Is Rome Really Dead?
Written By: Eoin Ible
The Ancient Roman Empire is often referenced as one of the greatest empires to have ever existed. To this day, despite having reached its debatably "complete" end in the 15th century, Rome continues to influence Western Society because of its strong culture and impressive technological inventions.
Today, we’ll explore a few of the ways that Rome has influenced the direction of Western Society and continues to impact our everyday lives.
(And no, I don’t just mean by inspiring awesome movies like Gladiator.)
Before we jump in, let’s take a brief look at the course of the Roman empire.
Ancient Rome: The TL;DR
At its peak, the empire housed between 70-100 million people and controlled about 1.7 million sq. miles of territory. Considering the global population at the time was only a few hundred million (300 according to most estimates), Rome’s population made up approximately 20% of the entire global population at the time.
Rome wasn’t necessarily the most “original” culture, and often borrowed concepts, philosophy and inventions from other cultures, specifically the Greeks. They were, however, incredibly innovative. They often perfected the technologies they inherited from other cultures and implemented them on scales never before seen in society.
Their commitment to the use of technology for the betterment of it's people led to an unprecedented 200-year period of peace in the “early” days of the empire and another period of significant political and military influence following that.
Technically, the Roman empire began crumbling in the early 4th century AD when the Visigoth king Alaric succeeded in sacking the “eternal” city. This began a period of struggle for Rome, and the empire suffered economic collapse, dwindling labor resources, and massive political unrest.
Despite having met its official end, the Roman empire's legacy lives on in a variety of innovations we continue to employ today.
Let’s start with the most well-known and arguably the most influential.
#1. All Roads Lead to Rome
As we’ve already established- Rome was big, with a capital “B”.
A more apt term would be “expansive”. The massive empire covered so much physical area that it necessitated the development of an elaborate road system to allow the movement of goods and people.
Of course, Rome weren’t the first society to develop roads. In fact, the earliest known paved roads date all the way back to the city-state of Ur that existed in ancient Mesopotamia around 4000 BC.
Rome did however, have arguably the most extensive road system of its time. The entire system spanned over 250,000 miles, which included an astounding 50,000 miles of paved roads. By modern standards, that number seems low, but back when Rome made up 20% of the world’s population, it was a lot.
Not only were Rome’s roads expansive, but they were also innovative.
They were constructed from layers of crushed stone or gravel, mortar, sand and finally larger paver stones. The roads were also raised in the middle, which prevented water and debris from collecting, allowing carts and horses to travel safely. This construction made Roman roads far more durable than their counterparts in other societies, which ultimately led to far more trade and superior military movement.
Had Rome not demonstrated the power of well kept roads through their long-held military and economic domination, the remaining Western world may not have had incentive to begin mirroring and improving them.
Could you imagine commuting from home, to work, and back on horseback over grassy plains?
Yeah. Neither could I.
Thanks a ton, Rome.
#2. Aqueducts + Public Sewage Systems
In the simplest sense of the word, an aqueduct is an artificial channel for transporting water. They are typically used to move water over obstacles like ravines or valleys. The Romans installed aqueducts that could transport water into cities from up to 60 miles away, often beginning at high elevations.
Once again, the Roman Empire wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, however their engineering prowess pushed aqueduct systems to an entirely new level.
Water was in such abundance in Rome that practically everyone had access to water at all times. Rome’s water consumption per capita was so good it could rival that of modern day New York. This abundance of water allowed for the development of the modern sewage system, as well as public baths, sparing Rome’s citizens from hygiene related illness…
For the most part…
They did use urine to make clothing and clean their houses and collect human waste for fertilizer so that’s debatable to some extent.
#3. Central Heating for Those Frigid Winter Days
The Central heating systems we enjoy today were also inspired by Roman ingenuity. If you’re basing your impression off of films like Gladiator or Spartacus (10/10 for both IMO), it’s easy to assume that Rome was a tropical paradise year round.
It’s hard to picture anything other than sweaty men in worn leather armor and sandals covered in…well…sand.
However, Rome had winters too and Roman ingenuity figured out a way to keep houses and buildings warm during the colder periods of the year. This was especially important in more frigid regions of the empire like Britain.
Roman central heating didn’t work like our modern versions, using a boiler to drive heated air through a ventilation system, although it was quite similar.
The Romans employed a system called a Hypocaust, which consisted of a furnace which was kept running at the ground/basement level of a building. This furnace would create drafts of hot air that would flow underneath slightly elevated floor tiles, as well as through pipes running inside of walls.
Nowadays, floor heating is a wildly overpriced luxury for most. In Rome, it was common sense and common practice.
The Architectural Influence of Rome
In the typical Roman fashion, things that started off as mundane or common sense were often taken to a level of unprecedented development. In this section we’ll be taking a look at 3 major innovations that allowed Rome to develop it's capital into something worthy of the moniker “Holy City”.
#4. Eternal Concrete
Following its final major war, the Roman Empire enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace known as “Pax Romana” which lasted from 27 BCE to 180 CE. During this time, the Roman empire didn’t make a move to expand, nor did anyone think to invade it. In defense of Rome’s possible enemies at the time, the empire was not only 20% of the world’s population but were significantly more advanced than any other society in military strategy and infrastructure.
This stability lent itself to the rapid development of advanced architectural techniques and materials.
For instance, Roman architects began commonly using a compound called “Opus Caementicium", the fancy Roman name for concrete.
Like modern concrete, Opus Caementicium consisted of an aggregate and a hydraulic mortar. This consists of crushed pieces of rock and a paste that is easy to mold when wet but hardens over time.
Roman Cement was harder than marble and also easier to mold into a variety of shapes. It was also far easier to decorate and shape into elaborate structures, as opposed to marble, which had to be carved.
Being able to construct cement locally, as opposed to shipping large marble slabs from a distant quarry, further facilitated the rapid architectural progress during Pax Romana.
Rome’s architects became so good at their craft that they created a number of structures that are still in use today. They accomplished this by infusing their unique cement mixtures with volcanic ash and lumps of volcanic rock.
The volcanic ash, when mixed with seawater, acted similarly to a concrete “clotting system” and would prevent cracks from spreading by forming new minerals to fill in the gaps, thus preserving structures over absurdly long periods of time.
Rome’s increasingly commonplace use of concrete spread throughout the entire empire and eventually into what we now call the Western World.
#5. Arches, Pillars & Domes
Much of the architecture we currently consider modern was highly influenced by ancient Roman concepts. Prior to Rome’s experimentation with and mastery of concrete, most societies relied on a post-and-lintel system for constructing monuments. This meant using two upright posts as a frame and laying a lintel or horizontal block across them.
This model was practical and allowed buildings to achieve incredible sizes from the outside but were limited in size on the inside.
Given that lintels were typically made of heavy pieces of stone, much of the interior space in structures prior to the Roman empire was devoted to weight bearing. Because of their mastery of concrete, roman architects were able to deviate from post-and-lintel system using arches and domes as weight bearing features.
A good example of the contrast between Roman architecture and post-and-lintel is the Ancient Greek Temple compared to the Roman Pantheon.
The architectural patterns developed by the Romans have persisted to this day because they allow for a greater focus on interior design. Arches and domes are also very practical because they reduce overall cost. Where once two pillars may have been needed, one arch sufficed.
So, where can we find evidence of Roman influence in architecture?
Pretty much anywhere you can find a dome.
For example, the “Arc de Triomphe", a magnificent architectural piece designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806 was directly influenced by the Roman Arch of Titus. In fact, when Napoleon Bonaparte was made Emperor of France in 1804, he commissioned several works inspired by the Roman Empire, hoping to recreate Paris as a “New Rome”.
If you’re from New York City and happen to be strolling near the Federal Hall, you can treat yourself to some Roman-inspired architecture by observing the Doric columns to the front of the building. Or, if you’re from Washington D.C., the next time you’re racing through Union Station to catch a train, take a moment to look up. The interior of Union Station, features several arches quite obviously inspired by Roman architecture.
There are a couple other very obvious examples, such as the exterior of the White House or the Jefferson Memorial, which quite closely mirrors the design of the Pantheon in Rome.
#6. Perspective and Depth in Art
By now, you’re more than familiar with the Roman Empire’s uncanny ability to innovate in architecture and engineering. However, their tastes were not confined to the practical, and expanded into the realms of philosophy, culture and art.
Given the many cultural influences of Roman Art, it is no surprise that Roman artists mastered artwork in a variety of mediums. The specialized in mosaic, gems, silver and terracotta. Romans often incorporated the contemporary art of other cultures into their own and thus influences from Egypt, Greece and other Mediterranean cultures are commonly observed in Roman artwork.
There were many facets to Roman art given it’s many influences, however, one of the common focuses was on realism as opposed to the idealist focus of Greek artwork. To facilitate the creation of lifelike depictions, the Romans developed a system for creating the illusion of depth in paintings by using unique combinations of colors.
#7. Believe It or Not… They gave Us Sitcoms and Theaters Too
Ancient Greek society is often considered synonymous with the birth and early development of theater. It was common tradition for groups to gather on a hillside and partake in festivals honoring their gods.
These festivals were often comprised of structured singing and dancing in chorus.
Around the 6th century BCE, a priest of Dionysus named Thespis became the first documented actor by engaging the signing chorus in dialogue. This practice would quickly grow into the art form we know as “theater” and annually Greeks in Athens would hold competitions for the most well composed tragedy.
Roman theater was initially heavily influenced by the Greeks. However, Roman culture deviated from the traditional focus on tragedy and largely focused on comedy as an art form. These comedies relied on simple plots, obscene humor and “stock” characters who would appear in a variety of situations.
Startlingly similar to the formats we employ in comedies both in theater and on TV today. In fact, it can even be argued that there have been very few true innovations on the original formulaic approach to comedy, employed by the Romans.
So, the next time you’re enjoying watching Sheldon Copper on the Big Bang Theory or you’ve just flushed the toilet, thank the Romans for their incredible capacity for innovation.