels in human events which have hitherto lain hidden to human eyes? Spot the chain of events which sets a war-in-waiting or an economic boom. The factors which set up an age of technological innovation or of social unrest. Wow.

Let’s make an example: Perhaps we can draw some parallels back to ancient Rome or indeed other societies in a similar stage of development to understand the economy around animal husbandry: What might have been the effort and resource around the rearing and sustenance of animals, particularly horses, in ancient Rome?  Or more particularly within the ancient Roman army? Could one consider taking the parallel of the animal industry during the industrial revolution for example? Could Victorian slaughter-house registers during the industrial revolution (ie when horses and work animals were suddenly unnecessary due to mechanisation) tell us something about the equivalent period in ancient Rome (where there was no industrial revolution)?  

A quick google search ‘horses slaughtered during the industrial revolution’ didn’t quite give me the answer I hoped for, but it did take me to a publication called “Historical Methods: A journal of quantitative and interdisciplinary history”. Interesting, so there is such a thing as ‘Historical Methods’. It’s not just about the interpretation of primary and secondary sources… Someone out there, has given this some thought; please tell us more!

All comments on the subject welcome. We love to learn and who knows perhaps we can learn to apply a new way of looking at history.

Our perception of time and scale: What ancient Rome can teach us

Understanding history is difficult and open to interpretation, no doubt. Much of this difficulty is due to the complexity of the factors involved. The further back we look and the more fragmentary the information. Documentary evidence, or lack of it, seems the main hindrance but it’s not the only one. Our perception of time and scale is also an issue.

As people grow older they will invariably complain about “time flying by faster and faster”. Rather than being an issue with time itself, it is obviously an issue with our cerebral mechanisms for the perception of time. Plenty of studies are ongoing on the matter, but I would say it’s incontrovertible that the mechanism we have for the perception of time is at best non-linear. Indeed the issue is not only with our perception of time, but also with our perception of scale and magnitude. Tests of our sensitivity to quantities such as light brightness suggest we behave in a logarithmic fashion. Perhaps the same applies to time also, somehow.

Slavery in the US was abolished in 1865, less than 200 years ago and racial division of society has barely been dealt with in the last 100 years. Votes for women across the Western world barely became common-place in the early-mid 20th century. I daren’t consider how it can be that in the last 100 years entire populations have been involved, directly or indirectly, in genocide and the most horrific tortures and exterminations. Looking back from our current vantage point we can see those behaviours were unacceptable and we reject them as something “in the distant past”. Other generations. Choices made by people who had little in common with us: “yes but that wasn’t me, I’m one of the victors who reformed the system”. 

A multitude of ancient Roman history themes are addressed as “ancient Roman…”. We rarely consider that ancient Rome spanned well over 1000 years. If we consider the extension of the term “ancient Roman” to include the Eastern part of the Empire, we would have to recognise it survived as far as the Renaissance. Mid 16th century, blasted by Turkish cannons. So the count would be something in the region of 2200 years from start to end. We are tempted and sometimes forced by necessity, to treat the highly fragmentary literary sources as is they were virtually contemporary. One or two hundred years between one literary source and another seem like an instant and taken as corollary proof of Roman behaviour.

Switching our vantage point can be revealing: Will people looking back at us some 2000 years from now, conflate Slavery, women’s vote, WWII gas chambers and genocide as common elements of our modern society? We’d feel it unfair, so is it fair to bundle such fundamental themes as “slavery in ancient Rome” or the role of “ancient Roman women” as if it were a single social context?

Which leads us back to asking “Were the Romans in the year 500BC much the same as in year 300AD?” When we consider ourselves as modern men and women responsible for the pervasive slavery 200 years ago, the answer is a very likely “no”. We are not the same people or indeed feel personally responsible for the slavery way back when in the 19th century. It follows that the Romans in the year 300AD were not the same as their forefathers in 500BC or indeed as their ancestors in the year 0.

So why from our distant vantage point do we consider the Roman people as one cohesive society, one moral system, one collective responsible party?

Conclusion on the perception of time in ancient history:

Perhaps both answers are correct and we easily shut our eyes to our current moral responsibilities, or we have something to learn when judging societies of the distant path: our judgement of history is shaped by our non-linear perception of time and scale.

The above also raises the question of whether what we judge in a society, historically, is very different from the way we judge ourselves in the present. The priorities seem to change: “The ancient Romans, were all a nasty bunch who condoned slavery and mass murder, they were all collectively responsible for xyz”. But when we consider ourselves as individuals living the present moment, today, we invert the moral order of importance: Less able to influence the overall behaviour of society and greater focus on the personal ability to procure a steady life for our immediate selves and family. Somehow more moral in the long-term and more bent on basic egocentric survival aspects in the short term.

Either way, the sense is that our judgement of history is subject to a great deal of non-linear behaviour between present and past:

  • A different set of moral scales.
  • Non-linear treatment of time

 

Learning from Ancient Rome and social evolution

Can ancient Rome teach us something of social evolution?

This short article is little more than a structured collection of thoughts regarding ancient Rome and social evolution: How we can use ancient Rome as a reference for the understanding of social evolution?

The study of the evolution of societies is a complex thing. Lying somewhere between philosophy and science and prone to multiple contrasting theories. A quick glimpse at Wikipedia’s article on sociocultural evolution is a good starting point. It reminds us that the earliest meaningful attempts began in the 18th century.

The theories follow two main lines of thought:

  1. A single continuous line of social evolution. From Paleolithic through to the future.
  2. Multiple mini-lines of localised evolution, per society.

 

  • You might consider something of a mixture of these: Much the subject of some sci-fi fiction where aliens come and teach a given society certain advanced notions
  • The further thought would be that perhaps social evolution may follow some form of cyclic development rather than linear. Different models suitable for different situations.

Even these few very logical statements of possibility give rise to some fresh questions which in themselves are paths to a deeper understanding of how societies might evolve.

The images below give a simplified view of how ancient Roman social structure seems to have changed developed. It does not address (though it would be interesting) the gradual division of labour and evolution of ancient Roman jobs.

 

Major aspects of social evolution

The sorts of primary aspects which come to mind are:

  • Religion as a means of understanding and finding new answers to unfathomable situations. These need not only be of scientific nature but also related to personal social conditions.
  • The shift from hereditary to non-hereditary rulership and indeed democracy in rule
  • Social divide, to the extreme of the existence of slavery.
  • Morality and rights of the individual.
  • Development of legal systems to govern society
  • Trade and commerce, supported by currency and finance
  • Language, Arts and crafts seem to become an expression of a society’s evolution.

Even with these few notions, we can consider the different types of social model available, taking ancient Rome’s society as an example (see images below). What is less easy to consider is how a society changes from one model to another, what triggers such change, and the subsequent tensions generated.

An amazing aspect of ancient Rome was the relative decline of education and art as the empire’s economy hit harder times. This suggests that individual aspects of social evolution are not necessarily linear in progress. If it were, education and learning would simply have continued to increase. We may have developed ancient Roman inventions to discover the steam engine rather sooner! The likes of Gibbons placed a finger on the factor or religion and the growing sense of equality of all individuals, slaves and masters alike, as a determining factor in the fall of the ancient Roman model. However, we should consider how this was coming into full force at about at a time when the Empire was already meeting its economic troubles.

Can a society evolve? 

Roman Society Kingdom
Roman society during the early Kingdom of Rome

Roman Society Republic vote

A simple diagram of ancient Roman society and government during the Republic 

 

Roman Society Empire
Roman society during the late Empire

So, can Ancient Rome teach us about social evolution?

The concerning evolution of ancient Rome’s society was from Tribal and hereditary kingdom to what was a seemingly virtuous Republican approach and finally to an empire, at times hereditary, at times including virtuous leaders. Eventually marked by dictatorial military rule. The question is what might have gone wrong with republican, democratic politics, as to allow that third age of ancient Roman social structure and rule.

What seems evident is that population size, economic productivity, and communications must have had their fair role to play. The population of Rome reached unprecedented heights. The expanse of the Roman Empire reached an extent as to require its split into two halves.

Communications: The relatively modern work of the likes of Harold Innis, William Ivins and Marshal McLuhan can help with an enticing line of research around the significance of communication to social development:

  • William Ivins drew interesting attention to visual (printed) communication, essential for technological and economic development.
  • Harold Innis suggested that different societies are shaped by their modes of communications, be they of oral or written, spacial or temporal in nature.
  • McLuhan picked up from both that the mode of communication actually shapes the message and the individuals in society (see the Gutenberg Galaxy).

Indeed we can say automation and artificial intelligence are akin to the effect of slavery in ancient Roman times. Together with social media and hyper-communication these elements seem to come hand-in-hand with unprecedented population growth.

In conclusion, as a global society, we continue to progress in the 21st century with respect to the 20th and indeed the 19th century. The rights of individuals are increasingly respected, access to welfare seems to be above that available a century ago. But can that trajectory continue or is it destined to cycle in unexpected directions?

 

From Roman rhetoric to social media

Bring magic to Social Media with Rhetoric

Ancient Roman rhetoric and social media couldn’t be further apart. Or could they? Consider this: We feel a huge excitement and spend countless hours texting, messaging, posting and”tweeting”. We hope our followers will increase in numbers and click “like, like, like”! Yet the traditional frameworks of “debating society” and “rhetoric” are synonymous of “bore, bore, bore!”.

Consider that:

  • the figures of speech of ancient times lend power to our everyday communication.
  • figures of speech get used by marketers and wordsmiths every day to build those catchy soundbites.
  • you have great power at your fingertips by linking Roman rhetoric to social media!

Yet the magic seems to be in the grasp of the few. Why shouldn’t we, every day Joe’s of this world, learn and leverage that power too?

A “tricolon”, an “alliteration”, a “metaphor” may all sound like equivalents of the word “boredom”. But what happens when their products are applied to media?

  • “I came, I saw, I conquered” survived millennia.
  • “Yes. We. Can.” & “Make America Great” won presidential elections.
  • “Finger Licking Good!” made chicken (sales) fly.

“Hey, you and I are in tune. I wink. You smile.” An emoticon is nothing more, nor less than a means to emote and create a sense of “Ethos”.  …Aristotle wrote about it, we have it at our fingertips.

The rhythmic and rhyming, alliterative gems of musical minstrels, The Black Eyed Peas, seems miles from Roman literature.

“I took ur pictcha: with one particular; reason and its-tcha; capture ur charactcha.
I like to sit and stare-attcha.
Aint nothin’ wrong with stairin’atcha.”

So finally, you say, “So what? Rhetoric and social media?”

We conclude: Roman rhetoric and social media are not apart. If we learn how a few of the tools of rhetoric do their magic the result, amplified through social media, can be huge. 

 

Ancient Roman Jobs, slavery and artificial intelligence…

Ancient Roman Jobs and Artificial Intelligence

This brief blog post about ancient Roman jobs and Artificial Intelligence is a continuation of the article relating to ancient Roman jobs. It makes a first stab at considering the consequence of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and using the perspective of ancient Rome to help us consider some of the possible ramifications

The comparison of jobs between the modern and ancient worlds, and in particular ancient Roman jobs is a subject of growing fascination:

A parameter of growing interest in assessing jobs in the ancient world is the very recent arrival of “Robotics” and “Artificial Intelligence” in our own modern era. The first stage of this was visible in the mechanisation which arrived during the Industrial Revolution. Undoubtedly a “good thing” when we look back, but a period of social change, recession and Dickensian poverty as massive sectors of society were displaced. New jobs were created but in highly impoverished areas such as cole-mining.  It is difficult to consider what could become the new job of the poor and illiterate when the age of Robotics arrives: A spade and bucket don’t make a Data Scientist!

From an ancient Roman lense, AI and mechanisation can be likened to the creation of a cheap labour source, very much like importing slaves during Roman times… which jobs will increasingly disappear in our own times? Will the modern day working and middle classes find themselves in the same predicament of their equivalents in ancient Roman society? Eventually literacy rates began to fall, people sell themselves into slavery for a better future, the class divide widened, not to mention the aspect of religion as people looked for new answers to the unfathomable social changes they were subjected to….there can be many aspects and debates to the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire. Are there lessons to be learned?

Please share your thoughts on ancient Roman jobs!

 

A see-saw of invention vs burning people at the stake

Lovers of Rome will know a square called “Campo de’ Fiori“: Today’s the day to remember it and all that it might symbolise. It’s in the dead centre of town, very quaint buildings with wonderful pastel colours, cobbled stones, a famous fresh fruit and vegetable market; and a scary statue of a hooded monk holding a book.

Fruit and veg at Campo de' Fiori square in Rome
Yummy fruit and veg at Campo de’ Fiori square

Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome
The philosopher monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on 17th Feb 1600.

It’s the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church: The monk was an intellectual called Giordano Bruno, and this was the place where he was burned at the stake, a victim of the inquisition.

He was also contemporary to Galileo and surprisingly, it was he who suggested that the stars were other suns like our own, not Galileo or Copernicus. Bruno embraced the Copernican system of the solar system and went further to tear down the medieval barriers of astronomy. He opened up the mind to the notion of an infinite universe. In his view, the universe had no centre: not the Sun, nor the Earth. His thinking led him to propose that all of existence must be infinite as well as made of atoms: Notions which had been forgotten since the fall of Roman hegemony. Interestingly, all these ideas came to him through logic and metaphysics, rather than maths and astronomical observation. He was a strong proponent of the scientific method.

The date was 17th February 1600. The trailing end of the Renaissance and ante-chamber to “The Enlightenment”, but not without a set of intellectual battles with evidently material effects:

  1. Biblical authority: Diverging points of view on Biblical authority and what kind of truth is to be had from it – yes there are various kinds of truth, and Einstein seems to have stretched things even further. Theological interpretations over words such as “...and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…” (Matthew 16:18). The issue here being that “Peter” in Latin means “Rock”, hence the sentence can be read as explicitly saying that it is Peter, and hence his successor the Pope, who should be the foundation of the Church. Others might have had a more symbolic interpretation.
    • ie Power and a desire to maintain the status-quo was at play: “I am the pope, and therefore, you will do as I say!”.
  2.  Scientific method: The clash of learning based on classical thought based largely on logic and pre-established dogma vs. the growing Scientific method based on evidence, supported by the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Induction and Deduction.
    • ie another angle on how to gain greater access to learning; with a ricochet hit on Biblical authority.

Ironically, the Fathers of the Church had gone to great lengths to reconcile the Old and New Testaments with (parts of) Greek Philosophy. Discovery that some of that doctrine like the earth being the centre of the universe and planets revolving around it, caused interpretative issues, if taken at face value.

The control on power, social order, and knowledge were all stirred up in one dangerous soup.

So back in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, the monk-cum-philosopher Giordano, got too close to the edge of the pot and fell into the flames of a very man-made hell. We all know that Galileo made the faux-pas of getting on the wrong side of authorities on the theme of scientific method and motion of the planets, but he steered clear of having anything to do with numero uno. Galileo repented and got away. Giordano didn’t. Both contributed to free thinking and foundational understanding of the universe we live in. Both are deservedly remembered.

Having noted the importance of today (17th Feb) we could stop here, but the ambition of this short essay is to scratch a little further to investigate the see-saw of capital punishment and scientific progress. Perhaps we may learn something of our future?

Invention vs. Divine Inspiration?

A step further in our journey of discovery could be taken by looking at the preceding Biblical phrase to the one already quoted: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven.” hmmm many will have a sense of doubt at this point. But let’s dig…

For sure we have a nice merger of the above stake-burning themes; it suggests learning coming from divine inspiration, rather than human effort (aka the scientific method). But if we remember to focus our interest on Scientific Progress & Invention, put Simon’s specific case to one side, and indeed put aside the idea that inspiration is necessarily Divine; you could play the sentence ambiguously:

  • The scientific method based on theory and experiment has brought us much progress and invention. No doubt.
  • On the other hand, invention never seems to be the result of someone stumbling on it as a result of an institutionalised path of research. This is a very generic statement, but you can collect intelligence and knowledge as they did in ancient Alexandria or communist Russia and countless other states, without it easily translating into actual results of progress and innovation.
    • It’s an ongoing, unresolved, modern political debate: Institutionalised approach <> invention and progress. Never solved.

It’s as if the true inventor sees a peak in the distance, a flash of inspiration, and then methodically works a path towards it, NOT the other way around. It’s not a random ramble, stumbling across an invention, but a definite path with an end-point in mind which no-one has mapped out before!!! Call it pre-cognition, or even Divine inspiration if you will, but something weird is happening before the scientific method actually turns that inspiration into something worthwhile. The scientific method is a powerful tool; it is not the source of invention.

Divine or not in source, at this point the conclusion would be that the key to a future of revelatory scientific discovery lies closer to the message for Simon than that for Peter and the argument contained in those two phrases and the subsequent arguments they lead to is somehow reflective of the eternal see-saw of innovation and learning vs burning people at the stake.

What about the See-Saw of stake burning and innovation throughout time?

That biblical conversation was written down in ancient Roman times. Already then, the issue of invention, new knowledge, and the impact it could have on the establishment were a major concern setting hierarchies and social orders. Irrespective of your religious views or even the Biblical example, it is easy to find other instances. Another curious example is found in a few ancient Roman texts, also including Pliny’s Natural History (NH36.66): “In the reign of Tiberius, it is said, a combination was devised which produced a flexible glass; but the manufactory of the artist was totally destroyed, we are told, in order to prevent the value of copper, silver, and gold, from becoming depreciated.” Suetonius tells a similar story in his “12 Caesars” as do other writers, also telling of how emperor Tiberius assured himself that the information of the invention’s recipe was unknown to anyone else, and then proceeded to have the inventor beheaded. I guess beheading is better than burning at a stake.

So what of today and tomorrow? Is the see-saw of invention and persecution still at play? Surely yes. Even setting aside the world of industrial espionage, hacking and space-age encryption, there are countless stories of regimes muffling the voices of those who might spread unwelcome information and learning. The debate is increasingly strong particularly in times of free-flowing boundary-less information. The reality is likely more disturbing and entering an evolutionary stage with fresh mutations.

The new set of questions seems very mixed up and confusing, perhaps getting difficult to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”:

  • There is no doubting that data, analytics and artificial intelligence is able to see your every move and predict your every need before you even know it; opening up the gates to a veritable future of Orwellian control, and yet on the flip side the need to defend ourselves from irrational radicalism seems to lead to a public demand for the authorities to know every move of hitherto non-suspectable 16 year-olds gone awry. 
    • Question: Will the see-saw reverse so-to-speak? Will the fighters of truth and liberty be fighting a battle, not for the freedom to spread new knowledge, but to contain our personal information?
  • What will happen when we instill that uniquely human or indeed Divine “inspiration” which lies at the heart of invention into Artificial Intelligence “engines”? An interview with Gary Kasparov the mighty chess-player might allay our fears: “Type A” artificial intelligence is about brute force of numbers and variables within a confined set of rules; it’s not actually able to think… It will aid us and free us to do greater and better things. But what about “Type B” or C or X for that matter? Steven Hawking might tell us to watch out and fear the future as machines surpass “us”. The jury is still out as to whether AI will be good or bad. Most say good, rather like the Industrial Revolution has had definitely positive aspects for all of us – though we should remember that the Industrial Revolution came with its upheavals and a generation of job displacement which even today would be difficult to deal with. Just like it was difficult to deal with on the 17th February 1600.
    • You can’t suddenly convert the taxi, cleaning, bricklaying, shop-attending jobs to “data scientist” degrees (though London cab drivers do seem to have the brain the size of a planet).
  • Question: Will there be a day when humans will be burning the AI machines at the proverbial stake, out of that self-same fear of our being displaced?

History has much to teach.

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