The Ancient Roman Empire was one of the largest and longest lasting empires in ancient history. It was also one of the most influential: Roman philosophy, technology, architecture, art, and literature have been instrumental in shaping the modern world. At its height, the Roman Empire was the largest civilization in the West, owing largely to the innovations and inventions driving its exceptional growth. Below are some inventions that were crucial to the development of the empire, and that continue to be use -in some form or another- today.
Architectural arches were probably invented by the Etruscan civilization, an ancient Italian civilization that eventually assimilated into the Roman Empire. However, it was the Romans who honed the use of these structures and perfected them into the form we see today.
The use of arches, which are a staple of ancient Roman buildings, are considered by historians and architects to be have laid the foundations for modern architecture. They allowed the Romans to build large buildings without the use of pillars, enabling them to expand their empire more rapidly and efficiently. They are also useful for their versatility, as they can be used in different structures such as vaults, aqueducts, temples, and ceremonial triumphal arches
Julius Cesar ordered the establishment of the Acta diurnal, a handwritten daily government “newsletter” that was published and posted for the public to read. The Acta diurnal informed citizens of official news and business, as well as marriages, trials, politics, and military affairs.
Though the newsletter was only one page long, it was an important source of information for citizens who had no other way to keep informed. Since then, newspapers, whether governmental or private, have continued to be the main source of news for the public.
The Cursus publicus of the Roman Empire was one of the world’s first postal systems to be set up in history. It was the system set up by emperor Augustus in 20 BCE to deliver mail for official and governmental correspondence, including taxes and intelligence reports. The process through which mail was delivered evolved over time. At first, postal workers would pass the mail from one person to another, but the system was changed to allow for one person to deliver a message from start to finish, allowing recipients of mail to question them for more information.
The postal service existed for around 300 years, and was powered by delivery personnel riding horses and oxen. Only one surviving map reveals the extent of the system’s reach. The Tabula Peutingeriana¸ which can be seen at the Austrian National Library, shows over 500 Roman cities as delivery locations. Today, national postal services, like the United States Postal Service and the Royal Mail, are standard services in most countries around the world.
The Julian Calendar
The Julian Calendar was the dating system made by Julius Cesar and established as the Roman Calendar. Prior to Cesar’s innovation, the Roman calendar was based on the lunar cycle, and had to be corrected every few years by a group of pontifices, or Roman priests. This led to severe inconsistencies and inefficiencies across the empire, with people not knowing the date or with different provinces running on different time zones. The introduction of the Julian calendar standardized date-keeping across the Roman Empire, and incorporated a leap year to correct for seasonal misalignments.
The Julian Calendar was used throughout most of Christian Europe and some parts of the Americas until around the 16th century, when the world slowly began to transition to the Gregorian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar is the most widely used today, and it preserved many elements from the Julian Calendar, shortening the year slightly to make it more accurate.
Roads, of course, were not invented by the ancient Romans. However, it was the Romans who connected remote corners of the empire in an unprecedented network of roads, grids, and civic centers. The Roman proclivity for urban planning and infrastructure ensured the smooth flow of troops, goods, and information.
The Roman road system consisted of a hierarchy of main roads (somewhat like highways) that connected distant cities complemented by secondary roads connecting towns and villages. The roads were designed with the aim of making it easier to connect the capital to the rest of the empire, hence the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, many European highways and urban grids are modelled after or are direct successors of Roman innovation.
Earlier civilizations made use of simple canals and channels for their water needs, but the first aqueduct proper was built by the Romans around 312 BCE. An aqueduct is a large structure designed to transport a large amount of water from one city to another, especially over valleys and large chasms. Roman aqueducts supplied water to a vast amount of Roman cities, and were used to transport water for irrigation, drinking, and -importantly- sanitation. The Romans were known for their public baths, hundreds of which were supplied by aqueducts.
Roman aqueducts remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. While modern aqueducts have been greatly improved, they still rely on the same basic principles utilized thousands of years ago. In fact, some ancient Roman aqueducts are still functioning today, such as the Aqua Virgo in Rome.
As you could probably tell, Roman numerals were an early invention of the Roman Empire. The symbols currently seen on clocks and titles were the basis of a counting system that was standard across a vast amount of land. The motivation behind their creation was to establish a standardized mathematical system that could be easily adopted and taught to others. This new system provided the versatility that the Romans needed to efficiently conduct trade and communication.
Sadly (for the Romans at least) Roman numerals were not made to last, and their system proved too flawed to carry over into the modern world. For example, the Romans did not have a symbol for zero and could not express fractions. Accordingly, most of Christian Europe transitioned to Arabic numerals, which continue to be dominant in most Western languages used today.
The inventions of the Romans are a true testament to the spirit of innovation and development that brought them to power. Wherever you look, remnants of the Roman empire linger on in our cultural consciousness.