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5 Surprising Inventions of Ancient Rome

5 Surprising Inventions of Ancient Rome

Roman glass cup, Sanisera, Menorca. Credit: CBA11 (Wikimedia Commons)

Although technically a pre-industrial civilisation, Rome was continually coming up with societal and technological advancements. These were implemented through social and governmental initiatives, industries such as architecture and building, and the mass production of food and other goods.

Here are 5 of the most surprising Roman inventions.

1. Social welfare

Rome had a huge bread industry. It was the staple food of the city and its outposts. There are even monuments to bread and great bakers in Rome that survive to this day, depicting their ovens and giant donkey-powered kneading machines.

Roman mill and bakery, Ostia. Credit: Udimu (Wikimedia Commons).

With such a massive population, ensuring that the people were well fed helped boost the Empire’s popularity.

Emperor Augustus initiated the first social welfare program in the form of the grain dole, which many of the city’s growing number of slaves and poor came to depend on. Trajan’s Alimenta program expanded Rome’s state-funded welfare beyond the grain dole to include funding, education and food for poor and orphaned children.

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2. Luxury cruise ships

During Caligula’s brief, but ostentatious reign, the Emperor had huge luxurious boats built to cruise on Lake Nemi, a large body of water near Rome.

In the late 1920s, at what must have been great public expense, Mussolini drained the lake and began a three-year project, which resulted in raising both giant 240-ft luxury liners.

The boats turned out to be larger and more advanced than any ship built before the 16th century. They were adorned with marble statues and fitted with plumbing for their heated baths. The ships even contained ball-bearing technology, previously believed to have been invented by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century.

On 30 May 1944 retreating Nazi troops set fire to the museum that housed the boats, completely destroying them.

3. Public sector pensions

Special taxes, or portoria, were instituted by Emperor Augustus in 13 BC, notably, an inheritance tax of 5%. This was used to finance a military pension for veteran legionnaires who had completed 20 years of service.

In October 42 BC the Roman Republic committed suicide. Near the town of Philippi in northern Greece the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the famous assassins of Julius Caesar and the last surviving cheerleaders of the Roman Republic, faced off against the armies of Marc Antony and young Octavian. Two separate battles were fought, the results of which decided the future direction of Rome.

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4. A revolution in glass

Roman glass depicting a gladiator. Credit: Vassil (Wikimedia Commons).

One area that was transformed from a craft to a true industry, including mass production, was glass making. The Romans invented glass blowing and colourless glass and even developed ways of producing remarkably clear and large sheets of glass for windows. Innovation resulted in the use of glass as insulation (even double-glazing) and inexpensive mass production.

5. The European metropolis

Rome was Europe’s first truly large city and in many ways it resembled a modern metropolis. It contained neighbourhoods like the Aventine Hill, featuring 8-story high-rise tenement blocks made of brick, wood and plaster. There were also public baths, pubs, restaurants and gyms.

Like any modern European city, Rome had its major sporting events. Chariot racing resembled modern football in that it had star athletes, team colours and filled large stadiums with spectators. The circus maximus was a place where patricians mixed with poor plebians due to their mutual love of sport.

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The expansion of the Empire eventually brought about the development of Roman-style cities such as London, Bonn and Paris, complete with forums, basilicas, amphitheatres and aqueducts. The increase in labour this required added to Europe’s urbanisation and arguably a raise in living standards.


5 Surprising Inventions of Ancient Rome - History

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Robots, computers, showers and vending machines? Believe it or not, this article does indeed belong on Classical Wisdom instead of a publication like Modern Magazine! Here’s why…

Ever since the world ’ s first known analogue computer – the famous Antikythera mechanism – emerged from an ancient Greek shipwreck in 1901, historians have been trying to come to terms with the fact that ancient technological knowledge was far more advanced than previously thought.

The mechanism was first believed to be nothing more than a lump of rock. In 2012, it was revealed to be a complex system of cogs that could perform more calculations than a Swiss watch.

The discovery led to an increased interest in ancient technologies. Researchers have been re-examining old discoveries and making new ones, and the results have been enlightening.

So, without further delay we present five technological discoveries from Greece and Rome that are surprisingly ancient.

The automatic servant of Philon (3 rd Century BC), by Philo of Byzantium

The automatic servant of Philon from the 3rd century BC, is seen at Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology in Athens, Greece February 13, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Invented by Philo of Byzantium in the third century BC, the automatic servant of Philon is currently recognized as the world ’ s first robot. It is a human-shaped automaton that dispenses wine when a cup is placed in its hands.

The Greeks were known for diluting their wine with water, and the automaton is designed to do just that. Once the cup is placed in the empty hand, wine is poured followed by water. The liquids are dispensed in turn using a series of pipes hidden within the robot that lead from the robot ’ s arm to a central chamber in the torso. The pipes are controlled by air valves that open when the arm lowers with the weight of the cup, and close again once the cup is removed.

A series of vending machines that dispensed holy water were built by Hero of Alexandria using a similar mechanism. Valves were activated when a coin was dispensed. These machines were common at the entrance of holy places.

Aeolipile (The First Steam Engine)

An illustration of Hero’s aeolipile

Also known as a ‘ Hero ’ s Engine, ’ the Aeolipile is the first world’s first-known steam engine. It featured a simple yet innovative system that relied on a radical steam turbine powered by a central water container.

It was invented in the first century AD and described by Hero of Alexandria, who is credited for its invention.

The Aeoliple was believed invented as a demonstration of steam power, and not intended for any practical purpose. Even so, the machine is evidence of the period’s revolutionary scientific experimentation.

There is speculation that this invention did have a predecessor, as a similar device was mentioned by Vitruvius in his treatise De Architectura. However, historians say it could be the same device, which would make the invention slightly older than currently thought.

A modern Iranian flat Astrolabe (Tabriz, 2013), by Jacopo Koushan

Similar to the Antikythera Device, the Astrolabe was an intricate device used by astronomers and navigators to measure altitude.

The mechanism was designed to be used day and night. The Astrolabe made specific altitudinal calculations based on the horizons of celestial bodies. It was also used to identify stars and planets, and could provide the local latitude data based on a given local time (and vice versa!).

The earliest Astrolabe was invented by Apollonius of Perga somewhere between 220 and 150 BC. The design is an amalgamation of two earlier inventions the planisphere (a device used to calculate stars using two rotating disks) and a dioptra (a tubed device used to measure angles).

The astrolabe is not only a great invention in its own right, it is also evidence of how the ancient scientific community took inspiration from existing discoveries, just like scientists today.

The Lycurgus cup is named after the mythical figure King Lycurgus, who adorns it. The cup changes from red to green depending on the light source. The discovery of this color-changing cup, dated to fourth-century Rome, baffled scientists for decades.

Recent investigations have discovered that the color-changing effect is produced by a painstakingly intricate process whereby minute shards of silver and gold nanoparticles, about 70nm in diameter, are diffused within the glass, causing the light to scatter and create the illusion that it is changing color. To give you an idea of the scale of this operation, 70mn is less than one thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.

What is amazing about this discovery is that the theory of light scattering in relation to nanoparticles wasn ’ t believed discovered until 1908, and finally proven in practice in 1980.

Scientists and historians are unsure what method the Romans used to create the metallic particles, but they all agree that the ancient Romans were the true pioneers of ‘n ew ’ n anotech!

Greek open-air shower baths for men, gouache painting. Credit: Wellcome Collection

It may not sound exciting, but the invention of showers possibly changed the lives of Ancient Greek people and beyond.

The first shower was rudimentary – literally a hole in the wall, with a servant pouring water through it from the other side. The invention of lead piping soon revolutionized this method.

Archaeologists stumbled upon evidence of Greek showers in a bathhouse while excavating the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. The site was relatively close to the sea, and a series of underground pipes collected the seawater and dispensed it within the bathhouse for public showering. This evidence corresponds with evidence of lead plumbing found at gymnasiums and fragments of carved shower heads.

There is also evidence via scripture and pottery illustrations that this same plumbing technique was common to Greek homes, not just public bathhouses. It is becoming increasingly accepted that Greek city-states may have added pipes to pre-existing aqueduct systems in order to bring water to showers in private homes as well as public buildings.


20. The Halloween

The Halloween which is celebrated worldwide by the people on 31st of October was first celebrated by the Romans before 2000 years.

At first, it originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain to mark the end of the harvest season. Also, this day ment the New Year’s day for the Celtics.

At that time, the 1st of November was celebrated as the All Saints Day. As, both Halloween and All Saints Day dealt with the afterlife, they were merged and celebrated together.

Also, the night before Halloween was known as All Hallows Eve. And, the main purpose of Halloween was to send back the dead and spirits by lighting the bonfire.

So, people started celebrating Halloween by wearing masks and vandalizing others’ properties. They also lighted bonfires and wore various costumes which would end up scaring others.

Then, the celebration of Halloween was caught up by the Americans around 1840 with Irish immigrants.


Armored vehicle

Many of da Vinci’s inventions centered around weaponry and war machines, most likely because he was receiving funding from the Duke of Milan, who was responsible for Milan’s defense against the French.

One of da Vinci’s designs was an armored vehicle equipped with weapons and capable of moving in any direction, which many have called a precursor to the modern tank.

“Da Vinci’s vehicle has a number of light cannons arranged on a circular platform with wheels that allow for 360-degree range,” writes ‘ Da Vinci Inventions’ . “The platform is covered by a large protective cover (much like a turtle’s shell), reinforced with metal plates, which was to be slanted to better deflect enemy fire. There is a sighting turret on top to coordinate the firing of the canons and the steering of the vehicle. The motion of the machine was to be powered by eight men inside of the tank who would constantly turn cranks to spin the wheels.”

“Like his flying machine, da Vinci's armored car was never built. And it wasn't until 400 years later, during World War I, that armored tanks became a fixture of European battlefields,” LiveScience reports.

Model of da Vinci’s armored vehicle based on his sketches. Traveling exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci il genio e le INVENZIONI" at the Palazzo della Cancelleria. ( Wikimedia Commons )


3. The Romans Invented the Shopping Mall

Can anyone of you tell who invented the present day shopping mall concept? Well, it were the ancient Romans who can be credited for introducing to the world, the concept of a modern day shopping mall. Built more than 2000 years ago, the Trajan Market was the first of a kind shopping mall and is a marvel of architecture in true sense. It held within it 150 shops and was centrally located.


Democratic Setup

Democracy literally means the ‘rule of the people’ and is derived from the Greek terminology demokratia the term was first introduced by the Ruler of famous Greek city-state Athens Cleisthenes in the year 507 B.C. The very initial governmental setup based on the suggested democratic principles was very much similar to what we have today in modern democracies. The first democratic setup by Greeks consisted of three institutions ekklesia, the boule and the dikasteria. Ekklesia was the Assembly responsible for formulating laws and foreign policy, the boule on the other hand was a council of representatives chosen from all major Athenian Tribes, lastly the dikasteria was a court system very similar to what we now call the Supreme courts. However this kind of governmental setup did not last long and was converted into a more aristocratic system in 460 B.C. when General Pericles decided to abandon democratic principles.


What Were Some of the Contributions of Ancient Rome?

Ancient Rome made major contributions in the areas of architecture, government, and medicine among others. The Ancient Roman culture was one of the most influential empires of its time. Many of their contributions can be seen in the world in modern times.

Architecture

Roman architecture was quite modern for its time. The creation of aqueducts allowed water to be transported into the city for bathing and cooking and were so well built that some were still in use in the year 2000. The Romans were also among the first to build with concrete, creating buildings that stood the test of time. Arches were refined during the Ancient Roman period to support more and more weight when used to build large structures, a concept that is still employed for bridges and other structures.

Ancient Roman government was the model for many democratic countries around the world. They used a representation method in which Roman senators represented larger groups of people. The senators conducted the business of running the country alongside the emperor. At the time, only patricians from the upper levels of society could be senators. An early system of checks and balances was designed to prevent one person from gaining too much power.

The Ancient Romans established the first dedicated military medical corps to aid its soldiers on the battlefield. They invented many surgical tools and were among the first to use tourniquets to stop blood loss.


15 Inventions From Ancient Rome That Have Changed Our Lives for the Better

The aqueducts were constructed in order to conduct water from its original source to city’s households and fountains. The water found in nearby streams and rivers was not potable, due to its chemical and biological pollution. Therefore, an alternative had to be found and soon Appius Claudius Caecus found one. The first aqueducts ever constructed were were the Anio Vetus (272-269 BC), the Aqua Marcia (144-140 BC), and the Aqua Appia (312 BC) transporting water to a fountain at the city’s cattle market (clever economic thinking there). Today, the aqueducts are a remarkable piece of landscape art and a tourist must-see.

The Romans practically invented public discourse. In Rome anyone (educated well enough and born high enough) could express their opinion on state matters. This was the onset of journalism. The fist newspaper ever was the Acta Diurna, first published in the year 131 BC. Its contents were written on stone tablets. While perusing the Acta Diurna, one could find out e.g. about current military victories, games and gladiatorial sparring, or local births and deaths. According to experts, however, apart from the utilitarian columns, the papers also ran a human interest stories section. Welcome to the age of information and gossip.

The Romans shunned stupidity, just like they did cowardliness in battle. A respected persona had to be educated and well-read. And since the traditional clay tablets and scrolls of papyrus proved not very convenient, especially when the text was lengthy, something had to be done to make the activity of reading more pleasant. This sparked the brilliant idea to bind several smaller pieces of clay or parchment together. The creation became an instant success, as the new books were lighter and more portable. But, they were not called books yet. Instead, ancient Romans coined the term ‘codex’ for them. The Christians were proud supporters too, when the Bible came along, as they found it very useful for distribution of the Holy Scripture in large quantities.

Romans did not invent the arches as such. However, they did popularize them. What once functioned as an ornamental element in Babylonian and Assyrian architecture, now appeared nearly everywhere. Roman architects found out that arches were excellent at supporting large, heavy constructions, due to their weight distribution properties. From then on, arches appeared everywhere, from private houses of the patricians, to the public buildings which had to accommodate crowds, like the world-famous Colosseum, where gladiator fights were held. Also, as Romans loved to show off, soon the arches received a new function. Triumphant arches were built all across the Roman Empire to commemorate significant military victories.

The ancient Romans once again perfected something that was used by earlier Mediterranean cultures and made it their own. Though the concrete used in the Roman times was not quite as we know it today, it was fairly close to the modern Portland-cement variety. Roman architects used a mixture of slaked lime and volcanic ash known as pozzolana to create a dense, sticky paste for holding blocks together. The clever builders of the Roman Empire also added horse hair and blood to the mix. As extreme as that might sound, the hair apparently made the concrete less prone to crack s and the blood made it more durable when temperatures dropped below zero. Now, that is some ancient R&D at its finest!

Few of us would associate the military superpower with a land happily handing out state support to all the poor and socially underprivileged, but, truth is, they did. As long as you were a native, you and your family could gain subsidiaries for food and education. In the year 122 BC, the tribune Gaius Gracchus introduced the progressive concept of ‘lex frumentaria’. This was a law, which stated that the Roman government is obliged to provide all citizens with low-cost grain in an appropriate amount for each. Trajan went even further, introducing the ‘alimenta’, a welfare program which focused on providing food, clothing and paying for the education of impoverished and orphan children.

The Roman Empire at its highest point was a conurbation sprawling across more than 1.7 million square miles. But, the annexation of European, Eastern and African provinces also meant that the jurisdiction now had to cover them all. Therefore, some kind of paths had to be established to facilitate communication to and from the Capital. Ingenious as always, Roman constructors soon invented the first roads. Where earlier mud and sand hindered merchant carts and horse traffic, now gravel and granite bricks were put, to ensure sturdiness and great capacity, regardless of the weather conditions. The roman roads also had categories. There was a clear-cut distinction between public roads and private roads, which owners could also dedicate to public use.

It comes as no surprise, that such a highly organized society as the Roman Empire was, had to follow some rules and regulations. As the Romans hated makeshift solutions and everything had to be in check, they also took care of establishing the basics of civil law. The first known legal document, which regulates the general legal relationships between citizens are The Twelve Tables. They were said to emerge as a result of a long-standing battle for liberties waged between the patricians and the plebeians of the city. Sadly, this legal artifact did not make it to our times. The original Tables, written in archaic Latin on bronze, or ivory plates probably burnt down when the Gauls set fire to the city in 387 BC.

The dating system we now use is more than 2000 years old! The first draft of the Roman calendar, the Calendar of Romulus, was largely based on the Greek lunar system of time measurement, but throughout the time it evolved into something we now know as the Gregorian calendar. The first Roman calendars featured some oddities, though, like a nine-day week including a special market day, as well as different nomenclature for months. July was previously known as Quintilis, and August was Sextilis . Maius was the third month, whereas the total number of months in a year was 10, not 12 as we know it today.

The Romans were highly skilled in the medical profession. Not only did they help women give birth in tough cases by performing the cesarean section, but they also took care of their soldiers so well, that most of them outlived the ordinary citizens. Well, maybe the hearty military meals and keeping fit had something to do with it as well. Regardless, the Romans could and would perform complicated surgery procedures and were among the first to see the necessity of sanitizing things. It was common practice to boil surgery tools in hot water to avoid contamination of the battle wounds. Needless to say, sanitation was later rediscovered in Europe as late as the 19th century. That took us a surprisingly long time.

It was as early as 735 BC that the earliest sewage systems and lavatories, so called latrines, were invented. And as the people of the Roman Empire were quite sociable folks, this first WC-like establishments were far from private. There were no booths. Instead, the construction resembled a long stone bench with holes distributed evenly on its surface, where one could sit and do what they had to. The water from all the latrines in the city then flowed through the main sewer, Cloa c a Maxima, and further into the waters of the Tiber river. Nowadays, of course this would be unthinkable, but given the time period, such a solution seemed a great technological advancement.

Although the basic numeric system we now use is Arabic, we have not forgotten about the Roman numerals. The Romans invented a universal system to record large quantities of things in a simple matter. It became popular around 900 to 800 BC and s oon the was introduced as the sole accepted method in accounting. Of course, it still lacked a few things, like the number zero, or fractions. But, nevertheless, even when the Arabic numeric system started to get more attention, the Roman numerals still were in use to mark e.g. chapters in literature, cornerstones near public roads etc. And they are still used in similar context up to this day.

O nce again this was not typically a Roman idea, but a reasonable one which seemed adequate to the needs of the people of the Roman Empire . The city planning practiced by the Romans applied centuriation, a method of land surveyin g, the echoes of which we can still find in modern day geodesy. The basic concept was to divide a given land evenly into blocks, and to make all roads run either in a north-south, or in an east-west direction, forming an axis . The two main streets, cardo and decumanus, would cross at a 90 degrees angle in the middle of the grid. Today, the best example of historic grid-plan cities include the Italian Padua and Florence, as well as the Catalan Barcelona.


5. Tables (And Other Furniture)

Hatnefer’s Chair , 1492-73 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The humble chair and table might seem like a fairly mundane part of everyday life. However, before ancient Egyptian inventions such as tables and chairs, people simply sat on the floor or small stools, and used large blocks or primitive benches as surfaces. And then, around the mid-third millennium BC , came an explosion in the art of furniture, as intricately carved items began to be created in Egypt.

Mainly made out of wood and alabaster, Egyptian tables consisted of a smooth platform raised off the ground with either a pedestal or legs, which were sometimes separate or detachable elements. Their purpose was much the same as modern tables, with evidence of ancient tables used for dining, writing, and playing board games.

The Egyptian chair, however, was quite different. It was not a universal piece of household furniture found in any home or public place, but instead a status symbol, a luxury enjoyed only by the elite. While peasants and farmers might sit on stools, the wealthy or royal Egyptians had proper chairs with backs and armrests. Ancient chairs have been discovered fashioned out of precious materials, such as ivory and ebony, embellished with expensive metals, and meticulously decorated with the carved figures of animals, plants or deities.


15. Fast Food Restaurant

Most of us modern beings are familiar with the concept of fast food joints or restaurants. But, can you guess the origin of these outlets? Rome. Yes it was the Roman Empire that first gifted to us the fast food joint concept. The ancient Roman cities offered many luxuries, of which fast food restaurants were counted as very essential by the public. Most fast food joints sold ready to eat food stuff like pizza, soup, bread and sausage. The food was sold along with wine for drinkers.

Many Roman inventions are still in the process of getting discovered. Keep looking!


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