16 Historical Roman Inventions That Helped Shape the Modern World
The Roman Empire is considered to be one of the most influential civilizations of all time. From the Colosseum to aqueducts, the impact of the Roman Empire in shaping western history is extremely significant.
While many historical developments and innovations have survived the test of time, some remain a part of our daily lives. These 18 ancient Roman inventions still have an impact today.
1. Roman Numerals
Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome, but survived for some uses after the end of the Roman Empire. The numbers in the system are represented by combinations of letters from the Latin alphabet. Some practical examples can be seen at the entrances to the Roman Colosseum, which are labeled with Roman numerals – XXIII (23) to LIIII (54).
Starting in the 14th century, Roman numerals began to be replaced by Arabic numerals, which benefitted from the use of the zero, making them much more useful for arithmetic and counting. Still, Roman numerals are still seen today — most often on clock faces or representing years on architecture.
2. An Early form of Newspaper
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 unto 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. Unfortunately, there are no surviving intact copies.
3. Modern Plumbing and Sanitary Management
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.
The drainage pipes were connected and were flushed regularly with the water running off from streams. Romans also had covered gutter systems and public 'bathrooms' that ensured that the streets stayed clear of human waste.
4. Using Arches to Build Structures
While Romans weren’t the ones who actually 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 strong passage underneath it which has the ability to support heavy structures. This is called compressive stress because the pressure of the weight is compressed by the shape of the arch. 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, which were made of stone, as well as series of rounded arches side by side, called an arcade.
In the first centuries BC, Romans discovered how to use arches in the construction of bridges, aqueducts, and buildings, allowing the expansion of infrastructure across the Roman Empire. The Roman arch became a foundational aspect of Western architecture and generated new systems of building across Europe.
5. The Hypocaust System
The hypocaust system was a heating mechanism somewhat similar to modern-day central heating, 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.
Romans built aqueducts to bring fresh water in from neighboring sources into their growing cities and towns. While earlier civilizations in Egypt and India also used aqueducts, the Romans greatly improved on the structure. The whole process needed no external energy, as it was achieved by the use of gravity alone.
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.
7. The First Surgical Tools
Romans weren’t just about spears and daggers, they also developed precision medical instruments that influenced many modern-day surgical tools. In fact, 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 be used to help soldiers on the battlefield. Some Roman armies employed a trained chirurgus (essentially, a medic trained in surgery) to staunch blood loss, remove arrows, sew up wounds, and administer medicines.
8. Developing Concrete to Strengthen Roman Buildings
Concrete may not seem as alien or impressive as many of the entries on this list, but it played an important role for Romans. Romans were the first ones to use this material in a widespread manner.
Using a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, and seawater, they developed a mix that they used to add structural integrity to their buildings. Obviously, they did something right, as many of their buildings still stand today. In fact, some types of Roman concrete were able to be set underwater.
9. Roads That Can Withstand Time
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 doesn’t sit on the road after it rains. By 200 AD, the Romans had built more than 50,000 mi (almost 80,400 km) worth of road. 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
During the Roman Empire, writings were typically either carved into clay slabs or written 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.
This Roman invention was widely used by the early Christians to make codices of the Bible and later spread to other areas along with Christianity.
11. Developing the Julian Calendar
The Roman republican calendar contained 355 days. It was basically 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, due to negligence and corruption, the intercalations became irregular. 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 for the fact that the year is not exactly 365 and ¼ days long.
12. Apartment "Islands"
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 were 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 certain areas of the city. Tennants had issues with waste falling from floors above, slumlords, and fires.
13. The Postal System
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 mi per day (80 km). With their vast network of well-engineered roads, the Roman postal service was a success.
14. The Corvus and Harpax
The Corvus 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 because, at that time, Rome was a novice in regards to waterborne warfare.
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 was using a different kind of device to facilitate boarding attacks, a harpoon and winch system known as the harpax.
15. Testudo: The Tortoise Approach
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 in such a way that they formed 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 were able to protect themselves from all sides during battle.
However, the formation did have its drawbacks. Because of its density, the men found it more difficult to fight in hand-to-hand combat and needed to sacrifice speed.
16. Pioneers of Siege Warfare
Romans didn’t invent siege warfare, but their contributions towards broadening its scope and perfecting the techniques were key.
They adapted and improved on Greek weapons like the ballista, a catapult that amplified the range and power of the crossbow, and the scorpion and onager, which was a torsion powered siege engine usually shown as a catapult with a bowl, bucket, or sling at the end of its throwing arm.