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The Roman Inventions That Changed The World

Updated on January 30, 2016

It is well-known that Romans owed a big deal of their way of life to certain Greek and Hellenistic influences. Nevertheless, they have added a twist of their own sense of living to many of them.

And yet, not everything in Roman daily life was a cultural borrowing. There were original Roman inventions, and some of them have literally formed the modern world the way we know it today.

1. Apartment Buildings

By the beginning of the first century BC, the ancient city of Rome has slowly turned into a huge metropolis with all the possible issues deriving from that fact. One of the major challenges for the Eternal City was the proper housing of the constantly growing population; around one million at that time.

The Romans faced that matter with developing a system of building houses faster, stronger, and, what is more impressive, higher than the others who have lived before them. Multi-story buildings, some of them occupying a whole city block, were erected all over Rome in order to house people from the low and middle strata of the ancient Roman society. These constructions were called insulae (literally meaning islands) and although they varied in sizes, all consisted of several floors (between three and seven). The ground levels were usually used as business spots where shops of a different kind coexisted with various tabernae and drinking&fast food establishments.

According to the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (1st century BC – 1st century AD), the insulae were equipped with sanitation and running water system, although that wasn’t valid for all buildings; certainly not for the uppermost floors. The lower levels were thought as the best locations. They offered larger, and, of course, more expensive apartments (cenacula); hence, they hosted the middle-class families.

Every apartment building had an insularius - a caretaker who was responsible for the insula and its fire protection. As the upper floors were usually made of timber, they often burnt out (Remember the great fire in Rome which Nero was blamed for?). Insularius was the intermediating figure between the inhabitants, the landlords, and the forces of law.

Renting insula was a profitable business and was a source of wealth for many Roman patricians and prosperous people, like Cicero for instance, or Crassus (allegedly the richest person in Rome in mid first century BC).

Those apartment buildings were characteristic for the urbanized Rome and could be rarely seen in other ancient Roman cities. There is one excavated in Herculaneum and several in Ostia, but the biggest number remains in the capital of the Roman Empire. According to one research, by the fourth century AD, there were only around 1800 private houses and more than 45, 000 insulae in the city; estimating the capacity of a single insula up to 40 people, that equals 1, 800, 000 people living in apartment buildings, at least!

2. Public Press

What a Roman citizen would do if he wanted to know the last news updates of the state? He would stroll down to the Roman Forum and read the daily gazette.

That was certainly possible because the first form of a press, containing daily news was, in fact, an original Roman invention. The first kind of a newspaper in ancient Rome appeared during the time of the Roman Republic (second century BC). It was called ACTA DIURNA (Daily Events) and initially listed current public notices, trials outcomes, and legal proceedings. The state news were carved on a stone (or sometimes on metal) and exposed in public places for spreading the information to all. During the Roman Empire, copies of ACTA DIURNA were sent to provincial governors for communicating the news to the rest of the Empire.

At the beginning, the “Daily Events” functioned as a public journal of the government (government gazette) through which state decisions and official documents entered the public domain. Later, an additional data started to sneak in giving information about some notable births or deaths, prominent marriages, or noteworthy occurrences.

Every issue of this pioneer of the modern newspaper allegedly finished with the phrase: “PUBLICARE ET PROPAGARE” (Make public and propagate). That appeal was directed to both Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens and implied the need for spreading the news all over the Roman Empire. In our times, that expression may be considered as the father of the modern press formula: Publish and Share.

Before it got replaced with a new issue, the copy of ACTA DIURNA stayed at the public for several days. The old version was supposedly archived. Unfortunately, there are no remains that have been found yet.

ACTA DIURNA stopped being issued in mid fourth century AD when the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople.

3. The legal profession

The impact of the Roman law on many modern legal systems is a notorious fact even for those who are not quite passionate about law matters. What is not largely known is the role of the ancient Romans in the creation of the legal profession and the legal education.

In ancient Greece (mainly in Athens), there were kind of “lawyers” who represented people during court trials. They were rather orators with rhetorical competencies who pleaded instead of people involved in court cases. Nevertheless, every citizen had the right to plead by himself without having a formal legal education as a prerequisite. Even when an Athenian preferred to use the services of an orator, he would not pay him for that, as according to the Athenian law, orators could not charge for their assistance in a trial. Although this requirement was often disregarded by the Greeks (they paid orators under the table), the fact that anyone could plead as well as the lack of formal remuneration clearly denotes that officially the legal profession still did not exist.

It received its chance in the first century AD, when Emperor Claudius (1st century AD), who had a particular interest in the law, allowed the lawyers to exercise their legal competitions as professionalists. The ban on paying for legal services was abolished, and a fee tax was set with the maximum payable amount of 10, 000 sesterces. With these first steps of the legalization of the profession of the lawyer, a class of specialists started to develop. By the fourth century AD, they have completely dislodged the figure of the then presented law consultants (iuris consulti) who were amateurs occupied by legal matters as a personal hobby, not as a profession. They usually derived from the wealthy Roman families and were considered as an ultimate authority on the Roman law.

At the end of the fourth century AD, advocates started to study law as a separate subject and gradually seized the old practice of educating advocates and judges only in rhetoric. In 460 AD, Emperor Leo imposed as a rule that new advocates had to produce testimonials for their capacity from their teachers. By the sixth century AD, a course of four-year legal study was required for admission in the advocats collegium.

4. Post and Courier Service

The impressive transformation of Rome from a small city into a vast empire brought the necessity of creating and maintaining quick and reliable communications. Realizing the importance of that, Emperor Augustus established the first post and courier service in Europe at the end of the first century BC. The facility was called cursus publicus (later known as cursus vehicularis), and literary meant a public transport. It represented a complex state-run courier and carriage system and was used for transmitting messages and officials. It was also exploited by the army for urgent summoning of reinforcements as well as by the provincial governors for transporting the tax revenues of the provinces.

Cursus publicus consisted of series of forts and stations built all along the major Roman roads where special spots, called stationes, served as relay points providing horses and vehicles to the traveling messengers. The post and courier services could be used only with a particular certificate (diploma) issued by the emperor himself, and its primary customer was the state. Although the imperial administration supervised the functioning of the postal network, the local provincial governors were responsible for its funding and maintenance.

After the third century AD, an express service (cursus velox – fast transportation) was added to the regular one (cursus clabularis – cart’s transportation). The express post was delivered through horse riding while for the normal and heavier courier carts (clabulae) and open wagons were used.

That postal facility was so effective that it persisted even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire when it was adopted by Theodoric, the king of Ostrogoths, as well as by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire.

Scientists have calculated that the typical speed of this service was 50 miles (80 km) per day. The urgent messages probably traveled even faster as the highly developed Roman road system facilitated the communications.

An almost seven meters long old map gives us a better picture of that ancient Roman invention. It indicates all the Roman roads and rest stops on the way from Spain to India. Although this parchment scroll, known as Tabula Peutingeriana, was made in the Middle Age, it is a copy of a non-existing fifth century AD Roman map.

Reconstruction of a Roman courier cart
Reconstruction of a Roman courier cart

5. Graffiti

Graffiti are called writings or drawings on walls or other surfaces that are usually visible on public places. Examples of different graffiti existed in many ancient societies, but those found in ancient Rome (esp. in Pompeii and Herculaneum) show that two thousand years ago, Romans expressed publicly different personal, social, political, and artistic messages the same way we do today with the modern urban graffiti.

The streets of the ancient cities were full of drawings and inscriptions (11, 000 found only in Pompeii) and what is most surprising, they existed not only on the walls of inns, bars, public baths and basilicas but also on the wealthy private houses. Obviously, the graffiti were a common way of expression in the daily life in ancient Rome. Among those discovered in Pompeii we could find:

Political appeals:

“ I, Sotericus, ask that you make Aulus Trebius aedile,”

Caupona (Inn) of Sotericus, CIL, IV, 7432

Declarations of love:

“Marcus loves Spendusa”

Near the Vesuvius Gate, CIL, IV, 7086


“Celadus, the Thracian gladiator, is the delight of all the girls”

House of the Gladiators, CIL, IV, 4289


“Virgula to her friend Tertius: you are disgusting!

The Basilica, CIL, IV, 1881

Or simply:

“Satura was here on September 3rd”

House of Menander, CIL, IV, 8304

Roman graffiti found in Izmir, today Turky (2nd-4th century AD)
Roman graffiti found in Izmir, today Turky (2nd-4th century AD)

Do you know another, less known Roman inventions that shaped the modern world?


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