The Modern Legacy of Greek and Roman Technology

Agile Trekker: Old Croton Aqueduct - Croton Gorge Park to Quaker Bridge Road

Croton Aqueduct Westchester County New York

Lecture 24: The Modern Legacy of Ancient Technology

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From the Catapult to the Pantheon

Dr Stephen Ressler (2013)

Film Review

The fall of Rome ended imperial sponsorship of big construction and military projects, as well as the rigorous training provided for Roman engineering students.

The museum at Alexandria was the primary Macedonian and eventually Roman (when Egypt became a colony) technological think tank. However by the third century AD, Roman rulers were deliberately suppressing its work. It burned down in 273 AD, possibly on the order of Emperor Aurelian.

This ended the work of Hero of Alexandria. One of Rome’s most prolific experimenters, Hero wrote treatises on pneumatics-powered catapults, optics and geometry. He also created the aeolopile (the world’s first steam engine), the syringe, the vending machine and the world’s first wind-powered organ.

In this final lecture, Ressler demonstrates a working aeolopile he has built.

Technologies Lost During the Middle Ages

Following the Roman empire’s collapse, concrete construction and urban planning were lost. Fortunately metallurgy, water power and glass making persisted into the Middle Ages. These technologies survived mainly in monasteries, in some cases undergoing further development.

Surviving Technologies

We have continued some classical technology (hydroelectric power production, steel manufacture and fiberoptics) to the present day.

Some construction technology (especially the arch and tie beam trusses) survived Rome’s collapse when the Roman basilica became the predominant model for medieval churches.

In the 17th century, French engineers made an inventory of surviving Roman roads and built new roads based on ancient technology. Many modern water systems use Roman aqueduct technology.*

The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire also preserved some Roman structural engineering technologies. Charlemagne’s Aechon Cathedral (built 805 AD) employed Roman construction technology, as did the Los Angeles public library (1925) and the Cathedral Basilica in St Louis (1914).

After a monk found it in a Swiss monastery, the Italian Renaissance revived Vetruvius’s 30 BC De Architechtura, which became the engineering Bible of the Western world. In 1499 Domincan friar Giovan Giocondo revived the use of pozzolana-based concrete for the Piers of Notre Dame Bridge in Paris. Urban planning and construction cranes were also revived around this time.

Archimedes screw pump is still used in Holland for reclaiming swamp land, in wineries for moving grapes, combine harvesters and snow blowers. It’s also used for hydroelectric generation in London, because unlike turbines it allows fish to swim through safely.

In the US, the neoclassical school of architecture saw the revival of Roman Doric columns at Monticello, the Virginia state capital and the rotunda-based library at the University of Virginia. The original Penn Stations in New York City is modeled on the Baths of Carcala, and the Lincoln Memorial, National Gallery and Jefferson Memorial all demonstrate this style.

In New England, the federal architectural style combined Roman columns with red brick walls as a symbolic manifestation of democratic freedoms.

Somewhat later, Greek Revival architectural styles reappeared (in the Brandenburg Gate and the British Museum) after the Ottoman Empire opened Greece to the West in the early 19th century.

*Including the 1840 Croton aqueduct that crosses the Harlem River to supply water to New York City.

**See Technology in Ancient Greece and Rome

***See Ancient Greek and Roman Pumps

Film can be viewed free with library card on Kanopy.

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