December 14, 2003
Ancient Roman Non-Inventions

Eugene Volokh is looking for products and processes unknown to the Romans in 150 B.C. that could have been known to them if they had only thought to invent them -- things like stirrups or Arabic numerals. Follow the link to see the specific conditions that must be satisfied to meet his mysterious requirements.

Here are my tentative suggestions, which I will glad to have corrected or (even better) fortified with evidence:

  1. Pockets. I've never seen them mentioned in ancient literature, and surely Romans wouldn't have carried book-rolls tucked in the fronts of their togas or tunics, or small change in their mouths (ick!) if they had had pockets. I wonder when they were invented. Before the discovery of marsupials, Iím pretty sure, though it surely wouldn't have taken long after that.
  2. Buttons. Again, I don't recall reading about them in any ancient author. Zippers and velcro take relatively advanced technology, but the ancients had needles and thread: why didn't they have buttons? They could have put them on their nonexistent pockets to discourage pickpockets.
  3. Chests of drawers? Drawers generally? Smith & Hall's English-Latin Dictionary gives plenty of Latin words for drawers, but only in the senses 'one who draws' and 'underpants' (it's a rather old dictionary). My impression is that clothes were kept in footlockers or on shelves in closets. Metal rollers help a lot, but all-wood chests are still quite useful. If Romans didn't have them, why not? If they did, what did they call them and where are they mentioned?
  4. Clothes hangers? Again, I have the impression that ancient closets had shelves and pegs, but not hangers.
  5. An example that should occur to any classicist: The 'codex' or book with individual pages bound together on one side: much more durable and convenient than the papyrus roll.
  6. Alphabetized card files. I've read that (e.g.) ancient librarians didnít normally alphabetize titles beyond the first letter. Why not? It's not difficult. And the catalogues (Pinakes) of the Library at Alexandria seem to have been kept in multi-roll book form, when the librarians could have listed the holdings separately on slips of papyrus or parchment and put them in drawers (or boxes or something), like modern (but not contemporary) librarians. That would have allowed the easy addition of new titles. It would also have allowed them to drop them on the floor and have to spend all day realphabetizing, but that's another story . . . .
  7. Double-entry bookkeeping is said to have been invented in Italy in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance.
  8. Musical four-part harmony (or any number of parts more than one). Iíve read (where?) that ancient choruses always sang in unison unless they were mixed man-boy choruses, in which case they sang in octaves. Apparently a barbershop quartet is more sophisticated harmonically than ancient music, though they no doubt made up for it with rhythmic and other complexities.
  9. This hardly counts as a useful invention, but the ancients could have carved frisbees out of wood if it had ever occurred to them to do so. They would have been prone to crack in half along the grain, but would still have made nifty toys.
  10. Condoms were most likely discovered well into the Renaissance -- they are first mentioned by the Fallopius who discovered the Fallopian tubes --, but there is some very slight ancient evidence for them. More on this later. Without rubber, they couldn't have worked very well, but any kind of animal intestine useful for sausage-making would have been better than nothing for condom-making.
  11. I wonder if anyone else will think of this one: Seeing-eye dogs. No advanced technology is required, though special harnesses help them guide their masters. If I recall correctly, seeing-eye dogs were developed in Germany in the 19th or (at the earliest) 18th century. Of course, in Sophocles' Oedipus and Antigone, Tiresias enters guided by a seeing-eye boy. (Students are always shocked when I call him that, but how is it inaccurate?) No doubt the easy availability of child labor (both slave and free) discouraged the use of dogs for the same job before modern times: they just weren't needed.

Volokh's post raises more general questions about factors that prevent things from being invented or discovered. Other than just plain ignorance (failing to think of it), I think there are three:

  1. Some things had to wait for basic scientific discoveries: anything that requires electricity, to take the most obvious example.
  2. Some things had to wait for gradual technological improvements in the precision with which things could be manufactured. Someone (reference please!) recently wrote a well-received book about Swiss clockmakers' gradual progress from grandfather clocks to wall clocks to pocketwatches and wristwatches. I don't think there were any new scientific processes involved, just advances in precision that allowed smaller and smaller clocks to be more and more accurate. Similarly, I doubt the ancients had means of making metal wire efficiently, so barbed wire would have been out even if they had thought of it. I'm almost certain they couldn't make wire small enough and in large enough quantities to make window screens.
  3. Some things had to wait for the discovery of natural products found only in far-off parts of the world. Roast turkey, baked potatoes, and spaghetti sauce are not exactly technological advances, but umbrellas and raincoats had to wait for rubber, and cigars had to wait for tobacco. The Greeks and (I assume) Romans had parasols to keep off the sun (Prometheus carries one in Aristophanes' Birds), but I'm pretty sure the best they could do for rain was something like a hooded leather cloak, which is far less effective than an ordinary rubberized raincoat (with buttons!) or poncho or umbrella.

Many inventions have had to wait for things that fall into more than one of these three categories. For instance, cigarettes require both tobacco (3) and paper (1), while bicycles require precision gearwork (2) and probably rubber (3 Ė who would want to ride a bicycle with metal or wooden wheels?) I imagine the internal combustion engine would come under categories 1 + 2.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 14, 2003 07:37 PM

I ask my students all the time "before you laugh at them for not having invented such-and-such, tell me what YOU'VE invented."

Pockets is the best!

You're right about chests-of-drawers -- they stored things at bathhouses at least (we have a few surviving at Pompeii and Herculaneum) in those kinds of open boxy bookshelf thingies. What do we call those?. They did, however, have cased shelves with doors -- Armadium = armoire. the earliest picture that springs to mind IS 5th century, after the invention of the codex, though.

Buttons. I think that's a development of the frog (which seems to be Asian in invention).

Prof. Volokh's suggestion of the stirrup is, of course, important. The horse collar is now highly controverted, though.

Alphabetization. This is one that occurs to me -- why didn't they think o f this one?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on December 15, 2003 08:23 AM

Didn't L. Sprague deCamp have a novel to this effect, I think it was "Lest Darkness Fall"?

Classics scholar is thrown back in time to late Roman period while standing by the Colosseum. He creates double-entry book-keeping, stirrups, printing press (don't know if it had moveable type or not) some other items like semaphore(?), helping to keep the Dark Ages at bay.

Posted by: Dean on December 15, 2003 11:12 AM

That's the title, Dean. Actually not to the late Roman period, but to the Gothic period (with a lot of Roman institutions still intact) right after, just at the time of Justinian's invasion.

I do wonder if the Romans could have invented printing. They had the wine press, which could have been adapted for printing, and they had metal casting. I guess the question is if papyrus would have been suitable as a "replacement" of paper. (The DeCamp book, BTW, says no, and the scholar had to invent paper when parchment ran out.)

The codex was invented in Roman times, wasn't it? Not as early as 150 BC, but by 150 AD. There's a theory -- it's nice to speculate on, but I don't know if there's anything to it -- that it was actually a Christian invention, because that was the only way to keep a book of gospels as one unit. (Alternatively, it was easier to keep a secret codex than a pile of scrolls during persecutions.)

Did some checking... The Magdalen fragments, from the Book of Matthew and dating to the second century, are from a papyrus codex.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on December 15, 2003 11:59 AM

I suspect that the Romans could have made wire screening, but it would have cost a bloody fortune per square foot, and wouldn't have been as regular (and possibly not as strong) as modern mesh screens. But it's certain that the ancients could manage thin gold and silver wire, since their use in decoration is well-attested.

I'm fairly certain pockets were a renaissance-era invention, at least in terms of their general use. I'm unsure as to exactly why they didn't come into use sooner, except that perhaps pockets (when used) put extra strain on the cloth, and with clothing being so expensive...

(The rich, who could afford more clothing, of course, had people to carry things for them, and various bags and pouches were ubiquitous since antiquity. When you have pouches and such, pockets' lack doesn't seem so bad.)

Posted by: Sigivald on December 15, 2003 01:14 PM

The boxy bookshelf thingies were called cubbies in the nursery schools my kids attended.

Also, I think it's pretty likely that some Roman artisan had leather aprons with pockets, similar to what you can buy at HomeDepot today.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on December 15, 2003 02:07 PM

How about hay? See

Posted by: John Foster on December 15, 2003 05:10 PM

Wire was made by hammering the metal into sheets, and then cutting the sheet into a thin spiral strip with a chisel. This would give it a trapezoidal cross-section and no doubt leave severe irregularities, but further fine hammering while rolling the wire could round it and smooth out most of the irregularities. This high-skilled labor-intensive process meant that wire was used mainly for high-cost products such as jewelry - and eventually for chain mail, but probably not until after the western Roman empire fell.[1] An extremely rich Roman could have had window screens made out of copper, if anyone had thought of it, but it was cheaper to keep a few unskilled slaves standing around with flyswatters.

Possibly the modern process of wire drawing could have been invented in Roman times, although I'm not sure how well they could have hardened the die. Another reason it wasn't invented then was that there wasn't that much call for large quantities of wire. It seems to have been a late medieval invention - a few centuries after chain mail (made from many short pieces of wire bent into circles, woven through other links, and riveted together with even tinier pieces of wire) became as much a part of the knight's equipment as his sword and horse.

[1] It is possible that the Sarmatian nobles wore chain mail much earlier. (This was a Persian-speaking nomadic tribe. Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian incursion. Apparently their nobles were armed as heavy calvary, while the mass of the tribe were light calvary archers.) Roman and other contemporary drawings and verbal descriptions clearly depict flexible metal armor of some sort, but whether this was overlapping scales or chain mail is not clear.

Posted by: markm on December 15, 2003 10:09 PM

The Romans made considerable use of mail prior to the end of the western Empire. Look around and you'll find quite a few references.

Note that most Europeans still don't use window screens, though they have begun to catch on in a big way in the last couple of years.

NB: Armor historians prefer "mail" to "chain mail". The latter is seen as a redundancy, a bit of a holdover as well from Victorian references that falsely distinguished between numerous kinds of mail on the basis of the form of hatching used in artists' depictions.

Posted by: David Nishimura on December 16, 2003 11:06 AM

David is correct; the Romans, IIRC, acquired the idea of chain armor from the Celts (and probably acquired much of the know-how of making it, and many many sets of the armor itself from them as well), and certainly were using it well before 450.

Tangentially, of course, the wire used for armor is much, much heavier than wire for window screens would be, and thus much easier to manufacture. It was often *flat*, as well. This is something of an advantage for armor, if I remember correctly, in the way it resists blows.

Posted by: Sigivald on December 16, 2003 12:52 PM

"... but umbrellas and raincoats had to wait for rubber, ..."
Umbrellas don't need rubber, just tightly woven cloth. Though doing the frame with wood rather than metal might be a problem.

"... bicycles require precision gearwork (2) and probably rubber (who would want to ride a bicycle with metal or wooden wheels?"
Not a lot of people, but that what was used from 1840 to 1869. I think the bearings would be more of a problem than the gears, which could be large and not high-precision. The chain would be hard, but a punched leather belt might work.

Another SF book on the subject is Harry Turtledove's Agent of Bysantium.

Posted by: Bill Woods on December 16, 2003 01:56 PM

I recall that there's one inverse to the question, technology that the Romans had that was lost until recently--
concrete--practical formulas rediscovered about 200 years ago.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on December 16, 2003 02:49 PM

Roman concrete used a particular variety of volcanic ash, not much like the modern process of cooking portland cement from limestone and sand. Judging by the longevity of much Roman architecture, their cement may have been better - but the supply was limited.

Posted by: markm on December 18, 2003 10:20 AM

As to raincoats, even a tightly-woven fabric will soak through. However, if you soak it in oil and let it dry, it will repel water just as well as rubber impregnated cloth will. The only downside is that you would have to maintain it on a regular basis, or the waterproofing would fail.
I have seen it done using boiled linseed oil on canvas to make a tent, but I don't know if flax was available in Ancient Rome.

Posted by: Bill on December 18, 2003 03:40 PM

Didn't the Japanese make their umbrellas from wood and cloth?

Posted by: Dean on December 18, 2003 05:01 PM

re: raincoats--
Our British cousin call waterproof clothing (at least when used on boats) "oilskins." The Romans may well have had them.

OTOH, the Romans used wool, which tends to keep its insulating properties when wet, so maybe they didn't miss waterproof clothing.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on December 18, 2003 11:04 PM

What about gunpowder? Saltpeter, charcoal & sulphur proportioned by weight in the ratio 15:3:2. No particular reason for an alchemist to mix those items that way, but no reason for them not to either. Ponder the effects of a Legion armed with bronze cannon-locks, firing in volley.

Posted by: Cybrludite on December 21, 2003 06:44 AM

The reason that papyrus was in scroll form instead of codex was because papyrus tended to unravel at the edges. If you glued sheets of papyrus together to make a scroll, then you only had two edges that could fray instead of three.

As to why no card catalog, I wouldn't be surprised if it was due to the expense of writing materials. While China developed paper much earlier, paper didn't show up in Europe until the 12th century.

Papyrus and parchment manufacture were both very labor-intensive processes that required a somewhat limited resource. (And both were limited by the size of the raw material -- either the length of the reeds or the size of the sheep.) It might well have been thought wasteful to only put a listing for one book on a slip of paper instead of putting a whole list. You could make the slips smaller, but if you're economical, each book's slip would be too tiny to handle easily.

Before you laugh at how silly they were to be so stingy with their writing materials, think about how until very recently, disk space was too expensive to keep around full-text indices...

IIRC, Gutenberg had to do quite a lot of experimentation with inks until he could find one that worked well enough to print with. I don't know how well papyrus and parchment work in a printing press.

Good books: _Paper Before Print_,

_The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe_,

Posted by: Ducky Sherwood on April 27, 2004 11:52 PM

i want real inventions by the romans!!! not this crap

Posted by: roman info finder on June 8, 2004 08:01 PM