Innovation and Society in the Roman World

Rome, Via Appia: Landscape of Innovation - Early imperial tombs along the Via Appia. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

M. Flohr (2016), 'Innovation and Society in the Roman World', Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.85

One of the most eye-catching tombs along the Via Appia stands some four miles outside the city, close to the Villa dei Quintili, on the east side of the road. Essentially, what remains of it is just an enormous mass of concrete, meticulously deprived of its stone facing at some point between antiquity and modernity. Its construction date is unknown, but to judge from its size and its use of concrete, it is probably early imperial, perhaps Julio–Claudian or Augustan. It is a large example of the monumental Roman tomb architecture that emerged in the late republic and of which the development cannot be seen apart from the development and spread of opus caementicium, which made it possible to construct larger, architectonically more daring monuments at a reasonable price, making them available to much larger groups of people—as the first miles of the Via Appia attest. Not far from the tomb is the point where there was, in antiquity, a good view from the Via Appia over two aqueduct bridges that were built to cross the plain between the Alban Hills and Rome. The lower of the two aqueduct bridges dates to the second century bc. It was built for the Aqua Marcia but had the Aqua Tepula and the Aqua Iulia superimposed on it later. It was made of tufa and had low, wide arches. The higher, more monumental aqueduct bridge stood out with its elegant, high arches in tufa. It was built between ad 38 and ad 52 and carried the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus. Critical to both aqueducts is the arch, an innovation that became increasingly widespread from the second century bc onward. At the time they were constructed, both aqueducts presented a clear innovation in hydraulic engineering: the Aqua Marcia was the first Roman aqueduct with such a long section above the ground, and the Aqua Claudia was unparalleled in its height. Obviously, the Via Appia itself also presented an innovation when it was constructed in the late fourth century bc in the way it was imposed on the landscape, running in an almost perfectly straight line between Rome and Terracina, with the exception of a short section near Ariccia, where it had to divert in order to successfully cross the southern part of the Alban Hills. What for modern viewers might look like a landscape of memory may very well have looked differently through Roman eyes: as an environment, the Via Appia, in the early imperial period, was not a romantic relic of a faraway past but a clear manifestation of Roman achievement. Especially in the first century ad, it was a landscape of innovation at least as much as a landscape of memory.

The Via Appia was no exception: Roman construction and engineering technology had a deep impact on landscapes throughout the Roman Empire. Indeed, in the very place where it started, Rome, the widespread application of the same new building technologies created private architecture of dimensions hitherto unknown, resulting in an urbanism of a completely new category. Outside Rome, increasingly advanced engineering enabled the Romans in the first centuryad to dig the tunnels and canals necessary to drain parts of the Fucine Lake, not only creating more agricultural land but also transforming the entire Fucine region, as indeed had been done before with the plain of Rieti and, earlier still, with the plain of Ariccia on the Via Appia in the Alban Hills. Perhaps the most dramatic impact of innovation on the landscape is to be found in Asturia in northwest Spain, where the Romans in gold mining applied a practice they called ruina montium, which meant that they exposed mountains to high quantities of water, leading to collapse and to the liberation of gold-rich sediments, which then could be further processed. The environmental effects of this practice are still clearly visible, especially at the site of Las Medulas.

In many places, and in many ways, the Roman world looked like no world had done before; and to a considerable extent, this was due to innovation—the emergence and spread of new ways of doing things. The present article highlights this societal impact of innovation in the Roman world, particularly focusing on the changes it brought to the direct living environment of people. After two introductory sections on the history of the debate about innovation in the Roman world and the wider culture of innovation in the late republican and early imperial periods, two key aspects of this will be discussed. Firstly, there were innovations in the manufacturing of everyday consumer goods that changed the material culture with which people throughout the Roman Empire surrounded themselves. Secondly, there is the emergence of advanced construction techniques that redefined the physical environment in which everyday life took place, in cities and, to some extent, the countryside. While the theme of innovation is, of course, broader than these two issues, other aspects have been covered rather well in recent contributions to the debate, as will be highlighted in the next section; and their omission does not affect the overall argument made here, which is that technological innovation was fundamental to the historical development of everyday life in the Roman world from the second century bc until well into the second century ad.

Read more


Flohr, M. (2016) 'Innovation and Society in the Roman World'. Oxford Handbooks Online .