Proceedings 33        22 April 1993

Was There A Technological Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire?: by Dennis Simms


Although there was a long continued disintegration of urban culture in the Western Roman Empire, a question hardly considered in most histories of the period is what effects this had upon the technological infra-structure? Was there continuity? Or was there a sharp break - a technological decline and fall? Or paradoxically was there continuity in the sense that the Romans were so backward? The answers are crucial to the question Who created Prometheus? the modern world and our need to bind him. [B.Russell, Portraits from memory.] Was it really the very early Middle Ages, the so-called Dark Ages, as Lynn White suggested? Was it the whole medieval period, as Jean Gimpel has argued? Or was the true inspiration from the Romans and, as always, behind them, the Greeks?

Roman Technology

In order to determine what might have been lost, it is first necessary to discover what was there. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list. That produced by Duval was [Daumas, History of Technology and Invention,] included those inherited, perfected and developed from the Hellenistic Civilization, those borrowed, perfected and developed from barbarians, mainly from Gaul and those that originated in the Roman period regardless of their origin or originator. Despite his lengthy catalogue, Duval thought his list too short. It is. Moreover, his definition is too restrictive; it does not consider Roman knowledge of industrial and other technologies, only their techniques and tools. Even more importantly, his listing misses the consequences or importance of the technologies and their effects on Roman civilisation. In fact, it omits the main Roman contribution to technology.

As Donald Hill [late member of this Society] put it succinctly, the Romans were the greatest civil engineers of ancient times. As J.B.Ward-Perkins concluded, they brought about a revolution in architecture. As J.P.Olesen demonstrated, they took over and maintained the art of water-lifting technology of the Ptolemies. They developed mining on a magnificent scale and advanced metallurgy. The transport of corn by sea to feed Rome was produced by a splendidly organised system: it was backed a set of inventions aimed at improving the essential shipping trade: the anchor, the lateen sail, artemon and spritsail and rudder, harbours, breakwaters and other harbour works, including artificial ports, lighthouses with mirrors, dry docks and dikes. They drained the Pontine Marshes by c.160 BCE, they mastered tunnelling, they protected Rome from flooding, (better than the Popes); they could turn the course of rivers. The managed water supply in Rome was a triumph. They began to mechanise craft industries, notably oil, wine, blown-glass and pottery. The application of window glass to barracks was remarkably quick. Their towns had proper planning arrangements; they had drainage and clean water supplies. Houses had double floors to protect them against damp, with walls that allowed hot air to circulated. Refuse was banned from the streets. The average size of cattle, sheep and horses in many centres increased under Roman rule. The great landowners adopted a kind of cart with saw-tooth blades to thresh the corn and in Northern Gaul, the Vallus, a rude ox-powered reaping machine.

The Romans combined administrative with scientific and technical innovations: the Julian Calendar, Building Regulations and Fire-fighting systems. The invention of parchment that augmented the supply of papyrus was vital to the effective administration of the State, just as the reform of the calendar was necessitated by the needs of a fundamentally agricultural society. The Barbegal Mills met the demand for a large and regular supply of flour from the Roman garrison and the local population of Arles. It demonstrated their technological ability to create and run a large complex system. The large scale building programme devised by Agrippa, and encouraged by Augustus, coincided not merely with a substantial number of innovations, but also their application in buildings and their construction. Such a programme could very well have led to a shortage of skilled labour, which in its turn would stimulate innovation, just as the late Jean Gimpel found that the demands of the cathedral builders were to do. This is but one example of how crucial technology was to the maintenance of the state: the transport of corn from Egypt to Rome, the exploitation of the mines, the creation and maintenance of the infra structure and its administrative systems. Other changes, such as the development of larger-scale production units in cities, as opposed to those on the big estates or those under the direct control of the army, would have demanded social changes, so it is likely that the ruling class would have suppressed these. Thus almost all advances in the Roman period are linked with the State and very particularly with the Army: the introduction of window-glass in Roman army camps and new ways of building roads, bridges, sewers, so creating and improving its infra-structure. Other innovations spread within the security of the State; e.g., the comparatively rapid spread of the products of the discovery of glass blowing led to a plentiful supply of glass vessels. Barbegal was certainly, and the marble saw-mill at Trier likely to be, established by State officials. The winnowing machine in Northern Gaul was the result of the great landowners, and the Emperor was a great landowner, recognising its labour-saving advantages

Generalising, the Roman State and its Enterprises, like its predecessors, probably provided the main thrust for the likelihood of an innovation appearing and being applied.  My central proposition is therefore that the Romans had achieved a very considerable level of technological competence indeed. Almost all this vanished in the West.

What was lost and what survived?

There was undoubtedly continuity. I have myself seen a Maltese peasant push a primitive plough, the aratrum, in a narrow band of soil between road and sea at Sliema. I have seen a Greek labourer hack the earth with a mattock in the grounds of the Museum at Olympia, probably oblivious of its being identical with those inside. Very few tools were lost in the West and fewer still vanished altogether. In the north, the wood plane, chisel and saw disappeared; the axe, the adze and knife were used instead. The reverse occurred in the south - joinery versus carpentry. The art of the cabinet-maker deteriorated. Possibly what remained were of poorer quality, but Roman tools were not normally made of metal. One semi-automatic tool, the water-powered marble sawmill was lost. The shafted cart, the threaded nut and bolt and the grooved cam, the force pump and the Archimedean screw probably disappeared. The gear train with its sloping teeth was lost till the 17th century. The near ball bearings of the Nemi wreck had to be devised again by Leonardo.

Some techniques disappeared because of the loss of the technical competence and the capacity for training, especially those associated with professional activities, such as the art of urban map-making and the agriminores. The custom to map and survey the land in order to determine ownership ended. The famous Roman road maps were lost. Maps of the world were distorted for a different reason; Jerusalem had to be shown at the centre of the world. Others disappeared because of changing fashions; no one wanted realistic portraits any more.

The main loss in the West was the organising capacity that went with technology. Generally the magnificent achievements of the Romans in military, hydraulic, building, mining and civil engineering, and in architecture and town planning all failed. No one could maintain, let alone create, the Barbegal Mill. Charlemagne failed to build a canal; there were no new dams, only one bridge by Charlemagne that over the Rhine, no new tunnels, storm-water culverts and aqueducts. Systematic sewerage and fire fighting were abandoned; sanitation in 16th century London was appalling and remained so till late in the last century. Building Regulations lapsed. The techniques of handling masonry declined sadly; many medieval stones show little sign of the old scrupulous care in selection or in preliminary weathering. Mortar was much poorer in quality. Pozzulana cement took a long time to reappear. Many forms of structural design were lost; no concrete and kiln-faced bricks, none fireproof; no hemispherical concrete domes or barrel and cross vaults; no triumphal arches, porticoes, basilicas, stone bridges, paved streets or marble temples; no more pairs of hemicycles; no more central heating systems no public or private baths. Drainage systems collapsed. The mines were closed. The Vallus vanished. It did not harvest the corn as effectively as a hand-reaper. With the reversion to autarchy, the landowner needed output more than ease of gathering. Privacy vanished; compare the comforts of a centrally heated Roman villa and its windows, with the crudity of the 10th century castle.


There was continuity at the lowest level of social organisation probably because the assaults by the barbarians were never so comprehensive that all areas were under attack at the same time; the same must have applied to tools and techniques, though their quality may have diminished. Craftsmen could always flee and return. Our household and agricultural implements are largely Roman in origin. Indeed, traditional tools hardly changed for centuries, many till the last twenty years, because they were suited to requirements. Moreover, the barbarians had some industrial skills superior to those of the Mediterranean, the iron swords of the Franks, for example, and agricultural techniques better matched to northern soils.

The loss of technological capacity is something altogether different. Here the difference is comprehensive. All that Gibbon thought worthwhile disappeared from Western Europe. The main support of civilisation, appropriate technology, had failed. And if engineering requires engineers, there was nowhere to train them.

When the West started to recover, the contrast in the driving force behind the application of technology was fundamental. The Roman contribution had been largely driven by the State. It, like its predecessors, was a command economy. The successor states were radically different. There was no comparable unitary system. Kings had limited powers that they had to share with their barons. The Church was independent of them and divided. In the monasteries, intelligent men had to do physical labour, no more powerful incentive to innovation has ever been devised. What happened was essentially the formation of an innovative, entrepreneurial society. It had a radically different attitude to what had gone before.

The Romans provided the basis for medieval and later technologies, but not the drive to apply them. No Roman ever wrote of the potential transforming power of technology in the way that Roger Bacon did. Improvements in technology were something that Petrarch sometimes regretted, but took for granted, long before Francis Bacon. The medieval world produced relatively few inventions, though the clock and spectacles are very important. It was the ability to apply what they had to hand, notoriously gunpowder. The sawmill that Villard de Honnecourt described produced a shortage of timber very rapidly; is there any comparable effect in Classical times?

Second thoughts: Not quite perhaps, the damage one to the environment was substantial, but the Romans were unaware of what they had done.