16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world

The technologically-advanced ancient Roman Empire has a rich history of inventions, some of which are still used today.
Kashyap Vyas
Colosseum in Rome, Italy - April 2007Diliff/Wikimedia

The Roman Empire is considered one of the most influential civilizations ever. From the Colosseum to aqueducts, the impact of the Roman Empire is incalculable today. So many parts of our modern world, especially in Europe (and their former colonies) and parts of the Middle East, can be traced back to this ancient civilization.

Apart from the more obvious things, like Roman law and the spread of Christianity, 16 ancient Roman inventions still impact today.

1. Roman numerals are still used today

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
Roman numerals are still a common sight today.

Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome but survived for some uses after the end of the Roman Empire. Seven fundamental symbols from the Latin alphabet are used in the number system: I, V, X, L, C, D, and M, representing 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 respectively.

Between 900 and 800 B.C., the symbols' earliest applications started to appear. The need for a universal counting system, crucial to trade and communication, gave rise to these now-immortal numerals.

Some practical examples can be seen at the entrances to the Roman Colosseum (more accurately, the Flavian Amphitheater), which are labeled with Roman numerals – XXIII (23, or 10+10+1+1+1) to LIIII (54, or 50+1+1+1+1). 

Starting in the 14th century, Roman numerals began to be replaced by Arabic numerals, which benefitted from the zero, making them much more helpful for arithmetic and counting. Still, Roman numerals are seen today — most often on clock faces or representing years in architecture, pagination for books, dating of films, etc.

2. The newspaper is, sort of, a Roman invention

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
A possible Acta from the 5th century commissioned by Roman Consul Decius Marius Venantius Basilius in the Colosseum in Rome.

While Romans cannot be credited with creating a modern system of daily paper newspapers, they did have something similar. They often inscribed news of current affairs on stones, papyri, or metal slabs, which were placed in public spaces. 

This publication was called Acta Diurna or 'daily acts' and originated as early as 131 B.C.

This Roman invention had much the same purpose as modern newspapers, giving Roman citizens information about military victories, births and deaths, and even human interest stories. 

The Acta were occasionally copied by scribes and given to regional rulers for information. Each would be taken down from public spaces after a few days and archived for future reference.

Later, emperors used them to advertise court activities and royal or senate decrees. Unfortunately, there are no surviving fully intact copies today. 

3. You can thank the Romans for formalized sanitation

Romans were very knowledgeable when it came to civil engineering. But their talent wasn't limited to building large structures like the Colesseum or roadways. While it may seem less visually impressive, their engineering excellence is highlighted by their sewage and sanitary plumbing systems.

These consisted of a mixture of masonry, early concrete, and in some circumstances, lead piping.

The drainage pipes were connected and flushed regularly, with the water running off streams. Romans also covered gutter systems and public bathrooms, ensuring the streets were clear of human waste. This improved the aesthetics of large population centers and drastically improved public health.

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ability to build and maintain these structures was rapidly lost, with many post-Roman nations in Europe regressing hundreds of years in terms of sanitation. They would only develop similar systems over a thousand years later.

Some systems, like the Cloaca Maxima in Rome, would continue to be used up to the modern day.

4. The Romans loved their arches

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
The Romans invested heavily in arches for many things.

While Romans weren’t the ones who invented the arch, they did develop the architectural arch to allow them to build bridges, large buildings, and better aqueducts. 

The arch directs pressure downwards and outwards, creating a solid passage underneath it that can support heavy structures. This is called compressive stress because the shape of the arch compresses the pressure of the weight. The arch allowed ancient builders to make larger, more complex buildings that could hold more space and people.

The Romans commonly used arches with circular tops, called rounded arches made of stone, and series of rounded arches side by side, called an arcade.

In the first centuries BC, Romans discovered how to use arches to construct bridges, aqueducts, and buildings, expanding infrastructure across the Roman Empire. The Roman arch became a foundational aspect of Western architecture and generated new building systems across Europe.

Other cultures would build on Roman innovations to make more decorative arches following the fall of Rome, like, most notably, Muslim invaders of Spain and Turkey.

5. The Hypocaust was a great innovation

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
View of remains hypocaust, the heating system in the thermae ruins of the ancient Roman Odessos, in the city of Varna.

The hypocaust system was an early underfloor heating that worked similarly to modern-day central or radiant floor heating. These systems distributed heat from an underground fire throughout a space beneath the floor raised by a series of concrete pillars. In addition,

Romans also built flues into the walls, ensuring the heat had a path to warm higher floors and could eventually escape safely through the roof. This was an impressive engineering feat at the time — especially as the risks of poor construction included carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation, or fire hazards.

It's important to note that these systems were expensive and were usually only used in public buildings, large homes owned by wealthy Romans, and in the thermae, or Roman baths, which featured heated floors and walls. 

Today, the technology largely remains unchanged in places like Turkish baths.

6. The Romans mastered aqueducts

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
A well-preserved Roman acqueduct near Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.

Romans built aqueducts to bring fresh water from neighboring sources into their growing cities and towns. While earlier civilizations in Egypt and India also used aqueducts, the Romans truly mastered the technology.

A dream for modern environmentalists, the technology enabled water transport from the source to the point of use using little more than the power of gravity.

The aqueducts were connected to a large water holding area, which would then distribute the water to public baths, fountains, farms, and more. What may seem easy to accomplish today was a remarkable feat of engineering as early as 312 B.C.

These strutures were so well made and designed that many examples of Roman aqueducts still exist today. Some are even still used.

7. The Romans pioneered early medical tools

Romans weren’t just about spears and daggers, they also developed precision medical instruments that influenced many modern-day surgical tools. The design of some tools, such as the vaginal speculum, did not change significantly until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Romans also used tools such as forceps, syringes, scalpels, and bone saws made by specialist manufacturers that resemble their 21st-century equivalents. 

In addition to using these tools in hospitals or medical centers, leaders were intrigued to see how they could help soldiers on the battlefield. Some Roman armies employed a trained chirurgus (a medic trained in surgery) to staunch blood loss, remove arrows, sew up wounds, and administer medicines.

The Romans also created some of the earliest treatises on medical procedures, most notably the work of Galen. His work would prove to be so revolutionary that medical practitioners would use him as a reference for tens of hundreds of years.

8. You can thank the Romans for concrete as well

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
The Pantheon in Rome is an example of Roman concrete construction.

Generally considered a modern invention. concrete has a very long and exciting history. While not technically invented by the Romans, they improved upon older techniques to make an incredibly versatile and robust building material.

The Romans also used it far and wide within the Roman Empire and played a vital role in its development to the modern day.

Using a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, and seawater, they developed a mix that they used to add structural integrity to their buildings. Clearly, they did something right, as many of their buildings still stand today.

In fact, some types of Roman concrete could be set underwater.

9. Romans were famed, rightly, for their roads

All roads may lead to Rome, but all roads aren't created equally.

Romans built roads that weren’t just a mix of gravel and rocks. The Romans used a combination of dirt and gravel with bricks made from hardened volcanic lava or granite, making the roads immensely strong no matter the weather.

They also constructed perfectly straight roads with slight banking to them. The banking ensured that water didn’t sit on the road after it rains.

By 200 AD, the Romans had built more than 50,000 roads (almost 80,400 km). These roads were then completed with directions and stone marks. 

The proof of their workmanship is evident, as many of the old roads in Rome are in use even today.

10. The Codex: The first bound book

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
Source: Tom Murphy VII/Wikimedia Commons

During the Roman Empire, writings were typically carved into clay slabs or on scrolls. As you can imagine, these texts were difficult to transport, brittle in nature, and challenging to store. 

Instead of a scroll that could be up to 32 feet (10 meters) in length and had to be unrolled to be read, Julius Caesar commissioned the very first bound book — a collection of papyrus — to form a codex.

This provided a safer and more manageable way to keep the information secure. The codex could hold many volumes, had a built-in cover for protection, and the pages could be numbered for reference, allowing the use of a table of contents and index.

The early Christians widely used this Roman invention to make codices of the Bible and later spread to other areas along with Christianity.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

11. The Julian Calendar was, obviously, a Roman invention

The Roman republican calendar contained 355 days. It was a lunar calendar to make up for the discrepancy between the calendar and the solar year, an intercalary month consisting of 27 or 28 days was added once every two years.

The Intercalation was the duty of the Pontifices, and over time, the intercalations became irregular due to negligence and corruption. As a result, by the 40s B.C., the Roman civic calendar had become out of sync with the seasons and the holy festivals; it was about three months ahead of the solar calendar. 

To correct this, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced a new form of calendar system which had 12 months and used a cycle of three years of 365 days, followed by a year of 366 days (leap year). The Julian Calendar also moved at the beginning of the year from March 1 to January 1.

The Julian calendar was more accurate and remained in use until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced to correct that the year is actually 365 and ¼ days long.

12. The Romans invented early forms of apartments

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
Remains of the top floors of an insula near the Capitolium and the Insula dell'Ara Coeli in Rome.

Due to population pressures, Rome was perpetually in need of more space for housing. Instead of building new homes outward, architects introduced the idea of stacking six to eight apartment blocks around a staircase and central courtyard.

The result was apartments or "insulae" (islands), named as such because they occupied whole blocks, with roads flowing around them like water. By the fourth century A.D., there was around 45,000 insulae in Rome.

The higher-value apartments on the lower floors were called cenacula, while the apartments for poorer tenants on higher floors were called cellae. 

Overall, the apartments were reserved for medium to lower-class citizens, as the upper classes preferred their own separate housing spaces in some city regions. Like today, this kind of living arrangement has issues with, in Roman times, tenants being pestered with waste falling from floors above, slumlords, and fires. 

13. The Romans invented an early form of a postal service

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
The Romans actually had an early postal service.

Around 20 B.C. Emperor Augustus established the cursus publicus, a system by which messages and notices could be transferred between provinces with the help of horses and vehicles such as the horse cart called rhedæ.

The average speed of a mounted messenger over the Roman road system was about 50 miles (80km) per day. With their vast network of well-engineered roads, the Roman postal service was a success

It would serve as a template for many later postal services and, was a time, the most advanced in the world.

14. The Romans had some powerful naval tools too

Rome was mighty on land, but its naval capability was sorely lacking in the early days of its empire building. They soon realized they needed a way to use their strengths against enemies who outclassed them at sea. One solution was the Corvus.

The Corvus ("Crow") was a moveable bridge used to board an enemy ship. When attached, the Romans could even engage in combat across the structure. The Roman engineers invented the Corvus to have the upper hand in naval battles by turning naval battles into more of a land-based kind of affair.

Despite its advantages, the bridge had its setbacks — for example, it couldn't be used in rough seas.

By the end of the First Punic War, Rome was no longer using the Corvus. By 36 B.C., the Roman navy used a different device to facilitate boarding attacks, a harpoon and winch system known as the harpax. 

The harpax made it possible to harpoon an enemy ship before being winched alongside for boarding. It was first used, so we are told, at the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC.

The tool, described by Appian as "the grasp," was a piece of wood that was five cubits long, fastened with iron, and equipped with rings at both ends. Compared to the Corvus, the harpax had a clear advantage because it was lighter.

Due to its small weight, the harpax could be thrown a long distance via a ballista. The ropes couldn't be cut because the iron grapple was too long, and the harpax was made of iron bands that couldn't be cut.

15. Testudo: when the tortoise goes to war

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
The testudo formation in a Roman military reenactment.

The Roman army was well-known for its various battle formations. Testudo, meaning "tortoise," is a Latin word that describes a formation effective against projectiles or missiles.

This formation required the Roman soldiers to position their shields to form a roof-like barrier above their heads. The soldiers in the front would use their shields to form a wall.

With this innovative move, Roman soldiers could protect themselves from all sides during a battle. However, the formation did have its drawbacks. Because of its density, the men found it more challenging to fight in hand-to-hand combat and needed to sacrifice speed.

Despite this formation's fame, it was only usually used during sieges or desperate situations in battle, like at The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. Today, similar tactics are employed by riot police.

16. The Romans were great at siege warfare

16 historical Roman inventions that helped shape the modern world
Schematic view of the circumvallation during the Siege of Groenlo in 1627.

Romans didn’t invent siege warfare, but their contributions towards broadening its scope and perfecting the techniques were vital. 

They adapted and improved on Greek weapons like the ballista. This catapult amplified the range and power of the crossbow, and the scorpion and onager, a torsion-powered siege engine usually shown as a catapult with a bowl, bucket, or sling at the end of its throwing arm.

They also devised innovative methods of sapping, ramp building, and circumvallation to cut off cities from relief. Roman tactics would be studied for centuries and employed where appropriate in many later wars.

And that is your lot for today.

From sanitation to books, Rome has fingerprints in many aspects of our modern world. While may the above could have been invented independently later down the line, it is clear that Ancient Rome was a critical period of technological advancement for our species.

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