They say that all roads lead to Rome. However, roads and highways are only one of a range of inventions that we owe to the Ancient Romans.
One of the largest empires in history, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 BC by the twin sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus. It grew from a small settlement on the Tiber River in Italy into an empire that went on to encompass most of Europe, Britain, western Asia, north Africa, and the Mediterranean islands over a space of nearly 1.7 million square miles.
The result of Ancient Rome’s long and wide-ranging existence are a number of inventions, many of which we still use in our daily lives. Here’s 10 of the most significant inventions from Ancient Rome.
That the Pantheon, Colosseum, and Roman Forum are still largely intact is no surprise when we consider that the Romans built their structures to last. They combined cement with volcanic rock popularly known as ‘tuff’ to create a hydraulic cement-based substance they called ‘concrete’, meaning ‘grow together’ in Latin.
Today, tests have indicated that the 42 metre poured concrete dome of the Pantheon is still incredibly structurally sound. Yet more remarkably, it remains the largest unsupported concrete dome ever built.
Though we may perceive government social welfare programs to be a modern concept, they existed in Ancient Rome as long ago as 122 BC. Under the tribune Gaius Gracchus, a law known as ‘lex frumentaria’ was implemented, which ordered Rome’s government to supply its citizens with allotments of cheap grain.
This continued under Emperor Trajan, who implemented a program called ‘alimenta’ which helped feed, clothe, and educate poor children and orphans. Other items such as oil, wine, bread, and pork were later added to a list of price-controlled goods, which were likely collected with tokens know as ‘tesserae’. These handouts were popular with the public at the time; however, some historians have argued that they contributed to Rome’s economic decline.
Romans were the first civilisation to fully implement a system of circulating written news. Via a publication known as ‘Acta Diurna’, or ‘daily acts’, they inscribed current affairs onto stones, papyri, or metal slabs, as early as 131 BC. Information about military victories, gladiatorial bouts, births and deaths, and even human interest stories were then placed in busy public places such as the forum.
‘Acta Senatus’ also emerged, which detailed the goings-on of the Roman senate. These were traditionally hidden from public view until 59 BC, when Julius Caesar ordered their publication as one of many populist reforms he instituted during his first consulship.
Known today as one of the defining characteristics of Roman architectural style, the Romans were the first to properly understand and harness the power of arches when constructing bridges, monuments, and buildings. Their ingenious design allowed for the weight of buildings to be pushed downwards and outwards, which meant that enormous structures like the Colosseum were prevented from crumbling under their own weight.
In harnessing this, Roman engineers and architects were able to construct buildings which could house many more people, as well as bridges, aqueducts, and arcades, which then became foundational aspects of Western architecture. These innovations combined with improvements in engineering which allowed arches to be flattened and repeated at wider intervals, known as segmental arches, helped Ancient Rome establish itself as a dominant world power.
Aqueducts and sanitation
Though the ancient Romans were not the first to implement a sanitation method, their system was far more efficient and was based upon the needs of the public. They built a drainage system as well as baths, interlinked sewage lines, latrines, and an effective plumbing system.
Water from the stream passed through the water pipes and flushed the drainage system on a regular basis, which kept it clean. Though waste water was dumped into the nearest river, the system was nonetheless effective as a means of maintaining a level of hygiene.
These sanitation innovations were largely made possible by the Roman aqueduct, which was developed in around 312 B.C. By using gravity to transport water along stone, lead, and concrete pipelines, they liberated large populations from being reliant upon nearby water supplies.
Hundreds of aqueducts covered the empire, with some transporting water as far as 60 miles, with some even being used today – the Trevi Fountain in Rome is supplied by a restored version of the Aqua Virgo, one of ancient Rome’s 11 aqueducts.
Known as a ‘codex’, the first bound books in Rome were invented as a compact and portable way of transporting information. Until then, writings were typically carved into clay slabs or written on scrolls, with the latter being up to 10 metres in length and needing to be unrolled to be read.
It was Julius Caesar who commissioned the first bound book, which was a collection of papyrus known as a codex. It was safer, more manageable, had a built in protective cover, could be numbered, and allowed for a table of contents and index. This invention was widely used by early Christians to make codices of the Bible, which aided the spread of Christianity.
At its height, the Roman Empire covered a vast area. To preside over and administer such a large area required a sophisticated road system. Roman roads – many of which we still use today – were constructed by using dirt, gravel, and bricks made from granite or hardened volcanic lava, and eventually went on to become the most sophisticated system of roads the ancient world had ever seen.
Engineers adhered to strict architectural rules, creating famously straight roads with sloping sides and banks to allow for rainwater to drain away. By 200, the Romans had built over 50,000 miles of roads, which primarily allowed the Roman legion to travel as far as 25 miles a day. Signposts informed travellers how far they had to go, and special teams of soldiers acted as highway patrol. Along with a complex network of post houses, the roads allowed for quicker transmission of information.
The postal system
The postal system was established by Emperor Augustus in around 20 BC. Known as the ‘cursus publicus’, it was a state-mandated and supervised courier service. It transported messages, tax revenues between Italy and the provinces, and even officials when they needed to travel across large distances.
A horse cart known as a ‘rhedæ’ was employed for this purpose, with the necessary images and messages being received and sent from one province to another. In one day, a mounted messenger could travel 50 miles, and with their vast network of well-engineered roads, ancient Rome’s postal system was a success and functioned until the 6th century around the Eastern Roman empire.
Surgery tools and techniques
Many Roman surgical tools such as the vaginal speculum, forceps, syringe, scalpel, and bone saw did not change significantly until the 19th and 20th centuries. Though the Romans pioneered procedures like the caesarean section, their most valuable medical contributions were borne out of necessity, on the battlefield.
Under Emperor Augustus, specially trained medical corps, which were some of the first dedicated field surgery units, saved countless lives on the battlefield due to innovations like hemostatic tourniquets and arterial surgical clamps to curb blood loss.
Field doctors, known as ‘chirurgus’, also performed physicals on new recruits, and were even known to disinfect instruments in hot water as an early form of antiseptic surgery, which was not later fully embraced until the 19th century. Roman military medicine proved so advanced that even in the face of regular combat a soldier could expect to live longer than the average citizen.
The hypocaust system
The luxury of underfloor heating is not a recent invention. The hypocaust system distributed heat from an underground fire through a space beneath the floor raised by a series of concrete pillars. The heat could even travel to upper floors due to a network of flues in the walls, with the heat eventually escaping through the roof.
Though this luxury was limited to public buildings, large homes owned by the wealthy, and the ‘thermae’, the hypocaust system was a fantastic feat of engineering at the time, especially since the risks of shoddy construction included carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation, or even fire.