The aqueducts were constructed in order to conduct water from its original source to city’s households and fountains. The water found in nearby streams and rivers was not potable, due to its chemical and biological pollution. Therefore, an alternative had to be found and soon Appius Claudius Caecus found one. The first aqueducts ever constructed were were the Anio Vetus (272-269 BC), the Aqua Marcia (144-140 BC), and the Aqua Appia (312 BC) transporting water to a fountain at the city’s cattle market (clever economic thinking there). Today, the aqueducts are a remarkable piece of landscape art and a tourist must-see.
The Romans practically invented public discourse. In Rome anyone (educated well enough and born high enough) could express their opinion on state matters. This was the onset of journalism. The fist newspaper ever was the Acta Diurna, first published in the year 131 BC. Its contents were written on stone tablets. While perusing the Acta Diurna, one could find out e.g. about current military victories, games and gladiatorial sparring, or local births and deaths. According to experts, however, apart from the utilitarian columns, the papers also ran a human interest stories section. Welcome to the age of information and gossip.
The Romans shunned stupidity, just like they did cowardliness in battle. A respected persona had to be educated and well-read. And since the traditional clay tablets and scrolls of papyrus proved not very convenient, especially when the text was lengthy, something had to be done to make the activity of reading more pleasant. This sparked the brilliant idea to bind several smaller pieces of clay or parchment together. The creation became an instant success, as the new books were lighter and more portable. But, they were not called books yet. Instead, ancient Romans coined the term ‘codex’ for them. The Christians were proud supporters too, when the Bible came along, as they found it very useful for distribution of the Holy Scripture in large quantities.
Romans did not invent the arches as such. However, they did popularize them. What once functioned as an ornamental element in Babylonian and Assyrian architecture, now appeared nearly everywhere. Roman architects found out that arches were excellent at supporting large, heavy constructions, due to their weight distribution properties. From then on, arches appeared everywhere, from private houses of the patricians, to the public buildings which had to accommodate crowds, like the world-famous Colosseum, where gladiator fights were held. Also, as Romans loved to show off, soon the arches received a new function. Triumphant arches were built all across the Roman Empire to commemorate significant military victories.
The ancient Romans once again perfected something that was used by earlier Mediterranean cultures and made it their own. Though the concrete used in the Roman times was not quite as we know it today, it was fairly close to the modern Portland-cement variety. Roman architects used a mixture of slaked lime and volcanic ash known as pozzolana to create a dense, sticky paste for holding blocks together. The clever builders of the Roman Empire also added horse hair and blood to the mix. As extreme as that might sound, the hair apparently made the concrete less prone to cracks and the blood made it more durable when temperatures dropped below zero. Now, that is some ancient R&D at its finest!
6. State benefits
Few of us would associate the military superpower with a land happily handing out state support to all the poor and socially underprivileged, but, truth is, they did. As long as you were a native, you and your family could gain subsidiaries for food and education. In the year 122 BC, the tribune Gaius Gracchus introduced the progressive concept of ‘lex frumentaria’. This was a law, which stated that the Roman government is obliged to provide all citizens with low-cost grain in an appropriate amount for each. Trajan went even further, introducing the ‘alimenta’, a welfare program which focused on providing food, clothing and paying for the education of impoverished and orphan children.
The Roman Empire at its highest point was a conurbation sprawling across more than 1.7 million square miles. But, the annexation of European, Eastern and African provinces also meant that the jurisdiction now had to cover them all. Therefore, some kind of paths had to be established to facilitate communication to and from the Capital. Ingenious as always, Roman constructors soon invented the first roads. Where earlier mud and sand hindered merchant carts and horse traffic, now gravel and granite bricks were put, to ensure sturdiness and great capacity, regardless of the weather conditions. The roman roads also had categories. There was a clear-cut distinction between public roads and private roads, which owners could also dedicate to public use.
It comes as no surprise, that such a highly organized society as the Roman Empire was, had to follow some rules and regulations. As the Romans hated makeshift solutions and everything had to be in check, they also took care of establishing the basics of civil law. The first known legal document, which regulates the general legal relationships between citizens are The Twelve Tables. They were said to emerge as a result of a long-standing battle for liberties waged between the patricians and the plebeians of the city. Sadly, this legal artifact did not make it to our times. The original Tables, written in archaic Latin on bronze, or ivory plates probably burnt down when the Gauls set fire to the city in 387 BC.
The dating system we now use is more than 2000 years old! The first draft of the Roman calendar, the Calendar of Romulus, was largely based on the Greek lunar system of time measurement, but throughout the time it evolved into something we now know as the Gregorian calendar. The first Roman calendars featured some oddities, though, like a nine-day week including a special market day, as well as different nomenclature for months. July was previously known as Quintilis, and August was Sextilis. Maius was the third month, whereas the total number of months in a year was 10, not 12 as we know it today.
10. Medical practice
The Romans were highly skilled in the medical profession. Not only did they help women give birth in tough cases by performing the cesarean section, but they also took care of their soldiers so well, that most of them outlived the ordinary citizens. Well, maybe the hearty military meals and keeping fit had something to do with it as well. Regardless, the Romans could and would perform complicated surgery procedures and were among the first to see the necessity of sanitizing things. It was common practice to boil surgery tools in hot water to avoid contamination of the battle wounds. Needless to say, sanitation was later rediscovered in Europe as late as the 19th century. That took us a surprisingly long time.
11. Sewers and toilets
It was as early as 735 BC that the earliest sewage systems and lavatories, so called latrines, were invented. And as the people of the Roman Empire were quite sociable folks, this first WC-like establishments were far from private. There were no booths. Instead, the construction resembled a long stone bench with holes distributed evenly on its surface, where one could sit and do what they had to. The water from all the latrines in the city then flowed through the main sewer, Cloaca Maxima, and further into the waters of the Tiber river. Nowadays, of course this would be unthinkable, but given the time period, such a solution seemed a great technological advancement.
Although the basic numeric system we now use is Arabic, we have not forgotten about the Roman numerals. The Romans invented a universal system to record large quantities of things in a simple matter. It became popular around 900 to 800 BC and soon the was introduced as the sole accepted method in accounting. Of course, it still lacked a few things, like the number zero, or fractions. But, nevertheless, even when the Arabic numeric system started to get more attention, the Roman numerals still were in use to mark e.g. chapters in literature, cornerstones near public roads etc. And they are still used in similar context up to this day.
13. Grid city plan
Once again this was not typically a Roman idea, but a reasonable one which seemed adequate to the needs of the people of the Roman Empire. The city planning practiced by the Romans applied centuriation, a method of land surveying, the echoes of which we can still find in modern day geodesy. The basic concept was to divide a given land evenly into blocks, and to make all roads run either in a north-south, or in an east-west direction, forming an axis. The two main streets, cardo and decumanus, would cross at a 90 degrees angle in the middle of the grid. Today, the best example of historic grid-plan cities include the Italian Padua and Florence, as well as the Catalan Barcelona.
Once the Romans discovered that baked grains had much more flavor to them than those mixed into a paste or gruel, the breads became a huge culinary hit. In 168 BC the first Bakers Guild, the Collegium Pistorum, was established. Over the next 150 years, there were chefs coming to Rome from all over the world to present their master pastry skills. This was also a tempting trade because the bakers affiliated with the guild also enjoyed special political influence, having a seat in the Senate. There was a number of specialty breads you could treat yourself to as a rich Roman citizen, e.g. the delicious oyster bread, hurry bread or tin bread.
Apart from frescoes, this is a second example of Roman visual arts, which has survived many historical turmoils and continues to do well. How the ancient Romans had the sense to combine the sublime with the ordinary continues to perplex us. Beautiful pieces depicting mythological and historical scenes can sometimes be found in the most trivial places of Roman households, i.e. floors or back room walls. The traditional Roman mosaics were composed of several small elements called tesserae, which could either be fragments of pottery or natural colored stones. Next, the tesserae were put together and adjusted to recreate scenes, peoples and motifs. Surprisingly, the collapse of many Roman buildings helped preserve some stunning mosaic examples, like the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii.