The Roman Empire: 5 technologies that were ahead of their time

Complex inheritance rights, court intrigues, endless borders, dual capitals between West and East, many-faced enemies… The Roman Empire and its rich history are fascinating in many ways. From the 8th century BC, it spread to most of Europe, Western Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean. J.-C., the Romans left behind the main technologies used in the centuries after their fall from the 5th century AD. Some ancient architectural innovations, for example, are still visible in urban structures around the world. Prove that the skillful work and engineering of the Romans can still be seen in modern life, discover five inventions that are considered ahead of their time today.


The first underground sewers in Rome were built by the Etruscans around 500 BC. J.-C., explains in an article Conversation (2015) Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, an archaeologist known for her research into hydraulic engineering in the ancient world – so much so that she was nicknamed the “toilet queen” by her friends. After the city was taken from this ancient people of the Italian peninsula, the Romans made these finely carved stone structures the norm in many city-states. “[…] In some cities, including Rome itself, the length and width of the main sewer, Cloaca Maxima (“great sewer”)rivaling the size of main sewer lines in many cities today.”, – the expert writes. But he reminds us that the function of these ancient galleries cannot be modeled on modern health goals.

Today, the function of sewers is to remove waste from urban areas. But at the time, their main role in the Italian capital was to remove excess standing water that could flood the streets, archaeological research has revealed. The Cloaca Maxima, especially when the adjacent Tiber overflowed – which was often the case. Thus, the galleries are not camouflaged under all the districts: if some houses were directly connected to the closed drainage system, others simply discharged sewage into the streets, which were then flushed to carry the dirt to the sewers. In Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Ostia, there were few private or public latrines scattered in their associated cities, observed Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow. Eventually, it all went to the river through a network of tunnels.

Despite these elements, the “great sewer” “even after more than two and a half thousand years of continuous use, it still works as expected”It is stated in the report published in Journal of Transportation Technology (2018).

roads and concrete

“Omnes viae Romam ducunt”, “All roads lead to Rome”. In the year 200. BC, the Romans built more than 80,000 kilometers of roads, divided into twenty-nine streets, starting from the zero point located in the Roman Forum – today’s Golden Mile. And this is without counting the kilometers of built unpaved roads (exact figures differ according to sources). However, the secret of these praetorian, local or private Roman roads lies in their construction. How can salt water erode modern concrete after only a few years, when some of the pavements built 2,000 years ago are still intact and in use? Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California (USA) studied this question in more detail and published their results in 2013.

Minturno (Lazio, Italy) section of the Appian Way (Via Appia) starting from Rome. 1st century. Getty Images / DEA / S. VANNINI

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They discovered that a mixture of lime, rock and volcanic ash was used to make up the first solution. To make the latter even stronger, it was placed in seawater. The resulting chemical reaction produced a “strong calcium-aluminum silicate hydrate” that was irresistible to the structural integrity of their roads and buildings, especially the Colosseum. . If history cannot say that concrete was invented by the engineers of the Roman Empire, during its hegemony it is certain that ancient production technologies were improved to make this incredibly versatile material strong and durable. The tracks were also perfectly straight, with a slight incline and ruts. These ensured that water and debris did not remain on the road during rain. Genius!

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hardcover books

The Romans are far from the first written traces – cuneiform, the first form of writing, dates from about 3300 BC. The replacement of papyrus sheets (up to ten meters long) and heavy clay tablets can nevertheless be attributed to them. Faced with the difficulty of transporting and storing texts and even the fragility of documents, Julius Caesar is said to have ordered one of the first bound books in AD 85: a set of tablets made of antique wax and layers. papyrus is kept in a leather ring called a “codex”. It is engraved on the wax with a pointed tool called “stylus”. Later it will be replaced by lighter animal skins. A technique widely used by the early Christians, they would use it to produce codices of the Bible and religious texts.

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surgical instruments

Although the Romans borrowed medical techniques from the Greeks and Egyptians, during the Roman Empire a number of tools were developed on the battlefield, first of stone and bronze, then of iron.Archives of Oncology (2012). Doctors had a variety of tools that helped shape modern surgery: “corvus (scalpel), cyathiscus (removal of projectiles), volsella (tweezers for removing bone fragments), ferrum candens (cautery), paxilius (treatment of fractures), trephines (treatment of traumatic brain injury), hooks, bone drills and forceps, vaginal and rectal speculums, catheters, probes, curettes […]”for example, it is referenced in the medical treatises of Galen the Parma, physician to several Roman emperors — whose writings would remain a reference until the 1500s, the specialized site shows. History.

Roman physician’s grave goods: two scalpels, three bronze probes, a catheter, an ivory medicine chest, a slate palette for grinding ingredients for an ointment, a bronze bowl for mixing medicines, metal scissors (bronze and iron), an iron knife, markings on the handle for measuring liquids a bronze spoon with two silver charms engraved with magic. Middle of the 3rd century. Getty Image / Universal History Archive / Universal Pictures Group

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heating of houses

Underfloor heating is considered a modern luxury. But the Romans already used an early method to distribute heat in houses: the hypocaust system (hypokasteria). An outdoor furnace produced hot air, which was sent underground to heat the buildings, supported by a series of piles or low concrete walls. Ducts were also built in the walls to heat the upper floors and remove smoke from the roof. A principle actually observed in the constructions of previous civilizations, but widely used and improved by imperial engineers. The system was otherwise expensive and usually applied to public buildings, wealthy homes or thermal baths. Today, the basic concept remains largely unchanged and is still used, as in Turkish baths.

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Other concepts developed by the Romans, such as the plan of cities (century) or construction of buildings (insulae), can still be referenced. However, it should be noted that many of these initial innovations, as mentioned, cannot be attributed only to them. For example, the first calendar was not a Roman invention, although its widespread use (the Julian calendar) may have inspired other parts of the world to follow suit.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

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