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7 Roman inventions: Incredible feats of ancient technology

Roman inventions: Rome
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ancient Roman inventions and innovations didn't collapse with the Roman Empire. Although many millennia have passed, the masterful work of the Romans can still be spotted in daily life. 

With an empire that spanned most of Europe, western Asia, northern Africa and the Mediterranean, according to the journal Science (opens in new tab), the Romans held enormous power and influence in the ancient world. From the 8th century B.C. when Rome was founded — to the Western Empire's collapse in the 5th century, Roman technology influenced some of the tools, architecture and city structure of the modern world. 

The Romans were masters of early environmental engineering, for example using water and their knowledge of physics to produce energy for mills, according to the journal Nature (opens in new tab). Meanwhile, down on the farm, they were able to maximize their crop yields  By using crop rotations and the 'food, feed, fallow' system, according to the journal Agronomic Crops (opens in new tab). Splitting farms into these three allotments ensured there were always crops ready to pick.  

However, not every ancient innovation can be chalked up solely to the Romans. For example, the first calendar was not a Roman invention,  but the widespread use of the Julian calendar taught the large majority of the world a way to track passing time, according to the Journal for the History of Astronomy (opens in new tab)

From their own unique inventions to improved techniques, here are seven lessons the Romans helped teach the world. 

How to heat our homes

The Romans invented the hypocaust system — an early method for efficiently distributing heat. Click on the interactive image below to explore the features of this system.

What to do with our waste

Ancient Rome was home to some of the world's first sewer systems, according to the journal Sustainability (opens in new tab). These underground sewers were first installed in around 500 B.C. and consisted of giant, carved-stone tunnels. Today many cities' sewers bear resemblance to those of ancient Rome — but their purpose may have been different, according to the journal of the Water Pollution Control Federation (opens in new tab). In the modern world, a sewer's main function is to carry unsanitary waste away from urban areas. In Rome, however, their main role was to remove the excess water that could flood the streets.

Some homes were connected directly to Rome's covered drainage system, others simply tipped their sewage into the streets, but streets were then washed to move waste into sewers. Sewage then travelled through a network of extensive tunnels, until it reached the Tiber, Rome's main river. The architecture of sewers hasn't changed too much since these ancient builds. In fact, the "Greatest Sewer" of ancient Rome is still in place today and is one of the oldest remaining Ancient Roman structures, according to the Journal of Transportation Technologies (opens in new tab)

Roman sewer

Inside a 1st century Roman sewer. (Image credit: Getty Images)

How to plan our cities

The grid layout of cities — also called centuriation — was one of the formats that ancient Romans adopted to divide and measure their land, according to the American Journal of Archaeology (opens in new tab). The grid formation, which then organized Roman land into conquered territories, today organizes large cities into functioning roads and streets.

The Romans were highly skilled at turning bare land into built-up cities as many towns under the Roman Empire were expanded and redeveloped. The grid design may seem simple today, but before the Romans produced mass road grids, buildings and other town features often just followed the shape and geology of the land. 

The idea of large towns and cities were also introduced to many countries by the Romans. Their criss-crossing street layout created central squares for trading, called insulae. This structure inspired the next city planners, according to an article published in the Journal of Space Syntax (opens in new tab).

How to get from A to B

Over 9,000 kilometres of roads were built to transport and expand the Empire. 

The secret to lasting concrete

Usually with the advancement in technology and knowledge, human-made items are continually being improved over time. However, the concrete made by the Romans was in fact stronger than our modern material, according to an article by the journal Nature (opens in new tab). For example, while saltwater erodes modern concrete within a matter of years, some of the sea walls built by the Romans 2,000 years ago still remain intact. Details of how Roman concrete was produced was lost over time. 

To uncover the Romans' construction secret, scientists at the Berkeley Lab (opens in new tab) at the University of California studied the mineral components of the ancient maritime concrete. They found that a mixture of lime and volcanic rock was used. This created a mortar and volcanic tuff. To add further strength, the mortar was placed in seawater. Water molecules hydrated the lime, which underwent a chemical reaction with the ash, cementing them together. This formed a strong calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate. 

Even structures that were not underwater were hardy. For example, the skilled technique of the Romans, using volcanic rock and ash to build the Colosseum, has kept this famous wonder relatively intact.

Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum amphitheatre is made from stone, concrete and tuff. (Image credit: Getty Images)

How to bind books

Although the Romans were far from the first to leave written records, they are credited with replacing scrolls with the first form of books, according to the BBC Culture (opens in new tab). Called codices, bound wax tablets were used instead of today's paper. 

The wax was engraved with a sharp instrument called a stylus, according to the Journal of Neurosurgery (opens in new tab). These documents transformed literacy, as binding tablets so that they could fold together was thinner than the large clay tablets that were originally written on. Codices were also easier to handle than scrolls. Later, the wax tablets were replaced by lighter animal skins. 

Roman wax tablet

A reproduction of a bound Roman wax tablet. (Image credit: Getty Images)

How to carry out surgery

The Romans invented many surgical tools and spread knowledge of surgical procedures, according to an article published in the Archive of Oncology (opens in new tab). Many of these medical breakthroughs took place on the battlefield. 

Some of the Greco-Roman tools that helped to shape modern surgery include bone drills and forceps, according to Neurology and Neuroscience Reports (opens in new tab). Bone drills were used to remove diseased bone and were similar in appearance to today's corkscrews. Forceps were among the most common surgical tools in Roman times. They were used to remove small bone fragments from the body. In ancient Roman literature there are records of some of the earliest uses of syringes, according to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Queensland (opens in new tab). These were used to apply medical ointments.  

It was a written law in ancient Roman times that if a woman died while giving birth, the child had to be cut out of her body, according to the U.S National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab). This led to the first form of cesarean sections.

Additional resources

You can read more about the roads of Roman Britain at the English Heritage (opens in new tab) website. To learn about water and sanitation systems in Imperial Rome, watch this video by The Open University (opens in new tab).

Bibliography

Ailsa Harvey
Contributor

Ailsa is a staff writer for How It Works (opens in new tab) magazine, where she writes science, technology, history, space and environment features. Based in the U.K., she graduated from the University of Stirling (opens in new tab) with a BA (Hons) journalism degree. Previously, Ailsa has written for Cardiff Times magazine, Psychology Now and numerous science bookazines. Ailsa's interest in the environment also lies outside of writing, as she has worked alongside Operation Wallacea (opens in new tab) conducting rainforest and ocean conservation research.