Geis: The Triumphs and Failures of Ancient Technology

“We crave for new sensations but soon become indifferent to them. The wonders of yesterday are today common occurrences.” – Nikola Tesla

From the minute you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, you are actively involved in using technologies that ease your busy schedule of work. A lot of the technologies that you commonly use are being taken for granted. Technologies such as public healthcare, sanitation, literature (alphabets), currency, roads, irrigation, architecture, warfare , Pozzolana ,  cranes, pulleys, and pottery are major and long lasting technological contributions of the Greco-Romans (Note: Not all of these technologies were invented by the greco-romans, but instead improved and developed by them). In fact, the very notion of rationality and scientific being can be traced back to ancient Greece.

Greeks, unlike the Romans were very crafty and inventive. This can be evident through the invention of complex machines like the Antikythera, which is still being debunked to this very day [1]. Romans, on the other hand, were very innovative and took advantages of their surroundings and environment.  Roads, for example, can be seen as an ordinary structure. But at the time of its construction, it represented adaptability, strength, and power. Consequently, Roman roads spread out as much as 56000 miles. Moreover, certain Roman technologies served duo-purposes. Roads not only served as a means of commute but also as a means to trade and transfer of military personnel. Similarly, Aqueducts represented both, an artwork and a process to transfer water using Earth’s gravity.

 

(Show above are some of the Roman Technological contributions)

Out of all these key important technologies, Roman technology can be viewed as more practical than Greek technology. This is because the Greeks weren’t too interested in practicality and utility of things; they were more interested towards art and creativity. Despite this, a lot of Roman Technology was inherited from the Greeks. “… most of its (Roman) technology was inherited from the Stone, Bronze, and early Iron Ages” (Geis, 1).

One such example of inherited technology that Romans extensively used and innovate was agricultural tools. The Aratrum, a plow, was first used in the sandy soils of the Mediterranean region. The Romans innovated on this technology to make it more efficient and durable. Hence, “an iron coulter, a vertical blade fixed in front of the plowshare, and, second, a wooden moldboard behind it to turn the soil ” was built on top of the pre-existing technology to optimize work and decrease effort while plowing.

The Romans inherited iron metallurgy from the Greeks and introduced new processes such as tempering to harden the metal without risking it from breaking.  Moreover, they also inherited the classical tool chest and added their own flare to it by introducing carpenters’ plane (shown below) to the world. Many historians consider this to be a Roman invention than a Roman innovation.

Detail of a combination “adze-plane,”  on a Roman-period funerary stele now in the Louvre. The blade is attached to the bottom of the handle.(http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rogerulrich/tools_woodworking.html)

Despite all their contributions to the modern world, Romans ‘failed’ to fully exploited their technologies to further untap its potential. Thus, Romans were ” technologically handicapped by two momentous failures in the exploitation of power” (Geis). The first one is the failure to exploit the Waterwheel. This invention would have served as a technological monopoly for Romans had they exploited it to its limits. Through the Waterwheel and its conversion from kinetic energy into mechanical energy would have increased human efficiency in many ways and decreased time it took to complete mundane tasks. An example can be seen through grinding of flowers. Although, the Romans did build the water wheel which could grind flowers, they failed to mass produce it and gain capital from it. This technology would have ultimately helped the empire gain more control through optimized engineering practices.

Another untapped technology, according to Geis, was horse harness. This technology in particular was not developed enough since the bronze age. Thus, the failure to exploit this technology meant the lack of large scale domestication of horses for military and commercial uses. Had this technology been improved by either the Greeks or Romans, travel times would have decreased and human labor and efficiency would have increased. It is due to the failure of exploitation of such technologies that left the Romans ‘technologically handicapped.’

Besides the two technological failures mentioned above, Romans ‘failed’ in other two realms that played an influential role in technology: theoretical science and economics. Unlike the Greeks, who placed a high importance on knowledge and science, Romans preferred on the practicality of things at the expense of accumulation of new knowledge. Consequently, their little interest with philosophy and science led to the upper classes not being well informed. Moreover, Romans never bothered to  translate the work of  Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and other Greek thinkers into Latin.  This clearly shows the lack of interest and motivation towards gaining new knowledge.

Other realm of science closely linked with technology which Romans failed to untap was economics. This is due to slave trade and the lack of incentive to find optimizable solutions to economic problem due to the sheet abundance of slaves in the empire. Despite having their own coinage system, not much thought was put into saving money and being more efficient with trades. This resulted in the Romans being indirectly technologically handicapped.

All in all, the Greeks and Romans have contributed a lot to the modern times. Without their contributions, life today would be hard to imagine. They have played pivotal roles in the development of mankind. This proves that settled agriculture leads to influential technological inventions. However, not all technologies are exploited to its limits. This holds true to certain Roman technologies such as the Water Wheel and Horse harness which lacked development. Though its successes outweigh its failures, these key technologies, including theoretical science and economics, have not been developed fully which have made the Romans ‘technologically handicapped’ at times.