Select Page
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.