Roman technology

Roman technology

Roman technology is the engineering practice which supported Roman civilization and made the expansion of Roman commerce and Roman military possible over nearly a thousand years.

The Roman Empire had the most advanced set of technology of their time, some of which may have been lost during the turbulent eras of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Gradually, some of the technological feats of the Romans were rediscovered and/or improved upon and some others – such as firearms, advanced sailing ship technologies and moveable type printing – went ahead of what the Romans had done by the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Era. Nevertheless, the Roman technological feats of many different areas, like civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and some inventions such as the mechanical reaper went unmatched until the 19th century.

Process of acquiring new technology

Foreign influence

Much of what is described as typically Roman technology, as opposed to that of the Greeks, comes directly from the Etruscan civilization, which was thriving to the North when Rome was just a small kingdom. The Etruscans had perfected the stone arch, and used it in bridges as well as buildings. Etruscan cities had paved streets and sewer systems, unlike most city-states, which had muddy roads and no sewers save filthy open-air trenches.

Some of later Roman technology was taken directly from Greek civilization. Many of the implements of land based Roman armies came out of the experimentation and the new developments in weapons of the Hellenistic wars that raged for decades between the successors of Alexander the Great. Torsion artillery made the individual Greek city states newly vulnerable. Nor could city state militias compete against the coordinated arms of the new professional armies. The future lay with regional powers. By founding colonies of citizens and alliances with many small city states, Rome became a major multiple city regional power despite having the formal constitution of an individual city state. Rome's success would owe something to being on the periphery of a number of cultures, Etruscan, Greek and perhaps Samnite and Carthaginian.

Roman fleets were based directly on Carthaginian quinqueremes but were quickly adapted with the Roman innovation of the corvus (Polybius 1,21-23).

peed of innovation

Small scale innovation was common as devices were gradually made more efficient, such as the improvement of the overshot water wheel and the improvements in wagon construction. Technology could and did evolve. The scale of the Empire encouraged the geographical spread of innovations. The ideal Roman citizen was an articulate veteran soldier who could wisely govern a large family household, which was supported by slave labor. Innovators did have some prestige; Pliny, for example, often records their names, or has some story to account for the innovation. Romans also knew enough history to be aware that technological change had occurred in the past and brought benefits. Military innovation was always valued. One text, De Rebus Bellicis, devoted to a number of innovations in military machinery, has survived.

The apparent period in which technological progress was fastest and greatest was during the 2nd century and 1st century BC, which was the period in which Roman political and economic power greatly increased. Innovation continued until the fall of the Empire, and it would take hundreds of years for all of its technological advancements to be rediscovered by other civilizations. Our understanding of Roman technology is provided by Pliny's Naturalis Historia, the De Architectura of Vitruvius and the De aquaeductu of Frontinus, all reliable works which give good information, and many inventions they mention have been confirmed by modern archaeology. By the beginning of the 1st century, most of what is considered today as typical Roman technology was already invented and refined, such as: concrete, plumbing facilities, cranes, wagon technology, mechanized harvesting machines, domes, the arch in building practice, wine and oil presses, and glass blowing.

The energy constraint

All technology uses energy to transform a material into a desirable object. The cheaper energy is, the wider the class of technologies that are considered economic. This is why technological history can be seen as a succession of ages defined by energy type i.e. human, animal, water, peat, coal, and oil. The Romans had water power, and exploited wood and coal for heating. There were huge reserves of wood, peat and coal in the Roman Empire, but they were all in the wrong place. Wood could be floated down rivers to the major urban centres but otherwise it was a very poor fuel, being heavy for its calorific value. If this was improved by being processed into charcoal, it was bulky. Nor was wood ever available in any concentration. Room heating was normally better done by charcoal braziers than hypocausts. But hypocausts did allow them to exploit any poor quality smokey fuels like straw, vine prunings and small wood locally available. Hypocausts also allowed them to generate a humid heat for their baths. The Romans worked almost all the coalfields of England that outcropped on the surface, by the end of the 2nd century (Smith 1997; 323). But there is no evidence that this exploitation was on any scale. After c.200 AD the commercial heart of the Empire was in Africa and the East where the climate severely limited timber growth. There was no large coalfield on the edge of the Mediterranean. If there had been, history may have been different.

Craft basis

Roman technology was largely based on a system of crafts, although the term engineering is used today to describe the technical feats of the Romans. The Greek words used were mechanic or machine-maker or even mathematician which had a much wider meaning than now. There were a large number of engineers employed by the army. The most famous engineer of this period was Apollodorus of Damascus. Normally each trade, each group of artisans—stone masons, glass blowers, surveyors, etc.—within a project had its own practice of masters and apprentices, and many tried to keep their trade secrets, passing them on solely by word of mouth, a system still in use today by those who do not want to patent their inventions. Writers such as Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder and Frontinus published widely on many different technologies, and there was a corpus of manuals on basic mathematics and science such as the many books by Archimedes, Ctesibius, Heron, Euclid and so on. Not all of the manuals which were available to the Romans have survived, as lost works illustrates.

Much of what is known of Roman technology comes indirectly from archaeology and from the third-hand accounts of Latin texts copied from Arabic texts, which were in turn copied from the Greek texts of scholars such as Hero of Alexandria or contemporary travelers who had observed Roman technologies in action. Writers like Pliny the Elder and Strabo had enough intellectual curiosity to make note of the inventions they saw during their travels, although their typically brief descriptions often arouse discussion as to their precise meaning. On the other hand, Pliny is perfectly clear when describing gold mining, his text in book xxxiii having been confirmed by archaeology and field-work at such sites as Las Medulas and Dolaucothi.

Engineering and construction

The Romans made great use of aqueducts, dams, bridges, and amphitheaters. They were also responsible for many innovations to roads, sanitation, and construction in general. Roman architecture in general was greatly influenced by the Etruscans. Most of the columns and arches seen in famous Roman architecture were adopted from the Etruscan civilization.

In the Roman Empire, cements made from pozzolanic ash/pozzolana and an aggregate made from pumice were used to make a concrete very similar to modern Portland cement concrete. In 20s BC the architect Vitruvius described a low-water-content method for mixing concrete. The Romans found out that insulated glazing (or "double glazing") improved greatly on keeping buildings warm, and this technique was used in the construction of public baths.

Another truly original process which was born in the empire was the practice of glassblowing, which started in Syria and spread in about one generation in the empire.


There were many types of presses to press olives, In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder reported the invention and subsequent general use of the new and more compact screw presses. However, the screw press was almost certainly not a Roman invention. It was first described by Hero of Alexandria, but may have already been in use when he mentioned it in his Mechanica III.

Cranes were used for construction work and possibly to load and unload ships at their ports, although for the latter use there is according to the “present state of knowledge” still no evidence. [Michael Matheus: "Mittelalterliche Hafenkräne," in: Uta Lindgren (ed.): Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800-1400, Berlin 2001 (4th ed.), pp. 345-48 (345)] Most cranes were capable of lifting about 6-7 tons of cargo, and according to a relief shown on Trajan's column were worked by treadwheel.


The Romans primarily built roads for their military. Their economic importance was probably also significant, although wagon traffic was often banned from the roads to preserve their military value. At its largest extent the total length of the Roman road network was 85 000 km (53 000 miles).

Way stations providing refreshments were maintained by the government at regular intervals along the roads. A separate system of changing stations for official and private couriers was also maintained. This allowed a dispatch to travel a maximum of 800 km (500 miles) in 24 hours by using a relay of horses.

The roads were constructed by digging a pit along the length of the intended course, often to bedrock. The pit was first filled with rocks, gravel or sand and then a layer of concrete. Finally they were paved with polygonal rock slabs. Roman roads are considered the most advanced roads built until the early 19th century. Bridges were constructed over waterways. The roads were resistant to floods and other environmental hazards. After the fall of the Roman empire the roads were still usable and used for more than 1000 years.


The Romans constructed numerous aqueducts to supply water. The city of Rome itself was supplied by eleven aqueducts that provided the city with over 1 million cubic meters of water each day, sufficient for 3.5 million people even in modern day times,ref|GRST-engineering and with a combined length of 350 km (260 miles).ref|frontinusMost aqueducts were constructed below the surface with only small portions above ground supported by arches. The longest Roman aqueduct, 178km (94 miles) in length, was built to supply the city of Carthage.ref|waterhistory

Roman aqueducts were built to remarkably fine tolerances, and to a technological standard that was not to be equaled until modern times. Powered entirely by gravity, they transported very large amounts of water very efficiently. Sometimes, where depressions deeper than 50 m had to be crossed, inverted siphons were used to force water uphill.ref_label|waterhistory|2|a An aqueduct also supplied water for the overshot wheels at Barbegal in Roman Gaul, a complex of water mills hailed as "the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world". [Kevin Greene, “Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-Considered”, "The Economic History Review", New Series, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Feb., 2000), pp. 29-59 (39)]


Roman bridges were the among first large and lasting bridges built.They were built with stone and had the arch as its basic structure. Most utilized concrete as well.Built in 142 BC, the Pons Aemilius, later named "Ponte Rotto" (broken bridge) is the oldest Roman stone bridge in Rome, Italy.The biggest Roman bridge was Trajan's bridge over the lower Danube, constructed by Apollodorus of Damascus, which remained for over a millennium the longest bridge to have been built both in terms of overall and span length. They were most of the time at-least 60 ft above the body of water.

An example of temporary military bridge construction are the two Caesar's Rhine bridges.


They also built many dams for water collection, such as the Subiaco dams, two of which fed Anio Novus, one of the largest aqueducts of Rome. They built 72 dams in just one country, Spain and many more are known across the Empire, some of which are still in use. At one site, Montefurado in Galicia, they appear to have built a dam across the river Sil to expose alluvial gold deposits in the bed of the river. The site is near the spectacular Roman gold mine of Las Medulas. Several earthen dams are known from Britain, including a well-preserved example from Roman Lanchester, Longovicium, where it may have been used in industrial-scale smithing or smelting, judging by the piles of slag found at this site in northern England. Tanks for holding water are also common along aqueduct systems, and numerous examples are known from just one site, the gold mines at Dolaucothi in west Wales. Masonry dams were common in North Africa for providing a reliable water supply from the wadis behind many settlements.


The Romans also made great use of aqueducts in their extensive mining operations across the empire, some sites such as Las Medulas in north-west Spain having at least 7 major channels entering the minehead. Other sites such as Dolaucothi in south Wales was fed by at least 5 leats, all leading to reservoirs and tanks or cisterns high above the present opencast. The water was used for hydraulic mining, where streams or waves of water are released onto the hillside, first to reveal any gold-bearing ore, and then to work the ore itself. Rock debris could be sluiced away by hushing, and the water also used to douse fires created to break down the hard rock and veins, a method known as fire-setting.

Alluvial gold deposits could be worked and the gold extracted without needing to crush the ore. Washing tables were fitted below the tanks to collect the gold-dust and any nuggets present. Vein gold needed crushing, and they probably used crushing or stamp mills worked by water-wheels to comminute the hard ore before washing. Large quantities of water were also needed in deep mining to remove waste debris and power primitive machines, as well as for washing the crushed ore. Pliny the Elder provides a detailed description of gold mining in book xxxiii of his Naturalis Historia, most of which has been confirmed by archaeology. That they used water mills on a large scale elsewhere is attested by the flour mills at Barbegal in southern France, and on the Janiculum in Rome.


The Romans were one of the first known civilizations to invent indoor plumbing. The Roman public baths, or "thermae" served hygienic, social and cultural functions. The baths contained three main facilities for bathing. After undressing in the apodyterium or changing room, Romans would proceed to the tepidarium or warm room. In the moderate dry heat of the tepidarium, some performed warm-up exercises and stretched while others oiled themselves or had slaves oil them. The tepidarium’s main purpose was to promote sweating to prepare for the next room, the caldarium or hot room. The caldarium, unlike the tepidarium, was extremely humid and hot. Temperatures in the caldarium could reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Many contained steam baths and a cold-water fountain known as the labrum. The last room was the frigidarium or cold room, which offered a cold bath for cooling off after the caldarium. The Romans also had flush toilets.

cience, logic, and mathematics

If we define Roman by period then the stunning Antikythera mechanism is a Roman analogue computer.The Romans developed the Roman abacus, the first portable counting device, based on earlier Greek counting boards. It greatly reduced the time needed to perform basic Roman arithmetic operations, and was used heavily by merchants, tax collectors and engineers. It was also used by rich schoolchildren, and another version was to help calculate the movement of the planets.

They were excellent surveyors, using at least four instruments, the groma, chorobates, dioptra and odometer in building aqueducts and other large structures. They are described and discussed by Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder. The Romans made many maps, a few of which have survived in degraded form, as shown by the Ravenna Cosmography and the Peutinger Table. The latter is an itinerary of the Roman Empire, so directions are totally distorted for the sake of a linear sequence.

Roman numerals, the basis for Roman mathematics, were derived from the earlier Etruscan numerals.

Roman military technology

The Roman military had some of the most advanced technology available to armies of the time. This ranged from personal equipment and armament to deadly siege engines. They inherited almost all ancient weapons.

While heavy, intricate armour was not uncommon (cataphracts), the Romans perfected a relatively light, full torso armour made of segmented plates (lorica segmentata). This segmented armour provided flexibility and protection of most vital areas, and was not associated with the laborious craftwork that other armours (such as chainmail) were. Furthermore, the rest of the Roman soldier's equipment used similarly innovative and effective technology.

The Roman cavalry saddle had four horns [] and was believed to have been copied from Celtic peoples.

Roman siege engines such as ballistas, scorpions and onagers were not unique. But the Romans were probably the first people to put ballistas on carts to provide battlefield support for the Roman legions. On the battlefield they were accurate enough to take out enemy leaders.

List of Roman inventions and Roman-developed technologies


Further reading

Current state of research
* Andrew Wilson, "Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy", "The Journal of Roman Studies", Vol. 92 (2002), pp. 1-32
* Kevin Greene, "Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-Considered", "The Economic History Review", New Series, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Feb., 2000), pp. 29-59

General history of inventions
* Derry, Thomas Kingston and Trevor I. Williams. "A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900." New York : Dover Publications, 1993
* Williams, Trevor I. "A History of Invention From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips." New York, New York, Facts on File, 2000

* Neil Beagrie, "The Romano-British Pewter Industry", "Britannia", Vol. 20 (1989), pp.169-91

* Lewis, M.J.T., 1997, "Millstone and Hammer", University of Hull Press
* Moritz, L.A., 1958, "Grainmills and Flour in Classical Antiquity", Oxford

* Oliver Davies, "Roman Mines in Europe", Clarendon Press (Oxford), 1935.
* Jones G. D. B., I. J. Blakey, and E. C. F. MacPherson, "Dolaucothi: the Roman aqueduct," "Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies" 19 (1960): 71-84 and plates III-V.
* Lewis, P. R. and G. D. B. Jones, "The Dolaucothi gold mines, I: the surface evidence," "The Antiquaries Journal", 49, no. 2 (1969): 244-72.
* Lewis, P. R. and G. D. B. Jones, "Roman gold-mining in north-west Spain," "Journal of Roman Studies" 60 (1970): 169-85.
* Lewis, P. R., "The Ogofau Roman gold mines at Dolaucothi," The National Trust Year Book 1976-77 (1977).
* Barry C. Burnham, "Roman Mining at Dolaucothi: the Implications of the 1991-3 Excavations near the Carreg Pumsaint", "Britannia" 28 (1997), 325-336
* A.H.V. Smith, "Provenance of Coals from Roman Sites in England and Wales", "Britannia", Vol. 28 (1997), pp.297-324

* Lewis, M. J. T., [ "Railways in the Greek and Roman world"] , in Guy, A. / Rees, J. (eds), "Early Railways. A Selection of Papers from the First International Early Railways Conference" (2001), pp. 8-19 (10-15)
* Werner, Walter: "The largest ship trackway in ancient times: the Diolkos of the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece, and early attempts to build a canal", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol. 26, No. 2 (1997), pp. 98–119

Overview of ancient technology
* Drachmann, A. G., "Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity", Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd, 1963 ISBN 0934454612
* Hodges, Henry., "Technology in the Ancient World", London: The Penguin Press, 1970
* Landels, J.G., "Engineering in the Ancient World", University of California Press, 1978
* White, K.D., "Greek and Roman Technology", Cornell University Press, 1984 Sails
* Toby, A.Steven "Another look at the Copenhagen Sarcophagus", "International Journal of Nautical Archaeology" 1974 vol.3.2: 205-211

Water supply
* [ "De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae"] by Sextus Julius Frontinus ("On the water management of the city of Rome", translated by R. H. Rodgers, 2003, University of Vermont) (retrieved November 22, 2005)
*note_label|waterhistory|2|a cite web
title=Water and Wastewater Systems in Imperial Rome
publisher= [ International Water History Association]

*cite web
title=Greek and Roman Science and Technology: Engineering
publisher=Swansea University

* Hodge, A.T. (2001). "Roman Aqueducts & Water Supply", 2nd ed. London: Duckworth.

ee also

*De Architectura
*History of technology
*Naturalis Historia
*Pliny the Elder
*Roman architecture
*Roman aqueducts
*Roman engineering
*Roman mining

External links

* [ Traianus] - Technical investigation of Roman public works
* [ Roman Traction Systems] - Horse, harness, wagon
* [ Roman Horse Harnesses] - With pictorial evidence
* [ Roman Concrete] - Roman concrete buildings
* [ Roman dams in Spain]
* [ Spanish site dedicated to Roman technology, especially aqueducts and mines]

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