Ancient Rome was famously home to the Colosseum, dozens of column-flanked temples, and numerous bathhouses, but the Eternal City was also filled with a number of more surprising innovations, from air-conditioned apartments to postal workers, and books to bacon. This article covers 10 important Roman inventions that you may not know about, and which prove exactly how important the civilization was to human thought, culture and history.
Background On Roman Inventions And Culture
The Ancient Romans were known for a variety of institutions, imperial plunders and cultural pursuits. Beginning with the establishment of the Republic, Rome became a contender to be reckoned with. This was followed by a succession of notorious emperors who are still remembered in contemporary society.
From the Republic to the Empire, the Romans proved a tremendous influence on modern western culture, impacting modern political leadership, arts and culture, and militarism.
10. Books (Codex)
If you imagine an ancient library filled with long scrolls of parchment, for the most part, you’d be quite correct. First developed in ancient Egypt, scrolls were in use for centuries as the main medium for written documents. They were easy to store and transport and could be made from a variety of materials, from parchment to papyrus.
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At some point during the 1st century AD, however, the bound book, or the codex was added to the list of Roman inventions. The term codex literally means ‘block of wood,’ a reference to the hardcovers placed at either end of the pages to protect them. Unlike scrolls, codices utilized both sides of the writing material and allowed the reader to easily consult different parts of the text without endless rolling and unrolling.
Although it got off to a shaky start, with most Romans preferring to stick to scrolls, by the 4th century, the codex had taken over as the standard format for written material and has remained so ever since.
Apartment living has long been the preserve of the Europeans. From Coco Chanel to Sigmund Freud, the apartments of the rich and famous have become tourist attractions and objects of wonder, offering insight into the intriguing lives lived within their walls. The earliest apartments, however, were far less glamorous.
As the city of Rome rose to prominence, rapid urbanization saw its population expand to such an extent that a great deal of new housing was required to accommodate it. Rather than building outwards and broadening the city boundaries, the architects and builders of the Eternal City looked to the heavens, constructing taller and taller buildings known as insulae (‘islands’). The majority of the city lived in insulae, with only the wealthy and the elite able to afford their own houses or domus. These became one example of many Roman inventions to mediate the growing urban population.
These blocks were comprised of individual apartments, with the ground floor generally used as a shop, inn, or business space. Although Emperor Augustus brought in regulations to ensure the safety of the insulae, they were often hazardous, some reaching up to nine stories high and often being made of flammable materials, namely wood. While the apartment buildings can be said to have had running water and basic sanitation provisions, these were scarcely sufficient to ensure the hygiene of their many residents. Thankfully, apartment buildings have now come a long way from the insulae of ancient Rome.
While it might not be true to say that there was a Latin version of the New York Times or the Daily Mail, the residents of ancient Rome did have access to constantly updated information about current affairs. The Acta Diurna (‘Daily Acts’) were inscribed onto large slabs of stone or metal and then erected in a public place for anyone who could (albeit not many) to read, becoming one of the most useful Roman inventions for the people.
The first Acta were set up in 59 BC, on the orders of Julius Caesar, and the tradition continued until AD 222 during the reign of Severus Alexander. Alongside important notices about religious festivals and the outcomes of legal trials, the Acta Diurna informed the Romans about upcoming entertainment and even astrological readings. Not only were these daily updates useful for the people of the city, but they have also been incredibly insightful for historians since they were stored in archives after being removed from the forum.
7. Postal service
The Romans famously laid out an extensive series of sophisticated roads across their Empire, facilitating communications and travel across three continents, allowing trade to expand and thrive and, most importantly, enabling the emperor to rule over his expansive lands with efficient administration. As well as officially mandates and orders, private messages and parcels could be sent via the many roads which led to (and away from!) Rome.
In fact, the Cursus Publicus (or ‘public way’) was a state-regulated courier system created by Emperor Augustus, which functioned as the first-ever postal service. Riders and soldiers worked in relay teams, conveying messages, packages and even people between a series of forts and stations situated along the major routes between cities. Costs were high, and there was never any guarantee of safe delivery, but the Cursus Publicus was nonetheless a hugely sophisticated operation: a horse-drawn cart could easily travel 50 miles in a day, and relay teams could carry urgent messages up to 170.
The ancient Roman postal service continued to function for many centuries until the gradual decline of Roman power made it largely redundant. Its legacy continues, however, in the national and international courier services that have become so essential to business and shopping in today’s world.
6. Dental Fillings
While we have records of dental work taking place as far back as 2600 BC, the earliest physical evidence we have of cavity repair comes from ancient Rome. In 100 BC, a Roman writer named Celsus put together an extensive compendium of oral medicine, including instructions on how to repair loose teeth, treat toothache and soothe teething babies.
In 1998, archaeologists discovered human remains in France from the 1st or 2nd century AD and found a wrought iron implant in one of the surviving molar teeth. Further investigation revealed that the filling had been molded to the shape of the man’s dental cavity through a process of hot-hammering and folding the molten metal. This discovery allowed archaeologists and anthropologists to review what they knew of dental practices in the ancient world and demonstrated that the Roman inventions were once again at the forefront of a new field.
5. Glass-blowing And Cameos
Glass has existed and been traded around the Mediterranean Basin for many centuries before the Romans came to power, originating in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was the technical knowledge and artistic curiosity of the Romans, however, that brought a new lease of life to the art of glass-making with new techniques and methods. Glassblowing, for example, which involves pneumatically inflating gobs of molten glass through a long, hollow pipe, was first practiced in the 1st century BC. It allowed craftsmen to create glassware more efficiently, which also meant that glass jars and containers became more commonplace. This in turn led to the expansion of the art, as craftsmen looked to create ever more elaborate and decorative designs to set their products apart.
One of the Roman inventions that built off of glassblowing was the cameo, a small engraved or layered glass design that could rival gemstones in beauty, intricacy, and luster. These delicate pieces of craftsmanship became popular among Rome’s elite, and have been considered emblematic of Rome’s artistic heritage ever since.
Although the first evidence of salt-cured pork comes from China during the 2nd millennium BC, it was the Romans that introduced bacon into the lives of Europeans. After encountering new curing processes during their military conquests in the East, the process was refined and the production of bacon became one of the Roman inventions influenced by their military plunders.
The increasing power and population of the Roman Empire, as well as the swelling ranks of its army, were important factors in their refinement of the bacon-making process, and the prominence of the delicacy. On the one hand, more space meant more farms, and the Romans were incredibly efficient at improving pig-rearing throughout their realm. On the other, a greater population meant more mouths to feed, and in the days long before the refrigerator, it was necessary to find a way of preserving meat for transportation. By salting, curing and smoking pork, they prevented the meat from spoiling, even in the warm Mediterranean climate.
It only takes a quick glance at Roman society to see that they were fascinated by death. From gladiatorial games to their myths and legends about the underworld, mortality was not something they tried to brush under the carpet. Like many cultures, the Romans celebrated a festival honoring the passing of the dead, the Feralia, held near the end of October each year.
As they expanded their power, the Romans tactically blended their own customs with those of the people they conquered. This meant that the defeated peoples were truly brought under their control, since not only were their lands now the property of Rome, but their very culture was irrevocably intertwined with that of their conquerors. This was what happened when the Romans conquered Celtic lands in northern Europe and Britain under the leadership of Julius Caesar.
The Celts also had an annual celebration honoring the dead, known as the Samhain, at which they lit bonfires, dressed up in costumes, and staged great parades. When the Romans combined Feralia with the traditions of the Samhain, it became a mainstay of Celtic-Roman culture. So strong was its legacy that the church even moved its annual celebration of the dead saints and martyrs (All Saints Day or All Hallows) to November 1st, in order not to clash with the popular pagan festival. The Samhain-Feralia celebrations came to be known as Hallows Eve, which later became Halloween.
2. Welfare Benefits
While it was a city of great cultural and material riches, Rome was also rife with poverty, with many of its inhabitants living in poor housing with little food, money, or opportunities for social mobility. This was a concern not only for the masses suffering from such deficiencies but also for the elite, whose key concern was to prevent popular uprisings or civil discord. For this reason, a number of Roman inventions and measures were put in place to try to improve the lives of the city’s poorest residents. In the 2nd century BC, the celebrated Gracchi brothers implemented a program to collect a portion of the state’s grain imports and sell it at a subsidized rate to any citizens willing to wait in line at the public granaries. Paired with the relatively clean water supplied to the city’s fountains by a number of huge aqueducts, this provision helped to support the lowest levels of society.
Various Roman governments also took measures to improve public health, opening hospitals and providing low-cost bathing options, and even ensured that the public was kept entertained with spectacles, games, and festivals at the state’s expense. The Emperor Augustus even created an effective pension system for his soldiers that ensured military veterans could leave the army with the confidence that they would be able to sustain themselves after a long career of fighting. Although this was modified by later emperors, it was generally seen as a prerequisite for military support that a leader would guarantee a certain level of safety for his veterans.
Although the quality of life was incomparable to that of the modern-day, the benefits that Roman citizens derived from the state made their day-to-day existence a good deal more bearable, and even enjoyable, when the bread and circuses were in town.
1. Air Conditioning
While the ancient Egyptians chose to tackle the heat by hanging wet material over their door frames, Roman inventions once again proved themselves intellectually and creatively sound with a more sophisticated form of air conditioning.
The famous aqueducts that the Romans built across their empire were not only used for drinking water, but also for cooling the houses of the elite. Water would be diverted from the main source and run through pipes in the walls and floors to provide relief from the dreaded heat of the Italian summers. For those who couldn’t afford such decadent plumbing, there was always the frigidarium at the public baths to cool off.
More On Roman Inventions
These ancient Roman inventions all played a key role in the development of human history, culture and civilization, both within the Empire and beyond. Many of them are still in use today, and prove how deeply the legacy of ancient Rome runs through European history. Art, architecture, politics, literature and science all benefited immensely from the innovations of the Romans, and don’t forget about the bacon!
For more surprising historical inventions, read about those of the Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.