Roman technology

Roman technology is the collection of techniques, skills, methods, processes, and engineering practices which supported Roman civilization and made possible the expansion of the economy and military of ancient Rome (753 BC – 476 AD).

The Roman Empire was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of antiquity, with some of the more advanced concepts and inventions forgotten 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 during the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Era; with some in areas such as civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and certain inventions such as the mechanical reaper, not improved upon until the 19th century. The Romans achieved high levels of technology in large part because they borrowed technologies from the Greeks, Etruscans, Celts, and others.

The energy constraint[edit]

Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.[1]

All technology uses energy to transform the material into a desirable object or uses some form of mechanics combined with another form to make something better. 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.[2] The Romans used water power, and watermills were common throughout the Empire, especially to the end of the 1st century AD. They were used for cereals milling, sawing timber and crushing ore. They 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 caloric value. If this was improved by being processed into charcoal, it was bulky. Nor was wood ever available in any concentration. Diocletian's Price Edict can give us a glimpse of the economics of transporting wood. The maximum price of a wagon load of 1,200 lbs of wood was 150 d.(denari). The maximum freight charge per mile for the same wagon load was 20 d. per mile. Room heating was normally better done by charcoal braziers than hypocausts. But hypocausts did allow them to exploit any poor-quality smoky 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.

Nevertheless, in Roman Egypt all the essential components of the much later steam engine were first assembled by the Greek Mathematician and Engineer Hero:

With the crank and connecting rod system, all elements for constructing a steam engine (invented in 1712) — Hero's aeolipile (generating steam power), the cylinder and piston (in metal force pumps), non-return valves (in water pumps), gearing (in water mills and clocks) — were known in Roman times.[3]

However, the aeolipile was a reaction engine, inefficient as a stationary engine. The first useful steam engine did not use steam pressure at all, but followed up a scientific advance in understanding air pressure.

Craft basis[edit]

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 the Greek Apollodorus of Damascus. Normally each trade, each group of artisans—stonemasons, 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 (a.k.a. Hero of Alexandria), Euclid and so on. Not all of the manuals which were available to the Romans have survived, as lost works illustrate.

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[edit]

The unfinished Roman Corinth Canal, 1st century AD

The Romans made extensive use of aqueducts, dams, bridges, and amphitheatres. They were also responsible for many innovations to roads, sanitation, and construction in general. Roman architecture was greatly influenced by the Greeks and Etruscans. Many of the columns and arches seen in Roman architecture were adopted from the Greek and Etruscan civilizations previously present in Italy.

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 throughout the empire in about one generation.

There were many types of presses to press olives. In the 1st century AD, 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 the Greek mathematician and engineer, 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.[4] 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 roads to preserve their military value. In total, more than 400,000 kilometres (250,000 mi) of roads were constructed, 80,500 kilometres (50,000 mi) of which were stone-paved.[5]

Via Appia, a road connecting the city of Rome to the southern parts of Italy, remains usable even today

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 kilometres (500 mi) 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.

Most Roman cities were shaped like a square. There were 4 main roads leading to the center of the city, or forum. They formed a cross shape, and each point on the edge of the cross was a gateway into the city. Connecting to these main roads were smaller roads, the streets where people lived.


Roman bridges were among the first large and lasting bridges built. They were built with stone and/or concrete and utilized the arch. Most of the time at least 60 feet (18 m) above the body of water.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.

An example of temporary military bridge construction is 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 constructed numerous aqueducts to supply water. The city of Rome itself was supplied by eleven aqueducts made of limestone that provided the city with over 1 million cubic metres of water each day, sufficient for 3.5 million people even in modern-day times,[6] and with a combined length of 350 kilometres (220 mi).[7]

Water inside the aqueducts depended entirely on gravity. The raised stone channels in which the water traveled were slightly slanted. The water was carried directly from mountain springs. After it had gone through the aqueduct, the water was collected in tanks and fed through pipes to fountains, toilets, etc.[8]

The Pont du Gard in France, a Roman aqueduct built in c. 19 BC

main aqueducts in Ancient Rome were the Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Marcia.[9] Most aqueducts were constructed below the surface with only small portions above ground supported by arches.[10] The longest Roman aqueduct, 178 kilometres (111 mi) in length, was traditionally assumed to be that which supplied the city of Carthage. The complex system built to supply Constantinople had its most distant supply drawn from over 120 km away along a sinuous route of more than 336 km.[11]

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 metres had to be crossed, inverted siphons were used to force water uphill.[10] 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".[12]


Development of the aqueduct also enabled the process of hushing. Streams or waves of water were released onto hillsides to remove topsoil and reveal ores, then to work the ore itself, similar to modern hydraulic mining. Rock debris could be sluiced away, and the water was also used to douse fires created by fire-setting.

The largest and most important mining site in Las Médulas had at least seven major channels entering the minehead, and reportedly extracted 20,000 Roman pounds (6,560 kg) of gold each year.[13][14] Washing tables were fitted below the tanks to collect the gold-dust and nuggets, allowing the Romans to effectively work alluvial gold deposits and extract metal without needing to crush the ore. Vein gold still needed crushing before it could be washed, and for that they likely used stamp mills powered by water-wheels.


The Romans did not invent plumbing or toilets, but instead borrowed their waste disposal system from their neighbors, particularly the Minoans.[15] A waste disposal system was not a new invention, but rather had been around since 3100 BCE, when one was created in the Indus River Valley [16]

Hypocaust of heated room
The hypocaust of a heated room in the Roman Baths. The floor has been removed to show where the air would flow.


The Roman public baths, or thermae, served significant hygienic, social and cultural functions. 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. To heat these rooms, the Romans innovated the hypocaust, a system of circulating warm air beneath the floor. Temperatures in the caldarium could reach 40 °C (104 °F). The last room was the frigidarium or cold room, which offered a cold bath for cooling off after the caldarium.

Roman military technology[edit]

The Roman military technology 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 good protection for vital areas, but did not cover as much of the body as lorica hamata or chainmail. The lorica segmentata provided better protection, but the plate bands were expensive and difficult to produce and difficult to repair in the field. Overall, chainmail was cheaper, easier to produce, and simpler to maintain, was one-size fits all, and was more comfortable to wear – thus, it remained the primary form of armour even when lorica segmentata was in use.

Roman siege engines such as ballistas, scorpions and onagers were not unique. But the Romans were likely the first people to put ballistas on carts for better mobility on campaigns. On the battlefield, it is thought that they were used to pick off enemy leaders. There is one account of the use of artillery in battle from Tacitus, Histories III,23::

On engaging they drove back the enemy, only to be driven back themselves, for the Vitellians had concentrated their artillery on the raised road that they might have free and open ground from which to fire; their earlier shots had been scattered and had struck the trees without injuring the enemy. A ballista of enormous size belonging to the Fifteenth legion began to do great harm to the Flavians' line with the huge stones that it hurled; and it would have caused wide destruction if it had not been for the splendid bravery of two soldiers, who, taking some shields from the dead and so disguising themselves, cut the ropes and springs of the machine.

In addition to innovations in land warfare, the Romans also developed the Corvus (boarding device) a movable bridge that could attach itself to an enemy ship and allow the Romans to board the enemy vessel. Developed during the First Punic War, it allowed them to apply their experience in land warfare on the seas.[17]

Military innovations[edit]

Rome was responsible for the innovation of other vital technology in addition to cataphracts, siege engines, and the Corvus.

  • Military Surgery: Although various levels of medicine were practiced in the ancient world,[18] the Romans created or pioneered many innovative surgeries and tools that are still in use today such as hemostatic tourniquets and arterial surgical clamps.[19] Rome was also responsible for producing the first battlefield surgery unit, a move that paired with their contributions to medicine made the Roman army a force to be reckoned with.[19] They also used a rudimentary version of antiseptic surgery years before its use became popular in the 19th century and possessed very capable doctors.[19]
  • A Roman ballista
    Ballista and Onagers (continued): While core artillery inventions were notably founded by the Greeks, Rome saw opportunity in the ability to enhance this long range artillery. Large artillery pieces such as Carroballista and Onagers bombarded enemy lines, before full ground assault by infantry. The manuballista would "often be described as the most advanced two-armed torsion engine used by the Roman Army”.[20] The weapon often looks like a mounted crossbow capable of shooting projectiles. Similarly, the onager “named after the wild ass, because of its ‘kick’" was a larger weapon that was capable of hurling large projectiles at walls or forts.[20] Both were very capable machines of war and were put to use by the Roman military.
  • Greek Fire: Originally an incendiary weapon perfected from the Greeks in 7th century AD, the Greek fire “is one of the very few contrivances whose gruesome effectiveness was noted by”[20] many sources. Roman innovators made this already lethal weapon even more deadly. Its nature is often described as a “precursor to napalm".[20] Military strategists often put the weapon to good use during naval battles, and the ingredients to its construction “remained a closely guarded military secret”.[20] Despite this, the devastation caused by Greek fire in combat is indisputable.
  • Testudo: This strategic military maneuver is originally Roman. The tactic was implemented by having units raise their shields in order to protect themselves from enemy projectiles raining down on them. The strategy only worked if each member of the testudo protected his comrade. Commonly used during siege battles, the “sheer discipline and synchronization required to form a Testudo” was a testament to the abilities of legionnaires.[20] Testudo, meaning tortoise in Latin, “was not the norm, but rather adopted in specific situations to deal with particular threats on the battlefield”.[20] The Greek phalanx and other Roman formations were a source of inspiration for this maneouver.
  • Pontoon Bridge: Mobility, for a military force, was an essential key to success. Although this was not a Roman invention, as there were instances of "ancient Chinese and Persians making use of the floating mechanism”,[20] Roman generals used the innovation to great effect in campaigns. Furthermore, engineers perfected the speed at which these bridges were constructed. Leaders surprised enemy units to great effect by speedily crossing otherwise treacherous bodies of water. Lightweight crafts were “organized and tied together with the aid of planks, nails and cables”.[20] Rafts were more commonly used instead of building new makeshift bridges, enabling quick construction and deconstruction.[21] The expedient and valuable innovation of the pontoon bridge also accredited its success to the excellent abilities of Roman Engineers.
  • Pilum: The Roman heavy spear was a weapon favored by legionaries and weighed approximately five pounds.[22] The innovated javelin was designed to be used only once and was destroyed upon initial use. This ability prevented the enemy from reusing spears. All soldiers carried two versions of this weapon (a primary spear and a backup). A solid block of wood in the middle of the weapon enabled legionaries protection for their hands while carrying the device. According to Polybius, historians have records of "how the Romans threw their spears and then charged with swords".[23] This tactic seemed to be common practice among Roman infantry.

In summary, Rome contributed numerous advances in technology to the Ancient World. However, it is also viewed that "the ancient world under the domination of Rome [in fact] reached a kind of climax in the technological field [as] many technologies had advanced as far as possible with the equipment then available".[24] This concept of perfecting the unperfected was a theme that governed Roman technological supremacy throughout its 1,470 year reign. Ideas that had already been invented or designed: like the pontoon bridge, aqueduct, and military surgery, were constructed or utilized to perfection by Roman innovators. It's the innovation of technology that contributed to Rome's military success.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007, p. 161; Grewe 2009, pp. 429–454
  2. ^ For a discussion on the importance of energy sources as a constraint on all pre-industrial economies see E.A.Wrigley 2002 'The Quest for the Industrial Revolution' Proceedings of the British Academy 121, 147–170 available free online, enter '2002 lecture' in search at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-08-27. Retrieved 2009-09-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)/
  3. ^ Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007, p. 156, fn. 74
  4. ^ Michael Matheus: "Mittelalterliche Hafenkräne," in: Uta Lindgren (ed.): Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800–1400, Berlin 2001 (4th ed.), pp. 345–48 (345)
  5. ^ Gabriel, Richard A. The Great Armies of Antiquity. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2002. Page 9.
  6. ^ GRST-engineering.
  7. ^ Frontinus.
  8. ^ Chandler, Fiona "The Usborne Internet Linked Encyclopedia of the Roman World", page 80. Usborne Publishing 2001
  9. ^ Forman, Joan "The Romans", page 34. Macdonald Educational Ltd. 1975
  10. ^ a b Water History.
  11. ^ J. Crow 2007 "Earth, walls and water in Late Antique Constantinople" in Technology in Transition AD 300–650 in ed. L.Lavan, E.Zanini & A. Sarantis Brill, Leiden
  12. ^ Greene 2000, p. 39
  13. ^ El parque cultural | Paisaje cultural
  14. ^ Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, XXXIII, 78.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Bruce, Alexandra. 2012: Science or Superstition: The Definitive Guide to the Doomsday Phenomenon, pg 26.
  17. ^ "Corvus – Livius". Retrieved 2017-03-06.
  18. ^ Cuomo, S. (2007). Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. pp. 17–35.
  19. ^ a b c Andrews, Evan (November 20, 2012). "10 Innovations That Built Ancient Rome". The History Channel. Retrieved 2017-05-09.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i M, Dattatreya; al (2016-11-11). "10 Incredible Roman Military Innovations You Should Know About". Realm of History. Retrieved 2017-05-09.
  21. ^ Hodges, Henry (1992). Technology in the Ancient World. Barnes & Noble Publishing. p. 167.
  22. ^ Hrdlicka, Daryl (October 29, 2004). "HOW Hard Does It Hit? A Study of Atlatl and Dart Ballistics" (PDF). Thudscave (PDF).
  23. ^ Zhmodikov, Alexander (September 5, 2017). "Roman Republican Heavy Infantrymen in Battle (IV-II Centuries B.C.)". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 49 (1): 67–78. JSTOR 4436566.
  24. ^ Hodges, Henry (1992). Technology in the Ancient World. Barnes & Noble Publishing. p. 19.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wilson, Andrew (2002), "Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy", The Journal of Roman Studies, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, Cambridge University Press, 92, pp. 1–32, doi:10.2307/3184857, JSTOR 3184857
  • Greene, Kevin (2000), "Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-Considered", The Economic History Review, 53 (1), pp. 29–59, doi:10.1111/1468-0289.00151
  • 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
  • Lewis, M. J. T. (2001), "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, pp. 8–19 (10–15), archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-03-12
  • Galliazzo, Vittorio (1995), I ponti romani, Vol. 1, Treviso: Edizioni Canova, pp. 92, 93 (fig. 39), ISBN 88-85066-66-6
  • Werner, Walter (1997), "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, 26 (2): 98–119, doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.1997.tb01322.x
  • Neil Beagrie, "The Romano-British Pewter Industry", Britannia, Vol. 20 (1989), pp. 169–91
  • Grewe, Klaus (2009), "Die Reliefdarstellung einer antiken Steinsägemaschine aus Hierapolis in Phrygien und ihre Bedeutung für die Technikgeschichte. Internationale Konferenz 13.−16. Juni 2007 in Istanbul", in Bachmann, Martin (ed.), Bautechnik im antiken und vorantiken Kleinasien (PDF), Byzas, 9, Istanbul: Ege Yayınları/Zero Prod. Ltd., pp. 429–454, ISBN 978-975-8072-23-1, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-11
  • Lewis, M.J.T., 1997, Millstone and Hammer, University of Hull Press
  • Moritz, L.A., 1958, Grainmills and Flour in Classical Antiquity, Oxford
  • Ritti, Tullia; Grewe, Klaus; Kessener, Paul (2007), "A Relief of a Water-powered Stone Saw Mill on a Sarcophagus at Hierapolis and its Implications", Journal of Roman Archaeology, 20: 138–163, doi:10.1017/S1047759400005341
  • 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.
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  • Lewis, P. R., "The Ogofau Roman gold mines at Dolaucothi," The National Trust Year Book 1976–77 (1977).
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  • Friedman, Zaraza; Zoroglu, Levent (2006), "Kelenderis Ship. Square or Lateen Sail?", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 35 (1), pp. 108–116, doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.2006.00091.x
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External links[edit]