• Joaquin Phoenix definitely gives Ancient Roman innovations a thumbs up (Dreamworks)Source: Dreamworks
The Ancient Roman Empire often gets credit for inventions that in fact it merely stole from former civilisations – but their own innovations were no less impressive.
Jeremy Cassar

4 Jul 2016 - 1:37 PM  UPDATED 4 Jul 2016 - 1:37 PM

What did the Romans invent? Roads? Pfft. Try 4000 BC in both Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent.

Nonetheless, the Romans' contribution to bettering fluid pathways was so vital that the bones of many roads built 2000 years ago are still used today.

This is not an anomaly. While the Ancient Romans "invented" their fair share of marvels, most were actually extensions of existing technologies. With the great power and wealth of Caesar’s empire came the need for great advancement, and Rome proved it was the father of the redesign/rethink.

Before historian Mary Beard takes us through the peaks and troughs of the untamable empire with episode one of Rome: Empire without Limits, let’s clarify where the great city innovated as opposed to invented.


Building materials 

The Egyptians used gypsum, then the Greeks mixed limestone with sand to create mortar, but the Romans noticed neither material withstood more modern wear and tear.

Enter fast-curing cement — the discovery that concrete could quickly set underwater to never-before-seen strength with the addition of a particular kind of volcanic earth.

The Greeks went on to borrow the formula while building the Pantheon, which was eventually restored using a second Roman cement-related tweak: reinforced concrete.



Any thespian would drive by your house and hurl the twin masks through your window if you claimed the Romans invented theatre. It’s well established that Thespis was the first recorder actor in the first Greek tragedy — a title he won after entering the first ever talent competition.

It wasn’t until the Romans came along, however, that the stage saw lighter feet. Rebelling against the relentless intellectualism of Greek theatre, Caesar’s rule created a new form of entertainment named after a popular Italian soup.

Minestrone soup, otherwise known as "satura", is s a big pot of any-ingredient-goes, which is basically the starting point for early satire. These productions were usually a succession of skits and set-ups full of lighthearted obscenities, slapstick action and insults at the status quo. Yep, fart jokes may very well have once been considered satire.


Cosmetic surgery and the emergency c-section 

Thanks to the spread of the empire and the prevalence of gladiatorial spectacles, the Romans were forced to further develop early Greek surgical tools and treatments for wounds that had previously meant certain death.

Double-ended tools meant doctors could act in half the time, saving many lives in the process. Roman doctors went as far as replacing bits of skull with bits of metal, cutting and reattaching the eyelid to form a different shape and, of course, delivering a newborn via a C(esarean) section.


Sanitation and drainage

Is it any wonder that Italian-American Mafioso use the sanitation industry as a front? Romans took the Etruscan, Greek and Mayan attempts to provide adequate piping underneath a town — building the Colaca Maxima, an open channel sewer with a size rivalling those of today’s metropolitan cities.

A common misconception is that Roman sewerage systems were built to rid the town of waste, when evidence suggests they were built to move water, which basically means that like all civilizations that came before, every city street was most likely still covered in poo, pee, vomit and animal guts. Funnily enough, most records of this disgusting aspect of Roman society came from the aforementioned "satire".

The Romans were also the first to successfully deliver indoor plumbing on a mass scale, perfecting the Mayan effort to bring the bathroom inside.



If only the Romans were around when Moses bumped into God. The Lord could have quickly handed over a notepad, which Moses could have then slipped into jeans, and no stone tablet would've had to have been lugged back down the mountain.

Prior to Rome’s reign, no human had ever thought to create a codex — loose-leaf pages of papyrus stacked neatly, which after a century were eventually bound into codices. Or, as we now know them, bound books.

Early Christians were among the first to adopt the Roman technology, using it to widely distribute what is now known as the Bible.


Long  story short: the Romans were some very excitable little innovators.

Find out more about their epic legacy in Episode one of Rome: Empire Without Limits, titled Conquerors - airing on SBS, Sunday 10 July at 7:30 pm.

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