Legacy of the Ancient World
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
- Agriculture, irrigation, animal domestication
- Smelting, mining, metal-work, casting (Au, Ag, Cu, Fe, Pb, Hg, and Zn and Sn in alloys. Note that most of these metals have symbols unrelated to their modern names. The symbols come from their Latin names, a testament to their antiquity.)
- Stone cutting, dressing, sculpting
- Circular (only in Old World, except for Inuit igloo)
- Truss-unknown until Middle Ages-requires timber
- Simple machines
- Lever (wheel + lever = pulley)
- Wedge (inclined plane, screw)
- Heavy Woodworking
Greek Technology and Science
- Ionian--mercantile, experimental. The closest approach in ancient times to what we would call a technical and scientific society.
- Pythagorean-mathematical but mystical
- Athenian schools: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates,
- Emphasis on logic, deduction, idealization
- "Golden Age" - Pericles ca. 450 B.C.
- Hellenistic - exported during and after Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.)
- Major Figures: Euclid, Democritus, Archimedes, Heron of Alexandria, etc.
The major Greek traditions represent ways of thinking that have been
independently discovered many times. All are appropriate in certain situations: it
is wrong to stereotype any as "helpful" or "harmful" to science and technology.
- The pragmatic approach of the Ionians speaks to us most clearly today, but....
- Scientists constantly speak of ideal concepts: objects would fall at the same rate if not for air resistance. Plato would agree.
- Scientists have a faith in whole numbers that Pythagoras would find familiar. Early experiments to determine chemical formulas almost never gave exact whole numbers for the proportions of atoms, just very close. But the numbers were so close that scientists were convinced they reflect the existence of discrete, countable atoms.
- It is impossible to overstate the importance of logic and deduction in science. It is hardly Aristotle's fault that people later put him on a pedestal
Why the Greeks never developed modern science
- First and foremost, they weren't trying to be us! They were more interested in fundamental questions like the nature of cause and effect. When they observed a rock being thrown, they weren't interested in its exact path, but why does it keep moving without anything pushing it?. They didn't have our agenda and they weren't interested in the questions that intrigue us.
- It was not at all clear that close investigation of nature would reveal anything of use or interest. We have inherited the results of work by thousands of people over centuries, but would you invest your life in studying nature in a world where very little was known about science?
- They had all the pieces of modern science: observation, experiment, mathematics, deduction. But nobody ever achieved a synthesis of all these elements.
The Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language and occupied the northern half of Italy in Pre-Roman times. Because their language is extinct and unrelated to European languages, there was once little hope of deciphering their history. Thanks to modern techniques of linguistic analysis, much of their language can now be read.
The Etruscans were a fairly sophisticated people, with expertise in iron working and extensive trade contacts. Their principal importance is as a link between the Greeks and the Romans. The Etruscans used the Greek Alphabet to write their own language, and passed it on to the Romans, along with many other Greek ideas. A couple of tidbits from the Etruscans: the letter F and the "Roman" numerals V, L and D.
For several centuries Rome was ruled by the Etruscans, but the Romans overthrew the Etruscans and eventually absorbed them.
Roman Science and Technology
- Legendary founding 753 B.C.
- Controlled all Italy 268 B.C.
- Punic Wars with Carthage: 264-241, 218-201, 149-146 B.C.
- Hannibal, 218 B.C.
- Following third Punic war, annexed Carthaginian territory
(N. Africa, Spain)
- Conquered Greece (2nd Cent. B.C.), Gaul (56-49 B.C.),
Egypt (30 B.C.), Britain (43 A.D.)
- Empire begins 29 B.C.
- Little theoretical science or innovation (Lucretius-atoms)
- Encyclopedists (Pliny)
- Architectural virtuosity
- City planning--water, lead pipes, sewage, fire protection
- Bridges and aqueducts
- Concrete (if a society can only introduce one invention, it could
do no better than this.)
- Codex form of books
- Law and administration
- Water mills (late in Empire)
Fall of Rome
Summary of Events
- First invasions, 3rd cent. A.D.
- Christianity legal early 4th cent., state religion late 4th cent.
- Empire split 4th cent. Eastern half endures as Byzantine Empire to 1453
- Last emperor (by then only a puppet) deposed 476 A.D.
- One late Emperor, Majorian (457-461) attempted to reverse trends but failed
Possible Hypotheses that have been advanced for the collapse of Rome
- Lack of innovation. Best indicator, the total lack of interest in geography. For an empire whose survival would depend on accurate intelligence, the Romans did almost no exploration outside their borders.
- Slavery. Cheap manual labor may have hindered the development of machines, but the real destructive effect was the attitude that any services could be bought, and therefore Romans need not bother with practical matters. Even white-collar workers in Rome were often slaves. A similar attitude prevails today in the Persian Gulf, where outside experts are often viewed as hired servants.
- Religious cultism and mysticism
- Lead poisoning? (not from lead pipe but from lead-based ceramic glazes)
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1782
Author Edward Gibbon suggested four reasons for fall of Rome.
- Immoderate greatness--growth of bureaucracy and military
- Wealth and luxury (the popular stereotype, although with some validity)
- Barbarian invasions (cause or symptom?)
- Spread of Christianity (especially mystical varieties). The fact that very few people mention this cause is a dead giveaway that most people who compare America with ancient Rome have never read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Pushed notion of "decline" too far
- Too rosy a view of 2nd century A.D. conditions
- Cultural biases (against Byzantines and monasticism)
- Despite his errors, Gibbon's work has endured as few works of history have
An Alternate View of the Fall of Rome
Americans often idealize ancient Rome
- We are impressed by its monuments. Many of our buildings imitate them.
- It's the first ancient state that looks like a modern nation-state on the scale of the U.S.
- Latin was used as the intellectual language of Europe until recent times. It was used in the Catholic Church until the 1960's (and still is for official documents) and is used in law (a very clumsy medieval Latin, not Classical Latin.)
- Many "religious" films about the life of Christ are actually films about Rome with a pious veneer.
Reality Check: Rome was a stagnant, corrupt, brutal and petty society
- Two suggested antidotes to the romantic view of Rome: Robert Graves' I, Claudius and H.G. Wells Outline of History.
- Graves' novel, a fictional account of the life of the Emperor Claudius, nonetheless paints a graphic picture of the pettiness and brutality of the Roman elite.
- Typical of Roman petty spitefulness: after defeating Hannibal, the Romans pursued him for over twenty years. He finally committed suicide to avoid capture.
- Most leaders who opposed Rome effectively on the battlefield were eventually captured, taken to Rome, then executed as part of the victory celebrations.
- Wells, an old-time British socialist, needs to be read with some caution, but he ruthlessly strips away the romantic image of Rome.
- Wells points out that not once did the local populace ever rise up to oppose the barbarian invaders, a clear sign they saw nothing worth defending in Roman society.
Rome and the early U.S: Two Choices
- The U.S. - 1787
- Governed by a weak federation under the Articles of Confederation
- Its one great act under this government was the Northwest Ordinance
- Provided for division of new territories into additional States
- Admission of new States incorporated into Constitution
- Hence no distinction whatever between original States and later States.
- Rome - 200 B.C.
- Rome acquires Spain from Carthage after the Second Punic War
- Same question as faced by the Early U.S.: what to do with the new lands?
- Rome decides to exploit the new territories as source of revenue and slaves. Results:
- Non-stop guerrilla war in Spain for over 300 years.
- To fight its wars in such a distant place, Rome abandons its traditional citizen army for a permanent standing army.
- Conscripted soldiers frequently become dispossessed while serving in Spain
- Rome's erratic but real progress toward equality reverses. Power and wealth re-concentrate in the hands of the upper class.
- For next 170 years, Rome experiences increasing civil unrest, ever-bloodier conflicts and civil wars, a military coup by Julius Caesar, then dictatorship under the Emperors.
Conclusion: Like a baby born with AIDS, the Roman Empire was infected at birth with what eventually killed it.
After the fall of Rome
- The fall was a real decline in quality of life
- Church was primarily urban, in no position to control rural areas (Pagan comes from the Latin pagus, meaning countryside, where traditional Roman cults persisted until 600 A.D and beyond.)
- There were two "dark ages".
- The first, due to the collapse of Roman infrastructure and trade, bottomed out around 600-700 A.D.
- There was a revival around 800 culminating in the reign of Charlemagne
- Another decline about 900-1000 due to the raids by Vikings and Magyars.
Technological innovations in post-Roman Europe
- Steel--most Roman steel came from Austria
- Rise of water wheels
- Heavy plow
- 3-field crop rotation
- Horse collar
- Motte and Bailey castle (stockade on a mound). The lifestyle of many parts of Western Europe around 700 A.D. would not have differed greatly from the Mound Builder societies in North America that would arise a little later.
The role of Ireland
- Romans abandon Britain in A.D. 409 to defend closer to home.
- Ireland at this time was a clan society, with frequent petty warfare, not so much for conquest as adventure. Also, the culture was remarkably casual about sex.
- Patricius, a Romanized Briton, was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave at about this time.
- After seven years as a shepherd, he escaped. During his captivity, he fell back on his inner spiritual resources and after escaping, decided to become a priest.
- Ireland kept coming back in his dreams. He interpreted this as a call from God to evangelize Ireland, and he returned. Patricius is better known to us as St. Patrick.
- What Patrick accomplished:
- He was the first Christian missionary since St. Paul, 300 years earlier, to travel extensively, and the first ever to venture outside the Roman realm in Europe.
- He successfully identified the core values of Irish culture and preached Christianity to address those values.
- By the time he died, he had converted Ireland. Ireland is the only country ever converted to Christianity completely without bloodshed.
- Patrick so successfully converted Ireland and pacified it that it became a source of slaves for petty warlords in Britain. Patrick protested to his British fellow clerics and is the first known person in Western history to condemn slavery as evil.
- The Irish, with their love of epics and adventures, became fascinated by Greek literature, and developed a tradition of literacy.
- Some of them fulfilled their cultural desire for adventure by venturing out on missionary travels of their own.
- Followers of Patrick, Aidan and Columcille, spread Christianity back to Scotland and northern Britain.
- Columba, a later disciple, spread Irish Christianity to the European mainland. He and his immediate successors established dozens of monasteries in Germany, Austria, and even Italy.
- These Irish missionaries and their followers are among the first people in the West who look and act like explorers, going to difficult places just "because they're there."
- Irish missionaries re-disseminated literacy to Western Europe.
- They also established Christianity outside the cities, something the Romanized Christianity of the time had not done.
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Created 27 Dec 1996, Last Update 28 January 1998
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