Heritage > The Romans

Roman Technology

The Romans were great engineers. They built roads which formed the backbone of their vast empire, and their water supply was not equalled by any system before the nineteenth century. The Pont du Gard aqueduct still stands in Nîmes, in France.

Roman aqueductThe Romans were conscientious about their water supply, knowing that polluted water carried disease. They built aqueducts and sewers to keep the water clean. The water system included siphons, tunnels, filter tanks, and arched bridges to carry the water across valleys. Soldiers built the aqueducts, and slaves maintained them. To check that the walls were straight, the builders used a plumb bob, a weight on a string, to provide a vertical line. A foot-rule, measuring one Roman foot or 11 2/3 inches, took measurements. Proportional dividers facilitated work with scale plans and models.

It was an offence to obstruct the flow of water, punishable by a fine of ten thousand sesterces. The Pont du Gard is a three-storey stone bridge which carried an aqueduct over a gorge. The aqueduct ran for about 50 kilometres, ending in a reservoir which supplied 20,000 tonnes of water a day to Nîmes. Aqua Claudia in Rome, built by Claudius, was more than 64 kilometres long and cost 30 million sesterces to build. In Spain, the Aqueduct of Segovia was built without the use of mortar between the stones. Not only does it still stand, it is still used to carry water.

Road construction

Roman roads through the alpsThe Roman Army built the great roads, more than 80,450 kilometres connecting the Empire. A base was laid of logs and stones, and on top of that were layers of variously sized stones, broken tiles, mud, sand and concrete, with sloping sides (camber) for drainage. The roads cost 10,000 sesterces per mile to build, so the enormous cost had to be paid by the emperors themselves. In the Forum in Italy, there was a central marker, and every milestone on every road in Italy stated its distance from this central marker. This is why we say ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Because of the vast network, the Empire was able to maintain trade and communication from one end to the other. They were so well made that, after the fall of the Empire, there were legends that the roads had been built by gnomes or giants. On these roads traders carried goods; the cursus publicus carried mail; officials travelled from town to town on business; proconsuls collected taxes; Christians spread the gospel. The Peutinger Table is a copy made in medieval times of an original Roman road map, listing accommodation and indicating distances from town to town, from the Balkans to Africa.

In Housesteads, the largest hospital in Britain once stood. There were ten small wards, an operating theatre, a latrine and a washroom. Roman medical instruments have survived, many of them found in graves. There are cupping vessels used for bloodletting, to drain out the "vicious humour" which caused the disease - a technique which probably helped to some extent. There were spoons for liquid medicines, and spatulas to mix and apply topical medicines. A speculum was used for internal examinations. A wall painting shows Aeneas having an arrowhead removed from his leg by an army doctor. The doctor is using forceps. Before operations the doctor would use a probe to explore the wound. If the doctor had to make an incision, he (or sometimes she) would use a scalpel, then hold the incision open with a double-ended traction hook, and keep sinews and blood vessels out of the way with a larger hook. They had catheters made of bronze, to drain the bladders of patients who had trouble urinating. There were fine-toothed saws to perform amputations. All of this, of course, was done without benefit of anaesthetic: the doctor was taught to carry on regardless of any noise the patient was making.

The Romans introduced writing to Northern Europe, and we still use the Latin alphabet today. In Britain, the Celtic tradition valued learning, but this learning was transmitted orally rather than in writing. The Celts seem to have written very little, and this put them at a disadvantage faced with the Romans, who had a great deal of use of the written word, and had easy and cheap ways to record it.

Instead of paper, the Romans used Egyptian papyrus, which was paper made from reeds. Another equivalent to paper was vellum, very fine sheets of lambskin or kid. Vellum provided the most beautiful writing surface, and was very long-lasting. To make ink, fine soot was mixed with water, and used in a split-nib pen made of reed and metal.

Less important writing, which did not have to be preserved, was done on reusable wax tablets or fine sheets of wood. A writing tablet was a very shallow wooden box with wax poured into it. The tablet was folded wooden side out into a book shape, tied with a cord, and sealed with a wax stamp. A stylus was used to write on the wax; the pointed end to form the letters, and a flat or round end to erase and smooth out.

Roman craftsmanship was also quite advanced in the smaller things. Jewellery is an art in which both the Celts and the Romans were skilled. The Romans fastened their cloaks with brooches, just as the Celts did. Some were fibulae, similar to safety pins. The Celtic tradition in enamelling was combined with the Roman silversmith’s skill to make trumpet fibulae. Other brooches looked like animals: tortoises, hares, dolphins, serpents, horses with riders; dragons offer another example of Celtic-Roman fusion. There were also torcs, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings, made of gold, sapphire, bone, amber, jet, coral, pottery, glass or shell. Some jewellery may have had religious significance or brought good luck, like a swastika brooch found in Brough-on-Humber. In Wroxeter, someone left a pair of gold eyes which may have been offered to a god as thanks for a cure. Wheels may represent the Celtic sun wheel or the thunderbolt of Jupiter, a Roman god. Amulets featuring Medusa’s head were carved to ward off evil.

Cooking utensils were often very similar to our own. Wooden spoons were as common in a Roman kitchen as they are in ours. We have examples of bronze graters, saucepans and strainers. Some of the bronze pans were coated with silver because bronze can have a toxic reaction with certain foods. Sometimes, unfortunately, pans were made of lead. A patella was a round shallow pan; a patera was a hemispherical pan; a patina was a deep pan. An olla was a wide-mouthed container in which food was cooked. Pans with holes seem to have been used to cool wine: the pan was filled with ice, and the wine was poured through. When a commercially-purchased bottle was empty of whatever it had originally contained, it was kept and reused to store food in the kitchen, in the same way we keep jars today. Because pots were not glazed, they would sour as they aged, so the Romans threw a lot of them away. Food was ground up and mashed with a mortar and pestle; these are still found in smart kitchens today, but perhaps more for show, because they are very hard work to use. Stoves were heated with wood or charcoal.

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