I was thinking back on my post from last year about ancient Egyptian inventions, and like many of my list entries, I realized I should circle back and do a couple more on at least the other two main hobbyhorses of this blog, Greece and Rome. So while I spend an extra week trying to weed out Roman innovations that they didn’t just copy and paste from the Greeks, let’s look at those prolific progenitors and some of their more surprising contributions to “western” civilization.
Because that’s really the rub of it in the West—if you can think of it, chances are that the Greeks at the very least came up with the concept. As my title implies, if it’s the study of something, the Greeks were probably some of the earliest studiers of it (one my favorites is cetology—ancient Greek fishermen would do some of the earliest animal tagging by putting artificial notches in the dorsal fins of dolphins that got caught in their nets so they could be recognized later). And while it would also be super-easy to fall back on innovations like feta cheese and democracy, as I additionally implied in the title, I’d like to draw your attention to some inventions and notable firsts you might not already know came from the Greeks so you can impress/annoy your friends, coworkers, and people who share public transit with you.
As with the Egyptians, the same caveat applies as to the Greeks being the “inventors” of the things we’re going to talk about. This means that they are the people from which we have the oldest known record of at this time, and since archeology is never static, new discoveries could always change this list in the future. But for now, let’s dive in!
10. Bathtubs (2000s BC)
When I say the Greeks invented bathtubs, I mean what the average Euro-American would think of as a tub—a washing receptacle for a singular person (or maybe two if you’re creative…). The oldest type of this bathtub was found in the famous ancient palace complex at Knossos, on the island Crete. The tub is roughly 5ft long and is made of an especially hardened pottery. While the so-called queen’s megaron (great hall) in the complex possessed early water-flushing latrines, these were not automatic and operated by the toilet emptying into a drain in which water from a pitcher could be dumped to clear it. It appears that the tubs at Knossos operated on a similar system, where the tub would be manually filled and then emptied by overturning them into a floor drain.
The timeline on the Cretan bathtubs checks out linguistically, for Homer uses a word for “bathtub”—asaminthos (ἀσάμινθος)—in his works a century later. This Greek word likely comes from the earlier Mycenaean Linear B word “a-sa-mi-to” dating from the Knossos period. Interestingly, this Mycenaean word is itself is a cognate of the Near East Akkadian word namsû, meaning “washing bowl”/“washing tub”. From the context, it’s not certain if the Akkadians were referring to a tub for bathing, or for cleaning clothes, for example, so it’s possible the slightly older Akkadians had tubs as well, but they haven’t been found yet.
9. Hypodermic needles (1st century BC)
The Greeks’ understanding of the mechanics of a hypodermic needle came from the typical sources of innovation in the ancient world: nature and warfare. In zoological observations, the Greeks learned how snakes, like those in the viper family, used their fangs to inject venom into a bite through a hollowed groove in the venom fang from a duct in the snake’s skull. Additionally, grooved poison-delivering weapons were well-known to the Greeks through warfare. One of the earliest literary references to this type of primitive chemical warfare comes from Heracles’ mythos, where the hero dips his arrows in the poisoned blood of the Hydra after he slays the monster. Arrowheads dressed in poisonous substances are also used by both sides in the Trojan War (1200s BC), according to Homer (800s BC (?)), so we know this was at least common martial practice in Greece by the 8th century BC, since we also know that Iron Age weapons sometimes cropped into the poet’s Bronze Age epic.
That said, ancient Greek use of hypodermic needles in their common modern iteration as a medical device was primitive. By the 1st century, the Romans were using basic piston syringes and by the 9th century, Islamic doctors were using hollow glass tubes for cataract surgery, but for the Greeks, hypodermic medicine was more of theory than a typical instrumental practice. But later advances, including Christopher Wren’s experiments with the earliest modern hypodermic needles in the 17th century built on that theory. Even Wren’s use of goose quill needles harkens back to the Greek studies with snake fangs.
8. Central heating (3rd century BC or earlier)
We talked about early air conditioning with the Egyptians, but obviously their climate made experiments with heating less of a priority. While hardly in a polar vortex themselves, it does get chilly in northern Mediterranean so it makes sense that central heating might be something they’d take up. The first building in the Greek world with central heat that we know of is actually our old friend the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the Turkish coast. Air would be heated by fires under the temple and piped through flues in the floor to circulate it. The Artemision’s history was a long series of builds and rebuilds necessitated by both war and natural disasters (and at least one alleged arson), so it’s difficult to date exactly how old the original central heating system was, but our earliest known written mention of the temple’s heated floors and walls comes from 350 BC, with some claiming it was in place a thousand years previous during the Bronze Age. Either way, central heating would spread across the Greek world and be common long before the Romans would arguably perfect it in their own central heating system, the hypocaust, which was so integral to Roman public baths, as well as home architecture.
It should be noted that the ondol (온돌), a Korean forced air heating system with archeological evidence dating as far back as the Neolithic period might actually be older, but the distinction seems to rest on the earliest ondol (called gudeul) being designed primarily for cooking, with heating as a fortuitous secondary purpose. But in reading up on this, I honestly can’t tell how much of the nuance rests on fact and how much rests on occidental archeological bias. If nothing else, it certainly can be argued that the arrangement at the Temple of Artemis is one of the earliest heating flue systems for a structure of its size, although pre-modern Korea would continue to improve upon the increasingly sophisticated ondol system long after Europeans were back to living in freezing, fireplace-dependent castles and houses, so they were definitely the winners in the long run.
7. The historical fiction novel (1st century AD)
This is potentially another example of the East/West archeological divide, but it’s probably more a question in the somewhat fluid definition of what a “novel” is, particularly when talking about early iterations. The closest thing we have to a working definition of what is a novel is “a long-form narrative prose work”, but it’s not a completely inclusive definition. Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (late 10th century/early 11th century AD) is generally held out as the earliest modern novel, but the Greeks had been experimenting with prose literature at least since the the mid-1st century. The oldest of these Greek proto-novels is believed to be Callirhoe, a historical small-R romance set during the Peloponnesian War/Persian Wars ca. 400 BC. We know nothing about its purported author, Chariton of Aphrodisias, outside of what the novel’s introduction tells us (that he is the secretary of the rhetor Athenagoras), but it is possible that “Chariton” (“man of graces”) is merely a pseudonym.
Much like Flaubert’s Salammbô, the titular character of Callirhoe is the fictional daughter of historical figure, in this case, Hermocrates of Syracuse—military and political hero of the Peloponnesian War. The hero of our story is Chaereas, who falls in love with the almost supernaturally beautiful Callirhoe. They get married, but evil ex-suitors, fake deaths, slavery, pirates, and secret pregnancies threaten to tear them apart. No lie, folks, this sounds like the most bonkers of Shakespeare’s plays and if I can get my hands on a copy of the text, you better believe we’re going to come back to this in a future entry. But just the fact that I said “this is like a Shakespeare play” should tell you what kind of covert influence Callirhoe might have had on western literature.
6. Non-stick pans (1700s BC)
No, the ancient Greeks didn’t invent Teflon, but those clever Mycenaeans did invent ceramic pans with non-stick properties. Archeological evidence suggests these would have been used primarily for bread baking, but other styles of similar pottery have been found that might have been used to cook meat dishes like souvlaki. Their designs suggest that these pans might have even been meant to be portable—like a modern barbecue grill. Based on experiments done by historians with the help of modern ceramicists, we believe the souvlaki trays were designed to have cooking coals placed directly inside them, with the meat placed on the coals. On the other hand, the bread pans have holes in them that seem to help oils defuse evenly under the dough to prevent sticking.
Aside from the holes in the bread griddles, the Mycenaean ceramics might be operating with the same silica-based nonstick properties as modern nonstick ceramic cookware. The silica coating on these types of pans can be heated to nearly 800 degrees Fahrenheit (426 degrees Celsius) before it begins to degrade, which is probably not a temperature the ancient Mycenaeans had to worry about hitting. This is supported by the “gritty clay” the Mycenaean ceramics were made with, whose texture suggests a high sandy content in their pottery.
5. Flamethrowers (5th century BC or earlier)
Okay, maybe not the flamethrowers you’ve thinking of, little backpacks of sprayable death, but the Greeks were great innovators of incendiary warfare. Incendiary weapons had been used for centuries—the Assyrians were famous for using flaming arrows likely powered by petroleum, sulfur, and bitumen-based compounds. But the most powerful incendiary weapon of the ancient world the sticky liquid that the Greeks would call by a number of names, but the rest of the Mediterranean almost emphatically called Greek fire. Used as early as the siege of Delium (424 BC) during the Peloponnesian War, we don’t have the original composition of the first Greek fire, but historians have suggested a range of substances from pine resin and naphtha to quicklime and calcium phosphide. As befitting something they often called pŷr thalássion (πῦρ θαλάσσιον), “sea fire”, the Greeks often used Greek fire as an amphibious siege weapon, where the compound would be heated and pumped into hoses that could be ejected at a target. Greek fire was also used in ancient Greek grenades and would become increasingly portable as we moved toward the modern era.
Our oldest recipe for a Greek fire compound is recorded by the Roman writer Julius Africanus (c. 160-240 AD) in his Cestus. This mixture is apparently so explosive that it will ignite in intense sunlight: “Automatic fire also by the following formula. This is the recipe: take equal amounts of sulphur, rock salt, ashes, thunder stone, and pyrite and pound fine in a black mortar at the midday sun. Also in equal amounts of each ingredient mix together black mulberry resin and Zakynthian asphalt, the latter in a liquid form and free-flowing, resulting in a product that is sooty colored. Then add to the asphalt the tiniest amount of quicklime. But because the sun is at its zenith, one must pound it carefully and protect the face, for it will ignite suddenly. When it catches fire, one should seal it in some sort of copper receptacle; in this way you will have it available in a box, without exposing it to the sun. If you should wish to ignite enemy armaments, you will smear it on in the evening, either on the armaments or some other object, but in secret; when the sun comes up, everything will be burnt up.” (D25, 116–117)
4. Automatic doors (1st century AD)
The concept of automatically opening doors was first proposed by Heron of Alexandria (c. 10-70 AD) in his treatise Automata, a whole collection of schematics for various machines largely powered by steam. His concept isn’t quite what we think of when we think of automatic doors, that is, modern optical doors, but it was truly revolutionary for the time. How they’d work is that a brass vessel would be heated by fire until the atmospheric pressure in the vessel from the steam would pump water into adjacent containers that would then act like pulley weights on a rope system attached to the doors. The idea being, for example, that this would automatically open the doors of a temple or the gates of a city at a predetermined time. This might not seem impressive to us, but it probably would have wowed ancient worshippers or visitors to see automation no matter how simple.
Heron also envisioned this kind of device as a special effect in the theater, where he put many of his other simple machines to work. He invented a “thunder” machine that dropped metal balls on a concealed drum at a mechanized pace, as well as perhaps the first fully mechanized play—a ten minute story that moved on its own through a series rotating cogwheels run by rope pulleys that operated like a simple binary system. But speaking of Heron’s other inventions…
3. Vending machines (1st century AD)
Heron of Alexandria also invented what might have been history’s first vending machine. It was another religiously-based innovation, designed to automatically vend holy water (chernips; χέρνιψ) to worshippers. According to his Mechanics and Optics, how it worked was that, like today, a customer would insert a coin into a slot. The coin would fall onto a pan attached to a lever, the weight pulling the lever so that it would open a valve that would dispense the holy water. As the lever moved, the coin’s weight on the pan would continue to tilt it until the coin fell off into a receptacle. The lack of the coin’s weight would trigger a counterweight on the lever, shutting off the water valve.
Aside from his formal books, much of Heron’s work survives in lecture notes from the Library of Alexandria, which makes it likely that he was an instructor there. Because of this relative wealth of documentation, we know that his research formed the groundwork for a wide range of sciences, including mathematics, physics, pneumatics, and mechanical engineering. But it’s his advances in mechanical automation that have led some to consider him the father of modern cybernetics. And speaking of computers…
2. Analog computers (2nd/1st century BC)
Now, at this historical distance, we do mean “a device that uses physical phenomena to compute” rather than whatever magic light box you’re reading this on, but a Greek device that fits this description is the oldest one we have. Found in a 1st century BC-era shipwreck, the so-called Antikythera mechanism is designed—as far as we can figure—to calculate astronomical positions to predict solar and lunar eclipses based on Babylonian star calendars. In this way it’s similar to an astrolabe, but while an astrolabe can measure many of these positions, the Antikythera mechanism has much more complicated machination than the typical astrolabe, which would have been its forerunner. Indeed, the Antikythera mechanism’s intricacies put more on par with 13th century astronomical clocks than the simpler astrolabe.
The Antikythera mechanism’s complexity (we’re still tracking down all of its pieces, but archeological evidence suggests it had as many as thirty-seven interlocking gears) means it could track the position of the known planetary bodies of our solar system over an extended period of time. It is thought that although it used Mesopotamian mathematics, its time framing was a Greek Olympiad (four years). Additionally, its accuracy for the irregular orbit of the Moon based on lunar velocity is so grounded in the work of Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 190-120), considered to be the father of trigonometry and one of the greatest astronomers of antiquity, that it has been speculated that he might have had a hand in its design.
1. Cheesecake (5th century BC)
Lastly, to end on something much less technical (and delicious), we can thank the Greeks for the first pastry that approximates cheesecake. Our old friend Athenaeus of Naucratis mentions that the poet Callimachus owned a book by the 5th century BC physician Aegimius that had a recipe for plakountopoiikon sungramma (πλακουντοπουκόν σύγγραμμα), “cheesecakes”. But as you might expect from the game of culinary telephone the last sentence was, we don’t have Aegimius’ specific recipe. The first extent cheesecake recipe comes from Cato the Elder’s (234-149 BC) de Agri Cultura, but the cakes he’s describing—libum, savillum, and placenta (I know, I know, but it’s tastier than its name sounds…)—were, despite Cato’s general disdain for Greek stuff, derived from Greek equivalents picked up by the Romans after their conquest of the Aegean, especially placenta. Placenta, or plakous (πλακοῦς) as it was known in Greece by that time, was a multi-layered cake where layers of dough were interspersed with a mixture of cheese and honey, and flavored with bay leaves. This would be baked and covered with garnishes when it was finished, much like the toppings of a modern cheesecake. Athens was known for drizzling honey over the top of plakous, but the 4th century BC poet Archestratus also mentions dried fruits and nuts as a popular option.
But if you’re in the market to try out some of Cato’s home cooking, this is what he says in de Agri Cultura: “Shape the placenta as follows: place a single row of tracta [a Greco-Roman rolled-out pastry dough, thought to be unleavened like a pancake or even like a lasagna pasta] along the whole length of the base dough. This is then covered with the mixture [cheese and honey] from the mortar. Place another row of tracta on top and go on doing so until all the cheese and honey have been used up. Finish with a layer of tracta…place the placenta in the oven and put a preheated lid on top of it […] When ready, honey is poured over the placenta.” Bon appetite!