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Some things invented by ancient Romans

In 500 BCE, Rome was nothing more than a minor city-state on the Italian Peninsula. But with its eyes set on expansion, Rome began to conquer its neighbors until it controlled all of Italy. It didn’t stop there. It became an empire in 27 BCE, and at its height — around 100 CE — the vast and immensely powerful Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Egypt. 

Rome’s influence on the world was both widespread and long-lasting. The Romans were great innovators and inventors, sometimes appropriating and advancing aspects from other cultures, and other times inventing entirely new technologies and systems. These innovations covered a wide range of fields, including state institutions, cultural practices, and engineering techniques. The Roman Empire eventually fell in 476 CE, but its legacy and influence carried on — all the way to the present day. Some of Rome’s most famous innovations, such as sanitation systems and road networks, are well known and still very much in evidence; in the United Kingdom, for example, many modern roads still follow the routes laid down by the Romans. Other Roman innovations, however, are more obscure. Here are five inventions that continue to shape our modern world, but that many people don’t realize originated in ancient Rome.

Bound books

In the ancient world, the first written documents were typically recorded on clay or wax tablets, or on sheets or scrolls of papyrus. The Romans also used scrolls, but during the first and second centuries CE, a new form of storing and accessing information emerged: the codex-style book. These notebooks, known as pugillares membranei (roughly translating to “parchment book”), were formed by stacking pages — typically made of vellum or papyrus — that were then joined along one set of edges, much like modern books. They were mainly used for personal writing, and represent the first true form of the bound book. The codices soon became popular throughout Western Europe and the Middle East, eventually superseding scrolls and tablets. 

Precision medical instruments

The Romans were great pioneers in the field of surgery. We know from archaeological evidence — including well-preserved artifacts found in the buried remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum — that the Romans used precision medical instruments including bone forceps, catheters, obstetrical hooks, scalpels, and surgical scissors. The level of technology found in some of these tools is not so far from their modern counterparts. The Roman version of the vaginal speculum, for example, did not change significantly until the 20th century. The Romans also had a medical military corps with specialized field surgeons who were tasked with keeping the legions fit, healthy, and alive. 

Underfloor heating

Heated floors might seem like a modern luxury, but the Romans started using them 2,000 years ago. Ancient Romans used an underfloor heating system known as a hypocaust, which drew in hot air from a wood-burning furnace outside the house and channeled it into a chamber below the floor. This not only warmed the floor itself but radiated heat throughout the home. Many examples of hypocausts can still be found in the foundations of villas and townhouses in Roman centers in Germany and England, where cold winters would have made the toasty floors especially inviting. 

The shopping mall

Markets have long been prevalent throughout the world as a gathering place for people to sell and buy all sorts of goods and produce. But the first permanent and covered shopping mall was likely built by the Romans: Trajan's Market (Mercatus Traiani), constructed between 100 and 110 CE. Made of red brick and concrete, it had six levels that housed around 150 different shops, as well as government offices and living accommodations. A street on the upper level, meanwhile, was named Via Biberatica after the Latin word for “drink,” suggesting that even the Romans needed to unwind after a hard day’s shopping. 

Our calendar

Most of the world now uses the Gregorian calendar, first introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. But credit for the modern calendar should really be given to the Romans. The Gregorian calendar is based on the much earlier Julian calendar (which itself owed a lot to the Egyptian solar calendar), introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. The calendars share many similarities, though one of the main differences is the treatment of those pesky leap years. The Gregorian calendar handles them more precisely, resulting in a discrepancy between the two calendars that is currently 13 days, and will become 14 days in 2100. 

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