Ancient World (about 3000BC-476AD)
At the dawn of the first century, the Roman Empire encompassed Europe and large swathes of land from the Middle East to northern Africa. Stories of Caesar’s dominion have been cemented into legend for millennia. Supporting this vast framework of cultures and regions was not only the leaders of Rome, but also Rome’s technological creations. The revolutionary technology utilized throughout Roman history played an essential role in the story of the empire, from the first time true roads connected such a metropolitan nation, to the destructive power of an onager in conquests. In regards to STS, these technological and scientific innovations would not only create techniques still used today, but shaped culture and society at that time and beyond.
It takes much more than an army and leaders to unite a melting pot of cultures like the Roman Empire. Improvements to quality and efficiency of life through engineering were one of the main benefits and unifying factors Rome used to maintain stability in it’s domains.
One of the most oft-cited feats of the Romans was their creation of massive road networks that granted substantial benefits for it’s nation. Trade could be done to an unparalleled degree, taking advantage of the many different resources among Rome’s expansive empire. Roman armies could travel relatively uninhibited by terrain, with other engineering feats such as bridges, viaducts, and tunnels being used extensively and standardly. This web of roads extended over 120,000 kilometers, the largest of which, the Via Appa, extended 196 kilometers (Angelos, Sherer, Colbus & Olson). Not only did these accomplishments require extensive manpower, but more subtle scientific techniques as well. Some of these include the use of volcanic ash to create concrete, cambered surfaces, along with other engineering techniques (Cartwright). Many noticeable Roman landmarks still stand and impact how society moves today. The Tre Ponti bridge in Faiti, Italy still supports road traffic today, and mile-long Roman tunnels are still utilized today (Angelos, Sherer, Colbus & Olson). The monumental network of Roman infrastructure had an immense impact on the development of society and the world at the time, as it improved quality and efficiency of life to an unrealized extent. Europe’s cultural blending and inter-cultural scientific advancements are, to some extent, products of the capability this infrastructure supplied for centuries.
Rome may be known for its glory in battle, savvy politicians, and creative architecture. However, one of the key aspects of Roman society and development was it’s unprecedented utilization of sewers and aqueducts.
Underneath vaunted structures like the Parthenon and Colosseum, still lies a network of some of the first true sewers known to humans. These sewers, while not perfect, served as a first draft for sanitation on a large scale. Some modern day analysis speculate just how knowledgeable and aware Romans were of health given some of their urban development. In De Aquis, Roman engineer and Senator Frontinus writes about the importance of water and its effects on maintaining cleanliness (Koloski-Ostrow 116). While this view seems to imply a relatively impressive understanding of health sanitation at the time, some scholars argue it isn’t so clear. Koloski-Ostrow writes that the build-up of debris is not indicative of a conscious amount of water “overflow’, or the specific administration of sewers construction (Koloski-Ostrow 66). Despite this scrutiny, the implementation of large-scale latrines and sewage systems allowed for a basic foundation for later more hygienic implementations of sanitation.
Aqueducts were manufactured channels of water, typically resembling a bridge or tunnel, to carry water from one place to another. These aqueducts were essential for supporting the large cities in Italy at the time, as they allowed them to expand more and be nearer to strategic resources. While aqueducts certainly helped Romans provide for and maintain cities, it is important to detail the degree of sanitation, or lack thereof, was actually intended and scientifically understood. In The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy, Koloski-Ostrow writes that “Such maneuvers do not comprise an organized plan for urban sanitation nor ingrained medical practice, even if they did result in a somewhat more sanitary city (Koloski-Ostrow, 118). Understanding this helps to realize the general mindset of the Roman administration in their implementation of urban development. Archaeological findings discover that Rome managed to implement techniques and technology, but this was not done for an understanding of medicine at the time, but rather simply to create a more efficient society. This leads us to a more comprehensive view of the Roman society as well, since the creation of these latrines, aqueducts and sewers were not medicinally motivated, but mainly luxuries for those on top of the social hierarchy as well (Koloski-Ostrow, 281). Although these simple examples may not be revolutionary, it displays how technology’s implementation through society can change it’s entire impact and meaning.
Rome is known more for it’s innovation and inclusion of other culture’s advancements more so than it’s inventiveness, and this certainly remains true for it’s machinery as well. Iconic Roman war machines like the ballista and catapult, were devices that were originally created by the Greek but manufactured and improved upon to become catastrophic machines used by Roman armies. The Greeks first used a machine resembling more of a large bow and arrow, shooting arrowheads weighing up to seventy-six kilograms and launching stones weighing twenty-six kilograms. The Roman modification to this was to make the machine less of a bow and arrow, and more of the artillery-like machine many have seen today. This was important as the Romans expanded into the hills throughout their empire, and this modification on a device already created is a great example of the Roman’s efficiency in engineering to assist in their unique needs. Another Roman device, the ballista, was originally known as a palintonon by it’s Macedonians creators. The difference between these devices are generally considered to be negligible, but the Roman usage of ballistae became much more large-scale than in Greece. The usage of ballistae at outposts throughout the Roman Empire helped to protect their expansive holdings with less manpower. This inclusion and focus on understanding other conquered cultures is a large part of what made Rome’s expansiveness possible.
Slave’s role in Roman Society
Despite the impressive advancements made by Romans, the Atlas holding the weight of the Roman world may not have been upon statesmen, soldiers, or structures, but rather on the immense work of Roman slaves. Roman slavery varied drastically depending on where they were enslaved and their purpose, which can be very distinct. Many were slaves in the army, who would help dig trenches and construct the roads which were so important to Rome. Some did domestic housework. Aeneas of Gaza is written as having used a slave to use a hamster wheel that powered a fountain (George, 53). Despite the heavy usage of many enslaved peoples, very little is written about their culture. “Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture” mentions this thoroughly, instead graffiti, statues, and literatures talking of little parts of slave culture is explored to attempt to piece together this lost group of people in history. (George, 1). Slavery in Roman society is a clear example of a missing voice of a group of people in history, and the research that has been done to remediate this displays just how much can still be found in other sources at the time.
The networks of roads and the implementation of warfare devices hoisted the Roman nation to a position where they could consistently be successful despite the many cultures that were contained within it. In this process, many people from different cultural views were slaves and servants of this machine, and while their voices may not be heard, the work of their hands can be seen as an impactful part of one of the greatest empires ever.
Angelos, T., Scherer, S., Kolbus, C., & Olson, K. (2019, September 16). The engineering behind the Via Appia. Engineering Rome. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from http://engineeringrome.org/the-engineering-behind-the-via-appia/. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow. The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy : Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems. The University of North Carolina Press; 2015. Accessed September 9, 2021. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=965047, Brittain A. Roman Women. Project Gutenberg. Print. Accessed September 9 2021. George, Michele. Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture. Vol. 52, University of Toronto Press, 2013. JSTOR,
www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442660991. Accessed 9 Sept. 2021. Ripat, P. (2019). Sisterhood and Sibling Rivalry in Roman Society. Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 16(1), 109-128. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/720392.