The “Failure” of Ancient Technology – Gies Article

The Ancient societies of Greece and Rome are well revered for their innovations and governmental achievements. The most prominent contribution, and perhaps the most well-known aspect of these societies, being the architectural developments made during their time. Greece relied heavily on the post and lintel system, where large horizontal structures are held up by vertical posts. Although this system was also employed in Egypt and many other parts of the world, it is most prominently and ornately used in Greek architecture; a good example being the endurance of the Parthenon.

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The Romans would also emphasize durability and would employ their constructional techniques on a very large scale. Across Europe, the Roman empire had constructed bridges, roads, walls, public baths, sewage systems, arenas, forums, markets, triumphal arches, and theaters; this infrastructure was designed with the ideas of strength, functionality, and endurance in mind. Enduring the most prominently, however, were the Roman aqueducts, channels constructed over a valley for transporting water to Roman cities – employed heavily was the arch.

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For a more in depth and interesting look at Roman architecture, follow this link:

Much of ancient Roman technology was borrowed from prominent well-known societies such as Egypt, Greece, and the Near East. However, the Romans also developed technologies based off advancements previously made by the Gaulish as well as the Germanic tribes and so-called barbarians. Gaulish agriculture was very advanced at the time and would contribute harvesting tools such as the jointed flail and a mechanical harvester. From the Germanic tribes, the Romans would acquire a technique for hardening blades and making them much more durable. They would also be introduced to a style of clothing including furs, stockings, trousers, and laced boots. Barbarians would also contribute the wooden barrel, which would eventually replace the fragile clay pottery previously used to transport liquids.

The Romans had incredible engineering skills and were exceptional at borrowing technologies and then improving and innovating upon them. However, they failed to exploit the power of two very important technologies. The first being the shortcoming of the horse harness. In China, by the 2nd century BC, horses were pulling against a breast strap that allowed them to breathe freely; the Greeks and Romans never developed such a device and thus did not harness the power that could be provided by the horse. The second failure was in the exploitation of an invention of capital importance, the waterwheel. Although the Romans used the waterwheel, they did not realize the waterwheels potential and failed to employ it on a large, industrial scale. One particular use of the waterwheel, described in a passage of the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (c. 310-c. 395), is incredibly innovative and astonishing – a waterwheel employed to cut and polish marble dating to the 4th century. In many aspects, the Roman empire only employed the labor of men and animals, the animal power being severely handicapped due to the lack of an efficient horse harness.

The Romans also failed in two other major areas that had a large influence on technology. In science, where the Greek elite favored knowing over doing, the Roman educated class did the opposite, emphasizing doing at the expense of knowing. They took so little interest in Greek science and philosophy that they never bothered to translate Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and other Greek savants into Latin. Because of this lack of interest, the intellectual class of medieval Europe would suffer, completely unaware of the existence of the Greek classics for six centuries.

The Romans were also considerably bad in the field of economics. Due to the large supply of slaves, no strides were made to explore labor saving technologies; i.e. why spend time and money creating a machine when there are plenty of slaves and peasants to do all the work at essentially zero cost? Of the few capital resources available, the Roman government would spend the majority of it on roads, public buildings, water supply, and other civic amenities rather that attempting to improve industrial and agricultural production. This economy was not ideal for the development of technology or innovation.

Overall, the Greeks and Romans made use of very advanced technologies but did not employ them in industrial senses or in ways that would improve and strengthen their economy and society. Since there was a large supply of man and animal power, little was done to create machines and improve efficiency, thus their economies were largely small scale and stagnant.

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2 Replies to “The “Failure” of Ancient Technology – Gies Article”

  1. Jordan,

    Nice summary of the article, was easy to read and very informative. I find it cool that many of the ancient Greek and Roman structures are still standing to this day. That really shows how advanced their architecture was. It is interesting that many of the Roman technologies were not original. They instead borrowed most technology and then improved it, I wonder what they could have come up with if they tried developing their own technologies. Lastly, it is pretty incredible how successful the Romans were even though they had many flaws. From the horse harness to terrible economics, they definitely weren’t perfect, but still managed to last a long time.

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