Invention or adaptation: what did the Romans really do for us?

The Romans get the credit for a lot of inventions, but things are more complicated than that. Jem Duducu investigates how Roman innovation was often a case of adaptation, rather than originality…

Famous ancient Roman road Appian Way. (Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo)

Rather than thinking of the Romans as great inventors, perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be to think of them as the Apple of their day. Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, nor did they create the first music download, and electronic tablets were around for more than a decade before the iPad. But what Apple did do was take existing concepts and develop them in ways that hadn’t been done before. The Romans did exactly the same thing – they took an idea and developed it to the next level. Here are just a few examples:

 

1) The Romans and roads

In the fifth century BC, King Darius of Persia ordered the construction of the ‘Royal Road’, which stretches over 1,600 miles – but not all of it was paved, nor was all of it straight. The oldest paved road in history is in an Egyptian quarry and is around 4,600 years old.

The Romans could see potential in these early roads, so they borrowed the idea and enhanced it. At the peak of the Roman empire there were 29 military highways radiating from the capital, with 113 provinces interconnected by 372 roads – nearly a quarter of a million miles in total. At the time, and for years to come, this was the best-connected empire the world had ever seen.

Straight, paved roads improved communication, trade and the movement of armies. However, they were also expensive to build and maintain. Only 20 per cent of Roman roads were paved in stone, meaning that 80 per cent were either dirt tracks or covered only in gravel, which degraded over the winter months. Even the stone roads weren’t always all that great. In the Vindolanda Tablets – a series of ‘postcards’ written on slivers of wood and discarded at a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall – it is interesting to read complaints about the state of the roads that the soldiers travelled on, demonstrating that maintenance wasn’t always a priority.

 

2) The Romans copied the Greeks… a lot

Roman civilisation only really got into its stride in the third century BC. By then, the Greeks had been cultivating their culture for centuries. By the second century BC, Macedonia was still the main military power in the Greek world, but Rome was a greedy neighbour and fought four separate wars against it. By 146 BC, Macedonia and the rest of the Greek world had fallen under Roman rule.

Roman architecture is an interesting example of Greek influence. The very first structures in Rome were circular, implying a Celtic influence, but over time that all changed. Instead, the columns and triangular pediments that had been all the rage in Greece for centuries began to emerge.

Another example of the Greek influence on Rome is the pantheon of gods, renamed by the Romans but, in terms of myths and imagery, completely interchangeable with the Greek gods. Zeus was Jupiter and Aries was Mars, while soothsayers and oracles both also appeared in Greek culture.

The Olympic Games flourished under Roman rule and even chariot racing seems to have originated in Greece.

Roman art: Chariot race with the charioteers in starting position. Mosaic of the 3rd century, National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

3) The Romans (sort of) invented concrete

There is a form of concrete that is naturally occurring, so technically it predates humans. Yet in around 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans made floors in concrete. Independently, Bedouins in north Africa also created their own concrete before the Roman era.

However, it was the Romans who were to use concrete – made from a mixture of water, quicklime, sand and volcanic ash – extensively and consistently from around 300 BC, right up to the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD. Indeed our word ‘concrete’ comes from the Latin concretus, meaning ‘compact’. Somewhat ironically, the Romans didn’t use the Latin word concretus; they called it opus caementicium.

The Romans recognised that building arches and domes using a quick-drying, liquid material was far easier than trying to build the same features in brick or stone. It was also far cheaper and quicker than building a large structure from solid marble. It was also the Romans who developed the idea of making a framework in concrete, before cladding it with stone. The Colosseum in Rome is an example of a large, mainly concrete, Roman structure.

Emperor Augustus famously said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”. While this may be a great line that underscores his achievements as emperor, he missed out the most important Roman building material of all – concrete.

Colosseum, Rome. (© Horst Gossmann/Dreamstime.com)

 

4) Julius Caesar created a calendar

The Julian calendar was not the first calendar, but has been the most influential in European history. Julius Caesar didn’t put his name to the months however; this was done later in his honour. The old Quintilis was changed to Iulius (July), and the eighth month became known as Augustus (August).

The Julian calendar has a regular year of 365 days, divided into 12 months, with a leap day added to February every four years. This system worked well for over a millennium.

However, the year isn’t exactly 365 ¼ days long. Although this was only a tiny discrepancy, over the centuries it began to cause problems – the calendar year gained about three days every four centuries. So over long periods of time, it needed adjustments, and changes were brought into effect in 46 BC. Once again, what had been in use previously was refined and recalibrated in 1582 to become our modern day Gregorian calendar.

 

5) The Romans were masters of siege warfare

The Romans didn’t invent siege warfare, but they certainly mastered it. It is fair to say that if Roman legions made it as far as an enemy city or fort, the defenders were at a disadvantage, no matter how high or how thick their walls. Alongside brutal tactics, the Romans had a number of weapons to bring a siege to a successful conclusion.

One of these deadly tools was a ballista (what the modern world would call a catapult), which hurled stones or sometimes pots of Greek fire, the ancient equivalent of napalm. Depending on circumstances, ballistas could also be mounted on warships. The Romans were exceptional engineers who could usually determine the weak spots in defenders’ walls and would keep pounding them until they came down. A later version of the ballista was called an onager, which did pretty much the same job but was cheaper and easier to build.

The scorpio, meanwhile, was like a large version of a crossbow. It could fire bolts over long distances (well out of the range of enemy archers) and was designed to kill careless defenders on the city walls.


Engraving of Roman war engine the scorpio. From ‘Poliorceticon sive de machinis tormentis telis’ by Justus Lipsius (Antwerp, 1605). (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Another complex and fearsome weapon was the siege tower. This was a moveable wooden tower, designed to be rolled up to enemy walls, allowing the troops inside to descend onto the enemy defenders. Siege towers took time to build and needed ramps, which allowed the defenders to see what was coming and gave them time to prepare a counter-attack. Nevertheless, when siege towers were deployed, more often than not they got the Romans over the walls.

If all of these failed, a battering ram could be used against the defenders’ gates. These rams were protected by a wooden gallery covered in wet cowhides to stop them being burnt by the defenders.

Once enemy walls were breached, the Roman soldiers would advance in a testudo (tortoise) formation. This involved covering their heads with their rectangular shields, with other shields protecting their front and sides. Such a formation absorbed arrows and small rocks, giving the men valuable time to get to the breach relatively unharmed.

 

6) Diocletian tried reinventing government and inventing economics

Not all Roman experiments were successful. In AD 284, Diocletian, a man of low birth who had risen through the ranks in the army, became emperor. He solidified the idea of the ‘tetrarchy’: a system of sub-emperors, each one ruling over a number of provinces, all reporting to him. This meant that local issues could be dealt with locally and that power was shared (to a certain extent). Obviously a sub-emperor could go rogue, but after decades of war and strife, the tetrarchy was a welcome idea that brought peace.

By AD 300 however, Diocletian’s empire was facing economic problems: free trade had broken down in some areas and prices were rising. The emperor didn’t help the situation when he embarked on a costly public building programme on a scale not seen for generations.

Diocletian attempted to confront these issues head on. First, he overhauled the tax system, which eliminated ingrained inefficiencies. He also recognised that the coinage had been debased to an extent that confidence in the Roman currency had diminished, so he reminted and revalued all of the coins. While this may sound like a good idea, costs continued to rise even faster, creating a huge spike in prices. Diocletian responded by setting price caps on most resources. The penalty for disobeying these imposed price caps? Death. The system of fixed prices was widely despised, and almost as soon as it was introduced, it was generally ignored. The law of supply and demand dictates that if someone needs something badly enough, they will pay over the odds. Under the circumstances, the black market boomed. Fortunately, the situation in AD 301 didn’t last long – once the new coinage had a chance to embed itself in the Roman economy, prices began to normalise.

Diocletian was also a highly unusual Roman emperor in that, in AD 305, he voluntarily abdicated in favour of a two-emperor system. He retired to the Dalmatian coast (modern day Croatia), where he lived out his days in splendour and spent his time cultivating cabbages.

 

7) There is one thing the Romans definitely invented: the book

After all these examples of the Romans enhancing existing ideas rather than inventing new ones, here’s one that was genuinely original.

The first recognisable alphabet, and therefore writing, was developed in ancient Babylon around 3100 BC. This writing was done on clay tablets – not the most portable of formats for written literature. The Egyptians made a leap forwards with papyrus, thin sheets made from the pith of the papyrus plant. Now knowledge could be preserved on scrolls, which were easier to transport, but still bulky. Paper itself was invented in China around the end of the first century AD but didn’t reach Europe until after the fall of the western Roman empire.

Around the same time that paper was being invented in China, the Romans invented the codex. For the first time, sheets of a uniform size were bound together along one edge, in between two larger, stronger protective covers. And again for the first time, large amounts of written information could be concentrated in one highly transportable volume. This would become the standard way to write and store information until the rise of the e-book 1,900 years later. Across the empire (both during and after the Roman era), the book became the standard format for writing. Most famously, the word ‘bible’ is a variation of the Greek word for ‘the books’ (ta biblia). The invention of the book enabled much easier sharing of complex ideas, including everything from Christianity to annals about emperors.

Jem Duducu is the author of The Romans in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2015). You can follow Jem on Twitter and Facebook @HistoryGems.

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