A fun reassessment of the Roman Empire’s contribution to the modern world. Were they that great or was it all just propaganda?
The ancient Romans were some of the best self-publicists that ever existed, and the myth of Roman ingenuity endures to this day. But were they really as great as they liked to think they were? Did they really “civilise” the barbaric savages of Western Europe and the Greek East? Well… not really. It’s widely known that the ancient Greeks were pretty brainy when it came to maths and philosophy, but they weren’t the only ones. Here’s a list of just some of the things the Romans didn’t quite do for us!
Roads and Trade
The Romans are famous for their roads. Some of their straight, paved trade routes still exist today, but were they the first to do this? Nope! Archaeologists have uncovered wooden and stone walkways built by Celtic craftsmen and engineers long before the Romans ever invaded Gaul. In fact, the “savage” Gauls seem to have been rather peaceful traders, far more civilised than the sadistic Romans. Shipping routes around the Mediterranean and beyond, stretching from the Black Sea to southern Britain, date back to the Greek Bronze Age (that’s around the 15th century BC, more than a thousand years before the Roman Republic came into being): wrecks have been found around Cyprus and Greek pottery found in Cornwall!
The Egyptians had been shifting water from the Nile to their farmland for centuries, with the use of crane-like machines. The Greeks took things a bit further, thanks to the ingenious Archimedes who invented a machine for lifting water uphill, basically a screw in a tube. The Romans thoroughly ignored Archimedes’ work and even destroyed a lot of his papers when they invaded Syracuse!
Roman concrete was very different to modern mixtures, but it allowed them to make incredible structures like the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum) and the Pantheon as well as more every day buildings, like the insula tower blocks found at Ostia. But did they invent it? No! That honour rests with the Parthians, the culture that grew from the Persian Empire after Alexander the Great destroyed a lot of it. The Parthians used it to make beautiful domed roofs, similar to those you can still see in the Middle East today.
Okay so we can thank the Romans for introducing public bathing to much of the world… but do we want to? Sure the baths were places to exercise, but the Greeks had already popularised gymnasia centuries before, and okay many baths were cleverly heated, but they certainly weren’t very clean. A mixture of dirt and oil floated on the top of the water, called “soilum” in Latin, yuck! The emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that he never visited the baths since they contained nothing but oil, sweat and grease. Some big cities had sewers, Rome had its famous Cloaca Maxima, but smaller towns just had open drains. And then there’re the aqueducts. Now, Roman aqueducts were indeed incredible, spanning huge stretches of countryside on a continual slope. Frontinus boasts that their aqueducts were far greater than the idle pyramids or temples. But what were the aqueducts for? Well, unless you were rich enough to have a private stream pumped to your house, this fresh, clean mountain water went straight into the dirty baths and pretty fountains! Drinking water came from wells and cisterns, so if you didn’t use the baths (and public bathing was a rather peculiar Roman habit after all) you didn’t need aqueducts. So much for not being idle!