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Rome’s Innovations

The Innovative Empire

The long history of the mighty and powerful Roman empire can be attributed in large part to the innovations of its best and brightest, from scientists and engineers to political thinkers. Their innovations spanned from feats of engineering, like their immense road and sewage systems (both of which we made videos about on our other channel, MegaProjects) to fields like governance, economics and law.

While we could go on about the impacts that Ancient Rome had on the more theoretical spaces, today we’ll be discussing Rome’s physical contributions, mostly in the space of engineering, but also touching on staples of mass communication that are still in use to this day.

The modern relevance of each of these inventions varies, however, there is no denying that every one of these innovations played a massive role in establishing or securing Ancient Rome’s position as a military, economic, and political behemoth which dominated its region for 500 years.

Aqueducts – Urban Access to Clean Water

In the late 300s BC the city of Rome struggled to meet its growing demand for clean water. Many of the water sources around the city were heavily polluted, making it unsuitable for most uses, which limited the city’s growth. So, the Romans took inspiration from Babylonian irrigation technology, and they built the aqueducts. 

Aqueducts were designed to carry fresh water from its source to cities and towns throughout the empire. The most famous images of aqueducts include beautiful bridges with arches of limestone or concrete. However, an estimated eighty-percent of aqueducts actually carried water underground through pipes made of stone, concrete, or lead. 

Aqueducts employ the most gradual gradient possible to stably carry water over long distances. This makes aqueducts appear flat to the naked eye when, in reality, most are sloped at a gradient below a half a percent. For example, the longest aqueduct to supply the capital, the Aqua Marcia, is 91 km long and descends only 259 meters over that entire length. Other key aspects of aqueducts were sedimentation tanks, which cleaned the water of contaminants, and distribution tanks, which regulated the supply to cities and towns.

The first aqueduct, commissioned by Appius Claudius Caecus, was built in 312 BC, and, over the next 500 years, ten more aqueducts were constructed to supply the capital. By 226 AD, the year of completion for the final aqueduct, the city consumed nearly 300 million gallons (1 million cubic meters) of water per day by way of 475 km (296 miles) of aqueducts. Rome had truly become a water-rich society, using water for necessities like farming, drinking water, sewage and the many baths that filled the city. 

Ruins of aqueducts can be found from Spain and France to Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. At its height, the Roman Empire had twenty aqueducts of at least fifty km in length, and, though the exact number is unclear, estimates place the total number of aqueducts throughout the empire above 600.

Perhaps the most telling fact about the quality of engineering of these aqueducts is that the Aqua Virgo, constructed during Augustus’s reign in 19 BC, still supplies the world-famous Trevi Fountain in Rome to this day.

The Power of the Roman Arch

Before Roman times, the arch was used by the Etruscans and other societies to tunnel through shallow hills. These societies recognized the structural strength of arches, but they were unable to incorporate them into the construction of free-standing structures. Instead they preferred a style that relied on columns and beams to support buildings, but this style lead to excessive stress on the supporting columns and often caused buildings to collapse in a short time. Early Romans had the same problem, and they responded by making the arch a staple of their construction. 

Arches are made by stacking stones with slanted edges together in a semicircle or segmented circle, meeting in the middle at a single keystone. The stones of an arch create tension against each other, meaning that the load is distributed outwards instead of directly downward and lowering the amount of weight borne by the foundation stones. Engineers realized that the arch shape was best used in conjunction with other arches, whether as an arcade, a vaulted ceiling, or a dome, all of which derive their shapes from the arch.

Another key aspect of the arch is its ability to retain strength at a large scale. While columns grow considerably weaker the further apart they were, the arch does not. This led to the common graduated arch style seen on the Colosseum or the Pont du Gard aqueduct bridge in France, where large, wide-based arches are used at the base-level, and smaller arches are used at higher levels of construction. Not only did this allow them to build larger buildings than ever before, but the wide passageways created by arches encouraged the free-flow of people, animals, or carts in and out of buildings, which was vital when hosting 80,000 citizens for gladiator fights in the Colosseum.

The Romans also loved to incorporate arches into their bridges, and they were prolific bridge builders. Scholars have attributed 931 bridges throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia to the ancient empire, the majority of which were arch bridges. Many of them still stand and are in use to this day, and the arch bridge remains a sturdy and stylish option for modern day engineers and architects.

The Concrete Revolution

If you’ve ever wondered why we’ve found so many well-preserved Roman ruins across the Mediterranean, the answer you’re looking for is Roman concrete. We use terms like Bronze Age and Iron Age to describe technological shifts that greatly changed civilization, but the Concrete Revolution was similarly impactful. Combined with the arch, concrete allowed Rome to build bigger, stronger buildings and bridges, many of which you can still safely walk across to this day.

The term concrete refers to the combination of hydraulic cement and an aggregate like stone or sand. Aggregate is added to provide inert objects for the cement to bind against, which strengthens the mixture by resisting compressive stress and minimizing cracks. In modern times, common aggregates include brick, small stones, or sand, all of which the Romans used with varying frequency. Roman concrete was made with a mixture of volcanic ash called Pozzolano, burnt lime (that’s calcium oxide), and sea water, and their preferred aggregate was volcanic stone.

Where Roman concrete differs from the other innovations on this list is that it’s actually more effective than its modern counterpart. Modern concrete is typically reinforced with steel, which rusts when it comes in contact with water, causing these structures to deteriorate within decades of construction. Roman concrete is not reinforced with steel, but by a reaction between salt water and a chemical found in volcanic matter called philipsite. The reaction dissolves the volcanic ash and causes it to turn into an aluminous material called tobermorite, which naturally reinforces the concrete without rusting or deteriorating. This is especially important near coasts, where modern concrete structures stand for a fraction of the time of their Roman counterparts.

Now, you may be asking why modern construction projects don’t use Roman concrete, to which there are two important answers. First, the exact recipe has been lost to time. Researchers’ only hope of recreating it is to try to reverse-engineer the mixture and test its strength over decades. Small differences in the chemical makeup of ingredients can have a big impact on its effectiveness, which leads to the second reason. The volcanic ash and rock that the Romans used for their concrete is not accessible for much of the world.

If modern scientists are ever able to crack the concrete code, then surely a market for volcanic rock would develop, as the steel-free alternative would be stronger, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than modern concrete.

Mass Communication and Newspapers

Alright, so this next one is a bit of a cheat, because we’re going to combine two inventions into one and call it the invention of mass communication. That’s because the Romans were the inventors of two staples of written communication today, namely, newspapers and books.

Before Julius Caesar’s time, a daily written record of official government proceedings was shared with senators and other high ranking officials, but Caesar had the insight to turn this small report into the first ever newspaper by sharing it with the masses. The newspaper was actually written on stone, parchment or papyrus then posted on corners throughout the city or sent to people in other parts of the empire. The newspaper, called Acta Diurna (that means Daily Acts) included official news like court rulings and official decrees, but also sections for announcements of births, deaths, weddings, and even astrological readings. This form of mass communication became a staple of early democracy, as did the spreading of propaganda, which may have been Caesar’s motivation for sharing newspapers with the people in the first place.

As for books, it’s initial form is more commonly referred to as a codex. Before the invention of the codex the one form of written text was the scroll, but codices had three key advantages. First, as the poet Martial said, it “could be carried in one hand”. Second, the binding of a codex served as natural protection from wear and tear. Third, the division of text into numbered pages allowed for easy reference when citing a book. Though codices did not immediately become mainstream, one of the early adopters was the Christian church, which began to spread the Bible across the region in codex form. So, while the codex may not have built the Roman empire, it certainly played a key role in building the world we live in today. 

Heating in the Winter

Our fifth and final innovation that we’ll discuss today is the hypocaust, which was the earliest version of central heating for homes and other buildings. Though they may have been used sparingly in a rudimentary form in the ancient city of Ephesus, the architect Vitruvian claimed the hypocaust was invented circa 80 BC by a Roman engineer named Orata. 

The hypocaust system worked by filtering heat and smoke from a centralized furnace room through hollow spaces in the floors and walls. Instead of laying the floor directly on the foundation, they would place small, two-foot tall pillars, then lay the floor on top of those. This created enough space for the hot air and smoke to filter through while warming the floor above it. The heat then rose through pipes in the walls, and was released into the air by a chimney like structure. For the hypocaust to work, rooms had to be perfectly sealed so that no CO2 from the burning fuel leaked into the inhabited areas, which would lethally poison anyone who inhaled it for too long.

The hypocaust was not common in homes, as the fuel and labor required to keep the furnace going through winter was only affordable to the ultra-rich. But it was commonly found in bath houses. While the earliest baths were built over natural hot springs, the hypocaust allowed baths to be expanded and built throughout the empire in places without natural access to hot water. These bath houses served as a pillar of Roman society, as business deals, philosophical debates, and courtships were often conducted inside their walls. If not for the hypocaust, the baths may never have reached such widespread adoption.

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