ancient roman technology

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ancient roman technology

Perhaps the greatest areas of roman technology were those where roman civilization excelled: technology for civil engineering, building and warfare. Roman roads and Roman bridges such as the one Julius Caesar built in record time over the river Rhine are fine examples of roman technological capability which after the fall of the Roman empire would require centuries to be recuperated.

Roman Inventions and Roman Innovation have been discussed in separate articles. Within this article we are going to have a look at two aspects of Roman technology:

  1. A broad-brush look at the significance of Roman technology for roman society and the roman economy
  2. See various areas and examples of Roman technology (with links to greater detail of each).

 

The socio-economic context of Roman Technology

In order to approach this more easily it is worth setting down a definition of what "technology" is – and indeed of what "Roman Technology" was. It is worth noting that the definition is very much a lively modern debate so, again, we can only take a broad brush approach:

"Technology is the use of knowledge and science to develop tools and methods which allow individuals and society to solve problems, to adapt to and control our environments".

So presumably analysis of the socio-economic context also involves understanding:

The point is that technology is not the same as knowledge or science, it is the application of it. And if there’s one thing that the Romans were good at it was practical application rather than scientific questioning. Our article about Ancient Roman Innovation touches on the concept of knowledge and knowledge transfer in antiquity – much knowledge and science was actually developed by the Greeks and Egyptians who fell under Roman rule, much was stored at the Roman libraries, including at Alexandria. The Romans applied that knowledge masterfully, or elements of it.

What is interesting to observe is the level of technological advancement reached by the Romans and the speed of that advancement at different times. It is equally interesting to observe that it failed to go any further in spite of having so many pieces in place for an industrial revolution. Rather than apply a readily available work saving innovation the authorities preferred to keep the cheap and plentiful slave labour busy to avoid social unrest.

Speed of technological innovation in ancient Rome

Level of technology reached by the Romans

Broadly speaking a huge question arises when we consider the extremely high level of technology reached and available to ancient Roman civilization, yet the "little" use to which it was put when we consider what could have been achieved if steam power and mechanics had been put to similar use as they were in the British industrial revolution.

In order to qualify the statement "extremely high level of roman technology yet little use it was put to" we need but think of a few examples:

So whilst the level of technology reached was great, it seems relatively under-utilised versus what we now know would have been its true potential.

A variety of possible reasons have been considered within our discussion of ancient Roman innovation, a further one worthy of notice within the context of technology is "energy".

As is suggested by the diagram below technology and the tools which derive from it can be considered as means of harnessing energy with increasing degrees of efficiency. That energy can be harnessed in order to change the environment in some way.

Whilst we know from Pliny that various forms of bituminous petroleum had been found the Romans were still very distant from actually using the highly concentrated energy that can be derived from it. Coal was used to an extent for example in Britain, but not intensively. Animals such as ox and donkey, wood energy, wind and hydro (water) power coupled were more common means of harnessing energy were the norm.

So for example, this might go some way to explaining why the fantastic innovation of a paddle boat described in "de rebus bellicis" in the 4th century would never have actually worked very efficiently – a few ox would be unlikely to provide sufficient power-to-weight ratio.

Perhaps it could be said that the missing technological step was in the use of other energy forms which could provide greater power – such as regular use of peat and coal for example. But it’s just conjecture of course.

 

Placing Roman Technology within the Roman socio economic context

The image below gives a simplified insight of how technology fits within the grand scheme of Roman social and economic development. The aim is to highlight the implications of Roman technological advance and hence the causes and effects surrounding it.

Socio-economic impact is driven by the rate of change of technology.
  • a "steady rate" of technological advance can bring continued economic growth for society and the individual within it.
  • Particular events and disasters of social impact can act as a catalyst on the spread and development of technology. For example repeated fires in Rome induced Emperor Augustus to create the first organized fire brigade and the great fire of Rome under Emperor Nero’s reign was followed by a reconstruction effort of the city which for the first time was accompanied by coherent urban planning, improved fire safety laws for construction such as improved fire resistance through use of materials such as cement and minimum distances between buildings.
  • A "sudden" shift in technology (eg industrial revolution) can bring overall benefit but accompanied by large shifts in social structure as well as periods of recession and possibly economic deflation eg as one industry (and its workers) gets displaced by the new more efficient means of doing that particular job. Society benefits through lower costs but that sector can suffer greatly.
    • The effect described has been evident in the aftermath of the British industrial revolution: Overall of great benefit but in the immediate period it brought the "long recession" so painful for many businesses, their workers and their families.

The potential negative effects of advanced technology concerned the likes of Emperors Tiberius and Vespasian of whom there are accounts acting against innovation.

Examples of Roman technology

It is clearly difficult if not impossible to give an exhaustive run down of all ancient Roman technology so we will limit ourselves to some salient examples with the objective of illustrating what has been discussed until this point ie how technology allowed Roman society, Roman military conquest and the roman economy to progress.

My own personal favourite, which is often overlooked is the "corvus": a mobile bridge fixed at one end to the Roman ships and the other end of which could be dropped onto enemy ships to enable locking them in for hand to hand combat. It was first employed by the Romans around 260BC against the Carthaginians who had hitherto dominated the Mediterranean between Africa, Italy and Spain. The writer Polybius tells us of it but isn’t clear about where the invention came from, the certainty is that the Romans were quick to adopt and adapt it to their own needs, thus minimising their naval inexperience and profiting of their military capability to the full. To add insult to injury the ships which the Romans were so unskilled in maneuvering were modeled and built as a copy of a Carthaginian ship which they had found shipwrecked.

Examples such as this abound in ancient Roman history, others are surprising because they seem to be sitting there waiting to change the course of history, like the reaction necessary for making iron-gall ink which was used from the middle ages through to the 19th century and others still are visible and still in every day use today, like the underground drainage systems or the Pantheon in Rome or the processes involved in producing a variety of highly important materials like improved metals, glass and concrete.

Roman Technology for common use

Within this category we can consider areas such as the great sewage system (cloaca maxima), the ancient Roman baths complete with under-floor heating systems (hypocausts), public toilets ("Vespasians"), urban water distribution even into households, famous roman villas, houses and gardens, complete with metering system and time-based supply contracts. Letters and private notes written on wax covered wooden tablets could be delivered across the empire by post by postmen using Roman road maps. Pliny tells us of the discovery of glass mirrors (as opposed to the traditional polished bronze). Cosmetics were abundant in type and variety Not to mention door locks and keys very similar to those used a hundred years or so ago, Roman glass window panes, signs at the garden gate "Beware of the Dog!" (cave canem) and Roman toys such as jointed toy dolls for children to play with. Small silver spoons, candles, glass jars….

A quick scan of artifacts from ancient Pompeii will show a staggering number of instantly recognizable similarities with every-day objects from our own age whilst at the same time giving its fair share of curiosity.

Military Technology in ancient Rome

Military technology, together with civil engineering and building technology was perhaps the area the Roman empire was best known for. Roman military success was as much as success of their engineering and technology as it was of their training and courage in battle. Ancient Roman weapons, armor and Roman siege engines, war machinery, road building, bridges and forts were a constant source of amasement. Bridges might even be built around pre-fabricated wood and clay structures.

The "corvus" is a small example already mentioned above, and like it the Romans had many other instances of military technologies which gave them a marked advantage. One such example is the pilum spear with its highly engineered shaft and point or indeed the square shields made of tough yet relatively light plywood which used together with the gladius sword borrowed from the Spaniards and thorough discipline gave the Roman legionaries a distinct advantage in battle; similar to that of riot police against disorganized protesting crowds.

Ancient Roman Construction Technology

We know of Roman construction machinery both through written accounts and through relatively descriptive reliefs and mosaics. Without going to extreme lengths of description the principal functions of Roman construction machinery were the following:

Ropes:

Ropes made in a number of different techniques could be rendered more or less elastic so that they were not only used as a means of binding or pulling but also as a spring capable of conserving energy. This last use can be seen in catapults where a number of such ropes would be bundled and fixed taught at either end. A bar passed through them could be twisted and thus creating tensile force in the ropes.

Pulleys:

Pulleys were used to great advantage in order to gear force up or down.

Winches:

In order to apply force the most common methods involved different types of winches which were mounted either horizontally or vertically. In the horizontal type they were actioned by turning the outward spokes of a horizontal wheel. This could be done either by men or oxen. In the vertically mounted type the men or oxen could tread on the inside, rather like a Hampster wheel. The same technique was re-used in later epochs for construction projects such as Brunelleschi's dome in Florence.

The application of these sub units, ropes, pulleys, wooden structures (with appropriate joinery) and winches allowed the Romans to create the most varied construction machinery which could be constructed on site according to the needs of the moment. Metal was restricted to particular situations and tasks such clasps which allowed cranes to hoist stone blocks into the air or girders to solidly bind wooden structures or even stone blocks.

At times this machinery could be of such enormous size and strength that it would be difficult, given our relative lack of expertise, to replicate the same results without a whole team of engineers and computer aided simulations. These machines replicated the same functions one would expect in modern construction:

Mills (of stone) to ground the raw materials to make mortar, cranes and hoists to lift materials to great heights, solid scaffolding, trusses of wood or ceramics, piles to drive stakes into the ground and so on.

The only real thing missing out of all this is machinery for moving operations. Clearly there were no engines available at the time but large (and in some cases we really do mean extremely big) stone sections would be carried great distances when necessary. This was primarily achieved through the use of man power and teams of Oxen. Smooth ramps allowed large blocks to be shifted on rolling pins or for greater distances on carts or barges via water.

 

Roman Construction and Technology:

| Building and engineering in Ancient Rome

Building methods in Ancient Rome

| Building materials in Ancient Rome

| Ancient Rome's Buildings

| bureaucracy of buildings in Ancient Rome

| roman architecture

| Ancient Roman Bridges

| roman aqueducts

| roman aqueducts structure

| water in Ancient Rome

| roman columns

| roman roads

| Arches in Ancient Rome

| Foundations and floors in ancient rome

| Constructing walls in Ancient Rome

| Fire and fire-fighting in ancient rome |

| Innovation in ancient Rome

| ancient roman technology

| ancient roman inventions

 

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"ancient roman technology" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments