Did you know that the Romans founded London? They had named it ‘Londinium’. Read this write-up to know about some of the amazing achievements of the ancient Romans.
You don’t go to see stuff, you let it slip upon you — one piazza, one fountain, one amazing structure at a time. — Anthony Bourdain
Rome was the capital of the expansive Roman empire which encompassed almost the entire continent of Europe, along with Mediterranean territories in Asia and Africa. The Roman empire was one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. Historians believe that the earliest Roman settlements began in 753 BC. The Roman Empire was divided into the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. Its glory was at its peak in 200 AD, and the entire empire spanned over an area of 2.5 million square miles.
As much as the Romans are known for their vast empire and its governance, they will forever be remembered as inventors and establishers, inventors of a modern form of administration and establishers of a number of science and engineering practices which had been around, but were ushered in for daily use by them. Many of these are still in use today. Right from the scissors used to trim your hair to the umbrella that shields you from a torrential downpour, to the magnifying glass your optician uses, to even commercially sold cosmetics – many things we encounter in our daily lives can be traced back to the Romans. Here’s a more detailed account of Ancient Roman achievements.
The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains. — Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Greek historian
The Romans were extremely innovative builders. The biggest and probably the most important engineering feat the Romans achieved was the construction of aqueducts. These aqueducts were used for two crucial purposes among others, water supply and water flow out. Water for everyday use for private and public washrooms, fountains, etc., was diverted in from nearby rivers and lakes, and the waste water (primarily sewage) from the city was channeled out to far-away water bodies. These aqueducts later formed the technical base for the invention and use of artificial canals and piped-water supply.
The Romans brought in the concept of building domes – a spacious and inexpensive alternative to the tedious number of columns needed to support a heavy roof. The Romans also discovered concrete – a faster drying and waterproof material than the concrete used earlier. The traditional concrete mix of limestone and sand was mixed with pozzolana (a form of ash-sand material found near volcanoes). This new mix was stronger, more reliable, cemented quickly, and could be molded into any shape required.
Another important achievement of the Romans is the construction roads. The Romans built their highways using a base of heavy stones and covered it with gravel and/or mud, which helped the drainage process. At the peak of their reign, the Romans had built over 50,000 miles of highways; some of which are still in use as they were centuries ago. They constructed their highways and roads with the sole purpose of longevity. Modern-day United States has a little under 50,000 miles of highway which are built using a mix of concrete pavement and asphalt, and require regular maintenance and upgrade. The Romans believed in forcing their way through nature, instead of building around it. This led to the ‘invention’ of digging tunnels for roadways.
They brought into practice a universally-defined width for roads. These roads were used for vehicular (carts, carriages, etc.) and pedestrian traffic. In fact, it is often believed that Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, had as much pedestrian, cart and carriage traffic as modern-day Manhattan would, at say, seven in the morning. Most of these roads were paved (main city), some were rubbled (city and suburbs), some were properly lined with sand (generally country side), gravel or mud, while a few others were corduroy roads. Corduroy roads were constructed mostly on swampy and marshy land, with a log of timber and sand covering. Robustly-constructed and well-maintained roads connected all the major cities of the Roman empire to Rome.
The Romans built a complicated but efficient mesh of sewers. While public sewage system was around for a while, around 100 AD, the Roman administrators started connecting this system to private in-home latrines. These sewers were constructed using stone pipes, which kept any sort of leakage or smell away from public discourse, despite being around them. They were also the first ones to build what is today known as the public toilet system. Public urinals and latrines were constructed, and a tax for using them was levied, which in turn was used for their cleaning and upkeep.
The biggest achievement of Roman engineering was bridges. They constructed extra-ordinarily beautiful bridges, some of which have become major tourist attractions in modern-day Italy and Spain. Like ducts and domes, the Romans did not invent arches, they just realized their enormous potential, brought them into daily usage, and perfected the technique of constructing them.
Architecture begins where engineering ends. — Walter Gropius, famous German architect
It is not for nothing that it is said “Rome was not built in a day.” It clearly took years of brainstorming and planning to make the city the most visitable brand. Roman architectural grandiose did not stay limited to Rome. It expanded to Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, and even England. Come to think of it, Roman architecture wasn’t entirely original. The Romans combined their aesthetics with those of their neighbors – the Greeks and Etruscans, to form a completely new style of architecture, which has come to be known as ‘Ancient Roman Architecture’.
At the turn of the Roman calendar from BC to AD, under Augustus, the Romans prospered and saw little or no military action. This helped their wealth grow, which resulted in many public buildings with spacious interiors and aesthetic exteriors being built – amphitheaters, theaters, stadiums, public spas, and city squares (known as piazzas or plazas in Spain).
The Colosseum, built between 72 AD – 80 AD, is often considered as the finest manifestation of the enormity of Roman architectural mindset. It was used for gladiatorial battles and other public events.
Temples, used for religious and sacred ceremonies, were built with Greek influence all over them. Cathedrals and Basilicas were built in a similar fashion. Trajan’s Market in Rome was a five-storied complex of houses, shops, and eating spots, that resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Modern-day villas and mansions are an offshoot of ancient Roman houses.
While the base building material for most of these historic structures was concrete, it was later covered with marble for a wonderful looking exterior. The Romans popularized the use of Mosaic tiles and glass windows within thin wooden frames for support. Spiral stairs, so popularly used in villas and luxury homes, were first used during the Roman empire. Roman-style architecture is still used to design homes to represent wealth, luxury, and grandeur.
SCIENCE AND POPULAR CULTURE
It is not, indeed, strange that the Greeks and Romans should not have carried … any … experimental science, so far as it has been carried in our time; for the experimental sciences are generally in a state of progression. They were better understood in the seventeenth century than in the sixteenth, and in the eighteenth century than in the seventeenth. — Lord Thomas Macaulay
If you are reading this article and it makes any sense to you, thank the Romans. They invented the Roman alphabets which form the very core of the English language, which is spoken, read, and understood by more than half the global population at present. The Roman alphabets were based on the Latin language, and were somewhat derived from Greek alphabets. They also invented the use of Roman numerals such as I, II, III, etc., and while these numerals are of no use for scientific mathematics, they were simple for counting, and hence widely used.
The months of the Roman calendar were named after Roman Gods and other religious symbols, which have now popularly come to be known as January, February, March … December. Even the days of the week used globally as part of the English language were coined by the Romans.
The Romans also popularized, if not invented, the use of hydraulics. Water, as a source of energy was unheard of, when the Romans decided to generate mechanical power using water. They also used water-pumping methods for quicker water flow through the aqueducts. Mechanical science and hydraulics were combined to invent showers. Showers were installed in public bathrooms, since they took up lesser space than a bathtub, and were easy and quick to use.
While engineering and technology was nurtured and prospered, science more or less took a backseat since the Romans did not pursue it as diligently as they did with buildings and artistic fields. Of what the Romans did undertake, they left behind an indelible mark. Although, it can be safely said that the Romans let the Greeks dominate the fields of science and education, while they focused on engineering megastructures.
LAW AND GOVERNANCE
Civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher
The ancient Romans formulated many of the laws that most countries use even today. Roman laws were applicable to all Romans, irrespective of their position in society. The laws were written on metal tables and were organized into twelve sections. Therefore, they were known as ‘The Twelve Tables’. These tables were displayed at various Roman forums or meeting places in all the Roman cities. Here are a few laws that were in use during the ancient Roman civilization:
- A law that is used by many countries even today – ‘A person is innocent until proven guilty’.
- If you are issued a summons from the court, you are expected to attend the court proceedings. Else, you could be taken by force to court.
- Capital punishment would be imposed on a person found guilty of giving false witness.
- No one is allowed to hold meetings after nightfall.
Strict implementation and adherence of such and many other laws led to efficient governance and ethical public discourse. Any individual (official Roman citizen or a non-citizen) found violating the rules was subject to varying jail terms, torturing, or even capital punishment under Roman laws. The Romans came up with the method of crucifixion as a form of painful punishment.
The Roman administration came up with the idea of keeping a tab on the number of citizens under its empire, and their personal and professional details for better governance and implementation of laws. This process was carried out by an authority called the ‘censor’, who was responsible for listing, updating, and maintaining the census. This method is still considered the final word for population and related stats around the world today.
ARTS AND LITERATURE
Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature. — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher
The official language of the Roman army and government officials was Latin. While Latin is still widely spoken, other major languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Rumanian, and French were derived from Latin. A vast number of English words and phrases are based on the ancient Latin language. Latin is the language used by the Catholic Church in the Vatican, and the Pope is known as Pontifex Maximus.
The Romans developed the alphabets that are widely used in all European languages, including English. Ancient Romans gave importance to education and sent their children to school. Since no gender-discrimination was made when it came to education, the ancient Roman empire witnessed the emergence of many male as well as female littérateurs. 81 BC to 17 AD is often considered to be the ‘purple patch’ of Latin literature under the Romans. Poets such as Quintus Ennius, Gnaeus Naevius, and Marcus Pacuvius blossomed during this era. Comic plays by Plautus and Terence are still adapted for stage shows throughout Europe and North America.
The Romans popularized the landscaping form of painting. While nascent forms of landscape art were always around, the Romans re-invented it their own way, and popularized it in such a manner that it took even the artist class outside the Roman empire by storm. The beauty of Scandinavian landscapes (back then part of the Roman empire) provided the Romans with great landscape references. They also popularized still-life paintings and portraits.
Roman architecture, as beautiful as it is, is also helped greatly by the excellent sculpting in and around it. While the Romans learned sculpting from the Greeks, and also borrowed heavily from their style, the widespread use of sculptures in public places by them was unmatched. Many statues and bust constructions continue to be must-visit spectacles in modern-day Europe.
The Romans also practiced pottery on a large scale, but it was never practiced as an art form. Pottery was less of an art form, more of a commercial skill. Potters who made earthen pots were skilled laborers who sold their wares to the public for everyday use. Some of these pots were painted and decorated. The paintings and decoration on these pots was done by artists, though.
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls – the World. — Lord Byron, Anglo-Scottish poet
It is hard to put a finger on a single reason as to when, why, and how such a large empire with near-perfect administration, engineering skills, and life science abilities began to dwindle, but many prominent historians point out to religious differences as one of the chief factors.
Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor to embrace and practice Christianity, legalized the worship of the Roman gods. However, there were constant clashes between the clans who practiced Christianity and those who worshiped Roman gods. Hence, many historians opine that one of the causes of the downfall of the Roman Empire was the lack of religious unity.