Scientists Discover that Ancient Roman Concrete was Far Superior to Our Own

Scientists Discover that Ancient Roman Concrete was Far Superior to Our Own

Scientists studying the composition of Roman concrete , which has been submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for the last 2,000 years, have discovered that it was superior to modern-day concrete in terms of durability and being less environmentally damaging.

The international team of researchers led by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made the discovery while examining concrete samples recovered from the Harbour of Baiae, one of the many ancient underwater sites in the northwestern region of the Bay of Naples.

The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, the combination of lime and volcanic ash with seawater instantly triggered a chemical reaction in which the lime incorporated molecules into its structure and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.

The team of researchers found that Roman concrete differs from the modern kind in several essential ways. One is the kind of glue that binds the concrete's components together. Roman concrete produces a significantly different compound to modern day Portland cement, which is an incredibly stable binder. The second concerns the hydration products in concrete – the ancient seawater concrete contains the ideal crystalline structure of Tobermorite, which has a greater strength and durability than the modern equivalent.

"In the middle 20th century, concrete structures were designed to last 50 years, and a lot of them are on borrowed time," research lead Paulo Monteiro said. "Now we design buildings to last 100 to 120 years." Yet Roman harbour installations have survived 2,000 years of chemical attack and wave action underwater.

Finally, microscopic studies identified other minerals in the ancient concrete which show potential application for high-performance concretes, including the encapsulation of hazardous wastes.

The results of the study show how these improvements could be adopted in the modern world and, in particular, how they could result in a significant reduction of environmental damage caused by the manufacturing of concrete.

"It's not that modern concrete isn't good -- it's so good we use 19 billion tons of it a year," said Monteiro. "The problem is that manufacturing Portland cement accounts for seven percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air."

Conventional modern cement requires heating a mix of limestone and clay to 1,450 degrees Celsius which releases significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, Roman cement used much less lime and made it from baking limestone at 900 degrees Celsius, requiring much less fuel.

Stronger, longer-lasting modern concrete, made with less fuel and less release of carbon into the atmosphere, may be the legacy of a deeper understanding of how the Romans made their incomparable concrete. Another significant lesson from this study is that our ancient ancestors were not as primitive as many believe. In fact, many would argue that ­certain aspects of their knowledge were significantly more advanced than our own.

Why 2,000 Year-Old Roman Concrete Is So Much Better Than What We Produce Today

One of the fascinating mysteries of Ancient Rome is the impressive longevity of some of their concrete harbour structures. Battered by sea waves for 2,000 years, these things are still around while our modern concoctions erode over mere decades.

Now scientists have uncovered the incredible chemistry behind this phenomenon, getting closer to unlocking its long-lost recipe. As it turns out, not only is Roman concrete more durable than what we can make today, but it actually gets stronger over time.

Researchers led by geologist Marie Jackson from the University of Utah have been chipping away at the mysteries of Roman concrete for years, and now they have mapped its crystalline structure, figuring out precisely how this ancient material solidifies over time.

Modern concrete is typically made with portland cement, a mixture of silica sand, limestone, clay, chalk and other ingredients melted together at blistering temperatures. In concrete, this paste binds 'aggregate' - chunks of rock and sand.

This aggregate has to be inert, because any unwanted chemical reaction can cause cracks in the concrete, leading to erosion and crumbling of the structures. This is why concrete doesn't have the longevity of natural rocks.

But that's not how Roman concrete works.

Theirs was created with volcanic ash, lime and seawater, taking advantage of a chemical reaction Romans may have observed in naturally cemented volcanic ash deposits called tuff rocks.

Mixed in with the volcanic ash mortar was more volcanic rock as aggregate, which would then continue to react with the material, ultimately making Roman cement far more durable than you'd think it should be.

In a previous research project led by Jackson, the team had already gathered samples of Roman marine concrete from several ports along the Italian coast.

Drilling for Roman concrete samples in Tuscany, 2003. Photo: J. P. Oleson

Now the researchers mapped the samples using an electron microscope, before drilling down to an extremely high resolution with X-ray microdiffraction and Raman spectroscopy. With these advanced techniques they could identify all the mineral grains produced in the ancient concrete over centuries.

"We can go into the tiny natural laboratories in the concrete, map the minerals that are present, the succession of the crystals that occur, and their crystallographic properties," says Jackson.

"It's been astounding what we've been able to find."

Jackson was particularly interested in the presence of aluminous tobermorite, a hardy silica-based mineral that's actually pretty rare and difficult to make in the lab, yet is abundant in the ancient concrete.

As it turns out, aluminous tobermorite and a related mineral called phillipsite actually grows in the concrete thanks to the sea water sloshing around it, slowly dissolving the volcanic ash within and giving it space to develop a reinforced structure from these interlocking crystals.

"The Romans created a rock-like concrete that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater," says Jackson.

That's pretty crazy, and is exactly the opposite of what happens in modern concrete, which erodes as saltwater rusts the steel reinforcements and washes away the compounds that hold the material together.

Making concrete the way Romans once did would be a boon to the modern building industry, especially when it comes to coastal structures, like piers that are constantly battered by the waves, or fanciful tidal lagoons to harness energy from waves.

But unfortunately the recipes have been lost to the tooth of time, so our only shot at recreating the ancient material is to reverse-engineer it based on what we know about its chemical properties.

And it's not like we can replace all the world's cement with the historical stuff, because not everywhere can we access the right volcanic ingredients.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," says Jackson. "We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

But if Jackson and her colleagues can crack the recipe, modern marine engineers could tap into the potential of a material that doesn't need steel reinforcements, can last for centuries, and makes fewer carbon emissions to boot.

Roman Aqueducts

The Roman aqueducts supplied fresh, clean water for baths, fountains, and drinking water for ordinary citizens.

Anthropology, Archaeology, Social Studies, World History

Pont du Gard Aqueduct

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Robert Harding Picture Library

The Roman aqueduct was a channel used to transport fresh water to highly populated areas. Aqueducts were amazing feats of engineering given the time period. Though earlier civilizations in Egypt and India also built aqueducts, the Romans improved on the structure and built an extensive and complex network across their territories. Evidence of aqueducts remain in parts of modern-day France, Spain, Greece, North Africa, and Turkey.

Aqueducts required a great deal of planning. They were made from a series of pipes, tunnels, canals, and bridges. Gravity and the natural slope of the land allowed aqueducts to channel water from a freshwater source, such as a lake or spring, to a city. As water flowed into the cities, it was used for drinking, irrigation, and to supply hundreds of public fountains and baths.

Roman aqueduct systems were built over a period of about 500 years, from 312 B.C. to A.D. 226. Both public and private funds paid for construction. High-ranking rulers often had them built the Roman emperors Augustus, Caligula, and Trajan all ordered aqueducts built.

The most recognizable feature of Roman aqueducts may be the bridges constructed using rounded stone arches. Some of these can still be seen today traversing European valleys. However, these bridged structures made up only a small portion of the hundreds of kilometers of aqueducts throughout the empire. The capital in Rome alone had around 11 aqueduct systems supplying freshwater from sources as far as 92 km away (57 miles). Despite their age, some aqueducts still function and provide modern-day Rome with water. The Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct constructed by Agrippa in 19 B.C. during Augustus&rsquo reign, still supplies water to Rome&rsquos famous Trevi Fountain in the heart of the city.

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Almagest

Ptolemy’s most famous work is the Almagest, an astronomy textbook and star catalogue.

The Almagest was a substantial, ambitious work. It taught its students how to predict the location of any heavenly body at any time from anywhere on Earth using Ptolemy’s mathematical model of planet movements. Ptolemy presented his model’s output in the form of data tables. Using his tables, one could also predict eclipses.

Ptolemy first entitled his book Mathematical Treatise. Almagest is a later fusion of Arabic and Greek words – ‘Al’ is Arabic for ‘the’ and ‘megiste’ is Greek for ‘greatest,’ the title indicating the books status in astronomy.

To create the Almagest, Ptolemy assembled observations of the heavens spanning many hundreds of years, beginning with data compiled in Babylon in 747 BC. He used state-of-the-art mathematics to analyze and interpret the data to create his model.

The Almagest’s Cosmology

The Almagest begins with Ptolemy describing the principles of the cosmos. He says:

  • Religion and Aristotle’s physics are guesswork: only mathematical proof provides certainty.
  • The heavens move like a sphere.
  • The earth and the heavenly bodies are spheres.
  • The earth is at the center of the universe.
  • The earth does not move from its position at the center.
  • The earth’s size is insignificant compared with the universe and, mathematically, the earth can be treated as a point having no volume.
  • There is some merit in the idea that the earth rotates through a complete circle once a day. However, our planet would have to spin so quickly that the effects would be noticeable. Therefore, the earth is stationary and the heavens move.
  • There are two types of motion in the heavens: the stars moving steadily and the sun, moon, and planets moving in a more complex way.
  • There is no up or down in the universe. What is above us in the heavens depends on where we stand on the earth’s spherical surface.

The Almagest’s Trigonometry

In Ptolemy’s time electronic calculators lay almost two millennia in the future. To help budding astronomers with their calculations, Ptolemy offered them a large table of chords.

Chords are used for trigonometry calculations: they are closely related to sines. Ptolemy probably got his table of chords from an earlier Greek genius: Hipparchus.

The Almagest’s Universe

Ptolemy proposed a universe consisting of nested spheres containing the heavenly bodies.

He incorrectly placed the earth at the center of the universe. He correctly showed the stars as the bodies farthest from Earth. He incorrectly showed Mercury as the planet closest to Earth.

In the Almagest’s star catalog, Ptolemy provided the coordinates and brightnesses of over 1,000 stars and placed them in 48 constellations. Modern scholars believe Ptolemy assembled much of his star catalog from an earlier one compiled by Hipparchus.

The Planet Problem

Although the stars seemed to move with reassuring predictability, the paths of the planets in the night sky were harder to forecast. The very word ‘planet’ comes to us from the Greek word for ‘wandering.’ The Greeks called the planets ‘aster planetes’ – wandering stars.

Below you can see Mars’s path as seen from Earth over a period of about 8 months against the fixed background of stars. Mars, of course, does not really change direction and go backwards.

To an Earth based observer, the paths followed by planets look strange. When a planet seems to track backwards it is said to undergo retrograde motion.

We see this happen only because we are on a rock orbiting the sun watching another rock in a different orbit around the sun. The two rocks’ relative velocities and locations are changing. When our planet passes Mars, Mars appears to move backward in our night sky – the jargon term is retrograde motion.

If we could travel in a spaceship to a privileged position outside the disc of the solar system, the picture would look much simpler. We would see the planets moving in elliptical orbits around the sun – a fact that was discovered by Johannes Kepler in the early 1600s.

The orbits of the planets look much simpler looking from outside the plane of the solar system than when viewed from the surface of the earth.

The Planet Problem

It is obvious to anyone who watches the night sky that the planets grow brighter and dimmer, implying their distances from Earth change.

However, the Greeks were insistent that the only movement possible in the heavens was circular. Unfortunately, strict circular orbits centered on the earth would not allow the planets’ distances from the earth to vary.

Appolonius of Perga thought about the problem and came up the concepts of the eccentric, the deferent, and the epicycle.

Hipparchus implemented Appolonius’s ideas, modelling the movements of the sun and the moon with moderate success.

Idea 1: The Eccentric

The first idea was to place the center of a heavenly body’s orbit at a point slightly different from Earth’s center.

This imaginary point is called the eccentric – the white X in the image on the left.

The effect of the eccentric is that as the heavenly body follows its orbit, its distance from the earth varies – sometimes it is close, sometimes farther away. Furthermore, for earth-based observers, the body’s orbital speed varies – something that had also been observed in practice.

Of course, strictly speaking, the eccentric rather than the earth is now at the center of the universe – but the earth is still pretty close!

Idea 2: The Epicycle and Deferent

The next idea was the epicycle and deferent.

The epicycle is shown as the yellow dashed circle on the left. It is a small orbit around an imaginary point. This imaginary point travels around the deferent – the large white dashed circle centered on the earth – at a uniform speed.

The epicycle is quite a neat idea. It allows the planet’s distance from Earth to vary and it also produces retrograde motion.

Ptolemy Solves the Planet Problem

Ptolemy applied Hipparchus’s combined eccentric-epicycle-deferent model to the planets. He found that it did not work very well: it failed to predict the planets’ future movements or agree with their past movements.

Ptolemy’s model of planetary motion. The red circle is a planet – Mars, for example.

The Equant

And so Ptolemy added his own innovation to Hipparchus’s model. We’ll never know how many new mathematical models he tried without success or how long he labored for, but eventually he found a brilliant method to improve Hipparchus’s original model

Ptolemy said the deferent does NOT move around the eccentric at a uniform speed.

He added a different imaginary point – the equant – the white dot to the left of the eccentric on the diagram above. The equant is twice as far from Earth as the eccentric. Ptolemy said the deferent moves around the equant at a uniform speed. When viewed from the equant the center of the epicycle sweeps through equal angles in equal times.

“For the five planets, all the apparent anomalies can be represented by uniform circular motions, since these are proper to the nature of divine beings.”

Bizarre, but Sophisticated, and Highly Effective

Ptolemy created a situation both bizarre and brilliant in which the center of the epicycle:

  • moves in a circle around the eccentric
  • simultaneously moves at a uniform speed around the equant.

Adding to the weirdness are three imaginary points that exist only in the mind of the mathematician: it is truly a work of magnificent sophistication.

For the modern observer, with modern equipment, the predictions made by Ptolemy’s model are inadequate. In antiquity, however, all observations were made with the naked eye, meaning errors could be rather large. Given these circumstances, Ptolemy’s 150 AD model was rather good. It took almost 1,500 years for a clearly superior model to be found.

We owe the superior model to Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion after applying a brilliant mathematical analysis to Tycho Brahe’s superlative naked-eye observations of Mars.

Was Ptolemy a Cheat?

Tycho Brahe produced his own star catalog in the late 1500s. Brahe argued that the observations in Ptolemy’s star catalog were actually all made by Hipparchus 300 years earlier, updated by Ptolemy to account for precession of the equinoxes.

In 1817 the astronomer Jean Delambre raised a different concern, again centered around Ptolemy not actually making any observations for himself:

Did Ptolemy do any observing? Are not the observations he tells us he has made just calculations from his tables and some examples that serve for a better understanding of his theories?”

Astronomers can now calculate the precise location in the sky of any heavenly body at any time in history. Ancient astronomers like Ptolemy, however, had only relatively crude instruments. The positions they reported for planets naturally had rather large errors.

When modern astronomers evaluate data for the 747 BC – 150 AD timescale of observations used or made by Ptolemy, they find the positions he reported agree much better with his model than the true positions. The idea is expressed (very) loosely in the image below.

The position Ptolemy reported for a planet was often suspiciously close to the position predicted by his model, rather than the planet’s true position.

Scholars are split into two camps on how this should be interpreted.

The increasingly minority view is that Ptolemy was a contemptible scientific cheat. This stance was championed by the physicist Robert Newton in his 1977 book The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy. Newton believed Ptolemy made up a lot of the data in the Almagest to support his mathematical model of planet movements. Newton said:

[The Almagest] has done more damage to astronomy than any other work ever written, and astronomy would be better off if it had never existed.

Other researchers believe Ptolemy used genuine observations, but used them selectively, discarding any observations that did not support his model. Ptolemy may have thought he was doing his readers a favor by removing ‘bad’ data.

He would not have been the only scientist to do this: Ronald Fisher believed Gregor Mendel’s approach to ‘bad data’ may have been similar. Nobody has (yet) written The Crime of Gregor Mendel.

Science historian Gerd Grasshoff wrote:

Scientific theories are refuted when no measurement confirms the prediction… selection of observation values is a very legitimate and even necessary step for the construction of complex theories.

The astronomer Owen Gingerich theorized that Ptolemy used an undisclosed method to ‘correct’ his data.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Ptolemy’s methods, it’s worth stating again that it took almost 1,500 years for a clearly superior model to be found.

“We have records of planetary observations only from a time which is recent compared with such a vast enterprise: this makes [very long term] predictions insecure.”

Predicting the Future

The Almagest was a classic work of astronomy.

Ptolemy also wrote a classic work of astrology. In four parts, it’s known simply as The Four Books. Often it’s referred to by its Greek name Tetrabiblos or Latin name Quadripartitum.

It’s not surprising that Ptolemy was interested in astrology. For millennia astronomy and astrology went hand in hand – the great Kepler made ends meet by casting horoscopes: Ptolemy possibly did too.

Geography and Optics

Ptolemy also wrote major works on the earth’s geography and optics. In Geography he used unreliable data to, not surprisingly, produce rather unreliable maps of the world.

In Optics, Ptolemy described equipment to carry out experiments in optics and discussed his results – an example of ancient experimental science.

Some Personal Details and the End

Very little is known about Claudius Ptolemy’s life other than his works. Whether he married, whether he had children, and where and when he died are unknown.

He died in about the year 170 AD, probably in Alexandria.

Author of this page: The Doc
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Further Reading
G. J. Toomer
Ptolemy’s Almagest
Springer-Verlag, 1984

Gerd Grasshoff
The History of Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue – Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences 14
Springer-Verlag, 1990

Owen Gingerich
The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler
American Institute of Physics, 1993

5. Great advances were made in science and math—in the Islamic world.

Among the more popular myths about the �rk Ages” is the idea that the medieval Christian church suppressed natural scientists, prohibiting procedures such as autopsies and dissections and basically halting all scientific progress. Historical evidence doesn’t support this idea: Progress may have been slower in Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, but it was steady, and it laid the foundations for future advances in the later medieval period.

At the same time, the Islamic world leaped ahead in mathematics and the sciences, building on a foundation of Greek and other ancient texts translated into Arabic. The Latin translation of “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing,” by the ninth-century Persian astronomer and mathematician al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-c. 850), would introduce Europe to algebra, including the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations the Latinized version of al-Khwarizmi’s name gave us the word 𠇊lgorithm.”

The History of Concrete

The time period during which concrete was first invented depends on how one interprets the term &ldquoconcrete.&rdquo Ancient materials were crude cements made by crushing and burning gypsum or limestone. Lime also refers to crushed, burned limestone. When sand and water were added to these cements, they became mortar, which was a plaster-like material used to adhere stones to each other. Over thousands of years, these materials were improved upon, combined with other materials and, ultimately, morphed into modern concrete.

Today&rsquos concrete is made using Portland cement, coarse and fine aggregates of stone and sand, and water. Admixtures are chemicals added to the concrete mix to control its setting properties and are used primarily when placing concrete during environmental extremes, such as high or low temperatures, windy conditions, etc.

The precursor to concrete was invented in about 1300 BC when Middle Eastern builders found that when they coated the outsides of their pounded-clay fortresses and home walls with a thin, damp coating of burned limestone, it reacted chemically with gases in the air to form a hard, protective surface. This wasn&rsquot concrete, but it was the beginning of the development of cement.

Early cementicious composite materials typically included mortar-crushed, burned limestone, sand and water, which was used for building with stone, as opposed to casting the material in a mold, which is essentially how modern concrete is used, with the mold being the concrete forms.

As one of the key constituents of modern concrete, cement has been around for a long time. About 12 million years ago in what is now Israel, natural deposits were formed by reactions between limestone and oil shale that were produced by spontaneous combustion. However, cement is not concrete. Concrete is a composite building material and the ingredients, of which cement is just one, have changed over time and are changing even now. The performance characteristics can change according to the different forces that the concrete will need to resist. These forces may be gradual or intense, they may come from above (gravity), below (soil heaving), the sides (lateral loads), or they might take the form of erosion, abrasion or chemical attack. The ingredients of concrete and their proportions are called the design mix.

Early Use of Concrete

The first concrete-like structures were built by the Nabataea traders or Bedouins who occupied and controlled a series of oases and developed a small empire in the regions of southern Syria and northern Jordan in around 6500 BC. They later discovered the advantages of hydraulic lime -- that is, cement that hardens underwater -- and by 700 BC, they were building kilns to supply mortar for the construction of rubble-wall houses, concrete floors, and underground waterproof cisterns. The cisterns were kept secret and were one of the reasons the Nabataea were able to thrive in the desert.

In making concrete, the Nabataea understood the need to keep the mix as dry or low-slump as possible, as excess water introduces voids and weaknesses into the concrete. Their building practices included tamping the freshly placed concrete with special tools. The tamping process produced more gel, which is the bonding material produced by the chemical reactions that take place during hydration which bond the particulates and aggregate together.

An ancient Nabataea building

Like the Romans had 500 years later, the Nabataea had a locally available material that could be used to make their cement waterproof. Within their territory were major surface deposits of fine silica sand. Groundwater seeping through silica can transform it into a pozzolan material, which is a sandy volcanic ash. To make cement, the Nabataea located the deposits and scooped up this material and combined it with lime, then heated it in the same kilns they used to make their pottery, since the target temperatures lay within the same range.

By about 5600 BC along the Danube River in the area of the former country of Yugoslavia, homes were built using a type of concrete for floors.

Around 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians used mud mixed with straw to form bricks. Mud with straw is more similar to adobe than concrete. However, they also used gypsum and lime mortars in building the pyramids, although most of us think of mortar and concrete as two different materials. The Great Pyramid at Giza required about 500,000 tons of mortar, which was used as a bedding material for the casing stones that formed the visible surface of the finished pyramid. This allowed stone masons to carve and set casing stones with joints open no wider than 1/50-inch.

About this same time, the northern Chinese used a form of cement in boat-building and in building the Great Wall. Spectrometer testing has confirmed that a key ingredient in the mortar used in the Great Wall and other ancient Chinese structures was glutenous, sticky rice. Some of these structures have withstood the test of time and have resisted even modern efforts at demolition.

By 600 BC, the Greeks had discovered a natural pozzolan material that developed hydraulic properties when mixed with lime, but the Greeks were nowhere near as prolific in building with concrete as the Romans. By 200 BC, the Romans were building very successfully using concrete, but it wasn&rsquot like the concrete we use today. It was not a plastic, flowing material poured into forms, but more like cemented rubble. The Romans built most of their structures by stacking stones of different sizes and hand-filling the spaces between the stones with mortar. Above ground, walls were clad both inside and out with clay bricks that also served as forms for the concrete. The brick had little or no structural value and their use was mainly cosmetic. Before this time, and in most places at that time (including 95% of Rome), the mortars commonly used were a simple limestone cement that hardened slowly from reacting with airborne carbon dioxide. True chemical hydration did not take place. These mortars were weak.

For the Romans&rsquo grander and more artful structures, as well as their land-based infrastructure requiring more durability, they made cement from a naturally reactive volcanic sand called harena fossicia. For marine structures and those exposed to fresh water, such as bridges, docks, storm drains and aqueducts, they used a volcanic sand called pozzuolana. These two materials probably represent the first large-scale use of a truly cementicious binding agent. Pozzuolana and harena fossicia react chemically with lime and water to hydrate and solidify into a rock-like mass that can be used underwater. The Romans also used these materials to build large structures, such as the Roman Baths, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum, and these structures still stand today. As admixtures, they used animal fat, milk and blood -- materials that reflect very rudimentary methods. On the other hand, in addition to using natural pozzolans, the Romans learned to manufacture two types of artificial pozzolans -- calcined kaolinitic clay and calcined volcanic stones -- which, along with the Romans' spectacular building accomplishments, are evidence of a high level of technical sophistication for that time.

The Pantheon

Built by Rome's Emperor Hadrian and completed in 125 AD, the Pantheon has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. The dome is 142 feet in diameter and has a 27-foot hole, called an oculus, at its peak, which is 142 feet above the floor. It was built in place, probably by starting above the outside walls and building up increasingly thin layers while working toward the center.

The Pantheon has exterior foundation walls that are 26 feet wide and 15 feet deep and made of pozzolana cement (lime, reactive volcanic sand and water) tamped down over a layer of dense stone aggregate. That the dome still exists is something of a fluke. Settling and movement over almost 2,000 years, along with occasional earthquakes, have created cracks that would normally have weakened the structure enough that, by now, it should have fallen. The exterior walls that support the dome contain seven evenly spaced niches with chambers between them that extend to the outside. These niches and chambers, originally designed only to minimize the weight of the structure, are thinner than the main portions of the walls and act as control joints that control crack locations. Stresses caused by movement are relieved by cracking in the niches and chambers. This means that the dome is essentially supported by 16 thick, structurally sound concrete pillars formed by the portions of the exterior walls between the niches and chambers. Another method to save weight was the use of very heavy aggregates low in the structure, and the use of lighter, less dense aggregates, such as pumice, high in the walls and in the dome. The walls also taper in thickness to reduce the weight higher up.

Roman Guilds

Another secret to the success of the Romans was their use of trade guilds. Each trade had a guild whose members were responsible for passing their knowledge of materials, techniques and tools to apprentices and to the Roman Legions. In addition to fighting, the legions were trained to be self-sufficient, so they were also trained in construction methods and engineering.

Technological Milestones

During the Middle Ages, concrete technology crept backward. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the techniques for making pozzolan cement were lost until the discovery in 1414 of manuscripts describing those techniques rekindled interest in building with concrete.

It wasn&rsquot until 1793 that the technology took a big leap forward when John Smeaton discovered a more modern method for producing hydraulic lime for cement. He used limestone containing clay that was fired until it turned into clinker, which was then ground it into powder. He used this material in the historic rebuilding of the Eddystone Lighthouse in Cornwall, England.

Finally, in 1824, an Englishman named Joseph Aspdin invented Portland cement by burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed. It was named &ldquoPortland&rdquo cement because it resembled the high-quality building stones found in Portland, England. It&rsquos widely believed that Aspdin was the first to heat alumina and silica materials to the point of vitrification, resulting in fusion. During vitrification, materials become glass-like. Aspdin refined his method by carefully proportioning limestone and clay, pulverizing them, and then burning the mixture into clinker, which was then ground into finished cement.

Composition of Modern Portland Cement

Before Portland cement was discovered, and for some years afterward, large quantities of natural cement were used, which were produced by burning a naturally occurring mixture of lime and clay. Because the ingredients of natural cement are mixed by nature, its properties vary widely. Modern Portland cement is manufactured to detailed standards. Some of the many compounds found in it are important to the hydration process and the chemical characteristics of cement. It&rsquos manufactured by heating a mixture of limestone and clay in a kiln to temperatures between 1,300° F and 1,500° F. Up to 30% of the mix becomes molten but the remainder stays in a solid state, undergoing chemical reactions that can be slow. Eventually, the mix forms a clinker, which is then ground into powder. A small proportion of gypsum is added to slow the rate of hydration and keep the concrete workable longer. Between 1835 and 1850, systematic tests to determine the compressive and tensile strength of cement were first performed, along with the first accurate chemical analyses. It wasn&rsquot until about 1860 that Portland cements of modern composition were first produced.

In the early days of Portland cement production, kilns were vertical and stationary. In 1885, an English engineer developed a more efficient kiln that was horizontal, slightly tilted, and could rotate. The rotary kiln provided better temperature control and did a better job of mixing materials. By 1890, rotary kilns dominated the market. In 1909, Thomas Edison received a patent for the first long kiln. This kiln, installed at the Edison Portland Cement Works in New Village, New Jersey, was 150 feet long. This was about 70 feet longer than the kilns in use at the time. Industrial kilns today may be as long as 500 feet.

Building Milestones

Although there were exceptions, during the 19 th century, concrete was used mainly for industrial buildings. It was considered socially unacceptable as a building material for aesthetic reasons. The first widespread use of Portland cement in home construction was in England and France between 1850 and 1880 by Frenchman Francois Coignet, who added steel rods to prevent the exterior walls from spreading, and later used them as flexural elements. The first home built using reinforced concrete was a servant&rsquos cottage constructed in England by William B. Wilkinson in 1854. In 1875, American mechanical engineer William Ward completed the first reinforced concrete home in the U.S. It still stands in Port Chester, New York. Ward was diligent in maintaining construction records, so a great deal is known about this home. It was built out of concrete because of his wife&rsquos fear of fire, and in order to be more socially acceptable, it was designed to resemble masonry. This was the start of what is today a $35 billion industry that employs more than 2 million people in the U.S. alone.

The home built by William Ward is commonly called Ward&rsquos Castle.

In 1891, George Bartholomew poured the first concrete street in the U.S., and it still exists today. The concrete used for this street tested at about 8,000 psi, which is about twice the strength of modern concrete used in residential construction.

Court Street in Bellefontaine, Ohio, which is the oldest concrete street in the U.S.

By 1897, Sears Roebuck was selling 50-gallon drums of imported Portland cement for $3.40 each. Although in 1898 cement manufacturers were using more than 90 different formulas, by 1900, basic testing -- if not manufacturing methods -- had become standardized.

During the late 19 th century, the use of steel-reinforced concrete was being developed more or less simultaneously by a German, G.A. Wayss, a Frenchman, Francois Hennebique, and an American, Ernest L. Ransome. Ransome started building with steel-reinforced concrete in 1877 and patented a system that used twisted square rods to improve the bond between steel and concrete. Most of the structures he built were industrial.

Hennebique started building steel-reinforced homes in France in the late 1870s. He received patents in France and Belgium for his system and was highly successful, eventually building an empire by selling franchises in large cities. He promoted his method by lecturing at conferences and developing his own company standards. As did Ransome, most of the structures Hennebique built were industrial. In 1879, Wayss bought the rights to a system patented by a Frenchman named Monier, who started out using steel to reinforce concrete flower pots and planting containers. Wayss promoted the Wayss-Monier system.

In 1902, August Perret designed and built an apartment building in Paris using steel-reinforced concrete for the columns, beams and floor slabs. The building had no bearing walls, but it did have an elegant façade, which helped make concrete more socially acceptable. The building was widely admired and concrete became more widely used as an architectural material as well as a building material. Its design was influential in the design of reinforced-concrete buildings in the years that followed.

25 Rue Franklin in Paris, France

In 1904, the first concrete high-rise building was constructed in Cincinnati, Ohio. It stands 16 stories or 210 feet tall.

The Ingalls Building in Cincinnati, Ohio

In 1911, the Risorgimento Bridge was built in Rome. It spans 328 feet.

Rome&rsquos Risorgimento Bridge

In 1913, the first load of ready-mix was delivered in Baltimore, Maryland. Four years later, the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Bureau of Standards and Technology) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (now ASTM International) established a standard formula for Portland cement.

In 1915, Matte Trucco built the five-story Fiat-Lingotti Autoworks in Turin using reinforced concrete. The building had an automobile test track on the roof.

The Fiat-Lingotti Autoworks in Turin, Italy

Eugène Freyssinet was a French engineer and pioneer in the use of reinforced- concrete construction. In 1921, he built two gigantic parabolic-arched airship hangars at Orly Airport in Paris. In 1928, he was granted a patent for pre-stressed concrete.

The parabolic-arched airship hangar at Orly Airport in Paris, France

Airship hangar construction

Air Entrainment

In 1930, air-entraining agents were developed that greatly increased concrete&rsquos resistance to freezing and improved its workability. Air entrainment was an important development in improving the durability of modern concrete. Air entrainment is the use of agents that, when added to concrete during mixing, create many air bubbles that are extremely small and closely spaced, and most of them remain in the hardened concrete. Concrete hardens through a chemical process called hydration. For hydration to take place, concrete must have a minimum water-to-cement ratio of 25 parts of water to 100 parts of cement. Water in excess of this ratio is surplus water and helps make the concrete more workable for placing and finishing operations. As concrete dries and hardens, surplus water will evaporate, leaving the concrete surface porous. Water from the surrounding environment, such as rain and snowmelt, can enter these pores. Freezing weather can turn this water to ice. As that happens, the water expands, creating small cracks in the concrete that will grow larger as the process is repeated, eventually resulting in surface flaking and deterioration called spalling. When concrete has been air-entrained, these tiny bubbles can compress slightly, absorbing some of the stress created by expansion as water turns to ice. Entrained air also improves workability because the bubbles act as a lubricant between aggregate and particles in the concrete. Entrapped air is composed of larger bubbles trapped in the concrete and is not considered beneficial.

Expertise in building with reinforced concrete eventually allowed the development of a new way of building with concrete the thin-shell technique involves building structures, such as roofs, with a relatively thin shell of concrete. Domes, arches and compound curves are typically built with this method, since they are naturally strong shapes. In 1930, the Spanish engineer Eduardo Torroja designed a low-rise dome for the market at Algeciras, with a 3½-inch thickness that spanned 150 feet. Steel cables were used to form a tension ring. At about the same time, Italian Pier Luigi Nervi began building hangars for the Italian Air Force, shown in the photo below.

Cast-in-place hangars for the Italian Air Force

The hangars were cast in place, but much of Nervi&rsquos work used pre-cast concrete.

Probably the most accomplished person when it came to building using concrete shell techniques was Felix Candela, a Spanish mathematician-engineer-architect who practiced mostly in Mexico City. The roof of the Cosmic Ray Laboratory at the University of Mexico City was built 5/8-inch thick. His trademark form was the hyperbolic paraboloid. Although the building shown in the photo below was not designed by Candela, it&rsquos a good example of a hyperbolic paraboloid roof.

A hyperbolic paraboloid roof on a church in Boulder, Colorado

The same church under construction

Some of the most striking roofs anywhere have been built using thin-shell technology, as depicted below.

The Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia

In 1935, the Hoover Dam was completed after pouring approximately 3,250,000 yards of concrete, with an additional 1,110,000 yards used in the power plant and other dam-related structures. Bear in mind that this was less than 20 years after a standard formula for cement was established.

Columns of blocks being filled with concrete at the Hoover Dam in February 1934

Engineers for the Bureau of Reclamation calculated that if the concrete was placed in a single, monolithic pour, the dam would take 125 years to cool, and stresses from the heat produced and the contraction that takes place as concrete cures would cause the structure to crack and crumble. The solution was to pour the dam in a series of blocks that formed columns, with some blocks as large as 50 feet square and 5 feet high. Each 5-foot-tall section has a series of 1-inch pipes installed through which river water and then mechanically chilled water was pumped to carry away the heat. Once the concrete stopped contracting, the pipes were filled with grout. Concrete core samples tested in 1995 showed that the concrete has continued to gain strength and has higher-than-average compressive strength.

The upstream-side of the Hoover Dam is shown as it fills for the first time

Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, completed in 1942, is the largest concrete structure ever built. It contains 12 million yards of concrete. Excavation required the removal of over 22 million cubic yards of dirt and stone. To reduce the amount of trucking, a conveyor belt 2 miles long was constructed. At foundation locations, grout was pumped into holes drilled 660 to 880 feet deep (in granite) in order to fill any fissures that might weaken the ground beneath the dam. To avoid excavation collapse from the weight of the overburden, 3-inch pipes were inserted into the earth through which chilled liquid from a refrigerating plant was pumped. This froze the earth, stabilizing it enough that construction could continue.

Concrete for the Grand Coulee Dam was placed using the same methods used for the Hoover Dam. After being placed in columns, cold river water was pumped through pipes embedded in the curing concrete, reducing the temperature in the forms from 105° F (41° C) to 45° F (7° C). This caused the dam to contract about 8 inches in length, and the resulting gaps were filled with grout.

The Grand Coulee Dam under construction

High-Rise Construction

In the years following the construction of the Ingalls Building in 1904, most high-rise buildings were made of steel. Construction in 1962 of Bertrand Goldberg's 60-story Twin Towers in Chicago sparked renewed interest in using reinforced concrete for high-rises.

The world's tallest structure (as of 2011) was built using reinforced concrete. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands 2,717 feet tall.

Traces of Ancient Rome in the Modern World

The ideas and culture of ancient Rome influence the art, architecture, science, technology, literature, language, and law of today.

Anthropology, Archaeology, Social Studies, World History

Pont du Gard Aqueduct

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Robert Harding Picture Library

This lists the logos of programs or partners of NG Education which have provided or contributed the content on this page. Leveled by

Ancient Rome had a large influence on the modern world. Though it has been thousands of years since the Roman Empire flourished, we can still see evidence of it in our art, architecture, technology, literature, language, and law. From bridges and stadiums to books and the words we hear every day, the ancient Romans have left their mark on our world.

Art and Architecture

Ancient Romans have had a tremendous impact on art and architecture. We can find traces of Roman influence in forms and structures throughout the development of Western culture.

Although the Romans were heavily influenced by ancient Greece, they were able to make improvements to certain borrowed Greek designs and inventions. For example, they continued the use of columns, but the form became more decorative and less structural in Roman buildings. Ancient Romans created curved roofs and large-scale arches, which were able to support more weight than the post-and-beam construction the Greeks used. These arches served as the foundation for the massive bridges and aqueducts the Romans created. The game-loving ancients also built large amphitheaters, including the Colosseum. The sports stadiums we see today, with their oval shapes and tiered seating, derive from the basic idea the Romans developed.

The arches of the Colosseum are made out of cement, a remarkably strong building material the Romans made with what they had at hand: volcanic ash and volcanic rock. Modern scientists believe that the use of this ash is the reason that structures like the Colosseum still stand today. Roman underwater structures proved to be even sturdier. Seawater reacting with the volcanic ash created crystals that filled in the cracks in the concrete. To make a concrete this durable, modern builders must reinforce it with steel. So today, scientists study Roman concrete, hoping to match the success of the ancient master builders.

Sculptural art of the period has proven to be fairly durable too. Romans made their statues out of marble, fashioning monuments to great human achievements and achievers. You can still see thousands of Roman artifacts today in museums all over the world.

Technology and Science

Ancient Romans pioneered advances in many areas of science and technology, establishing tools and methods that have ultimately shaped the way the world does certain things.

The Romans were extremely adept engineers. They understood the laws of physics well enough to develop aqueducts and better ways to aid water flow. They harnessed water as energy for powering mines and mills. They also built an expansive road network, a great achievement at that time. Their roads were built by laying gravel and then paving with rock slabs. The Roman road system was so large, it was said that "all roads lead to Rome."

Along with large-scale engineering projects, the Romans also developed tools and methods for use in agriculture. The Romans became successful farmers due to their knowledge of climate, soil, and other planting-related subjects. They developed or refined ways to effectively plant crops, and to irrigate and drain fields. Their techniques are still used by modern farmers, such as crop rotation, pruning, grafting, seed selection, and manuring. The Romans also used mills to process their grains from farming, which improved their efficiency and employed many people.

Literature and Language

Much of the literature of the world has been greatly influenced by the literature of the ancient Romans. During what is considered the "Golden Age of Roman Poetry," poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid produced works that would have an everlasting impact. Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example, inspired authors such as Chaucer, Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, in particular, was fascinated by the ancient Romans, who served as the inspiration for some of his plays, including Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

While Roman literature had a deep impact on the rest of the world, it is important to note the impact that the Roman language has had on the Western world. Ancient Romans spoke Latin, which spread throughout the world with the increase of Roman political power. Latin became the basis for a group of languages referred to as the "Romance languages." These include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan. Many Latin root words are also the foundation for many English words. The English alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet. Along with that, a lot of Latin is still used in the present-day justice system.

The use of Latin words is not the only way the ancient Romans have influenced the Western justice system. Although the Roman justice system was extremely harsh in its punishments, it did serve as a rough outline of how court proceedings happen today. For example, there was a preliminary hearing, much like there is today, where the magistrate decided whether or not there was actually a case. If there were grounds for a case, a prominent Roman citizen would try the case, and witnesses and evidence would be presented. Roman laws and their court system have served as the foundation for many countries' justice systems, such as the United States and much of Europe.

The ancient Romans helped lay the groundwork for many aspects of the modern world. It is no surprise that a once-booming empire was able to impact the world in so many ways and leave a lasting legacy behind.

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

27 Facts About Ancient Rome That Are Eerily Relevant Today

For more than a millennia, the Roman Empire dominated the earth. Of course, the exact time frame is up for debate, but, depending on which historian you ask, Roman rule dates as far back as circa 750 B.C.E. and ran up until somewhere in the latter half of the fifth century C.E. No matter how you cut it, that's a staggeringly large chunk of human history.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that the era of Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius has had a major, permeating effect on society as we know it. Here are all the ways that life in Ancient Rome is eerily relevant to life today.

At 25,846 people per square-kilometer, Manhattan has the highest population density of any American locale. Even so, it pales to that of ancient Rome. Many experts estimate that, at the city's peak, 1 million people lived within the Aurelian Walls—resulting in a population density of 72,150 per square-kilometer. Small wonder ancient Romans were the first people to live in apartments.

Wikimedia Commons/Cesare Maccari

Because the Roman republic practiced separation of power in its government, the Senate, whose name comes from the Roman "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" (SPQR), existed to oversee elections, legislation, criminal trials, and even foreign policy. But after the Roman republic defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars in 146 B.C.E., the Senators focused more and more on protecting their own self interests—and quickly developed into extremely polarized partisanship.

According to Jim Barron, a history and classics teacher at the Germantown Friends School, "The Senators were always under the impression that they were doing what was best for the republic" resulting in "doing something this way, or doing it that way. No compromise [could] be reached."

By the first century C.E., the Romans had already harnessed water power. Aqueducts and enormous waterwheels were often used to power mills that ground grain into flour, which was used to feed the masses. Despite the troves of knowledge, technology, and information that were lost following the fall of Rome, hydropower survived. That technology has morphed into the hydropower we know today, which is currently responsible for 71 percent of all renewable energy and 16.4 percent of energy overall worldwide.


When it comes to raising children, modern parents face some of the same problems as ancient parents, especially since the trope of rebellious youth was present even in the Roman Age. Parents of wild teenagers will be able to relate to Cicero, whose son, Marcus, regularly skipped his university lectures to go out drinking and partying. From Rome's chariot races to free-flowing wine, it's easy to see how the young Marcus could be easily distracted.

If you've ever been stuck in the nosebleed seats at Gillette Stadium, blame the Romans. According to a report in Sports Illustrated, stadiums and arenas today are largely influenced by the stadiums and arenas of Ancient Rome. (It should be noted, however, that the design of Roman stadiums was a bit derivative of the amphitheaters that populated the landscape of Ancient Greece.)

Wikimedia Commons/Alessio Nastro Siniscalchi

You might think the shopping mall is a uniquely American innovation. (Just ask the 42 million annual visitors to the Mall of America, in Minneapolis.) But the world's very first shopping mall dates back to the first century C.E. Trajan's Market—named after Trajan, one of the so-called Five Good Emperors—featured more than 150 individual shops and offices.

Someone would have invented it sooner or later, but in fact, it's the Romans we have to thanks for indoor plumbing. Though they didn't perfect it (toilets were usually in kitchens and lead pipes often caused lead poisoning), they were the first to install a network of pipes in the home. The pipes were used to move waste, but were also used to move water in the hotter months as a way to keep cool indoors. The Romans are also responsible for inventing the sewer system, though most indoor plumbing systems didn't actually lead to the sewer.

When it comes to bread, the Romans were revolutionary beyond inventing the water-powered mill. They also popularized yeasted bread for the first time in history and even formed baker's guilds that catered to wealthy citizens. High demands for white bread led to the invention of the first mechanical dough mixer. (Though, at the time, "mechanical" meant: powered by donkeys and horses.)


You think your commute is bad? Traffic in Ancient Rome started at the a.m. rush hour…and carried all the way into the night. To take it from 1st-century scribe Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis—which means taking it with a massive grain of salt, as Iuvenalis was a well-known satirist—the traffic literally caused in multiple deaths, as a result of insomnia due to noise pollution. And you thought 295 was bad…

Wikimedia Commons/DieBuche

Long before American politicians on both sides of the aisle were arguing over health care and other government-subsidized commodities, the Romans were happily doling out portions of free grain to the city's poorest citizens. The policy, called Cura Annonae, advanced as the empire grew, eventually offering these portions to citizens outside the city. By the 3rd century C.E., the empire was no longer just distributing grain, but bread, olive oil, wine, and even pork.

Silphium was an herb beloved by the Romans for its natural contraceptive properties. When consumed, it induced menstruation, and could—as legend has it—even force miscarriages in pregnant women. The herb was so popular that the Romans consumed it into extinction around the end of the 1st century.

Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Christophe Benoist

The Romans were master builders not just in terms of architecture, but also in terms of building materials, the most impressive of which was concrete. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the makeup of Roman concrete was lost during the fall of Rome. Though modern engineers have managed to create sturdy concrete, our mortar is still no match. Made with volcanic ash, Roman concrete was incredibly strong and reactive to other materials, making it resistant to weather and other naturally erosive agents. No wonder many of these concrete structures still stand millennia later.

One of Rome's greatest accomplishments in the field is the vast network of roads that the empire built all across the Mediterranean. Made of laid gravel and large, flat stones, these roads covered over 50,000 miles and mostly served to connect conquered cities. Many of these roads lasted well into the Middle Ages, and fragments of them can even be seen today.

Carpe diem, alma mater, semper fi, e pluribus unum, et cetera—these are just a few of the phrases we've adopted from Latin, the native language of the Roman Empire. But Latin roots are far deeper than adopted phrases. The language laid the groundwork for an entire class of so-called "Romance" languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. All told, about a billion people speak Romance languages in either a primary or secondary capacity.


As the Roman empire rapidly grew, the number of mouths to feed increased, so farmers had to be strategic about their crops. What they came up with is a system of crop rotation, one that most Western farmers still practice today. Roman farmers rotated three fields through three stages that were equally important to the success and yield of their crops: "food, feed, and fallow." One field was used for growing, the next for feeding livestock, and the third would lay bare to regain nutrients.

Recreational drugs have been around since the dawn of time—just ask the Romans! Reportedly, for fun, they'd eat a fish called Salema Porgy—also known, in today's parlance, as the Sarpa Salpa—to intentionally get high. According to one report in Clinical Toxicology, ingesting the fish can result in severe hallucinations. (Oh, the extent scientists will go to for "research…")


During elections, we often hear candidates promise to improve veteran care and benefits—but the reality is that veteran pensions and health care are highly stipulated, and often subpar. Roman veterans would recognize the struggle. Like modern politicians, Roman politicians often wrestled with the problem of pensioning legionnaires, those who had fought in the Roman legion. Ultimately, Caesar first established the pension system, offering soldiers a retirement plan worth 13 times a soldier's salary for those who served at least 20 years.

Wikimedia Commons/John Rylands University Library

Nearly everyone in the English-speaking world has read Shakespeare, whether it be for pleasure or because it was required reading in school. Ergo (that's a Latin word, by the way), you've interacted with Roman literature. One of the bard's greatest influences, after all, was the Roman poet Ovid. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale are just a few of the stories Shakespeare based on Ovid's fables. What's more, Ovid, Horace, and Virgil were the three Roman poets at the center of the "Golden Age of Poetry," whose works are still studied and read today.

Initially a small religious sect in the Roman province of Judea, Christianity would eventually grow into the world's most popular religion. Three centuries later, the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Even after the fall of Rome, Christianity continued to spread.

Long before football fans were shelling out thousands of dollars for a seat at the Super Bowl, Romans filled stadiums—like the 250,000-seat Circus Maximus—to watch chariot racers. Some of the more popular stars were practically ancient-era versions of LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Derek Jeter…all put together! Just look at Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who was so beloved that he earned the modern equivalent of $15 billion.


The fact that the Romans would think to vaccinate themselves against poisons rather than diseases says a lot about the threats that Roman emperors faced at the time. Called "mithridatism," after King Mithridates IV of Pontus, many believed that it was possible to build immunity against some of the most deadly poisons, like arsenic. It wasn't until the 18th century that Edward Jenner thought to do that same thing with deadly diseases.


Modern-day democracy is often said to be based upon Athenian democracy, but there are plenty of parallels between it and Roman democracy, as well. Some of those parallels: the division of government branches, the idea of elected officials, and, wouldn't you know it, crooked politicians. In fact, Marcus Tullius Cicero—the same politician who argued fiscal conservatism to the Roman heads of state—was known to have pocketed a minor fortune by setting aside portions of government money for himself.


Romans established a republic as a governing body, and included annual democratic elections that have served as rough models for modern democratic elections. But over time, these elections also suffered from the same kind of excessive spending that is hotly debated today. As Slate notes, "Vote-buying made sense for individual politicians at the same time as it undermined the elite as a whole," but, "by the end, chronic election-buying had helped grind down all faith in republican government."

Wikimedia Commons/Silvestre David Mirys

Land reforms have never been simple—not now, and definitely not during Roman times, such as when the Tiberius Gracchus proposed land be distributed to plebeians as a way to grow the army. Reportedly, his proposal sparked a five-decade-long debate that resulted in approximately zero people getting exactly what they want. Sound familiar? If not, just Google "redistricting" or "gerrymandering."

There's one big lesson that can be taken from Caesar's assassination: getting rid of a tyrant doesn't get rid of tyranny. Following the assassination—which happened because of his heavy-handed tyrannical rule—came a parade of even worse tyrants. Caligula, Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero all followed Caesar—and all were more murderous, more eccentric, and more self-involved than Caesar ever was. And for more paradigm-shifting historical trivia, don't miss these 30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History.


The plebian tribunes were a huge advance for the lower class of the Roman Republic. Once they had their seat in the government, the plebeians exerted their power in the form of secession. Not unlike the concept of a government shutdown, plebian secessions involved the plebeian class, that is, the working class, leaving the city and the patricians to fend for themselves. This move was a successful form of negotiating and balancing the power and needs of all the Republic's citizens, both rich and poor. Eventually, Hortensian Law was put in place, officially declaring plebeians and patricians equal under the eye of the law.

One of the most visible ways Rome has remained relevant in the modern day is in its lasting impact on architecture. No architectural innovation was so impactful as the arch. While the arch was not a new concept, the Roman arch utilized a keystone, which was larger and heavier than other stones that balanced supporting stones when placed in the center. The result was an arch more durable and effective even in large-scale architecture than ever before. Many still exist today, notably in the Roman aqueducts that remain across Mediterranean Europe.

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15 of History's Greatest Mad Scientists

When it comes to scientists, brilliance and eccentricity seem to go hand in hand. Some of the most innovative minds in human history have also been the strangest. From eccentric geniuses to the downright insane, here are some of history’s greatest mad scientists.


Born in Castle Frankenstein in 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel was a theologian, alchemist, and scientist who developed a popular dye called Prussian Blue that is still used to this day. But Dippel is better remembered for his more controversial experiments. He mixed animal bones and hides together in a stew he called “Dippel’s Oil,” which he claimed was an elixir that could extend the lifespan of anyone who consumed it. He also loved dissecting animals, and some believe he even stole human bodies from Castle Frankenstein. Dippel is often cited as an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the claim remains controversial.


Another possible Frankenstein inspiration was mad scientist Giovanni Aldini, who among other strange experiments, was obsessed with the effects of electrocution. Aldini, who was something of a celebrity in the early 19th century, travelled Europe, demonstrating the powers of electricity. He was also one of the first scientists to treat mental patients with electric shocks. Though his methods were unconventional, Aldini was well respected in his time, and the emperor of Austria even made him a Knight of the Iron Crown.


Nineteenth century theologian and paleontologist William Buckland was the first person to write a full description of a fossilized dinosaur, which he called the Megalosaurus. But though his work was admired, the early paleontologist had some pretty strange appetites: Buckland was obsessed with trying to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. He claimed to have consumed mice, porpoises, panthers, bluebottle flies, and even the preserved heart of King Louis XIV.


Anyone who took high school math knows about the Pythagorean theorem. But they might not know that, in addition to being a brilliant mathematician, Pythagoras really hated eating beans. If that sounds more like a personal preference than a mark of madness, consider the fact that he not only avoided eating legumes, but that he went so far as to forbid his followers from eating them as well. It’s unclear where Pythagoras’s bean aversion came from, though some believe Pythagoras saw them as sacred. According to one legend, Pythagoras died when he was being pursued by a group of ruffians, but refused to seek refuge in a nearby bean field.


Eighteenth century engineer, astronomer, and professional tinkerer Benjamin Banneker is believed to have made the first clock built entirely in America. Banneker helped survey the boundaries of the area that would become Washington D.C., charted the stars and planets every night, predicted eclipses, and was one of America’s earliest African American scientists. How did he make time to do all that? By working all night, and sleeping only in the early hours of the morning, of course. The quirky scientist was said to spend each night wrapped in a cloak, lying under a pear tree, meditating on the revolutions of heavenly bodies. Instead of in a lab or office, the astronomer dozed where he could also (potentially) do work: beneath a tree.


One of the most influential scientists in history, Isaac Newton was also one of the quirkiest. The physicist and mathematician was known to experiment on himself while studying optics, even going so far as to poke himself in the eye with a needle. He was also obsessed with the apocalypse and believed the world would end sometime after the year 2060.


One of England’s first female natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish was a controversial figure in the 17th century. An outspoken intellectual and prolific writer, she ruffled a few feathers among those who believed women had no place in the scientific community. As a result, Cavendish was often called “Mad Madge.” But though Cavendish wasn’t truly insane, she was more than a little socially inept. On one occasion, Cavendish was “pondering upon the natures of Mankind,” and decided to write down all of the positive qualities possessed by one of her friends on one piece of paper, and on another, all of the woman’s negative qualities. Cavendish then decided to send her friend the list of positive qualities, which she assumed would be appreciated. Unfortunately, Cavendish accidentally sent the wrong list, and received an outraged response from her friend. Cavendish also acted as her own physician, and likely died as a result of her refusal to seek outside medical care.


One of the most renowned scholars of the Northern Song Dynasty, Shen Kuo was a master of astronomy, physics, math, and geology, arguing, among other things, that tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull and that the Earth and the Sun are spherical, not flat. But he’s also credited as the first writer to describe a UFO sighting. Shen documented sightings of unidentified flying objects in his writing, describing the descent of floating objects “as bright as a pearl.” Nowadays, contemporary UFO theorists have latched onto Shen’s work as the first written record of an alien spacecraft. Shen himself never made that connection: Generally speaking, he was more interested in divination and the supernatural than alien visitors.


A great astronomer and an even greater partier, Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546, and lost his nose in a mathematical disagreement that elevated to a brawl. The scientist spent the rest of his life wearing a copper prosthetic nose. Brahe also threw elaborate parties on his own private island, had a court jester who sat under the table at banquets, and kept a pet elk who loved to imbibe just as much as he did.


Mary Anning was a mad fossil collector: Starting at age 12, Anning became obsessed with finding fossils and piecing them together. Driven by acute intellectual curiosity as well as economic incentives (the working class Anning sold most of the fossils she discovered), Anning became famous among 19th century British scientists. So many people would travel to her home in Lyme Regis to join her on her fossil hunts that after she died locals actually noticed a drop in tourism to the region. But it’s not Anning’s passion for fossils that sets her apart as a slightly mad scientist, but rather the supposed origins of her intellectual curiosity: As an infant, the sickly young Mary was struck by lightning while watching a traveling circus. That lightning strike, according to Anning’s family, was at the root of the once-unexceptional Mary’s superior intelligence.


Sometimes called the “Master of a Hundred Arts,” Athanasius Kircher was a polymath who studied everything from biology and medicine to religion. But Kircher didn’t just study everything, he seems to have believed in everything as well. At a time when scientists like Rene Descartes were becoming increasingly skeptical of mythological phenomena, Kircher believed strongly in the existence of fictional beasts and beings like mermaids, giants, dragons, basilisks, and gryphons.


In contrast to Anthanasius Kircher, Ancient Roman poet and scientist Lucretius spent much of his life trying to disprove the existence of mythological beasts. But he employed some truly creative logic to do so. Lucretius is best known for being one of the earliest scientists to write about atoms. But he also argued that centaurs and other mythological animal mash-ups were impossible because of the different rates at which animals aged. A centaur, for instance, could never exist according to Lucretius, because horses age much faster than humans. As a result, for much of its lifespan, a centaur would be running around with the head and torso of a human baby on top of a fully grown horse’s body.


While training to become a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, Stubbins Ffirth became obsessed with proving yellow fever was not contagious. In order to do so, the young researcher would expose himself to the bodily fluids of yellow fever patients. Ffirth never caught yellow fever, though contemporary scientists know that this was not because the disease isn’t contagious (it is), but because most of the patients whose samples he used were in the late stages of the disease, and thus, past the point of contagion.


Renaissance era scientist Paracelsus is sometimes called the “father of toxicology.” But he also thought he could create a living homunculus (a living, miniature person) from the bodily fluids of full-sized people. He also believed in mythological beings like wood nymphs, giants, and succubae.


Though he’s best known as an artist, Leonardo thought up some pretty amazing inventions. From an early version of the airplane to a primitive scuba suit, Leonardo designed technological devices that are in use to this day. But Leonardo wasn’t your average inventor: He had no formal schooling, dissected animals to learn about their anatomy, loved designing war devices, and recorded many of his best ideas backwards in mirror image cursive, possibly to protect his works from plagiarism.