• Article date:

The Influence of Roman Engineering on the Contemporary World

The Roman Empire is well known for its amazing feats of engineering, many of which have stood the test of time and are still used to today, or have heavily influenced contemporary machinery and engineering.  Advances in engineering were one of the most significant factors in the success and longevity of the Empire, not least because they reinvigorated society, allowed a new level of civilisation to flourish and with improvements in transport connected vast areas of land in a way they had never been linked before.  This article will take a brief look at just a few of the most influential achievements of the Romans, which are in evidence in today’s engineering world.

Because the Roman Empire covered such vast expanses the Romans had to come up with an efficient way to travel, and the result was a complex and efficient system of roads.  The Roman road system spanned more the 400,000 km, including 80,500 km of paved roads.  The first national highway was built in 312BC and stretched 132 miles from Rome to Brindisi in the South East.  Roads were mainly constructed out of layers of crushed stone, mortar, sand and paver stones.  Paver stones were laid in a certain angle in order to drain off water, making them immune to floods and other environmental hazards.  Roman engineers also preferred to find solutions to obstacles along a road route rather than redirect the road around it and this means Roman’s had a huge impact upon the development of tunnels and bridges.  Roman bridges were amongst the first and largest bridges ever built.  Lots of Roman roads and routes first laid out by the Romans have survived to the present day.
One of the most significant developments within the Roman Empire was the establishment of a technological relationship with water.  Famously, the Romans developed aqueducts, but at the same time they began using hydraulics for powering machinery and in industrial environments.  With the development of aqueducts came an access to water that had never been seen before.  Three hundred million gallons of water were brought into Rome; per capita ancient Rome water usage matched that of modern day New York.  In Rome water was mainly supplied to the public for use in the famous Roman baths and in sewage systems, significantly improving hygiene and therefore health for its citizens.  Aqueducts could range from ten to sixty miles long, descending from an elevation sometimes up to one thousand feet above sea level.  Like roads, if engineers came across obstacles such as valleys, rather than change the route of the aqueduct they built siphons to deal with the problem. 

As well as constructing comprehensive aqueducts the Romans were the first civilisation to really harness the power of water in construction and engineering.  Hydraulic mining (opens new window) was used extensively in order to pave the way for aqueduct systems and one the best examples of Roman hydraulics can be seen in Britain at sites like Dolaucothi where gold was mined.  A “hushing” method was used to prospect for ore by unleashing vast and powerful waves of water in order to brush away soil and leave an exposed bedrock.  Hydraulic mining is still used today on alluvial tin ores. 

The Romans also invented machinery such as the water tread mill and the tread-wheel crane.  The mill would have been used to produce flour or as a sawmill.  The Hierapolis sawmill is the earliest known example of a crank and connecting rod mechanism.   The tread-wheel crane was a wooden construction used to hoist and lower materials.  A rope would attach to a pulley, similar to that of the modern day timing belt pulley, and turned on a spindle by the rotation of a wheel.  The mechanism used a bearing which paved the way for the development of taper roll bearings in the nineteenth century. 

These are just a few examples of the legacy of Roman engineering.  The Roman Empire is well known for its development in technologies which in part explain why it survived so long.  Some of the greatest technological feats occurred throughout the four hundred years of the Roman Empire, some of these being so efficient and developed that we still use them today.