Struggling with Hero

Ancient Discoveries.

Hero of Alexandria has been puzz­ling me. If you’ve not heard of him, he’s the guy who made all sorts of pneu­matic and hydraulic devices which are unlike any­thing else seen in the ancient world. He inven­ted the aeol­i­pyle, which was the first steam engine. He inven­ted a coin oper­ated holy water dis­penser for puri­fy­ing your­self. You can find all sorts of things he made in this trans­la­tion of the pneu­mat­ics at Rochester. He’s clearly someone worth mak­ing a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme about, so it’s no sur­prise I saw (a bit of) one recently. The first bit is above and to be hon­est it didn’t grip me much. It’s a shame because The guy clearly was a genius, so why do we not see more devices in the Roman Empire?

A mod­ern aeol­i­pyle in action.

There’s a good reason why you don’t see Romans using steam engines for mech­an­ical work. In the Roman world your social pos­i­tion was depend­ent on how many people you employed. Being a pat­ron to many people was a good thing polit­ic­ally. Replacing some of your work­force with an engine would have been giv­ing the oppor­tun­ity for polit­ical expan­sion to your rivals. It would have also placed you at the mercy of the per­son who could fix your engine. In a time when human labour was cheap and plen­ti­ful, labour sav­ing devices made no sense. But Hero’s devices were not about repla­cing things humans could do. They were about doing things that humans couldn’t — gen­er­ally the mass pro­duc­tion of awe.

Hero’s foun­tain, per­haps I’m eas­ily awed. Build your own.

Now if we agree with the experts in the top clip this is a puzzle. Why are these devices found in Alexandria and not Rome? The quick answer is that Hero was a genius and Alexandria is where he was. Once the hydraul­ics and pneu­mat­ics are built in to a temple it can’t be moved — which is why they stay in Alexandria. The thing is that while you need to be a genius to invent this kind of thing, you don’t need to be a genius to copy it. If hydraul­ics were import­ant to Alexandria, then why not to the Imperial cult? Wouldn’t a mov­ing statue of Caesar salut­ing the Emperor be impressive?

The best answer I can think of is that Romans were extremely con­ser­vat­ive and hated the idea of nov­elty. Even when innov­a­tions were made in the polit­ical sys­tem, they were always jus­ti­fied as fol­low­ing the pre­ced­ent of the ancest­ors. When Julius Caesar was made Dictator in per­petu­ity, he was tak­ing an ancient office, Dictator. It was con­veni­ent to ignore that a Dictatorship was only sup­posed to be held for six months dur­ing an extreme emer­gency. When Augustus cre­ated the Empire, he claimed he was restor­ing the Republic. Novelty was bad. In that light the idea of Emperors installing ever more elab­or­ate devices in their temples wouldn’t make sense. Religion, espe­cially, was some­thing to be con­ser­vat­ive about.

Despite that, I’m not really sat­is­fied with my answer. Romans weren’t fos­sil­ised and clearly did wel­come innov­a­tions in some areas. For instance they inven­ted con­crete that could set under­wa­ter to cre­ate new har­bours.* They conquered new ter­rit­or­ies. They admit­ted new cit­izens. Simply say­ing that the Romans were anti-innovation doesn’t seem like a very good answer. At the same time they clearly did have a dif­fer­ent view of innov­a­tion to us.

*The story I heard was that Claudius wanted to build a new har­bour at Portus and drew it, indic­at­ing where the con­crete har­bour should go. He audi­ence laughed, assum­ing that he was jok­ing. Claudius asked why they were laugh­ing and it was gently poin­ted out to him that con­crete didn’t set under­wa­ter. Claudius laughed and gently poin­ted out that, as Emperor, he could execute engin­eers until it damn well did. Sure enough it turned out Claudius was right and con­crete could be made to set underwater.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Mats H says:

    Thanks for the post, this was inter­est­ing reading.

    I’ve heard of this guy before but never though of him in the Greece vs Rome con­text. It reminds me of Greek archi­tec­ture vs Roman archi­tec­ture. The Greek archi­tects developed the proper pro­por­tions of the temple over gen­er­a­tions, slowly improv­ing their work by study­ing older temples. When Romans adop­ted Greek cul­ture they quickly imposed rules of pro­por­tions to archi­tec­ture and as a con­sequence Roman archi­tec­ture saw very little devel­op­ment over time. Arguably, this cul­tural con­ser­vat­ism also made their suc­cess as Roman cul­ture remained the most import­ant guideline for the arts long after the fall of the empire.

  2. Alun, good stuff, but I’ve always wondered why they didn’t copy it in Alexandria either.