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What Did the Romans Ever Do for Us?

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!

 Irrigation

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!

Concrete

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.

Hygiene

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!

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  1. Rana Sinha

    On May 24, 2009 at 3:09 am


    Very good article with a revisionist view of history. The “winner” viewpoint of history prevails, though it is full of intentional distortions and we sheepishly continue to accept what is taught at school.
    Could the continuous glorification of imperial Rome come from a colonialist desire to portray the Roman version of the past as ultra civilized, so that colonialism and other selfish motives could be justified?

  2. chris73

    On May 24, 2009 at 5:35 am


    Very informative and interesting but for those who know just a little about the Romams all these must not be a surprize.Romans where great in propaganda and people must not forget among others how Romans continously claimed Carthaginians where barbarians etc, the same time that this civilization ruled the western Medeteranian 8 centuries before Romans, when Rome was a tiny village.As far as i know (please correct me if i am wrong)Carthaginians developed drawings and instuctions about prefab boats. That gave them the opportiunity to rule western medeteranian but after this same inovation became a curse for them as Romans found these drawings and by the same way built their great navy fleet which used against the Carthaginians.
    As a conclusion the greatness of Romans was exactly that ability they had to absorb and use and sometimes develop the knowledge of other civilizations mostly on engineering.

  3. postpunkpixie

    On May 24, 2009 at 10:44 am


    Chris, I don’t know much about the Punic civilisation other than the ground plan of Carthage, since my studies don’t take me to that part of the world at that time. I’m more interested in the eastern Mediterranean until the Imperial period. As for Roman engineering, it really wasn’t that different. All they did was to do things on a larger scale. I’m more impressed by their agricultural innovations, personally. Far more useful, far more ingenious.

    Rana, there may be something in that. Though I think to some extent it’s just that we don’t know that much about a lot of the other cultures at the time. I mean, look at the Celts or the Huns, we know hardly anything about them.

    If I’m honest, this sort of thing isn’t the part of Roman history that most interests me, I just thought it’d be a fun article!

  4. Karen Gross

    On May 24, 2009 at 12:52 pm


    Great article, well written. I don’t think you mentioned the infamous Pax Romana – 200 years of peace enforced by those famous Roman soldiers.

    We Christians also have those Roman roads to thank for the early spread of Christianity.

  5. Joie Schmidt

    On May 24, 2009 at 5:13 pm


    I know very little about history – - so this article was quite eye-opening – - thank you for sharing it!

    Blessings.

    Sincerely,

    -Liane Schmidt.

  6. Kate Smedley

    On May 26, 2009 at 4:24 am


    Great article, good info and like the pics.. Also reminded me of a line out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian!

  7. Nathan G

    On May 28, 2009 at 8:24 am


    cheers for setting the record straight. I thought it was rthe romans who did roads on concrete but knew that people would have had to bathe before them.

  8. sexyhood03

    On May 29, 2009 at 6:26 pm


    very smart and informative i liked it!

  9. Daium

    On May 30, 2009 at 11:30 pm


    nice!!!

  10. CaSundara

    On August 21, 2009 at 8:10 pm


    Very interesting. I’m about to begin an ancient history and classical civilisation course so this is very relevant and also enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing!

  11. DAZJA

    On October 21, 2009 at 1:46 am


    YEA iM NT THE GEEKY TYPE OR THE TYPE OF PERSON THAT LiKES RESEARCHiNG BUT THiS LiL ARTiCLE WAS SO DOWN TO EARTH N WORDS && REALLY BROKE iT DOWN FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND. iT LUK LiK DEY WANTD TA CUSS N A FEW SENTENCES

  12. Jason

    On September 21, 2010 at 6:26 pm


    You realy should do some reasearch before you write an ariticle. The Romans started building roads in 509 BC during the rise of the Roman Republic. The Romans didnt invade Gaul until almost 450 years later during the Gaulic wars starting in 58 BC. (Roman Republic is not the same as the Roman Empire)

  13. postpunkpixie

    On September 22, 2010 at 8:22 am


    Jason, I have a degree in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History from Oxford, I know the difference between the Republic and the Empire, sweetie.

    Try reading an article properly next time; I don’t mention any date for the invasion of Gaul or when the Romans started building roads, I was looking instead at the pre-existing Gaulish road network (dating from the Bronze Age). The focus of the article is the things that “barbarian” civilisations had achieved that the Romans took credit for. If you’d actually read the paragraph instead of skimming it, you’d realise this.

  14. phil

    On October 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm


    Why dont you tell every body about the byzantine empire and how successful it was before you go talking crud about things you have no idea about.The Romans were a great civilization with a few errors here and there but they were definitely a civilization to remember and appreciate. Im going to guess you dont take baths or have hygiene since your practically against the creation

  15. postpunkpixie

    On October 3, 2010 at 7:13 pm


    Phil, you’re yet another person I have to tell to read the article properly. I’m not saying that Rome wasn’t a great civilisation, it simply wasn’t as innovative as people think.
    Please READ the article: the Roman baths were decidedly unhygenic and they certainly didn’t “create” hygiene (in fact the very word “hygiene” is Greek; it was the name of a goddess).
    You also show your ignorance of history: the Byzantine empire postdates Rome and rose from the remains of the Eastern Roman empire much later. My expertise lies in earlier periods (Bronze Age to Iron Age Europe), I know a lot more about early Imperial Rome than I do about the Byzantine period.

    I’m amazed by the number of very rude and reactionary comments this article is recieving. Is revisionist history that hard for you to swallow?

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