Beyond the Plagiarism: (Almost) Ten Things Actually Invented by the Romans 

“You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and you packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it!” – Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Okay, okay, I know I’m just messing with the old canard about how the Romans copied everything they had from everyone else…

[Oh, how did another one of these get here?…]

And truthfully, even when they were cribbing on other cultures, the Romans were often impressive innovators whose contributions made notable improvements to existing ideas. The classic example being Roman concrete, which took existing Egyptian and Greek formulas and made a building mixture as strong as anything modern technology has been able to achieve. But rather than talk about things like that, in part because those are the kinds of inventions you might already be familiar with, I thought today we’d continue in the theme from last week and discuss some inventions the Romans came up with on their own that you might not have realized are theirs. With the same caveats in place as far as “first as it stands at the moment”, let’s dive in!

10. Glass mirrors (1st century AD)

[Roman fresco from Stabiae]

Glass making and glassblowing were invented as early as the 2500s BC on the Indian subcontinent for small items like glass beads, but the craft wouldn’t really hit its stride  for larger objects until the Common Era. Glassblowing would be something the Romans would take and perfect from their citizens in places like Roman Palestine (modern Israel, Syria, and Lebanon). Sophisticated glass became a major product of the Roman Empire and was even under certain circumstances subsidized by the imperial government. At the turn of the century, the most famous glassblower was a Semitic-Greek artist named Ennion, whose workshop was in Sidon on the Lebanese coast, but we also know of other artists like Jason, Nikon, Aristeas, and Meges—all of whom signed their work to preserve their names for us. Ennion was perhaps the earliest of this group to develop a technique for decorated mold-blown glass, which entailed blowing the molten glass into pre-designed molds that allowed for consistent and intricate patterns in early Roman glass wear.

It would be these same imperial citizens that would make the world’s first glass mirrors. Mirrors made of polished metals like gold, silver, and bronze are in evidence from the earliest periods in which humans developed metallurgy, with polished obsidian stone mirrors dating from prehistory. But it wasn’t until glass making techniques became sophisticated enough that the clarity of glass could be combined with high-grade polished metals to produce true reflective mirrors. In his Natural History (ca. 1st century AD), Pliny the Elder explains how the Sidon artisans would make their glass mirrors with so-called “soda-lime” glass (a glass made of sodium carbonate and calcium oxide, easily obtained from ash and quarried limestone) and backs of polished lead or gold leaf. The metallic backing would provide the desired reflectivity, while the glass surface gave these traditional bases protection from scratching and tarnishing. However, the end product, like modern mirrors, remained fragile enough that the earliest archeological evidence of this type of mirror is from two centuries later. And because the glass layer was produced by cutting a section of a blown glass bubble, the surface on the mirror was by its nature either slightly convex or concave, which gave these mirrors a different type of distortion from their metallic counterparts. They were, also by necessity of the process, small (no more than 20 cm), so glass mirrors would remain an expensive niche product until the Industrial Revolution, when they could be produced cheaply with glass and a chemical reduction of silver nitrate.

9. Odometers (1st century BC)

[A modern replica of Vitruvius’ odometer, based on schematics from Heron of Alexandria]

Also in the Natural History (6.61–62), Pliny delineates the distances of Alexander the Great’s campaigns as taken by his bematists (from the Greek bēmatistaí, literally “step measurer”), who tracked these distances through pace-counting. The high degree of accuracy these 4th century BC Greek bematists achieved with this method has led to some historians and archeologists to believe that they might have used a primitive odometer, or perhaps even a prototype of the Antikythera mechanism. It’s also possible an early odometer was designed by Archimedes (c. 3rd century BC), but our first description of an odometer device comes from the Roman engineer Vitruvius (c. 80-after 15 BC) in his writings.  While his architectural treatises have made him the father of western architecture (his work on perfect proportions is why da Vinci named his anatomy sketch ‘Vitruvian Man’), Vitruvius seems to have spent much of his early adulthood as an army engineer, likely in one of Caesar’s legions, given his later patronage from Octavia and her brother. By his own account, his speciality was ballistae and other siege equipment, but as Alex’s bematists show, military engineering takes many forms and Julius’ campaigns would have provided ample mileage to perfect a distance measuring machine.

Vitruvius’ odometer calculated distance based on the revolution of a Roman chariot wheel (4 Roman ft/1.18 m diameter) turning 400 times per Roman mile (~1480 m). For each revolution, a pin on the wheel axle engaged a cogwheel with 400 teeth. This engaged another gear with holes along the circumference, where pebbles (calculae, the singular being where we get “calculus” from) dropped into a receptacle and the distance traveled would be totaled by counting the number of pebbles at the end of one’s journey. Speaking of da Vinci and the Antikythera mechanism, the great Renaissance polymath attempted to build a Vitruvian odometer based on his descriptions, but couldn’t get the mechanisms to work. The first time someone was able to build a functional Vitruvian odometer was when one of the archeologists studying the Antikythera mechanism (not discovered until the 20th century) replaced da Vinci’s squared gear teeth with triangular teeth similar to those the mechanism used. This not only supports the idea that the two pieces of technology might be related, but gives us fascinating insights into ancient mechanical design.

8. Paddle-powered boats (4th century AD)

[Roman paddle wheel boat powered by oxen from a 15th-century manuscript of de Rebus Bellicus]

Vitruvius also describes a method for using a paddle wheel on a ship for a naval odometer, but later in the 4th century, an anonymous work called de Rebus Bellicus (“On the Things of Wars”) describes a water paddle used as a means of propulsion: ”Animal power, directed by the resources on ingenuity, drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it, a warship suitable for naval combats, which, because of its enormous size, human frailty as it were prevented from being operated by the hands of men. In its hull, or hollow interior, oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, turn wheels attached to the sides of the ship; paddles, projecting above the circumference or curved surface of the wheels, beating the water with their strokes like oar-blades as the wheels revolve, work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion. This warship, moreover, because of its own bulk and because of the machinery working inside it, joins battle with such pounding force that it easily wrecks and destroys all enemy warships coming at close quarters.”(chapter XVII). It should be noted that, like most nautical artifacts, no remains of such a vehicle have been discovered by archeologists, so it is possible that the Roman paddle-powered ship was largely theoretical.

Incidentally, a similar thing can be said about paddle boats in ancient China. In the History of the Southern Dynasties (南史), an imperial histograpghy compiled in the 7th century AD, paddle-wheeled ships are mentioned as having been used by the Liu Song Dynasty admiral, Wang Zhen’e, against Qing forces at roughly the same time as de Rebus Bellicus was probably written in the 4th or 5th century. The Chinese astronomer and mathematician Zu Chongzhi, working in the Southern Qi kingdom, would invent by the end of the 5th century the qianli chuan (千里船), the “thousand league boat”, a wheeled boat powered by human pedaling that could supposedly cover several hundred kilometers a day without wind. And while in the west the paddle boat would remain a rarely-implemented engineering curiosity until the 18th century, paddle boats would become a common ship type in China through late antiquity to the modern era. They were used both for commerce as well as in the navy, with Song Dynasty (960–1279) warships having as many as eleven wheels per side, and the imperial navy would still be using a variation on this design to fight the British during the First Opium War in the mid-1800s.

7. Books (1st century BC/AD)

[Replica of a standard Roman foldable wax tablet]

Okay, not like, the idea of written or printed stories, but rather, I’m talking about the codex (from the Latin caudex—tree trunk), what we think of as a “book”—many pages bound together between a foldable cover, either for writing in or reading something already written. The codex was revolutionary even in its time; within a few short centuries, it replaced its ancient predecessor, the scroll, as the dominant written format in the Mediterranean. This was for many of the reasons we continue to utilize its basic form: it’s compact, it allows for easier navigation between different parts of a document, and is more economical in terms of space by permitting writing on both sides of the page while protecting both sides from the outside. The Romans were perhaps best situated to come up with this innovation, considering they were heavy users of foldable wax tablets (two wax surfaces tied together with leather or rope thongs with outer covers to protect the wax writing surface; see above), although many cultures in the Mediterranean also utilized wax tablets.

Suetonius suggests that Caesar might have actually been among the earliest adopters of the codex, if not its inventor, as he kept his copious field notes during the Gallic Wars in some kind of bound-papyrus notebooks (The Twelve Caesars, Julius Caesar, 56.6). This might have been an early version of the pugillares membranei, a simple folded parchment notebook popular in the empire at the turn of the millennium. By the time the poet Martial (c. 38-104 AD) was writing in the early 1st century AD, the codex was a known item, and several of his couplets specifically mention his poems as being written in codices. He is an enthusiastic adopter of this new technology; in one, he is advertising his new poetry collection and points to its codex being easier to store and hold in the hands to read than a scroll, not to mention it’ll be easier to travel with. It’s unclear if the entire run of this edition of Martial’s work was done in codices, or if this was a special edition, but either way, it probably constitutes a major moment in western literature and publishing, considering that the codex would be the undisputed written format for the next two thousand years until the rise of digital media.

6. Stenography (1st century BC)

[The basic Tironian system]

On the subject of Julius scribbling out his thoughts on Pompey and Vercingetorix on the march, it sure seems like a situation in which some kind of shorthand might be beneficial. Now, we have evidence of various shorthand writing from the Parthenon dated from the 4th century BC and a Ptolemaic-era contract from Egypt promising to teach some kind of Greek tachygraphy (literally “fast writing”), but we don’t have evidence of those lessons, nor do we have the entire stenographic system for these Greek versions. However, the system we have from the late Roman Republic era is the oldest most intact, systematic shorthand we have, and certainly the earliest stenography system we have for the Roman alphabet or any language that utilizes it.

The so-called Tironian shorthand is named for its inventor, Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BC), the undoubtedly put-upon slave who was responsible for recording his master, Marcus Tullius Cicero’s, speeches for posterity. Originally consisting of around 4,000 symbols, Tiro replaced the cumbersome, specialized notae juris shorthand designed only for the legal profession with a system both refined and expansive enough for more generalized use. The basic mechanics of the shorthand used Latin word stem abbreviations (notae) and word ending abbreviations (titulae), with an organized set of symbols to mark prepositions, contractions, as well as capture more ineffable parts of language like inflection. Like most shorthand systems, the Tironian system is nigh-incomprehensible to the untrained eye, but Cicero was amazed at the results of Tito’s efforts, marveling to his friend Atticus how accurately his slave could record not just phrases but whole sentences, something nearly impossible previously. And you know Cicero would have been the first complain if the system was no good. Indeed, the Tironian system was durable enough to survive its creator until the fall of the empire, and even through the early medieval period it was still taught to Carolingian scribes, finally disappearing from any official use during the 11th century.

5. Newspapers (1st century BC)

[Newsboy in Toronto, Canada (1905)]

Since the invention of writing, government edicts and information were disseminated by the ruling authority, but in Rome is where we get the first example of something that comes closer to the modern (maybe?… gosh, we’re in a weird epoch for newspapers…) newspaper—something that had government business, but also more generalized information of interest (and gossip). This publication had a few different names, but it’s usually referred to as the Acta Diurna (Daily Acts). It was begun in 59 BC under the aegis of—who else?—Julius, who wanted a record kept of acts by public officers. But unlike the earlier (and discontinued) Annals, in addition to things like court opinions and senatorial decrees, the Acta Diurna also reported newspaper staples like marriage and birth announcements, as well as obituaries.

The Acta would be posted daily on a public whitewashed or chalked board called the Album, where it would remain until the next bulletin. The older Acta would be written down by government scribes to be filed away in the public record, and often copied out to be sent to provincial governors to keep them abreast of developments in Rome. As the empire and the government morphed into its more imperial form, the Acta would also be used by the emperors to issue their own decrees, as well as report palace events. This would continue until around 222 AD, when much of the imperial government relocated to Constantinople, and the Acta, like the Annals before them, would gradually fall into disuse.

4. Street maps (3rd century AD)

[Fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Theatre of Pompey]

General cartography was hardly a Roman innovation—the oldest map we have is a representation of rivers and valleys from 25,000 BC in what is now the Czech Republic. But as important as it was to map out the topography of the ancient world, the rise of ancient cities big enough to get lost in created its own issues, especially a city as big as Rome had become by the 3rd century. Enter the Forma Urbis Romae, sometimes referred to as the Severan Marble Plan, named for the emperor Septimius Severus (145-211 AD), under whose reign it was created. The Forma Urbis was a large street map of the city carved in marble and displayed on a wall within the Templum Pacis, the Temple of Peace, which was situated near the modern basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano straddling the borders of the Forum. Because the Forma Urbis was made based on contemporary property records, archeologists estimate, from the fragments of the map we have found, that it was made sometime between 205 and 208 AD, but a slightly larger timeframe expands that guess to 203-211 AD, the latter year being the last of Septimius Severus’ tenure. Like much of Rome, a lot of the map was gradually lost over the medieval period as it was broken down for building materials, but the Italian sculptor Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533–1611) began the centuries-long process of excavating fragments of the Forma Urbis from the grounds around the basilica. Even with dedicated effort and over a thousand pieces recovered, it’s estimated that we have barely 10% of the original map.

We believe, based on the layout of the city at the time and the fragments we do have, that the full Forma Urbis would have measured 60 ft (18 m) by 45 ft (13 m) and was carved out of 150 slabs of Proconnesian marble oriented with the south city at its top. At roughly 1:250 scale, the map was detailed enough to show intricate floor plans for many of the most important buildings in Rome, such as the Theatre of Pompey in the fragment above, but also nearly every bath, temple, and insula in the city proper, with labels and demarcations for features like staircases. And speaking of the insulae…

3. Apartment buildings (1st century BC or earlier)

[Insulae from Ostia]

By the end of the epoch before the Common Era, the insula(e) were a fixture of city life in Rome, no matter what anyone tried to do to regulate or mitigate them. Insulae were the western world’s first apartment complexes—multi-level, multi-family dwellings, generally inhabited by the middle and lower classes of the city. It should be mentioned, however, that the great Mesoamerican metropolis of Teotihuacan was building multi-level, multi-family structures at a roughly concurrent timeframe halfway around the world, and we haven’t found definitive evidence of who was truly first. That said, the Mesoamericans were also much more egalitarian with their housing, with people of all social strata living in these types of dwellings, not just the poor.

However, back in the west, as multi-floored buildings would continue to be structured until the invention of elevators, the lower floors were occupied by the wealthier and the poorer you were, the more stairs you had to climb at the end of the day. You’d think that the lack of elevators would limit the height of the insulae, but not nearly as much as you’d assume. We have records of insulae with ten or more stories, and in one of his epigrams, Martial bitches about an apartment with two hundred stairs. This may be a poet using hyperbole, but if you had ten stairs a floor in a ten-story insula, you’re already up to a hundred, so it may be not a terrible exaggeration. As you might imagine, most insulae were made of cheap materials and a lot of wood, making them virtual tinderboxes every time there was a major fire in Rome, which was often. Octavius might have found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, but he wasn’t talking about the plebs’ houses and he knew it. He at one point tried to limit the maximum height of insulae to no more than 25 m, but it was very difficult to enforce and violations were endemic. Which led to the only other solution to the problem…

2. Fire departments (1st century BC)

… invent organized firefighting. But we’ll get back to Octavius’ contributions to fire fighting in a minute, because he wasn’t the inventor of the concept. That honor belongs to our dear friend and First Triumvirate third wheel, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who founded the first fire brigade from the depths of his deep, private pockets. He had somewhere around five hundred men at his disposal for this, presumably to be able to reach any fire in the city quickly. How did Crassus’ service work? Well, as soon as the hue and cry was raised, his fire brigade would rush to the scene… and then they’d wait. Crassus or his representative would find the owner of the building and offer to buy the currently burning building at a ridiculously low price. If the owner agreed to the gouge, the fire fighters would put out the fire. If the owner balked, the brigade stood back and watched the building burn to the ground. Crassus made a ton of money on these literal fire sales, and I’m betting there were not a small number of former property owners in Rome who were happy to see Crassus get what he had coming to him at the hands of the Parthians.

Octavius agreed with Crassus that fires were a chronic problem in Rome, but recognized that maybe turning them into shady business deals was not the best use of the empire’s resources. His solution was to create the Vigiles Urbani, more commonly known as simply the Vigiles; though the city nicknamed them the Spartoli (“little bucket fellows”). The Vigiles were a city watch that functioned both as a fire brigade and as a proto-police force. The force was made up of roughly six thousand slaves for whom Octavius levied a 4% sales tax on all slave sales to fund. These men were divided and subdivided into cohorts and centuries, as the military legions were, leaving 70-80 men per two of the city’s fourteen administrative regions. Originally, the Vigiles fought fires with the standard bucket brigades, but by the mid-1st century AD, our friend from last week, Heron of Alexandria, had invented a usable water pump that could be brought to an emergency by horse cart. We even have evidence that the Vigiles also utilized chemical firefighting with a vinegar-based mixture called acetum. If necessary, they were also armed with hooks and levers designed to rapidly pull down a burning building to create a firebreak to contain the blaze from spreading in densely-packed Rome.

1. Unicycles (3rd century AD?)

By now all of you know I like to end these lists on something a little more lighthearted, and really, there are few things sillier than a unicycle. I’ll also cop to this one being a little bit of stretch—but it is April Fool’s Day, and it’s a fun stretch…

The idea of a one-wheeled Roman vehicle comes not just from one source, but from one word in that source. The source in question is the highly-suspect Historia Augusta, a biographical work on the Roman emperors from 117-284 AD we believe to have been written in the 4th century, but there is lively academic debate on that. Apparently aiming to be a sequel to Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, the Historia Augusta takes a similarly loose and juicy approach to its subjects, and is generally regarded by modern historians as mostly, if not entirely, fictional. Today, the various imperial vitae are rated on a percentage of historical accuracy ranging from 0% for emperor-usurper Bonosus (d. 280 AD) to a whole 33% for Emperor Macrinus (c. 165-218 AD). But because of its own age, this is a fairly recent development; it should be noted that many early historians from the Renaissance into the modern era treated it as a factual document. For example, Edward Gibbon uses it extensively in his landmark work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789).

Anyway, the Latin word in question is pabillus, from pabo (“one-wheeled vehicle”), and it appears in the vita of Elagabalus (c. 204-222 AD), an emperor whose reputation for both vice and incompetence makes him kind of the poster boy for what most laypeople imagine when you say “Roman emperor.” Though it should be noted that a lot of that rep comes from the Historia Augusta, so make of that what you will. In the pertinent passage, we’re told that Elagabalus enjoyed using said pabillus to transport women of undoubtedly suspect virtue about during his riotous parties (Life of Elagabalus, pt 2, 29). Now, as the more erudite readers of ancient Latin literature among you would point out, “pabillus” is usually translated as “wheelbarrow,” a device known in China, and possibly Greece, by this point. But there are no other mentions of wheelbarrows as a thing in Rome (or Europe, for that matter) before the 12th century outside of this one word in what is generally held as a work of fiction. Now, perhaps this comes from the 24% of Elagabalus’ vita deemed factual by historians; or as the emperor may have been born in Syria, maybe he had seen a wheelbarrow somewhere before the rest of Italy. But since pabillus only remarks on the number of wheels on this mystery vehicle and we might already be whole-cloth making this story up, why not go all in and call Elagabalus’ Greased Lightning a unicycle and enjoy the mental image of him juggling those girls on his lap as he wheeled them around the imperial palace? It’s arguably not any crazier than the fact he married a Vestal Virgin (twice).

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