The title says it all really.
While the Roman’s did provide modern drainage solutions, underfloor heating, aquaducts, ice cream and other innovations.
Was there an enforced “technological” hiatus.
The only reason I mention it is that a few years ago a colleague made the claim and thinking about it the Romans for a couple of hundred years didn’t change much so I took it as read.
Did they take their foot off the gas because knowledge had not advanced or were they held back by decree?
The title says it all really.
Its coming to light a bit more now, that they were more industrialised(using water power) then we first thought .
But in my opinion their lack of development was due to the readily available slave labour ,
Hero of Alexandra had already discovered the steam engine at that time but there was no incentive to develop it as the empire was awash with cheap labour.
And dont forget the pace of technological innovation progresses arithmetically as the years go on.
To my knowledge there was never an edict against technological development.
To a degree it seems like Roman technology hit a peak from around 200 BC to 100 AD. Rome as a power was around for almost a thousand years, and outside of that 300 year period you don’t see a lot of drastic technological innovation.
Rome (at least the ruling class) was a society of patriarchal aristocrats. The patrician class expected sons to have some military experience and to be a valuable head of household some day. They might study poetry, history, and such, but abstract scientific thought was never stressed by the Romans. The Greeks on the other hand did have an emphasis on abstract scientific thought.
Romans tended to greatly improve existing ideas, and to put existing ideas into better operation than anyone that came before. They were great engineers but probably as a society weren’t “great scientists” (although they did have some scientific innovation.)
Sewer systems and paved roads weren’t unheard of before the golden age of the Roman Empire. However, the Romans implemented those things on a far greater scale and arguably to a better degree than anyone else that had come before them in Western civilization. The Greeks had sewer systems and paved roads, but most Greek cities had muddy roads and open-ditch sewer systems.
The Romans implemented very advanced construction techniques, in some areas the Romans architectural or engineering expertise isn’t matched until the 17th or 18th century, in other areas their technology was surpassed only a few centuries after the fall of the Western Empire.
The Romans also had some serious energy constraints. Roman society tended to be primarily human powered and animal powered, although they did make use of water power and understood letting gravity do work for you. They understood that coal could be used as an energy source, but they lacked the expertise to tap into great coal veins and the area of the world they controlled was actually not that rich in coal (many of Europe’s richest coalfields always remained slightly outside the reach of the Empire.)
And of course without steam engines you can’t really get much better than using water wheels (which the Romans did use.) So while the Romans put coal to use, they couldn’t use it to power steam engines which eventually was one of the driving forces of the industrial revolution.
Prior to that a lot of stuff got done in very similar ways to what the Romans would do. If you wanted to transport something, you sent it by ship or overland on beasts of burden. If you wanted to forge a weapon you had blacksmiths using their brute strength to hammer and pound weapons out. The invention of steam powered machines which could mass produce weapons or power trains and transport goods quickly over vast terrain was pretty huge in creating modern society; and the Romans would always be constrained from taking the next technological step by lack of any greater energy source than water/animals.
Yes, but apart from very advanced construction techniques, and architectural and engineering expertise, and other areas, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Sorry, someone had to say it …
The missing piece here is that the Roman Empire was perpetually broke. It had little access to stores of gold and silver in its own territories and was constantly invading territories or conquering peoples to take theirs. That’s one major reason why Britain was originally invaded; it had large lead and silver deposits.
The larger the Empire got, of course, the more money had to be sunk into its armies. By around 200 AD, IIRC, as much as 70% of the total revenue of the empire went to the military.
The emperors and the other wealthy elite lived lavishly, but there was little money to spend on public works, and public works were what drove technology. Look at the history of bread riots in Rome, and the use of “bread and circuses” to placate a hungry population. Inflation also destroyed the value of what little money was available.
There was never any decree against technology that I know of. It’s just that the defense budget destroyed the economy. You can find a modern parallel to this without too very much trouble. Several of them, in fact.
A very good book on Rome, Roman technology, the technologies of the “barbarians” (from whom Rome stole a lot more than just money), and the horrible shape of the Roman economy is Terry Jones’ Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira.
Most societies are pretty stagnant and the Romans were no exception. Look back at history and you’ll see that virtually every society is divided into two groups; a handful of rulers who have no desire to change things and a mass of peasants who have no ability to change things. Western society is one of the rare exceptions.
The Romans did miss one obvious idea and never invented the wind mill.
Thirty years ago, my classics professor gave two (inter-related) reasons for the definite lack of technological progress in Roman society:
- with slavery, there was lots of cheap labor available (as mentioned above).
- investing in costly new, high-tech tools was risky, because they would be used by slaves who had no incentive to treat them carefully.
Both reasons seem to go back to the extensiveness of slavery in the Roman economy.
Note that a millennium and a half later in the USA, slavery largely died out in the North as it industrialized, and was left mainly in the South. Even there, it was decreasing as inventions like the cotton gin became economical. There have been several ‘spirited’ threads here on the question: “If there had not been a Civil War over it, how soon would slavery have died out on its own for economic reasons?”
More accurate to say that Hero had developed a steam engine. Hero’s engine was far less efficient than Watt’s, many centuries later, and wasn’t really good for anything other than the expensive toys that were made from it. Nor would development based on Hero’s engine have led to something like Watt’s; the designs are completely unrelated.
I’d have to go with the camp that argues that there wasn’t a compelling need to develop technology further, what with a large amount of slave labor, and no pressing needs.
The Romans and Greeks of the time had a surprising number of items – they had sophisticated gearing mechanisms. the Antikithera device dates from the days of the Roman Republic, not the Golden Age of Greece. The Romans had a practical Odometer, and Archimedes built a number of devices that used gears and screws. I’m always amazed by the modern look of Roman speculums, very similar to modern devices.
They had well-developed mirrors, and used concave and convex mirrors. They used lenses, possibly more widely than they’re gicen credit for. Claudius Ptolemy measured the angles of refraction for three different u=interfaces exactly as anyone today would, and came within a hair of discovering Snell’s Law a millenium and a half early, but he was put off the scent by the close similarity to a quadratic formula, and neither he nor his students were interested enough to follow it up.
On the other hand, they missed out on a lot of things that you’d think they’d be interested in. They had an active book publishing industry, but developed neither paper nor mechanical printing (even without movable type). They failed to develop anything practical out of the steam engine. Although they had some ingenious devices for grinding grain, I’ve never seen evidence that they used wind or water mills for this purpose, or for any other. It was all done bu human and animal muscle power.
They used an incredibly clumsy number system and didn’t seem to take the diameter of a pipe into account when metering water use. You look at these things, or you read L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall”, and you wonder “Why DIDN’T they do these things?” It’s easy to ask that with the benefit of hindsight, but probably less obvious at the time.
I’ve heard of no bans on technology. I doubt if one would have stuck. The Japanese reportedly were able to ban the use of gunpowder firearams for centuries, but when someone tried to do something similar in the West – banning the crossbow in European warfare – it was a dismal failure. Too easy to cheat, with too big a payoff. I suspect that anyone who could make new technology in the Roman Empire and make it pay (like de Camp’s Martin Padway “inventing” distilled liquor, or mechanical telegraphy) would’ve had a free hand.
I know the [del]Hitler[/del] History Channel isn’t the greatest cite, but their Ancient Discoveries series showed water-wheel-powered millstones. Not just “designs for” like they usually have, but actual physical remains.
Very interesting. I’d like to see that. I’ve seen actual bovine-powered grain mills in Pompeii, Ostia, and elsewhere, but never water- or wind-powered ones, and it’s always bugged me.
Apart from those hugely rich coalfields in Brittannia, of course.
You’re in luck. It’s featured on a ~2 minute preview on their website. They emphasize the mega-sized industrial mill in that clip, but they also touched on a smaller building found in Rome that also had water-powered millstones.
The speculation was that there was a shortage of slaves in the area around the big mill, prompting a need for it.
I’ve adapted the term “artichoke” for programs like this: you have to filter through a lot of crap to find the actual archaeology.
Without seeing the History Channel clip, I’m guessing that it’s about Barbegal. That’s exceptional, but Roman watermills really aren’t uncommon. Examples at random via Google:
and just in the UK:
None of those pages go into much detail, but that’s precisely because such sites are pretty unremarkable.
Well, as I say, I’ve never heard of them, so they’re pretty remarkable to me.
The Wikipedia page on mills seems to think they’re pretty remarkable:
I’d argue the idea of continual technological advancement is somewhat of a myth. We take it for granted, because of the enormous progress over the last few hundred years. But historically, things remained pretty much the same for long periods of time. If you were to visit Egypt in 4000 BC, 1000 BC, and 1000 AD, you wouldn’t have seen a lot of differences. I mean, there would have been differences in terms of politics and religion, but not in terms of technology.
I’d argue it’s not the lack of progress that needs explaining, so much as the sudden leap forward we’ve seen recently.
They’re certainly far, far rarer than medieval examples - and thus few by comparison - but they’re not so rare that another example is that noteworthy an archaeological discovery (apart from possibly locally). There are also literary mentions in the likes of Vitruvius, Book X, Chapter 5.
The relative numbers do lead to the usual conclusion about the Romans and watermills: that it’s indeed a technology that they failed to fully exploit. After all, there’s the medieval parallel to show that they could easily have built far more of them. And the discrepency is then usually put down to the availability of slave labour.
I recall that the British themselves, with far better engineering, had the dickens (ba-dum Kssh!) of a time extracting it, too. They ahd to invent whole new systems of water pumps and new mining techniques, right?
Anyway, true or not, the point is that technologies often can’t advance with a supporting technology, which may be totally unrelated. Even with the idea of a steam engine, you’re gonna need better and purer iron, which means smelting techniques, which means improvements in resource extracting and the ability to create better (read hotter) furnaces. This kind of development took centuries to evolve, because no one could possibly foresee the use of any item in other fields.
Even if you did invent some cool item, it might not even be of any use to you. It may be worth a fortune to somebody far away, but how can you ever find them? And will they have the further resources to exploit your invention?
Yes but the concept of steam as a POWER had been discovered whereas previously it had just been thought of as a by product of boiling water.
The legend has it that Watt didnt rediscover the same concept until he saw a boiling kettle moving about on a stove.