Ancient Roman Inventions

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Ancient Roman Inventions

Ancient Roman inventions abound and many are still in use today. However, dealing with the subject of Roman inventions with any accuracy is difficult. What we consider to be Ancient Roman covers over 1000 years time span including a long early period under influence of the Etruscans. Furthermore the Roman world eventually covered a huge geographical area. Thirdly, Roman civilization was multicultural, so that many important Roman jobs (and the innovations which ensued) were often undertaken by slaves, liberti and clients (free foreigners) who contributed their personal culture and traditional knowledge to the general melting pot.

It would therefore be quite normal for a good number of ancient "Roman" inventions to actually be innovations which were thought up by nationals of other countries, absorbed into Roman society, such as Greeks, Jews or Egyptians. The social and cultural stability (and concentration of financial wealth) brought about by Roman dominion created ideal surroundings for progress and innovation in a huge variety of vocational areas.

Roman inventions: Introduction

Certainly, the Romans were extremely practical and relatively uninterested in abstract thought such as pure mathematics or physics. Roman "inventions" and technical advances were by and large practical and utilitarian in nature: at odds with Greek attitude which tended to denigrate menial/practical work, we therefore find significant innovations in engineering and materials technology like public buildings, roads, hydraulics, glass, cement and metal production.

A List of Ancient Roman Inventions

Having set the background and gained a glimpse of just how thorny the subject could be it seems easiest to change tack and take the loosest of definitions. Listing some of the many things for which Ancient Rome might justly be remembered no particular order:

  • Advanced roads and road networks

  • Milestones

  • The standard width of our modern roads and tunnels is based on that of ancient Rome (there was a standard width for cart wheels, essentially based on the need of placing two horses side by side). The worn ruts in the roads made it virtually impossible to use any other measure.

  • Triumphal arches

  • Aqueducts (actually they learned much about structures from the Etruscans, but developed it to perfection)

  • Bronze valves and water pumps.

  • Huge numbers of instruments and tools for engineering, construction and measurement. The Romans were, after all, excellent engineers. For example you could purchase your access to water supply for set hours of the day or set quantities of water, which were dutifully metered and billed, pretty much as you would today, albeit with slightly different technology!

  • Medical and Surgical tools (mainly thanks to the Greeks actually but hugely developed as a consequence of the needs generated by Gladiatorial games and continuous war campaigns)

  • Cesareans - sounds like Caesar doesn't it? Cesareans were often used to save the baby if the mother died during childbirth.

  • A conceptual invention which was perhaps more powerful than many engineering innovations was in Roman architecture: A unique synthesis of architecture, engineering, mosaics, paintings and symbolism to convey a powerful, almost mystical, personal experience of inside-out, mundane-divine which was put to use in political-propagandistic buildings at first and then Christian religious needs later. This was employed to great effect in buildings such as the Pantheon, Nero's domus aurea and the Christian basilicas (triumphal arch brought inside).

  • Fast curing cement - hugely important discovery which allowed cement to cure and harden in short times and even under water. The ancient Romans realized that adding pozzolanic earth from volcanic regions (Eg Pozzuoli near Naples) to traditional mortar allowed a water proof and extremely solid mix. This could be used to waterproof the interior of aqueduct tunnels or extend the potentials of Roman architecture with important buildings and domes such as the Pantheon.

  • Reinforced concrete - they introduced metal bars into the concrete in order to gain greater strength.

  • Innovations in metal smelting such as the crucibles employed, particularly for the process of cementation where a low melting point metal is vaporized and alloyed with another such as in the production of brass. Such a technique might have been used for fine glassware which was doped with traces metals such as gold to change its color behavior with light.

  • The Romans invented hydraulic mining, or at least its earliest form known as ground sluicing. They diverted rivers in order to erode and dig the ground in surface mines to quarry materials like gold at sites in Wales (Britain) and Spain.

  • Military engineering and war machines of all sorts and shapes. For example military camps, not unlike small villages, were essentially pre-fabricated and built or taken down in amazingly short times. Caesar's bridge over the Rhine was built from scratch in a matter of days.

  • The grid structure of many cities, such as Barcelona or Paris is an echo of their past as Roman military settlements.

  • The first professional army

  • Law and government: clearly not invented by the Romans, but certainly perfected to such a degree that Roman law is still at the base of many modern legal systems. You'd be amazed at how advanced their marital and divorce legislation, "ius connubii" was!

  • Holidays and leisure travel - again, don't know that you can actually say that they were Roman inventions, but certainly the relative safety and wellbeing generated during the heyday of Roman civilisation meant that holidays and foreign travel became extremely popular. The Mediterranean was known as a Roman pond and sea routes across it became extremely secure and frequent (once Pompey the Great had rid the seas of Pirates).

  • Wild cuisine: their taste was pretty exotic. The wealth and luxury couldn't go without weird and wonderful dishes.

  • The Greeks are generally regarded as the inventors of modern literature and theatre. The Roman contribution was the rather less intellectual but equally powerful "Satire". Still popular today. In fact, the name Satire is derived from a Roman dish called "Satura" which was a sort of minestrone soup full of just about anything.

  • Gladiatorial games and chariot races were inherited from the Etruscans (a number of the first kings of Rome were Etruscans in fact).

  • Shorthand and symbols such as "&" or abreviations such as "etc.", "NB", "PS" and many others.

  • A huge number of words. Eg Curriculum Vitae, Senator (from Senex - old wise guy), Republic, Plebeian, Prefect, President, Legal, Penal, Judge, Judicial and so on and so on.

  • Our calendar, thanks to Julius Caesar (who used "foreign" astronomers from Roman dominions to get it right). January was after the two faced god Janus. February was after "Februa" the wips used in a popular festivity held in February. March is for the god Mars (beginning of the war season in fact) and so on. July and August are quite interesting: July was renamed in honor of Julius Caesar and August renamed in honor of Emperor Augustus. September used to be the seventh month way back before the Julian calendar (Septem) October was the eighth, November the ninth, December the tenth. When they shifted to a twelve month calendar based on the Solar cycle rather than the lunar one they simply added the two month without actually changing the old numbered names so the twelfth month was actually called "tenth" and it still is today!

  • Days of the week too: Monday is the day of the Moon, Sunday they Sun, Saturday is for the god Saturn. For the other days of the week we have to look to Latin languages eg in Italian: Tuesday is Martedi' (Mars day), Wednesdays is Mercoledi' (Mercury day), Thursday Giovedi' is Jove or Jupiter and Friday (Venerdi') is Venus day.

  • The Saturnalia were celebrated until the 25th of December and involved an exchange of gifts. Christ and the god Mithras were both born on the 25th. It is not surprising that several old Roman feasts and festivities were absorbed into the Christian religion which eventually prevailed and set many of our modern festivities. Incidentally the 25th is when the days start getting longer again and so it isn't surprising that a pastoral society should regard it highly from the earliest of times.

Roman numerals - essentially constructed around fingers on the hand: I, II, III, IV, V and X are 1,2,3,4,5 and 10. The V stands for an open hand of fingers whilst the X (10) is two open hands back to back. Not very good for pure mathematics, but perfectly ok for counting up your goods as they got stacked up in the warehouse.

  • Lock and keys for doors - many found in the remains of ancient Roman cities are pretty similar to modern day ones. Not necessarily invented by a Roman of course but in widespread use thanks to them nonetheless.

  • Roman cities had pavements and pedestrianized areas. In fact the Via Sacra allegedly had traffic as bad as today's - could we say they invented road rage too?

  • The first census of population and belongings (so they could tax them). This was in the hands of a public magistrate called the Censor.

  • Ambient heating (hot air was circulated underneath floors of houses).

  • Apartment blocks - called "insula". These are really only found in cities where both land costs and population concentration were high as in Rome and Ostia. Pompeii for example had no apartment blocks and all buildings were one or two floors high at the most.

  • The first public newspaper was the "Acta Diurna" published every day in the Roman forum and stuck on walls so that Roman citizens could know what was going on in the Senate. 

  • Public toilets. Emperor Vespasian placed a tax on using the toilets and on the urine (used for cleaning thanks to the ammonia in it).

  • Distillation process: first century AD, actually developed by Greeks living in Romanized Alexandria. First description of distilled water dates back to around 200AD by Alexander of Aphrodisias.

  • Crucifixion and various other atrocious forms of torture

  • Cypress trees have been associated with cemeteries and funerals since Roman times

  • Socks, especially men's socks were an item of Roman clothing - long ones for the military in cold northern countries, but also for ancient Roman women or actors of comedy. The latter two were known as "soccus". Soccus were of wool or Egyptian cotton either natural color or bleached, reaching up to the knee or calf.

  • Not much in music except a variety of trumpets for military parades.

  • Umbrellas for both sun and rain

  • Candles - sticks of animal fat which the legionaries could even eat in times of starvation.

  • Hand mangle for ironing - a flat metal paddle or mallet to hit the roman clothes, removing creases by beating. The "Prelum" was like a wine press with two plates pressed together by a turnscrew.

  • Scissors

  • Magnifying glass

  • Mass produced blown glass and sheet glass as used for windows. Glass wasn't invented or discovered in Rome although the variety of uses and production techniques of ancient Roman glass greatly evolved thanks to the market economy and open trade across the Roman empire. A particularly interesting example of this is mould blown glass which appears to have been introduced to Rome and "took off" during the reign of emperor Tiberius - during this time various authors suggest that a particularly "flexible" type of glass "vitrum flexile" was invented which, according to Pliny NH Bk36.195 he attempted to repress because of the replacement effect it was having on more traditional luxury metal vessels and indeed Tiberius had the workshop of the inventor destroyed.

  • shoe soles made of cork

  • Different shoe shapes for left and right foot. Read about ancient Roman shoes.

  • Bikinis (see a famous mosaic from Sicily showing young ladies in bikini)

  • Showers (not to mentions their development of great public buildings such as spas and heated pools, gymnasiums, public libraries etc)

  • Street lighting (only towards the end of the empire)

  • Brides dressed in white being carried over the threshold of their new home. Ancient Roman Weddings.

Most consequential of the Roman inventions or improvement as chosen by you, and why they matter so much.


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