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Roman inventions and achievements

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Via Appia
Via Appia was one of the oldest Roman roads, many fragments of which can be admired to this day. The total length of the Appian road is over 530 km, which proves how well developed the Roman Empire was.

Ancient Rome was a very well-developed state. Its achievements include construction, philosophy, literature, religion, art, rhetoric, historiography and science. Roman inventions and achievements played an important role in the development of later European culture.

Heron of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and engineer, living and working in Alexandria, (Roman Egypt).

Firstly, some of the most important achievements of the Romans should be mentioned. In the times of Heron of Alexandria (c. 10 – about 70 CE), the first fire engine was constructed. Then after the fire in 64 CE, emperor Nero organized vigiles or firefighting units. The Romans brought lawmaking to perfection, they were the creators of the first comprehensive legal system, and modern legal terms come from their times. Roman numbering was used and universalized. Julius Caesar carried out a reform of the calendar, which was named after him. The novelty was the introduction of a leap year every 4 years, which was 1 day longer. This calendar was valid in Europe until the end of the 16th century, and in some countries even up to the 20th century. We also adopted the Latin alphabet from the Romans.


Romans were great builders and inventors. The first important achievement was the improvement of concrete (natural cement), which was already in use in Assyria. For the first time, the Romans used concrete in 150 BCE. This invention of antiquity was forgotten throughout the Middle Ages. Roman concrete was marked by extraordinary durability and water resistance. Many of the ancient monuments in the entire Mediterranean Basin were made of concrete. Some of them have survived to this day. The most spectacular example is Pantheon’s dome, made from cast concrete, 43.3 m in diameter, weighing about 5 000 tons was created in the years 118-125 CE. Others include the Baths of Caracalla, bridges and aqueducts.

Roman concrete

Romans produced concrete from a mix of lime and volcanic rock. The type of cement used for the underwater structures consisted of lime and volcanic ash, and the mortar thus obtained was mixed with the tuff and placed in wooden moulds. After immersion in water, an immediate hot reaction occurred. The lime was hydrated and reacted with ash. Thus, extremely resistant cement was created.

Fortunately for us, the descriptions of used ash have survived. Vitruvius, engineer of the first emperor, Augustus, and later Pliny the Elder said that the best cement for use in the sea was made from volcanic ash from the vicinity of the Bay of Naples. The one that is located near the modern city of Pozzuoli, called pozzolana, was especially valued. We now know that this type of ash and volcanic rocks made of it can be found in many places around the world. The latest research shows that thanks to the special way in which aluminium replaces silicon, the Romans have managed to get extremely durable cement.

Thanks to the improvement of concrete, the Romans could build high walls of stone or brick, and later also build aqueducts from concrete. Aqueduct (aquaeductus, from aqua – water, ductus – conducting) bridged conveying water to the city from a source located high (usually mountain due to cleanliness and low temperature) with pipes or an open channel in which water flows thanks to gravity. Aqueducts were used already in the second millennium BCE – they existed, for example, in Knossos (Crete, c. 2000 BCE), in Gezer (Palestine, c. 1900 BCE), in Mycenae (Greece, c. 1200 BCE). Most of these aqueducts were run underground, in tunnels, so they could supply the water to the fortresses during sieges without being noticed by the enemy. But the true flowering of aqueducts was in the Roman Empire. The first Roman aqueduct was built in 312 BCE by Appius Claudius, and in the 1st century CE Rome was supplied with water by aqueducts with a total length of about 420 km. Thanks to cement, it was possible to build permanent bridges on large rivers, eg. the Danube. Romans built arched bridges and used stone, brick and wood as materials.

Via Appia is the oldest Roman road, called regina virus by the Romans, meaning “the queen of roads”. It starts in Rome at Circo Massimo and runs (now with breaks) south to Capua near Naples, where it turns east and continues up to the city of Brindisi on the Adriatic coast, joining Via Traiana there; nowadays with Via Adriatica.
Autor: Livioandronico2013 | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

In architecture, new solutions and elements were introduced, such as barrel vaults and domes.
Therms were built, i.e. sports and recreation centres, where steam and water baths were located. There were swimming pools, bathtubs and showers. The drainage system was improved, with which sewage was carried out. Public chalets were built for the first time.

The Romans were also building excellent roads. Roman roads had a thick layer of stone pavement, providing stability and resistance to load. They were aimed to be straight lines and that is why they were often mountainous. Roman roads have been the main arteries of European transport for many centuries – even today many roads run along their routes.
The Romans also used war machines (Greeks as well) to win battles. The Greek catapult was able to throw stones. The Romans created a new type of catapult, the so-called ballistaę, which, unlike a catapult, fired shots rather than stones. The shots were fired with two levers with torsion springs.


At the turn of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, there was a fierce struggle between the supporters of ancient Roman customs and the followers of the Greek culture that permeated Italy. Although the influence did not initially affect the entire Roman society, its importance in the circles of Roman aristocracy was constantly growing.

Philosophy was definitely an important achievement of Rome. Concededly, the stoic philosophy was more appropriate for the Romans of the old date, as it emphasized the role of the citizen in relation to the state, but during the civil wars (1st century) epicureanism presented a life free of duties found many supporters. The advantages of this philosophy were raised by one of the greatest Roman poets, Titus Lucretius Carus. In the poem “De rerum natura” he pictured a philosophy which was supposed to show a man tired of the present, a happier perspective, freedom from fear and from superstition. However, apart from this one exception, the Romans did not create any original philosophical system, limiting themselves to agreeing on different views borrowed from existing philosophical schools and accepting only those that seemed the most appropriate for them. This direction was called eclecticism, and its most prominent representative was Cicero, a famous orator and theoretician of pronunciation.
The most famous philosophers were: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epictetus, Dion of Prusa and emperor Marcus Aurelius.


Marcus Portius Cato fought with all Greek influences, being a supporter of Roman traditional virtues.
Brigdeman Art Library

Literature was another, though no less important, great Roman achievement. Busy in constant wars, the Romans did not pay much attention to writing. Only for religious needs there were created songs (carmina) and litanies for the worship of the gods (indigitamenta). However, under the influence of the Greeks, this situation began to change. The first writers were not Roman in origin. The first writer was Andronicus, who translated the “Odyssey” into Latin. He also translated Greek comedies and tragedies. Thanks to him, two other men got interested in writing: Naevius, who in the 3rd century BCE wrote a poem about the First Punic War and Ennius – the author of the first national epic entitled “(Annales).

The Romans wanted to prove superiority over the Greeks, not only militarily but also culturally. It forced some prose writers to become interested in literature. The main representative of the prose writers was Marcus Porcius Cato, also active in politics. He was the author of several works of a practical nature, more suitable for the Roman way of thinking. Cato, a great farmer, in the work “On cultivation” (De agri cultura), the oldest document of Latin prose which has survived, gave the methods of the most beneficial farming in the country estate.

Thanks to the passion for the games taken over from the Etruscans, dramatic work, initially based on Greek literature, began. The most common form on which the Romans based was comedy, which was popularized by Plautus. He transformed Greek comedies by adding colours to the Roman realities. On the other hand, tragedy was also developing. Poets such as Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Actius deserve credit here. In their plays, they worked not only on native topics but also take ideas from Greek art.


Another achievement was religion. In the 2nd century BCE, Roman religion underwent far-reaching Hellenization. The pantheon of Olympic gods was transplanted to Rome, and Roman gods were identified with the Greeks. However, in public life, old cults and rites were preserved. In addition to the official cults of gods recognized by the state, there were also propagandist cults, such as one of the gods Dionysus. The cult of Cybele, also known as the Great Mother, was highly popular among slaves. Italy experienced a real invasion of the eastern cults of orgiastic character.


The Roman achievement was also art. The field of art is very extensive. However, all its elements changed completely in the 3rd century BCE.

From the beginning of the republic, Roman temples were filled with statues of the gods, and works of the Etruscan masters. Many statues were brought from Greece, Sicily or the Hellenistic East where they were stolen. Realism, a characteristic of Roman society, had a great impact on this work. It manifested especially in the sculptures of figures who had characteristic facial features. Piety did not allow Romans to present gods or officials, representatives of the people, naked.

Painting, mainly decorative, was also developed. Mainly historical motifs were being used, as evidenced, for example, in the paintings from the 3rd century BCE found in the tomb on Esquiline Hill. Thanks to the following extension of Rome, artistic creativity, especially sculptural, also began to develop more intensively, reaching a level equal to Greek art. Everything was decorated with sculptures: market squares and even monumental buildings. However, was dominated by plant-based ornaments.

Noteworthy are the crafts made of stones. The most famous work was the Gemma Augustea, depicting Augustus with his family. In Rome, there are also great silver vessels, for example from the treasury of the Boscoreale near Pompeii, or even clay vessels equal to the Greek vases, eg. from Arrretium in Etruria.


The development of rhetoric in Rome was caused in the same way as in Athens by relations between the cities and the state. Rhetoric was needed for speakers in the Senate, on the forum, at meetings or in court, which is why it was mandatory in Roman education. Sons of eminent politicians from a young age had accompanied their fathers or other relatives in all kinds of gatherings and processes. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus climbed Parnassus in rhetoric, but Marcus Tulis Cicero shaded all the other orators. Acting as a lawyer, and later politically involved on the side of the Senate, he had a huge influence on the mentality of Roman society at the end of the republic. He acquainted the Romans with the philosophical output of the Greeks, publishing numerous works in this field, eg. ” Questions debated at Tusculum” or “About the Ends of Goods and Evils.” A special merit of Cicero was the perfection of Latin prose, which according to the ancients, no word could have been added to them.

The commonly used definition of rhetoric – ars bene dicendi (“the art of beautiful speaking”) comes from the 1st century CE and its author was Quintilian. In his Institutes of Oratory, he analyzed over twenty previous definitions. Quintilian’s description was quoted in ancient works written in Latin. In medieval and modern textbooks, ars (“art”) were often replaced by the terms scientia (“science”), doctrina (“doctrine”) or disciplina (“skill”).

Theorists of rhetoric agreed that its essence is persuasion, called, among other things, inducement, enchantment, etc. According to Quintilian, rhetoric was usually referred to as the power of persuasion.

It should be noted, however, that rhetoric was only true during the early Empire. Later it became unnatural. Before the performance, the entire speech had been prepared for the presentation of one of the speakers. Tacitus, a historian living at the turn of the 1st and 2nd century BCE, mentions it in his work Dialogus de retoribus (“Dialogue on Oratory”). As the main cause, he indicates a decrease in the quality of education. The politicians during the principate did not gain experience by observing political life, but in schools where they learned together with their peers, not individually. In addition, speeches were prepared for topics ripped from political reality, for example from mythology. Another reason was the change of the political system. When most of the power rested in the hands of one man, there was no need to seek the voices of the people, and thus oratorical abilities became useless. Hence, the art of pronunciation began being used only as a show and addressed trivial things. In addition, a relative order occurred in Rome. In turn, in times of crisis, when there were lots of plots, frauds and corruption, there was an opportunity to restore rhetoric its previous dignity1.


Roman historiography began to form at the end of the 3rd century BCE, when Rome, after the victorious wars with Carthage, became a Mediterranean power. Previously, there were only short notes written by priests. The first writings were written in Greek. Only in the 2nd century BCE under the influence of faith in their own power and the awakening knowledge, did the Romans begin to write in Latin. The writers who began literature were two masters: Fabius Pictor and Marcus Porcius Cato (“Orgines”). Unfortunately, in later times, historians very often deviated from the truth in order to glorify Rome. However, they tried to colour their works with rhetorical elements as they wanted to interest the readers.

The historian who had the greatest position among the writers was Titus Livius, from Padua. His work “History of Rome” (Ab urbe condita), is considered a classic work of rhetorical Roman prose. The second person who became famous in this field of writing was Julius Caesar. His two works (“The Gallic Wars” and “The Civil War”) have no equals either in Greek or Roman historiography.


Titus Livius was a teacher of rhetoric. 30 BCE he moved from Padua to Rome. Despite being a member of a wealthy family, he did not take up a political career, typical for the Romans, he did not hold any offices, nor he was a member of the Senate. He spent all his life teaching rhetoric and writing.

The last great Roman achievement is, in my opinion, science. With the deepening of knowledge about the world, science grew in importance in Rome. However, it was cultivated only for practical purposes, in accordance with the basic attitude of the Romans, subordinating it to the need of Roman life. And so mathematics became helpful in metrology or architecture, geography was only descriptive, and astronomy was used to organize the calendar. Studies on Roman antiquities developed especially. The man who put the greatest merits in this field was Marcus Terentius Varro. He wrote an encyclopedia containing information about grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, astrology, music and medicine, entitled Disciplinarum libri IX.

An increase in prosperity and long-lasting peace resulted in the development of education in the main cities. It was only here that there existed private schools in which middle-class youth took their education because only the rich could afford to have a home-based teacher. In addition to such elements as learning to read, write and calculate, young people were acquainted with the knowledge of the most outstanding works of Latin and Greek authors, poets and prose writers, and acquired knowledge from other disciplines in mathematics, astronomy and geography. However, young people were taught rhetoric at universities.

  1. Antoni Ładziński, Teatr polityki w starożytnym Rzymie i współczesnym świecie, ""

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