The Triumphs and Failures of Ancient Technology

Noria Waterwheel / Wikimedia Commons

The fundamental processes of agriculture, pottery making, and cloth making, plus language, fire making, tools, and the wheel, all came out of the Stone Ages, before recorded history began.


By Frances and Joseph Gies
Medieval Historians

NEARLY EVERYTHING THAT SIXTH-CENTURY Europe knew about technology came to it from Rome. Rome, however, invented few of the tools and processes it bequeathed to the Middle Ages. Roman civilization achieved a high level of culture and sophistication and left many monuments, but most of its technology was inherited from the Stone, Bronze, and early Iron Ages.

From the long Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age came the tools and techniques that separated humankind forever from the animal world: language, fire making, hunting weapons and methods, domestication of animals. From the short Neolithic (New Stone) Age, beginning about 8000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, came agriculture and its tools—plow, sickle, ax, and mortar and pestle or stone grain crusher. The wheel and axle appeared in Mesopotamia between 3000 and 4000 B.C. The arts of cloth making were invented: felting, matting fibers together by boiling and beating to produce a nonwoven fabric; spinning, drawing out fibers of flax or wool and twisting them into a continuous strand, usually by means of a spindle; weaving, interlacing threads with the aid of a loom; fulling, soaking and beating cloth to remove grease; and dyeing. Raw hides were converted into leather by scraping and soaking with tannin, derived from oak bark. The important art of pottery making first modeled clay with fingers and thumb, then coiled strands of clay, and finally shaped its work with the potter’s wheel, invented about 3000 B.C.

Copper, sometimes found in a free metallic state, was used by Neolithic man as a substitute for stone, wood, and bone long before the addition of a small amount of tin, probably by accident (c. 3500 B.C.), created the superior alloy bronze. The brief Bronze Age that followed overlapped the Neolithic Age at one end and the longer (still going on) Iron Age at the other. The two metal ages constitute not so much historical periods as stages in technological evolution that took place over different times in different places. The Bronze Age never occurred in pre-Columbian America, where accessible tin was lacking. In the Near East copper continued to be widely used, but the harder yet malleable bronze made better tools and especially better weapons, including the arms and armor of Homer’s heroes. Besides its hardness, bronze had a low melting point that permitted casting in molds.

As the Bronze Age introduced “the first great technical civilizations” (Bertrand Gille),1 the long, unrecorded life of the Stone Ages gave way to written history (including much written in the archaeological record). Civilized communities grew up in widely separated places, with little contact, or no contact at all, with each other. To the Roman and early medieval European worlds, societies in Africa, southeast Asia, Oceania, and America remained totally invisible. Even China and India, whose civilizations rivaled or surpassed those of the West, were scarcely glimpsed across the barrier of geographical distance. Only the civilizations that grew up on the banks of the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile connected closely with their successor Greco-Roman societies and so contributed significantly to the Roman legacy to medieval Europe.

Besides inventing writing (in the form of the ideograph), the peoples of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians) and the Egyptians of the Nile pioneered astronomy, mathematics, and engineering. Their river-dependent agriculture inspired the first dams and canals, and the first water-lifting device, the shaduf or swape (c. 3000 B.C.), a counterweighted lever with a bucket on one end. Cultivation of grape and olive stimulated the invention about 1500 B.C. of the beam press, worked by a lever. Fermentation, discovered by the Egyptians, converted grape juice into wine and cereal into bread or beer; the rotary quern, invented about 1000 B.C., speeded the universal daily labor of milling. Techniques of food preservation—drying, salting, smoking—were invented (or more likely discovered). Cloth makers invented the vertical loom described by Homer, the “great loom standing in the hall” with “the fine warp of some vast fabric on it,” in Penelope’s artfully unfinished task.2 Cities built the first water-supply and drainage systems; street paving was pioneered in Babylon and road paving in Crete.3 Egypt and Babylon produced the first clock to supplement the ancient sundial: the clepsydra, or water clock, a vessel out of which water ran slowly, with graduated marks to indicate the passage of hours as it emptied. It operated at first with mediocre accuracy, since as the water diminished the flow slackened.4

Like bronze, iron came on the scene by accident. Because iron has a higher melting point than copper, it could not easily be separated from its ore but had to be hammered loose. Even then it found little use for a thousand years after its first discovery (c. 2500B.C.), until smiths in the Armenian mountains near the Black Sea found that repeated heatings and hammerings in a charcoal fire hardened it.5 In the Iliad, weapons are made of bronze, tools of iron, “the democratic metal.”6

The irrigation civilizations of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates built temples, palaces, obelisks, and tombs, the Egyptians of the early dynasties (third millennium B.C.) employing copper tools, ramps, levers, and guy ropes, but neither pulley nor wheel. The massive blocks of stone that formed the Pyramids were hauled on boards greased with animal fat and raised to the upper courses by means of earthen ramps, afterward removed. While the Mesopotamians made some use of the arch to support their roofs, Egypt and Greece relied on the post and lintel (two vertical columns joined at the top by a horizontal member). Pericles’ Athens borrowed Egyptian stonemasonry techniques, such as the assembling of columns out of stacks of drums, while strengthening their structures with metal strips, pins, and clamps. The beams that held up the ceiling of the Propylaea on the Acropolis (440–430 B.C.) were reinforced with iron bars, the first use of metal structural members in building construction. Mesopotamia, poor in wood and stone, invented brick making, first with sun-dried brick in Sumer (before 3000 B.C.), later with kiln-dried brick in Babylon.7

The horse was tamed by at least the eleventh century B.C.,8 but the absence of saddle and stirrups limited its military value, while the problem of harness reduced its role as a draft animal. The throat-and-girth harness that suited the configuration of the ox choked the horse, which could consequently pull only light loads, such as the two-wheeled war chariot of the Iliad. At the same time, lack of a firm saddle handicapped pack animals.

While land transportation hardly progressed between Neolithic and Roman times, water transportation made a great leap forward. By 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians, the master mariners of the ancient world, were building ships with stempost, sternpost, and skeleton of ribs that reinforced hull planking fitted edge to edge and joined by mortise and tenon—in a word, modern construction.9 Homer, writing in the seventh or eighth century B.C., depicted Odysseus single-handedly building the boat that carried him from Calypso’s isle, boring his timbers with an auger and fastening them together with wooden dowels.10

Ships used both sail and oar. The early Egyptians paddled facing forward; the oar, a less obvious device than the paddle, turned the crew around and faced them backward. The sail may also have been born on the Nile, where prevailing winds conveniently blow in the direction opposite to the current; Egyptians sailed up and floated down their great river. The single sail (cotton, linen, or Egyptian papyrus) was square, rigged at right angles to the hull. Steering was done with a large oar mounted on one side near the stern. Navigation was by sun and stars and the unaided eye, and by dead reckoning: a rough calculation of the ship’s speed, course, and drift. With such ships and techniques, the Phoenicians (“greedy knaves,” according to the Odyssey)11 not only sailed and rowed from their homeland (roughly modern Lebanon) the length and breadth of the Mediterranean but ventured into the Atlantic after British tin.

Needing written records and communications, Phoenician mariner-merchants invented one of the alphabets (as opposed to ideographs) of the ancient world, the one that passed, with variations, to the Greeks, thence to the Romans, and so to medieval Europe. Its spread was assisted by the advent of the second of the world’s three great writing materials, parchment, the dried, stretched, and shaved hide of sheep, goats, and calves, smoother and more durable than Egypt’s reed-derived papyrus. Parchment received its final improvement in the second century B.C. in Greek Pergamum (whence the name “parchment”), in the form of slaking in lime for several days. Both sides of the resulting material could be written on and the leaves bound into a book (codex), more convenient than the ancient scroll.

Most of the military history of the ancient world is irrelevant to the record of humanity’s progress, but the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century B.C. had the significant effect of promoting the “Hellenization” (Hellas: Greece) of the whole Near East and eastern Mediterranean. The succeeding age is famous for its philosophers, mathematicians, and natural scientists, headed by Alexander’s own tutor, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.). Although Aristotle shared the prejudice of his master Plato against the arts and crafts, among the works attributed to him or (more recently) to his pupil Strato is Mechanics, the world’s first engineering text. Mechanics contains the earliest mention of multiple pulleys and gear wheels, along with all the simple mechanical-advantage devices except the screw.

Alexander’s eponymous city on the shore of Egypt, Alexandria, came to house the greatest library of learning in the Mediterranean world and to shelter some of the greatest scientists. These included the mathematician Euclid (fl. c. 300), Eratosthenes (c. 276–194 B.C.), who made the first calculation of the earth’s circumference, and the astronomer-geographer Ptolemy (fl. A.D. 127–145). The aim of the dilettante scientists of Hellenistic Greece was “to know, not to do, to understand nature, not to tame her” (M. I. Finley).12 Nevertheless, they made serious contributions to technology as well as to science. Archimedes (c. 287–212 B.C.) discovered the principle of buoyancy and stated that of the lever. Another of the basic machine components, the screw, has been attributed to him but may have existed earlier: in its original form a water-lifting device, a spiral tube inside an inclined cylinder turned by slaves or animals walking a treadmill. Archimedes may also have invented the toothed wheel and gear train, first described in Western writings by him.13

Two other Alexandrians who left evidence of inventive minds and outlooks were Ctesibius (fl. 270 B.C.) and Heron (fl. first century A.D.). Ctesibius discovered the compressibility of air and probably invented the force pump, a pair of cylinders whose pistons were driven by a horizontal bar on a fulcrum between them, alternately forcing the water out of one and drawing it into the other. He also solved the problem of the water clock’s irregularity by providing an overflow outlet that kept the water in the operative vessel at constant depth.14 Heron invented a number of mechanical toys, including a miniature steam engine, creations whose principles would eventually be applied to practical uses but only after the world had passed through several preparatory revolutions.

The Hellenistic Greeks did not invent but gave impetus to the two great “false sciences” of alchemy and astrology, speculative parents of chemistry and astronomy. Both originated in Mesopotamia at a very early date, and both were actively pursued in the Hellenistic age. A late addition to astrological theory, the casting of the individual’s horoscope, had valuable consequences for science, since it demanded an accurate knowledge of the motions of the planets to determine their position at the hour of birth.

Hellenistic astrological interest resulted in the anonymous invention at Alexandria of the astrolabe, “the world’s first scientific instrument.”15 In its original form, the astrolabe (“astro”-“labe,” star-plate) was a wooden disk bearing a map of the heavens, its outer edge marked off in 360 degrees. A pointer pivoted on a central pin could be aimed at the sun or other celestial body to give the altitude above the equator, providing a reasonably accurate indication of the time of day for a given latitude. Conversely, the astrolabe could determine latitude, but no one thought of this possibility for a long time.

Astrology passed from the Greeks to the Romans and thence to medieval Europe, while alchemy, disdained by the Romans, reached medieval Europe only at a later date, via the Arabs. But as Roman conquest absorbed the Hellenistic world, an enormous transfer of technology took place, from the Phoenician-Greek alphabet to Archimedes’ screw to masonry construction. Roman technology was strongest where Rome’s predecessors were strongest, weakest in areas which they had neglected or where they had failed.

The Romans inherited most of their agricultural tools and techniques, improving and adding to them. The aratrum, the light plow that worked satisfactorily in the sandy soils of the Mediterranean region, was made more effective by two additions—first, an iron coulter, a vertical blade fixed in front of the plowshare, and, second, a wooden moldboard behind it to turn the soil. The Romans’ engineering approach to agriculture improved irrigation systems and pioneered the systematic application of fertilizer. Although they did little scientific breeding of plants or animals, they increased the numbers of horses and sheep and found a better method of harvesting wool, applying shears in place of the traditional method of plucking during the molting season.16

The grinding of grain received a worthwhile Roman improvement in the transformation of the rotary hand quern into the large donkey- or slave-powered hourglass mill, examples of which are preserved in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. The processing of grape and olive was likewise improved by the adoption of the screw press, a useful new application of Archimedes’ screw with significance for the distant future.17

Roman grain mills in Herculaneum. Grain was poured into an opening in the center of the upper millstone, the flour falling into a trough around the base of the lower stone. A beam inserted through the square holes in the upper millstone served as a handle for turning the stone, either by slaves or donkeys. The mill on the right has lost its upper stone.*

From the Greeks, the Romans received a well-developed mining technology along with the system of operating mines as a government monopoly, relying on slave labor and iron tools: hammer, pick, chisel, wedge. Pillars were left to support headings; niches were cut in the walls to hold oil lamps. Ventilation remained an unsolved problem, conditions of labor miserable.18 To the iron metallurgy they inherited from the Greeks, the Romans added tempering (reheating and cooling), which hardened the metal without making it brittle. To their inherited tool chest they added the carpenter’s plane, which first appears in Roman representations and may have been a Roman invention.19

Handicraft production flourished in the Roman Empire, fostered by larger markets and the growth of an affluent class of city dwellers. The chief industry was the manufacture of wool and linen cloth (Chinese silk and Egyptian cotton were imported luxury fabrics). Women did the spinning and weaving at home or on the great estates, their instruments the ageless spindle and the vertical loom. Finishing—fulling and dyeing—required a capital outlay and therefore passed into the hands of male specialists working in shops.20

Roman potters followed the Greek tradition that had carried the craft to artistic heights, but without improvements in processes or materials. Glass manufacture, however, whose techniques lay somewhere between ceramics and metallurgy, achieved a major innovation: glassblowing, invented in the Roman province of Syria in the first century A.D.21

Fuller’s shop in Pompeii, trough for soaking textiles. Although in antiquity spinning and weaving were domestic industries performed by women, finishing was done by male specialists.

Like Egypt and Greece, the Roman Empire left its most conspicuous achievements in its building construction. Employing engineering technology on a scale never before seen in the Western world, it strewed the Mediterranean littoral and western Europe with bridges, roads, walls, public baths, sewage systems, arenas, forums, markets, triumphal arches, and theaters. Among the most characteristic of Roman ruins are the aqueducts that served the water-supply system of the capital and other cities. Generally they ran in low, open or covered masonry channels or in conduits tunneled through hillsides, but at times they strode across valleys in long, picturesque lines of stone arches. One of the most impressive of Roman relics is the triple-tiered Pont du Gard in southern France, whose two main tiers have stood for two thousand years without the aid of mortar. The Romans possessed an excellent lime mortar but used it only for construction with smaller stones, such as those in the top tier of the Pont du Gard. By mixing their mortar with a sandy volcanic ash, Roman builders produced a hydraulic cement, one that dried to rock hardness underwater. Mixed with sand and gravel, it became waterproof concrete.22

The basic design component of Roman construction was the semicircular arch, converted by extension into the barrel vault, capable of carrying a greater load and spanning a greater breadth than a simple beam. With this strong, enduring, and versatile device the Romans built aqueducts, bridges, baths, and basilicas that stood for centuries. Yet there was a blind spot in the Roman dependence on the semicircular form. As a vault, it placed tremendous weight on the supporting walls, which had to be made thick and nearly windowless. As an arch in a bridge, it required massive piers in the stream, mounted on the always uncertain base of sapling poles driven in the river bottom to “refusal,” that is, as deep as men standing in the water and mud could drive them. Cofferdams (temporary watertight enclosures built in the stream) permitted deeper-driven piles, but the resulting piers remained vulnerable to scour, the abrasive action of the current swirling sand around the pier footings. Scour was itself heightened by the constriction imposed on the current by the many thick piers. Though a number of Roman bridges endured, many fell victim to scour.23

The Pont du Gard, Roman aqueduct spanning the Gard River.

Roman engineering, which learned surveying from the Egyptians, stressed exact measurements and imposed on the Western world the system of weights and measures (inch, foot, mile, pound, amphora) that the Greeks had adapted from the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Babylonians. Besides their monumental public works, the Romans created fine domestic architecture for their wealthy class, by far the largest and richest of the classical world. In the multistoried houses of the crowded capital, they introduced the interior stairway, while in the roomier countryside they built the comfortable and aesthetically pleasing one-story villa, home to provincial government officials and well-to-do private families. From the Roman public baths, the villa borrowed its heating system, the India-originated hypocaust, which circulated hot air under a tile floor.24

The Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome. Semicircular arches required massive piers in the stream. / Photo by Philip Gendreau

One of the most admired Roman engineering works was the vast road network, begun under the Republic and by the third century A.D. comprising 44,000 miles of thickly layered, well-drained, durable roadway, grouted with concrete and topped with gravel, or, in the vicinity of cities, surfaced with flagstones laid in mortar. Typically the road ran straight as an arrow, favoring ridges over valleys and accepting steep grades rather than deviating from the most direct route. Tunneling through rock was done only when unavoidable, employing the Greek method of heating the rock face by building a bonfire, then cracking it by splashing water against it, a technique not improved on until the introduction of explosives.25

The preference for straight over level in roads reflected the priority of military use—marching men—over commercial—wagons and pack animals. Land transport remained difficult and expensive, the cost even rising in the late Empire, handicapping economic development.


Paved street in Pompeii

Shipping by sea was far cheaper, even though few innovations in shipbuilding or navigation were introduced. A long-standing division of ships into two types, “long” and “round,” gained sharp definition. Long ships (galleys) were oar propelled, had little cargo space in their narrow hulls, and were employed mainly for war. Round ships were sail powered, deep hulled, clumsy to maneuver, but strong and comparatively durable. Roman shipbuilders followed the Greeks and Phoenicians in laying their planks edge to edge and in building the shell first, inserting the skeleton of ribs afterward, and securing the mortise-and-tenon joints by wooden pegs held by iron nails, making seams so watertight that no caulking was needed. The steering oar was retained, more firmly secured by a boxlike structure that functioned like an oarlock.26

The largest navigational problem came in tacking against the wind, which involved sailing a series of zigzags while taking the wind at an angle to the ship’s course. A valuable aid of undetermined origin appeared in the Mediterranean as early as the first centuryA.D. in the form of the lateen sail, a triangular fore-and-aft sail capable of taking the wind on either surface. Shifting it, however, was a difficult task, made more difficult by increasing size, and throughout the Roman era the lateen appeared only on small craft.27

Roman merchant ship, square sailed, deep hulled, maneuvered by steering oar / Science Museum, London

Manmade harbor works had been pioneered by the Greeks in the mole at Delos of the eighth century B.C. Roman construction technology multiplied port facilities and lighthouses (copied from the famous Pharos of Alexandria) all around the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast, where sturdy Roman masonry structures kept beacon fires burning into the Middle Ages.

Notwithstanding their impressive military history, the Romans were not very innovative in equipping their armed forces. The thirty-plus legions who manned the defense perimeter of the vast Empire wore and carried more metal than any army ever had before, but neither arms nor armor offered anything new. The legions’ siege artillery was the torsion-powered catapult long used by the Greeks. Its commonest form employed a pair of springs made of bundles of animal sinew, stretched tight and given a twist, to supply power to a giant bowstring.28 Otherwise the Romans generally disdained the bow, sometimes to their disadvantage. In war as in building construction, organization was the Romans’ strong suit. Their echeloned table of organization—legion, cohort, and century—continued unmatched as a command-control system until modern times. So did the legions’ unrivaled engineering capability, permitting swift construction of camps, fortifications, roads, and bridges.

Not quite all the technology of the Roman Empire was drawn from the ancient Egyptians, the Near East, and the Greeks. From Gaul in the fourth century A.D. came a long-needed improvement in the processing of the harvest, the jointed flail, created by hinging two sticks together to produce a threshing device much handier than a single stick or the tramp of animals’ hooves.29 Gaulish agriculture also invented an astonishing piece of farm machinery, a mechanical harvester, described by Pliny (A.D. 23–79) as “an enormous box with teeth, supported on two wheels.” The machine was still in use in the fourth century A.D., when Palladius left a description that much later, in the 1830s, inspired “Ridley’s stripper,” an Australian invention.30 The original harvester disappeared in the early twilight of the Middle Ages. The Gauls were also the source of a form of soap made from fats boiled with natural soda (Romans did not use soap).31

Other borrowed technology came from the “barbarians,” the epithet under which the Romans (like Gibbon) lumped the immigrants from the north and east who entered the Empire in various ways, peaceable or otherwise, starting in the second centuryA.D.Though the Germanic intruders lacked such southern refinements as written language and masonry construction, they brought to the Roman world several important innovations including, surprisingly enough, a better grade of metal for weapons. By hardening the surfaces of several thin strips of iron, then welding a bundle of them together, their smiths could achieve an exceptionally hard and durable blade. The operation was chancy, however, and such layered “steel” weapons were costly rarities.32

The Germanic peoples also introduced a non-Mediterranean style of clothing that included furs, stockings, trousers, and laced boots, along with the idea of sewing a garment together from a number of separate pieces—in short, modern Western-style clothing and manufacturing technique.33 Another barbarian contribution, the wooden barrel, began by the first century B.C. to replace fragile clay amphorae and leaky animal skins for transporting oil, wine, and beer.34

Despite their engineering skills and talent for creative borrowing, the Romans were technologically handicapped by two momentous failures in the exploitation of power. The first was the shortcoming of the horse harness, unimproved since the Bronze Age. In China, by at least the second century B.C., horses were pulling against a breast strap that allowed them to breathe freely, while the presence there of the even more efficient collar harness was attested pictorially a century later.35 Yet the Greeks and Romans hit upon neither device. Harnessing in tandem, turning sharply, suspension, and lubrication provided subsidiary problems in vehicular transportation. “The ancient harness…enlisted only in feeble measure the strength of each animal, foiling collective effort, and consequently providing only a trifling output” (Lefebvre des Noëttes).36

The second failure was in the exploitation of an invention of capital importance, the waterwheel. The Romans did not overlook the waterwheel entirely, but they failed to realize its potential.

The early history of this invention—or inventions, the vertical and horizontal wheels probably having separate origins—is obscure and controversial. The horizontal waterwheel, now believed to have originated in the mountains of Armenia about 200B.C., seems to have developed directly from the rotary quern. It consisted of a paddle-armed wheel either laid horizontally in the stream with one side masked against the current or furnished with a chute to guide the flow. Suited to streams with a small volume of water and moderate current, it could be readily harnessed to a grain mill by extending the vertical axle upward to a rotating millstone. Simple and cheap to build, it diffused rapidly.37

Mill powered by horizontal waterwheel. A chute delivers water to one side of wheel.

The more high-powered vertical wheel evidently derived from a water-lifting device called the “noria,” invented in either Persia or India. In its original form, the noria was a large vertical wheel, its circumference armed with buckets, that was turned by oxen circling a capstan or walking a treadmill.38 But when the noria was mounted in a rapidly flowing stream, the current sufficed to turn the wheel, suggesting the possibility of using it to grind grain. The horizontal axle was extended to turn a pair of gear wheels at right angles to each other, the second of which was made to turn a millstone set above or below it.

Mill powered by vertical waterwheel

The first description of a waterwheel that can be definitely identified as vertical is that of Vitruvius, an engineer of the Augustan Age (31 B.C.–A.D. 14), who composed a ten-volume treatise on all aspects of Roman engineering. Vitruvius expressed enthusiasm for the device but remarked that it was among “machines which are rarely employed.”39 The wheel he described was “undershot,” that is, the lower part was immersed in the stream so that the current turned it in a reverse direction.

The undershot wheel typically achieved an efficiency of 15 to 30 percent, adequate for milling. For more demanding tasks, a superior design was the overshot wheel. In this arrangement the stream was channeled by a millrace or chute to the top of the wheel, bringing the full weight of the water to bear, with a resulting efficiency of 50 to 70 percent.40 Because it required dam, millrace, sluice gates, and tailrace as well as gearing, the overshot wheel had a high initial cost. Consequently, large landowners and even the Roman state were reluctant to build it. Few water-powered mills of any type were built outside the cities, though a remarkable complex at Barbegal, near Arles, in southern France, has been identified from ruins. Dating from the fourth century A.D., it consisted of eight overshot wheels, each turning a pair of millstones, with a total capacity of three tons of grain per hour. A tantalizing reference to a waterwheel employed to cut and polish marble also dates from the fourth century, in a passage of the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (c. 310–c. 395). This is the solitary reference in any text to a Roman application of waterpower for a purpose other than grinding grain, and its authenticity has been questioned.41

What may be said with assurance is that water mills remained scarce in the late Roman Empire, vertical wheels scarcer, the more efficient overshot type scarcer yet, and non-milling applications barely, if at all, existent. To the Empire’s end the two great power sources were men and animals, and the animal power was severely handicapped by the want of a good horse harness.

Besides these two technological failures, the Romans may be found guilty of two failures in other realms that exercised large influence on technology: theoretical science and economics. In science, where the Greek elite favored knowing over doing, the Roman educated class did the opposite, emphasizing doing at the expense of knowing. They took so little interest in Greek science and philosophy that they never bothered to translate Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and other Greek savants into Latin. The consequence was that the intellectual class of medieval Europe, inheriting Latin as its lingua franca, for six centuries remained unaware, or hardly aware, that the Greek classics existed—perhaps the strangest hiatus in the history of Western culture.

The eclipse of Greek learning was not quite total. A few Roman writers, such as Pliny and Boethius, knew their Aristotle. Some, too, made their own original scientific contributions. Out of his personal experience, Columella (fl. first century A.D.) supplied a guide to scientific farming, De re rustica (On rural management), while Vitruvius, the architect-engineer, drew on both his own firsthand knowledge and Greek sources in his massive work. But for the most part theoretical science was underemployed by the Romans in dealing with technical problems. One explanation that has been offered blames the rhetoric-based Roman education system, which in emphasizing composition, grammar, and logical expression rather than knowledge of nature reflected what Lynn White called “the anti-technological attitudes of the ruling class.”42 An outstanding product of that system, the philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.A.D. 65) seemed to sense the Roman shortcoming when he wrote, “The day will come when posterity will be amazed that we remained ignorant of things that will to them seem so plain.”43

The final Roman weakness bearing on the history of technology was in the realm of economics. The imposing political and military facade of Imperial Rome masked a chronically impoverished and largely stagnant peasant economy. The great landowners, who relied on slave gangs—whipped, branded, and shackled—to work their plantations (latifundia),44 had little incentive to explore labor-saving technology, nor were their slaves potential customers who might stimulate investment of capital in enterprises such as grist mills.

While the Imperial government grew to dimensions dwarfing anything seen previously, at least in the West, the Roman private economic sector remained stunted. The Mediterranean port cities sustained an active commercial life, but the scale was small and the business technology primitive, lacking credit instruments, negotiable paper, and long-term partnerships. The only capital resource available on a large scale belonged to the government, which spent generously on roads, public buildings, water supply, and other civic amenities but contributed little to industrial and agricultural production. Private wealth was either squandered on consumption or immobilized in land rather than invested in enterprise.45

The Roman economy, in short, was weak in the dynamics that make for the creation and diffusion of technological innovation. The succeeding age, developing different social and economic structures, created a new environment more congenial to technology.

Europe, A.D. 500

The fundamental processes of agriculture, pottery making, and cloth making, plus language, fire making, tools, and the wheel, all came out of the Stone Ages, before recorded history began. Metallurgy, writing, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, grape and olive cultivation, food preservation, shipbuilding, and cities were products of the early historic civilizations that flourished in the Near East and Egypt (and in China and India) long before Greece and Rome came on the scene. The two great classical societies in fact “together added little to the world’s store of technical knowledge and equipment,” as M. I. Finley has noted, citing “a handful of specifics,” including gears, the screw, the screw press, glassblowing, concrete, the torsion catapult, automata, and the invention but scanty diffusion of the waterwheel, “not very much for a great civilization over fifteen hundred years.”46

Nevertheless, Greece and Rome improved on much of the technology they borrowed, and Rome vastly expanded its application. Borrowing technology is a highly worthwhile activity, often leading to further advances that the lending civilization fails to achieve. The new Europe that succeeded the Roman Empire profited from Rome’s assiduous borrowing and synthesizing, and launched its own career of doing much the same.


1. Bertrand Gille, ed., The History of Techniques, vol. I, Techniques and Civilizations, New York, 1986 (originally pub. in 1978 as Histoire des techniques), p. 147.

2. Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, New York, 1961, bk. 2, lines 94–95.

3. Jean Deshayes, “Greek Technology,” in Maurice Daumas, ed., A History of Technology and Invention: Progress Through the Ages, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy, New York, 1970 (henceforth referred to as Daumas), vol. I, pp. 187, 196; R. J. Forbes and E. J. Dijksterhuis, A History of Science and Technology, vol. I, Ancient Times to the Seventeenth Century, Harmondsworth, 1963 (henceforth referred to as Forbes and Dijksterhuis), pp. 67–68; L. Sprague de Camp, The Ancient Engineers, New York, 1963, pp. 70–71.

4. De Camp, Ancient Engineers, p. 141.

5. T. K. Derry and Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology from the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900, Oxford, 1960 (henceforth referred to as Derry and Williams), pp. 120–21; Georges Contenau, “Mesopotamia and the Neighboring Countries,” in Daumas, I, p. 136.

6. Forbes and Dijksterhuis, p. 72.

7. De Camp, Ancient Engineers, pp. 39–40, 43, 92, 93; B. Gille, History of Techniques, I, pp. 257–58.

8. B. Gille, History of Techniques, I, p. 264.

9. T. C. Lethbridge, “Shipbuilding,” in Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams, eds., A History of Technology, Oxford, 1954–1959, 1978 (henceforth referred to as Singer), vol. II, The Mediterranean Civilizations and the Middle Ages, 700 B.C. to A.D. 1500, p. 564.

10. Homer, Odyssey, bk. 5, lines 244–51.

11. Homer, Odyssey, bk. 15, line 403, cited in Sabatino Moscati, The World of the Phoenicians, New York, 1965, p. 87.

12. M. I. Finley, “Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 18 (1965), p. 32.

13. Deshayes, “Greek Technology,” in Daumas, I, p. 191; J. G. Landels, Engineering in the Ancient World, Berkeley, Calif., 1978, p. 59; Donald Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, La Salle, III., 1984, pp. 132–33, citing A. G. Drachmann, The Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity, Madison, Wis., 1963, p. 154.

14. Landels, Engineering, p. 76; Abbott Payson Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions, Boston, 1959 (first pub. in 1929), pp. 134–36.

15. A. J. Turner, Astrolabes; Astrolabe-Related Instruments, Rockford, Ill., 1985; J. D. North, “The Astrolabe,” Scientific American 230 (1974), pp. 96–106. A far more complex device dating from the first century B.C. was found off the island of Antikythera early in the twentieth century and identified by Derek de Solla Price as an elaborate astronomical calendar. Price pointed out that the device exploded the myth that the Greeks were weak in technology: “The technology was there…It has just not survived like the great marble buildings and the constantly recopied literary works.” (Derek de Solla Price, Science Since Babylon, New Haven, 1976, p. 48.)

16. Paul-Marie Duval, “The Roman Contribution to Technology,” in Daumas, I, pp. 245–46; E. M. Jope, “Agricultural Implements,” in Singer, II, p. 86; R. Z. Patterson, “Spinning and Weaving,” in Singer, II, p. 193.

17. De Camp, Ancient Engineers, p. 227; Landels, Engineering, p. 15; R. J. Forbes, “Food and Drink,” in Singer, II, p. 117; Deshayes, “Greek Technology,” in Daumas, I, p. 211; Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, pp. 245–46.

18. Derry and Williams, pp. 123–24; Deshayes, “Greek Technology,” in Daumas, I, pp. 198–99; C. N. Bromehead, “Mining and Quarrying to the Seventeenth Century,” in Singer, II, pp. 3–7.

19. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, pp. 242–43.

20. J. P. Wild, Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces, Cambridge, 1970, pp. 35–36, 61–72.

21. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, p. 232.

22. Ibid., pp. 219, 226; R. J. Forbes, “Hydraulic Engineering and Sanitation,” in Singer, II, pp. 670–71.

23. Joseph Gies, Bridges and Men, New York, 1963, pp. 8–11.

24. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, pp. 247, 223, 228–29.

25. Ibid., p. 224; R. G. Goodchild, “Roads and Land Travel, with a Section on Harbours, Docks, and Lighthouses,” in Singer, II, pp. 500–514.

26. Landels, Engineering, pp. 136–42; Lionel Casson, “Odysseus’ Boat (Od. V, 244–57),” American Journal of Philology 85 (1964), pp. 86–90; Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, pp. 238–39; Derry and Williams, p. 197.

27. Landels, Engineering, pp. 157–58; Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays, Berkeley, Calif., 1978, pp. 255–60. Lionel Casson lists five types of ancient fore-and-aft sail: the triangular lateen of the Mediterranean; the quadrilateral (“Arab”) lateen; the spritsail; the gaff-headed sail; the lugsail. All were apparently limited to small craft. (Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Princeton, N.J., 1971, p. 243.)

28. Landels, Engineering, pp. 107–9.

29. Derry and Williams, p. 58.

30. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, p. 245.

31. Finley, “Technical Innovation,” p. 30; Forbes and Dijksterhuis, p. 81.

32. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, pp. 251–52; B. Gille, History of Techniques, I, pp. 427–28.

33. Duval, “Roman Contribution,” in Daumas, I, p. 254.

34. Derry and Williams, p. 61; Kenneth Kilby, The Cooper and His Trade, London, 1971, p. 95.

35. Needham, Science and Civilization, vol. IV, pt. 2, pp. 318–19.

36. Lefebvre des Noëttes, L’Attelage et le cheval de selle, p. 5.

37. Terry S. Reynolds, Stronger Than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel, Baltimore, 1983, p. 14; Derry and Williams, pp. 250–52; R. J. Forbes, “Power,” in Singer, II, pp. 590–600; André Haudricourt and Maurice Daumas, “The First Stages in the Utilization of Natural Power,” in Daumas, I, pp. 108–9.

38. Derry and Williams, p. 32.

39. Vitruvius, De architectura, 10.1.6, cited in T. Reynolds, Stronger Than a Hundred Men, p. 30.

40. T. Reynolds, Stronger Than a Hundred Men, p. 11.

41. Forbes and Dijksterhuis, p. 76; T. Reynolds, Stronger Than a Hundred Men, p. 31.

42. White, Medieval Religion and Technology, p. 225.

43. Seneca, On Mercy, VII, 25, 2–4, cited in De Camp, Ancient Engineers, p. 254.

44. William D. Phillips, Jr., Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade, Minneapolis, 1985, pp. 22–23.

45. Finley, “Technical Innovation,” p. 37.

46. Ibid., p. 29.

From Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies (Harper Perennial, 01.06.1995), published by Erenow, public open access.