What stalled Roman industrialization?

About the first century, Roman society reached some sort of a peak in terms of advance. Their science and literature reached a high point, with Gaius Plinius Secundus’ Naturalis Historia, an encyclopaedia that contained accounts of Roman technology to that point (as well as just about everything else, such as science, medicine, cookery, biology, etc). To the best of my knowledge, there were no significant Roman technology advances following that point. The question is, why not? Furthermore, in response to the question, it should be noted that the concept of the factory was embedded. Roman cloth making, such as dyeing, was carried out in what could be described as chemical processing plants. Such Roman manufacturing was obviously much more primitive than ours, and mainly relied on heat or man-power. However, the concept of the factory was there, but it was never taken further.

One possibility is that imperial control stalled effort. Perhaps there was no observable need. If you do not see the need to find an easier way of doing something, you might be unlikely to do so. In this context, the hard work in Rome was done first by slaves, and then by the poor who were basically uneducated. They might see the need, but they had no ability to do anything about it.  Another possibility is that nobody could see what could be done.

In my trilogy, starting with, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist had three quests. The first was to become a military commander and I have covered some of the learning aspects in my previous posts. The second was to develop a steam engine. The concept of the steam engine was developed by Hero of Alexandria, and this aeolipile involved heating a small cauldron over a fire, the steam then being sent to two pipes that entered a ball on a bearing, the ball having two small exit pipes that were bent so that the exit was tangential to the ball, and the plane of the pipes was normal to the axis of the ball. The steam exited and conservation of momentum led to the ball spinning. This, of course, was merely a toy, but it did introduce the concept that you could get steam to do work. So, why was it not taken further?

I think it was a mixture of the above reasons. The main way to advance in Rome from this period was the army. Armies throughout history were not inherently inventive, although the Roman army was adaptive. The educated class tended to be the rich who exploited the poor, so they were not going to get their hands dirty developing new machinery. But perhaps the biggest challenge was that nobody could see why a steam engine would be such an advantage. I also doubt they could see how to do it. If you look at the history of the steam engine, there were a number of attempts that finally came to fruition with Newcomen’s engine, which happened mainly to be a larger and slightly improved version of previous ones. Newcomen’s engine was extremely inefficient, and used huge amounts of coal for the work it did, but since the useful work was to lift water out of coal mines, the coal was available.

So, here is a reader’s question: with your engineering limited to first century technology, how would you design a steam engine? You have the advantages of now knowing the principles, so feel free to comment. My thoughts next week.

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Even more on writing about Caligulae

Previous posts have considered the difficulties faced when I was writing about Caligulae for my novel Athene’s Prophecy, and these difficulties were largely about his relations with the senatorial class. His limited military “adventures” produce far more difficulties. One example was his so-called “invasion of Germany”, which lasted about a week, after which he came back to Gaul. What do you do about that?

My answer is quite straightforward. The reason for going north was to arrest the Legates of two legions (who were almost certainly plotting a coup) but he had to take enough force with him that he would clearly succeed, and he had to have a diversion so the Legionnaires would think something else was going on. Once there, he embarked on a large number of military exercises involving the digging of fortifications, forced marches, and this ended with “the invasion of Germany”. Actually, what he was reported as having done was following the fairly conventional procedures for disciplining and bringing legions up to efficiency, and would have been somewhat milder than such procedures later employed by Corbolo. Invariably, these procedures included a river crossing, and the Rhine was the only available river. The “invasion” would comprise nothing more than crossing the river, followed by the setting up of defensive fortifications and a minor march inland, i.e. a drill for what would happen if there were war, followed by returning to base at the end of the drill.  What many do not recognize is that the Roman army was probably the most disciplined army ever, they drilled incessantly, and any slackness was jumped on mercilessly.

More difficult to understand was the so-called invasion of Britain. Caligulae took a legion to the Brittany coast, and when the men refused to board some fairly rotten ships, he gave them the alternative of declaring war on the sea and collecting seashells, which is apparently what they did. The way I interpreted this is not a sign of madness, but the deliberate humiliation of a potentially rebellious legion. One legion would be quite inadequate for the invasion. However, there are problems with this interpretation, and one was particularly troublesome. Towards the end of my novel, Scaevola (my protagonist) was appointed temporary Legatus of Legio III, Cyrenaica, temporarily at Bostra. As I was finishing, I found that anyone doing a deep historical search would be able to jump on me. Apparently, when Caligulae went north, he was accompanied by troops from the Cyrenaica, including the logistics experts. That means he planned the invasion of Britain. So, what actually happened? My guess is that when he saw the effects of his drills, he realized what would happen when he took troops to the coast. 

That does not mean he was a good man. He was definitely cruel and he had a superiority complex, but then consider his upbringing. All his family had been killed, one way or another, by Tiberius. Then he was brought to Capri, and watched Tiberius behave. If Tiberius did not like you, you were thrown off the cliff to your death. There is no doubt Gaius Julius Caesar was erratic, and he liked to put senators in their place. Perhaps the most obvious example was when he made his horse a Consul and tried to deify it. He made the senators worship his horse. Not exactly overly wise, but bearing in mind his objective, not exactly mad. Then there was the way he managed to get the streets of Rome clean. For that, you will have to read the book, or do some research.

What that meant for the novel was that my protagonist, who was of senatorial class, would have something to worry about. A particular problem was that the book concluded with the crisis of the Temple of Jerusalem. Caligulae wanted a statue of himself put there, to make up for the fact that Jews had defaced his statue somewhere else. That would have led to a revolt, and real bloodshed. In the end, Caligulae backed down, and I had to end my story about that back down. However, the way that ended did not signify madness, and this is one of the few incidents for which a real record remains, from the journal of Philo of Alexandria. What Caligulae did was to let everyone present thoroughly embarrass themselves, then he did the rational thing. Not exactly mad.

 If nothing else, while writing this I learned some classical history, or at least a version of what might have happened because I feel exactly what happened under Caligulae will never be known.

More on Writing about Caligulae

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the problems as to why we know so little that is clear about Caligulae, and why we have so many reports indicating he was mad. The question then was, how should I write about him? One of the first things that becomes apparent is that while many situations can have multiple interpretations, in general the author must settle on one for each incident, and overall, they must be self-consistent. I have tried to follow the interpretation of Anthony Barrett in his book, “Caligula, The Corruption of Power”, but I have also added some of my own personal interpretations. That actually brought me a further problem but also a solution. Caligulae does not appear personally in the novel other than in the very beginning, while Tiberius was still Princeps, and for most of the novel the information is delivered by letters from Claudius. Now Claudius is also on record of accusing Caligulae of being a very bad Princeps, but this was largely after Caligulae’s death, and Claudius had a very good reason to argue that the assassination was caused by some who had had enough of Caligulae’s bad behaviour. That raises the problem of what would be Claudius’ attitude prior to the assassination. As far as we know, the two got on quite well together, and Caesar did make Claudius a Consul, so I had Claudius making neutral or slightly favourable reports.

To illustrate one of the problems, Seneca reports at one time Caligulae offered his foot to be kissed. That would represent the ultimate of arrogance to Romans, and would be seen as an abominable practice; so much for gravitas and dignitas. However, Seneca also added that there was an alternative interpretation, and some had reported this incident as Caligulae showing off his new slippers. There is a difference! As for the excessive and sadistic killing, there are only twelve people who are unambiguously executed by him, and some of these executions were actually ordered by the senate without reference to Caligulae. There were another twelve examples that involved suicide or some other similar ending. So, approximately 24 deaths in four years, and recall there were at least four attempts at assassinating him. That is hardly the record of a mad tyrant.

Caligulae is often accused of having depleted the Treasury to an unacceptable level. This is almost certainly untrue, because after his assassination, Claudius gave out lavish donations from the Treasury to buy the loyalty of certain sections of the Roman community. He could not have done that without there being adequate cash on hand. So why would this accusation be made? My guess is, taxation. Prior to Caligulae, Rome itself was exempt from taxation. Caligulae argued that all Roman citizens should be equal, and hence all should pay tax. This was extremely unpopular with the Senatorial class. As an aside, the Roman flat tax rate at the time was about 1%. They should be so lucky! Interestingly, another complaint was that he taxed clients at brothels, which also seems to have upset the Senatorial class. Again, a 1% tax to all is hardly a sign of an extreme tyrant.

 I should also add that I am not trying to rehabilitate Gaius as a benign Princeps. He was not; all I am saying is that he was nowhere nearly as bad as certain Senatorial accounts, and certain lurid Hollywood outputs, would have us believe. More next post.