Rome and After

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Roman Science and Technology

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According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C. by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Originally ruled by the Etruscans, and menaced at times by Celtic invaders from Gaul (France and northern Italy), Rome grew, overthrew its Etruscan overlords, and eventually absorbed them. Rome controlled all Italy by 268 B.C. Rome's expanding power eventually brought it into conflict with the north African city of Carthage, whose territory also included much of Spain. In the three Punic Wars (264-241, 218-201, and 149-146 B.C.), Rome progressively weakened and eventually destroyed Carthage. The Second war is the most famous. The Carthaginian general Hannibal in 218 B.C. took an army from Spain, over the Alps (probably close to the Mediterranean coast) and ravaged Italy until finally defeated. After its defeat in this war, Carthage yielded its African and Spanish territory to Rome. The final war, with Carthage reduced to little more than a city-state, was simply a vindictive war of aggression on Rome's part. Rome's expansion also brought it into conflict with Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean, and eventually Greece itself, which it conquered in the second century B.C. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (modern France,) in 56-49 B.C., then staged a military coup and declared himself Emperor. In the turmoil following Caesar's coup and subsequent assassination, Egypt picked the losing side and was absorbed in 30 B.C. Julius Caesar's son Augustus assumed the throne as first Emperor in 29 B.C. Southern Britain was conquered in 43 A.D., the Empire reached its peak about 120 A.D., then began a slow decline, collapsing in A.D. 476.

The Romans contributed little to theoretical science or innovation. The most outstanding Roman scientist was Lucretius, who wrote some surprisingly modern-sounding ideas about atoms. A few other Romans, like Pliny, achieved fame as authors of encyclopedias. These were not encyclopedias in the modern sense but rather random collections of interesting facts arranged by subject, and often very uncritically assembled. The significant feature of these encyclopedias was they were collections of existing knowledge; there was nothing original in them.

The Romans excelled in more practical matters. If they got their architectural styles from Greece, they reached a new peak in engineering virtuosity in erecting their buildings. They excelled in city planning, especially water supply. Privileged homes had lead pipes, poorer neighborhoods communal fountains. For sewage disposal they began with an open ditch, then roofed it over. If this sounds primitive, it was - China was far more sophisticated - but Europe would have to wait for Paris in the 1600's to see anything better. Police and fire protection were performed by militia companies, combinations of police, fire brigade and National Guard. Public fire protection consisted mostly of keeping fires contained. There were also private fire companies that would show up and put fires out for a price, which the hapless owner usually had little choice about. Bridges and aqueducts built by the Romans still stand.

The list of technical innovations by the Romans is short. Far and away their greatest invention was concrete. If a society can only introduce one invention, it could do no better than this. Some varieties of volcanic ash in Italy are natural concrete; the Romans soon discovered that mixing lime with volcanic ash made concrete that would harden even under water. Another innovation was in the domain of books. Like most societies, the Romans used scrolls, which are clumsy. Like many other societies (like the Maya in the Americas) they found that unrolling the scroll, fan-folding it, then binding one edge, was handier. This is termed a codex and is the ancestor of the modern book. Late in the Empire, water wheels appeared and spread rapidly. Finally, the Romans excelled at law and administration, and especially the codification of law. The rediscovery of Roman law would profoundly influence the birth of Western science about 1100 A.D.

The Fall of Rome

In 395 the Empire was split, with the eastern half ruled from Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul). The eastern half endured as the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when it was overrun by the Turks. The first barbarian invasions began in the third century A.D. in the present Balkans. After about 400 they were general; the invasions were limited not by Roman military strength but the speed and ambition of the invaders. The last emperor (by then only a puppet) was deposed in 476 A.D. In a bitter irony, he was named Romulus, the same as the legendary founder of Rome. His full name, Romulus Augustus, was given the diminutive form -lus in contempt, so he is usually listed in histories as Romulus Augustulus. The usurping German chieftain, Odoacer, styled himself as regent for the Emperor in Constantinople, as did his successors for several decades. Nevertheless, we mark 476 as a turning point; the date the pretense of a "Roman" empire was finally abandoned. It is more of a turning point to us than to people living then; letters from people living at the time show no hint of anything significant happening. To them, Odoacer's takeover was just another palace coup.

Did anybody try to stop it? Christianity became legal early in the fourth century and the state religion a few decades later. Many Romans attributed their declining fortunes to the displeasure of the old Roman gods, a charge that became so widespread that St. Augustine, about 400 A.D., wrote his book The City of God to refute it. One late Emperor, Majorian (ruled 457-461) stands out as one who attempted to reverse the trends but failed. Historian Edward Gibbon describes him as "a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species." Far too late to reverse the economic stagnation of the Empire, he declared a general amnesty on taxes and reformed the taxation system. He declared severe penalties for the demolition of monuments (which were being quarried as cheap sources of stone), and attempted the reconquest of North Africa. His reforms aroused intense hatred from the myriad officials who had been profiting from the abuses of the system; he was compelled to abdicate and died a few days later, supposedly of dysentery, almost certainly murder.

Hypotheses for the collapse of Rome

Lack of innovation: The best indicator of Rome's intellectual stagnation is its 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. A European empire that intends to endure should draw its borders not along the Rhine and Danube, creating a long front to defend, but along the Vistula and Dneister, creating a much shorter frontier from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Romans never explored Ireland or Scotland, never went into the Baltic, or to Scandinavia. The Canary Islands were discovered in Roman times (the name comes from Latin Canis, meaning dog, from the wild dogs there), a Roman legion marched across the Sahara, there were Roman trading posts in India and even one mission to China. And that's all; the sum total of Roman exploration in a thousand years. When Marco Polo went to China, his account electrified Europe; the Romans who went to China left us nothing. The Romans absorbed the Etruscans and Carthaginians, and their languages persisted for a long time, but despite the importance of grammar and rhetoric in ancient learning not one Roman writer left any description of these languages, or indeed any others.

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 elite Romans need not bother with practical matters. A similar attitude prevails today in the Persian Gulf, where outside experts are often viewed as hired servants. Slavery was not just a matter of status; oarsmen and miners were often free men, while even white-collar workers in Rome were often slaves. The reason slavery was hated and feared was not necessarily the hard or lowly work it entailed, but the loss of freedom. The real crippling effect was not so much slavery as the static concept of wealth in the ancient world. Wealth was seen as precious metals, slaves, livestock, and especially land, not productivity. Romans who did make money in technology used the money to buy land and social status, not improved productivity.

Religious cultism and mysticism have been cited as contributing to the decline of Rome, but are probably symptoms as much as causes. The emphasis on ever more subtle cult doctrines is an outlet for intellectual energies that have no productive outlets in an intellectually stagnant world, and people retreat to cultism and mysticism when the real world offers no hope.

Lead poisoning has been cited as a factor, not from lead water pipes but from lead-based ceramic glazes.

Edward Gibbon and Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The most famous and influential work on the fall of Rome was Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1782. Author Edward Gibbon suggested four reasons for the fall of Rome:

  1. Immoderate greatness: growth of a bureaucracy and the military. The Empire simply got too unwieldly and cumbersome.
  2. Wealth and luxury: the popular stereotype, although it has some validity.
  3. The barbarian invasions: were these a cause or a symptom, or both? The barbarian invasions certainly drove the final nails in the coffin of Rome, but the barbarians could hardly have invaded if Rome maintained its military effectiveness.
  4. The spread of Christianity: Gibbon's most controversial claim. 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.

Gibbon had his own cultural biases that affected his work. Most later historians believe he took far too rosy a view of conditions in the second century A.D, when his narrative starts. Gibbon picked that period, the high point of Roman expansion and a period marked by a succession of capable Emperors, as the peak from which Rome fell. Actually, many of the economic and social institutions that contributed to the decline of Rome were already in place by that time. Once he conceived of the concept of a Decline, he pushed it too far. In particular, in his view, the eastern or Byzantine Empire, which lasted almost a thousand years after the collapse in the West, continued to decline throughout that period. If the West declined, one can only imagine how low Gibbon thought the East sank by the time it was conquered by the Turks in 1453.

Gibbon was raised Anglican, converted to Catholicism, then was packed off to school in Switzerland by his furious father, where he absorbed the ideas of both John Calvin and the French philosopher Voltaire. His concept of Christianity was intensely rationalistic. He despised mysticism, which tended to be a prominent feature of Eastern Christianity, and he despised the solitary monasticism of the East, as opposed to the pragmatic, technological and productive monasticism of the West. The Byzantine style of politics tended to emphasize subtlety, craftiness, and indirect dealings, just the sort of thing that would be most repugnant to a hard-core rationalist like Gibbon. (It's no accident that we refer to complex and secretive politics as "Byzantine".) To Gibbon, the fact that the eastern Empire gave rise to Eastern mystical Christianity and Byzantine politics was indisputable proof of its continuing decay, and the further it evolved in that direction, the deeper its decay in Gibbon's view. Gibbon gives us a clear object lesson in the need to beware facts that reinforce our prejudices. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, Gibbon's work has endured as few works of history have.

An Alternative View of the Fall of Rome

Americans often idealize ancient Rome. We are impressed by its monuments, and many of our buildings imitate them. Rome is 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 clumsy medieval Latin, not Classical Latin.) Many "religious" films about the life of Christ are actually films about Rome with a pious veneer. Ben Hur, for example, spends much of its time on the brutalities of Roman slavery, a Roman sea battle, the splendor and corruption of Rome itself, and climaxes with a Roman chariot race, while giving an occasional nod to concurrent events in the life of Christ.

A reality check is due: 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, with frequent examples of the casual murder of people because they might someday prove an inconvenience. A historical example typical of Roman petty spitefulness is that after defeating Hannibal, the Romans pursued him for over twenty years. Every treaty they concluded with another state included a clause requiring the surrender of Hannibal to the Romans if he ever sought asylum. Hannibal was finally cornered twenty years later in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and committed suicide to avoid capture. He was not alone. Most leaders who opposed Rome effectively on the battlefield were eventually captured, taken to Rome, then executed as part of the victory celebrations. The final destruction of Carthage, by then no conceivable threat to Rome, is yet another example of petty vengeance. Wells, an old-time British socialist, needs to be read with some caution, but he ruthlessly strips away the romantic and noble 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.

The pivotal and fatal decision Rome made can be illustrated by comparison with the early U.S., which faced the same choice and made a different decision. In 1787, the United States was governed by a weak union under the Articles of Confederation, soon to be supplanted by the Constitution. The one great act of this weak government was the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for division of new territories into additional States. The concept of admission of new States was incorporated into the Constitution. Hence there is no distinction whatever between original States and later States. A citizen of Wisconsin (admitted 1848) is no different from a citizen of Delaware (first of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution in 1787) or Hawaii (admitted 1959; except Hawaiians are a lot warmer in the winter).

Rome in 200 B.C. faced the same choice and made a radically different decision. Rome acquired Spain from Carthage after the Second Punic War, and faced the same question as faced by the early U.S., what to do with the new lands? Instead of admitting the new lands into the then-republic on an equal basis, Rome decided to exploit the new territories as sources of revenue and slaves. Roman citizenship was reserved for Romans. The result was almost non-stop guerrilla war in Spain for over 300 years. Rome traditionally had raised armies for no longer than a year, a workable solution when Rome had only to defend Italy, but troops could scarcely be trained and sent to Spain before they would have to return .To fight its wars in such a distant place, Rome abandoned its traditional citizen army for a permanent standing army. Conscripted soldiers frequently become dispossessed while serving in Spain; their farms fell into debt and were confiscated by the wealthy. Up until this time, Rome had been making erratic but nevertheless real progress toward equality. The Roman electoral system was badly gerrymandered to keep power in the hands of the wealthy; nevertheless, when civil unrest grew serious enough, real reforms and concessions were made. This progress stopped and reversed. Power and wealth re-concentrated in the hands of the upper class. For the next 170 years, Rome experienced increasing civil unrest, ever-bloodier conflicts and civil wars, a military coup by Julius Caesar, then dictatorship under the Emperors.

In What If?, a collection of essays on alternative military history, Lewis Lapham pictures a successful Roman conquest of Germany as leading to a more moderate and civilized Europe. But that would have happened only if Rome had enough leaders capable of treating conquered lands in an enlightened manner. And Rome simply did not have enough of them. In Hannibal's day there was a prominent family called the Scipios who embodied all the virtues we like to think of as Roman. One of the Scipios defeated rebels in Spain and temporarily pacified it with benign and just policies, but as soon as he left, Rome went back to business as usual. Roman policy toward Carthage was largely driven by the orator Cato, who ended every speech with "Carthage must be destroyed." Cato was about as petty and mean-spirited a character as history affords, and it was his spirit, not that of the Scipios, that triumphed in Rome. Two centuries later, Publius Varus attempted to invade Germany, in Lapham's words:

Choosing to regard Germanic tribes as easily acquired slaves rather than as laboriously recruited allies, he forced upon them a heavy burden of taxation in the belief that they would come to love him as a wise father.

Conclusion: Like a baby born with AIDS, the Roman Empire was infected at birth with what eventually killed it.

After the fall of Rome

Despite the corruption of Rome and the refusal of its populace to defend it, the loss of Roman civil infrastructure meant a real decline in quality of life. The Church was primarily urban and in no position to control rural areas, nor inclined much to do so. By this time Church leaders had absorbed a good deal of Roman elitism and love of comfort; they looked down on country dwellers and were hardly inclined to leave the comforts of the city for rural areas. (Pagan comes from the Latin pagus, meaning countryside, where traditional Roman cults persisted until 600 A.D and beyond. In fact, in many ways Italian Catholicism, especially in southern Italy, has a core of Roman religion with a Catholic veneer of terminology. The English word heathen has a similar origin - people who lived in the heaths, or waste lands.)

There were actually 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, but another decline took place about 900-1000 due to the raids by Vikings and Magyars. (The Vikings of course, came from Scandinavia, the Magyars settled in Hungary. It's interesting that two of the most eminently civilized peoples in the world had such ferocious beginnings.)

Technological innovations in post-Roman Europe

A number of rude but essential technical improvements appeared in post-Roman Europe.

The Irish

As Roman rule disintegrated, the Romans pulled their troops out of Britain for use closer to home; in 410 they left for good, leaving the Romanized Britons to fend for themselves. As Rome's grip weakened, raiders from Ireland began plundering the west coast of Britain for booty and slaves. About 401, on one such raid, they captured a sixteen-year old middle class youth named Patricius. For the next seven years, before escaping, he herded sheep for a local chieftain. After his escape, his Irish experiences haunted him; he eventually studied for the priesthood and returned as a missionary. This, of course, was Saint Patrick.

Forget the green beer and all the other silliness that accompanies Saint Patrick's Day. Patrick is a genuinely heroic figure in Western civilization for four reasons.

The Irish loved epics and sagas, and took avidly to Classical learning, especially heroic classics like the Iliad and Odyssey. They also wrote down their own literature, the first preserved vernacular literature in Europe. They never lost their love of heroic deeds, and with warfare on the wane, they found a new outlet in the White Martyrdom, leaving Ireland for unknown lands as missionaries. The first was Columcille, who carried the Irish tradition to Scotland and founded, among others, the monastery at Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. Ireland by this time was cut off from the rest of Europe by the Saxon invasion of England. The Romanized Christian Celts of Britain hated the invaders and had no desire to convert them, but the Irish had no such misgivings. Aidan, successor to Columcille and first head of Lindisfarne, spearheaded the effort that eventually converted all of northern England. About 590 A.D., Columba, another Irish missionary, set off for Gaul (France). By his death in 615 he has established a swath of monasteries across France, Switzerland, southern Germany and even into Italy. Other Irish travelled to Germany, the Low Countries and Denmark, perhaps even as far as Kiev.

Compare the wanderings of the Irish, indeed their seeming competition to reach the most inaccessible and threatening places, with the Roman attitude that nothing outside the Empire was worth knowing. They are almost the first people we know of that display the idea of exploration as a heroic act, a desire to go someplace "because it's there." The Irish, unlike their Roman-conditioned counterparts, sought out the countryside (and often came into conflict with urban bishops who wanted to assert jurisdiction over them.) The very act of converting and pacifying the rural areas probably had a profound impact on safety of travel and hence commerce. They not only converted northern Europe, but gave its Christanity an indigenous European flavor not derived from the Classical world. Of our surviving Bible commentaries from 650 to 850 A.D., fully half were written by the Irish. The Irish reintroduced literature into a Europe where it had largely been lost. At the far end of the Classical world, the Arabs were doing the same things, but the Irish contribution was more immediate. It enabled literacy to persist continuously in Western Europe.

The Vikings brought the Irish flowering to an end. Lindisfarne was sacked repeatedly from 793 until its abandonment in 875. All the great monasteries of Ireland were eventually destroyed. The Vikings did create Ireland's first permanent cities (including Dublin), but by the time the Viking threat faded out about 1000 A.D., Ireland was once again marginalized. By that time, however, they had replanted literacy firmly enough on the Continent to endure. Like Britain, Ireland was later invaded by the Normans, but the Normans integrated into Irish society even faster than they did in Britain. The real decline of Ireland began in the 1500's after the Protestant Reformation and the repeated, futile, and increasingly harsh English attempts to suppress Catholicism in Ireland. The Great Hunger of the 19th century and subsequent emigration mark perhaps the low point of Irish history. Only in the 20th century has Ireland begun to recover. Since 1960, especially, it has seen dramatic improvements in living conditions.

A final observation on a paradox: in their sagas and legends, as well as observations by occasional visitors, the early Irish were remarkably casual, indeed exuberant, in their sexual habits. In recent times the Irish have often been noted for prudishness and sexual repression. Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, attributes this change to a desperate desire to achieve respectability in English society among the English-speaking population of Ireland. He notes that the Irish were always a good deal more liberated in areas where the Irish language remained strong, and concludes with "Anyone who has visited Ireland in recent years will have noticed that the Irish are reverting to their ancient ways."

The Puzzle of the Celts

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About 1000 B.C., the ancestors of the Celtic peoples swarmed into Western Europe. Places as far apart as Galicia in Spain, Galicia in Poland, and Galatia in Asia Minor (recipients of one of St. Paul's epistles) recall their settlement by the Gauls, as the Celts were sometimes called (map above). Yet the Celtic languages have shrunk from a vast area of occupation to pockets on the fringes of Western Europe. The Romans never seem to have engaged in any serious campaign to stamp out the Celtic languages; rather, the Celts seem to have adopted the language of their conquerers with their usual pragmatism and flexibility. This raises an interesting question: to what extent is Western culture really Celtic with other languages and traits superimposed?

As phenomena like Riverdance show, things Celtic are currently "in." I would be surprised if there are not historians now writing on this very question. But a few possibilities come to mind: the Celts were flexible, adaptable, pragmatic. They didn't split ideological hairs; in conflicts with the Romanized heirarchy, Irish missionaries submitted readily, then went ahead with their own agendas. These are all traits that are prominent in Western culture. And their tendency to go to remote places simply for the challenge looks very Western indeed.


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Created 13 January 1998, Last Update 21 August 2000

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