In a post I wrote the other day, I said the following:
“The Romans stole most everything from earlier civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt anyway. They didn’t invent much of anything except maybe Roman concrete and misogyny. Seriously, ask 100 people who invented the aqueduct and I bet 100 of them will say the Romans. Lies.”
So, today, I thought I’d delve into some things that the Romans get credit for inventing that they didn’t invent at all, starting with the thing that inspired this post, the aqueduct.
For reference with all the numbers I’m about to drop, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BCE and the Roman Empire came to an end in 1453 CE.
Excuse me for shouting, but *ahem* ROMANS DID NOT INVENT THE AQUEDUCT. Aqueducts had been in use for centuries before the Romans came along. If you search the internet for the first aqueduct, many, many results will point you to the Romans and the Appia aqueduct.
The first Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was built in 312 BCE. It still exists and it is quite an impressive construction, but it was not the first. The Appia aqueduct was built several hundred years after the first aqueducts were in use.
One of the oldest aqueducts still exists and it required every bit as much engineering prowess as the Appia, but it’s not as fancy with all those arches. Some scholars believe the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually the Hanging Gardens of Ninevah because of it. The Jerwan Aqueduct in modern day Iraq was constructed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire between 703 and 690 BCE. It predates the Appia by at least 300 years. 300 years!! That would be like Elon Musk saying he invented the battery, and all subsequent history books and the internet confirming it.
The Romans didn’t invent concrete, but they did perfect it. They invented Roman concrete, which is a form of concrete that uses volcanic rock. It’s actually stronger than the concrete we use today. In fact, Roman concrete gets stronger as it ages unlike modern concrete, which does the opposite.
Stone-age Syrians used a type of concrete for permanent fire pits for heating and cooking dating to 6500 BCE. The first concrete structures were built by Bedouins and Nabataean traders who controlled a series of oases in Syria and Jordan around 6000 BCE. By 700 BCE, before Rome was founded, they were building kilns to supply mortar for the construction of rubble-wall houses, concrete floors, and waterproof cisterns. Egypt, China, and the Mayans also used concrete hundreds of years before the Romans.
The Pantheon with its famous concrete dome was built between 27 BCE – 14 CE. Humans had been using concrete for more than 6000 years by then.
The Romans built lots of roads, but they didn’t invent the concept. There was a dense network of roads in the late pre-Roman era that existed long before that. In fact, The Roman Empire used a lot of roads that already existed. In 500 BCE, Darius I of Persia started an extensive 1600-mile long road system that remained in use during the Roman Empire.
The Mesopotamian city of Ur in modern day Iraq had stone-paved streets dating back to 4000 BCE. The oldest surviving paved road is in Egypt dating back to between 2600 and 2200 BCE, over 1000 years before Rome was founded.
Math & Economics
While the Romans invented Roman numerals, they didn’t invent numbers, mathematics, nor taxation.
Starting in 3000 BCE, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levantine state of Ebla began using arithmetic, algebra, and geometry for purposes of taxation, commerce, trade, and also in the patterns in nature, the field of astronomy, to record time, and formulate calendars.
Romans often get credit for inventing the first sewage and sanitation systems. They did not. The first example of Roman sewers is the Cloaca Maxima built around 600 BCE.
Mesopotamia invented sewer pipes. The ruins of Eshnunna in modern day Iraq has clay sewer pipes from around 4000 BCE. They later perfected the system in the city of Hattusa in modern day Turkey. Hattusa’s sewer had easily detachable segments that allowed for cleaning and replacing. That’s thousands of years before Roman sewers and the Cloaca Maxima didn’t have replaceable parts.
The Bronze Age (3300 BCE to 1200 BCE) city of of Knossos, the Minoan capital, had latrines connected with vertical chutes to an elaborate stone sewer system. The Roman Cloaca Maxima is very similar to Minoan sewers, which predate Rome’s by a minimum of 600 years, yet the wiki says it “was one of the world’s earliest sewage systems.” Uh huh.
The pre-Roman sewer list goes on and on. The Nazca (in Peru), Macedonians, Mycenaeans, Etruscans, late Egyptians, Chinese and many other ancient cultures all had some form of sewer system long before the Roman Empire.
The Legal System
While America’s modern legal system uses many words and concepts derived from the Romans like pro bono and subpoena, they didn’t invent the law. All pre-Roman civilizations had their own laws and legal systems to varying degrees.
Egyptian law dates as far back as 3000 BCE and was characterized by tradition, social equality, and impartiality. Ur-Nammu, an ancient Sumerian ruler, formulated the oldest surviving law code in c. 2100 BCE.
King Hammurabi, the first king of Babylon in Mesopotamia who ruled from c. 1792 – 1750 BCE, was known for his fair laws. The Code of Hammurabi included a wide range of statutes covering everything from family relationships to contracts to inheritances to crimes and punishments.
Ancient India, China, Greece, etc. had robust legal systems that existed long before the Romans. In fact, much of the Roman legal system (like most everything else Roman) was copied from the Greeks.
China holds the record for the country with the longest continuous legal system in history.
Some famous Roman tools of destruction are the ballista, a large catapult that hurled either bolts or stones; the scorpio, a torsion crossbow that shot arrow-tipped bolts; and siege towers. None of these things were invented by Romans.
The Egyptian fortress of Buhen seems to contain platforms for siege weapons dating from c. 1860 BCE. The earliest recorded catapults date to the 600s BCE when King Uzziah of Judah equipped the walls of Jerusalem with machines that shot “great stones.” The ballista is based on a Greek design from sometime before 399 BCE.
Crossbow locks made of cast bronze have been found in China dating to around 650 BCE. The Greeks had a crossbow called the gastraphetes invented prior to 420 BCE, which is very similar to the Scorpio.
As for the siege tower, the Egyptians carved a mobile siege tower in the battle scenes of a tomb at Thebes c. 2000 BCE. Closer to the Roman Empire, the Assyrian Empire used a siege tower sometime between 884 and 859 BCE.
While we still use the names derived from the Julian calendar today, I think we all know that the Romans didn’t invent the calendar. It’s not like Julius Caesar designed it even though it’s named after him. The Julian calendar was developed with the aid of Greek mathematicians and astronomers based on calendars that preceded it.
The first recorded physical calendars dependent on the development of writing were the Bronze Age Egyptian and Babylonian calendars.
There are more things that the Romans get credit for even though they didn’t invent them, but that’s enough for today.
And just so that this post isn’t entirely “down with the Romans,” here’s a few things they did actually invent (as far as we know): hypocaust, a type of under-floor heating; testudo formation (meaning tortoise), a military shield wall formation; and the codex, the first bound book.