Science and Technology in Ancient Rome
- The History and Legacy of the Romans’ Technological Advances
- Narrated by: Colin Fluxman
- Length: 1 hr and 26 mins
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“Of the whole mighty fabric of his productions, more lasting than himself, whereby man establishes the identity of his species in all ages, there is none more principal stone than the Pantheon of Rome.” (R.H. Busk, 19th-century Pantheon scholar)
The modern world has the ancient Romans to thank for the origins of many modern technologies, conveniences, and ideas, from running water, baths, and republican-style government to roads. Similarly, by the third century BCE, the Romans were prodigious monument builders, so much so that the memory of the great Roman Republic and the Roman Empire continues to exist within a cityscape of stone. Rome’s public spaces were filled with statues, arches, temples, and many other varieties of monumental images, and each of these structures had its own civic or religious function. At the same time, most were embedded with stories, messages, and symbolism so that they also tended to function as propaganda. These monuments allowed the leading citizens of Rome, especially its emperors, to sculpt their own self-image and embed themselves and their most memorable deeds into the very structure of the Roman city.
While some of the most famous examples, like the Colosseum and Pantheon, remain striking testaments to Roman engineering and technology, many of the scientific advances the Romans ushered into the world were smaller in scope but not necessarily any less important. Indeed, the Roman Empire was not just one of the most technologically advanced civilizations within the ancient world, but also proportionately one of the most prolific throughout all history. A substantial number of these innovations were lost following the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the subsequent centuries of decline of the Byzantine Empire starting in the early seventh century, but rediscoveries of their advancements began during the later Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Era (c. 1400s). Some of their ideas and designs are only now being improved upon thanks to newer, far more advanced modern technologies.
Roads, aqueducts, and buildings are perhaps the most notable benefits linked to the rise and expansion of the vast Roman Empire, yet the wealth of innovations, discoveries, and significant improvements on many existing methods and practices are also found in numerous areas. What is clear from this breadth is that the Romans were fundamentally pragmatic. Whether they be Greeks, Etruscans, Celts, or others, there seems to have been no compunction from the Romans in using, borrowing, or stealing ideas and successfully adapting them for their own specific needs. Their relatively high levels of technology within the ancient world must be largely attributable to this ability, both in terms of access and attitude—the underlying tenet of Romanization was, after all, to assimilate and modify rather than remove and replace.
Original or not, the genius of their engineers and scientists lay in their ability to apply knowledge in practical ways to improve systems and each innovation that opened up the possibility of further developments and even more improved methodology. In such a way, the Roman legacy, impressive as it is in terms of buildings and roads, left the modern world far more in so many fields.