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….

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"Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Ancient Rome History Designed by VSdesign Copyright © Maria Milani 2017