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Lack of technological progress in late Roman Empire
#1
Hello,

there is a widespread opinion, both among scholars and laymen, that the late Roman Empire showed a distinct lack of technological inventions and advancements.

And indeed, I can think hardly of any new important invention between AD 100 and the Byzantine period! Why is there such a long dry spell between the invention of cement and blowing glass in the early empire and a kind of technological renaissance under Justinian (Hagia Sophia's dome, his extensive laws codification).

I mean, it hasnt to be such groundbreaking inventions every other day, but even in terms of smaller technological steps there seems to be a peculiar absence of evidence. And what were the innovative Greeks doing in the meantime?

David Landes in his 'Wealth and Poverty of Nations goes so far as to declare the break up of the Roman Empire a good thing, as it helpt to set free again the will and need for innovation of the people. And even such a sympathetic historians like William McNeill phases in his' Rise of the West' the prime-age of the Greco-Romano civilisation out by AD 200 - well before its demise - and sees the cultural and technological lead move again in eastern direction, this time to the far east (first India, later China).

So, my question is: Was there a distinct lack of technological progress in late Roman Empire or has changed scholarly opinion lately in view of new and contrary evidence? And why was this so, why did the Greco-Roman world lose its position as cultural and technological leader it had kept for pretty long (McNeill gives in his world history a leadership phase of 500 BC to AD 200)?

Perhaps we could start by making a simple brain storming of new important inventions after AD 100 (The dates should only gives a rough orientation and do not necessarily mark the introduction of something new) My start:

- cheiroballista (AD 100) = real field artillery

- Overshot multiple water mills (300s) of Arles: http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/barbegal/

- lateen sails: shaky evidence in the 400s and 500s

What more?

Regards
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#2
That period of Roman history isn't my forte, but from what I understand of economics, a lack of competition could have been to blam for the lack of innovation. Were the Roman people relatively content during this period? When people allow themselves to become comfortable, they aren't driven to improve their lives.
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#3
Well, not all Roman inventions, but here’s a list from 100AD-550AD:

128 Apartment Blocks Rome
140 Reconstructive Surgery Sicily
248 Zoo Rome (I’m not sure if that’s an invention but maybe the concept is.
275 Algebra by Diophantus
300 Oil Street Lighting in Antioch
300 Gas Street Lighting in Caesarea
361 Licensing of Doctors in Constantinople
370 Paddle Wheel Ships (anonymous - de Rebus Bellicis)
400 Astrolabe in Alexandria
400 Hydrometer made of brass for weather prediction by Hypatia in Alexandria
400 Butter introduced by the Vandals
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#4
Where did you get that list from?

The astrolabe is indeed a very ingenious invention, but as far as I knew its date of origin is unclear.

How did they use gas for street lighting in Caesarea?
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#5
Stefan,

You should talk to Tim O'Neil

He's on the memberlist. He's talked about this many times.

The basics is that there really isn't a technological slowdown, far from it.

From my own research I know that the most efficient methods of dome construction and bath furnaces are all late developments, not to mention metallurgy, etc. In all cases the late period casting processes and iron smelting are superior to early empire.

Robert is right, it's not a lack of brains and innovation, it's the lack of economics and infrastructure. In the early empire there is a civil bureaucracy and trading network that coudl propigate ideas across the empire. By the late period, a lot of that is missing, meaning that ideas can't travel as well.

It has long been thought that the middle ages was an era of technological decline. This is not true. Clocks, mechanics, water works, agricultural technology, animal breeding, book production, etc, all make HUGE strides in technology. It's just that the divisive political and unstable economical environment make it hard to develop. The second a middle class and trading network develops, say in the 13th C, we experience an explosion of learning and technological progress that continues until today.

Travis
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#6
I agree that technology was not so much the limiting factor as development or application of new technology. Part of this disinterest may have been paradoxically due to the size and control of the empire. A large and relatively centralized state sometimes is able to surpress economic developments in favor of the well-known traditional methods. This might be done to protect social stability or the interests of the mighty. The fragmentation of medieval Europe may have spurred some technological developments, as each party sought an advantage over others. (The rise of artillery may be a case in point.)
Felix Wang
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#7
Felix has a good point.

The slave state precludes a lot of technological innovation. Why bother making something better? Just put more slaves on it. The same is true of serfdom. Why bother working harder when the Lord of the manor will benefit, not you. When both systems break down, more innovation is possible because the incentives are greater.
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#8
Quote:300 Gas Street Lighting in Caesarea

Confusedhock: "Illuminating"!

I'm amazed! what form of gas was used? methane? or a phenolic based?

Regards,
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#9
Also added to Robert's list should be the expansion of hydraulics, which were invented under the greeks, but never really utilized until the empire. My favorite is a door post in Syria. Oil was poured into a groove and the weight of the door post compressed it just enough to make it turn smoothly.

Also don't forget the huge syringes used to shoot Greek Fire!
Theodoros of Smyrna (Byzantine name)
aka Travis Lee Clark (21st C. American name)

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#10
Quote:Where did you get that list from?
OK, guilty, I haven't been able to confirm the claims made here: http://www.krysstal.com/inventions_07.html 8)
Quote: How did they use gas for street lighting in Caesarea?
I wouldn't know! :roll:
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Robert Vermaat
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#11
Quote:
Quote: How did they use gas for street lighting in Caesarea?
I wouldn't know! :roll:
Well, we all know where they took the bleach from, so... the gas system could have come from a cohors fetidorum... :roll:

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Ivan Perelló
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#12
Travis, Robert may I respectfully dissagree with some items of the list?
Astrolab: I have posted image of the Hellenistic Astrolab of Antikythira.
Hydravlics: May I mention Eupalinos in Samos late 6th century B.C.?
Also Mrs Martha Broadway in 1992 in the Boston convention presented evidence of the use of cocrete in LAVRIO mines and verified the findings of Efstatheiadea findings in Rhodes that bulidings in Kameiros had concrete!
Kind regards
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#13
Quote:Travis, Robert may I respectfully dissagree with some items of the list?
Of course!
Quote:Astrolab: I have posted image of the Hellenistic Astrolab of Antikythira.
Afaik, no one knows for sure what the Antikythira object actually is.
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#14
Quote:Afaik, no one knows for sure what the Antikythira object actually is.
The Antikythera mechanism was demonstrated in 1959 to be a device for showing the past, present and future phases of the moon. Thus, an ancestor of the Arab astrolabe. As far as I remember, the wreck that it came from was dated to the mid-first century BC (thus, Roman rather than Hellenistic).
Unless there has been some new research that I haven't seen ...
posted by Duncan B Campbell
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#15
You're right, an astrolabe datd to 85-50 BC.
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Robert Vermaat
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