The term technology refers to the use of scientific knowledge to develop practical means for controlling physical objects and forces. The lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans were filled with practices and products that made labor easier and life more enjoyable. The crafts of pottery manufacture and of weaving; knowledge of the best time and most effective methods for planting seeds and harvesting crops; the use of iron, concrete, and glass; the ability to build ships, roads, and bridges—ancient technology was all of these things and more.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not invent pottery making, weaving, agriculture, or smelting*. They inherited these basic skills from their prehistoric ancestors. However, the Greeks and Romans changed and improved the technology they inherited. They also adopted ideas, skills, and tools from other cultures with which they came in contact.

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans made great advances in technology. Historians have suggested many possible explanations for this. Some believe that the Greeks and Romans were not motivated to create new labor-saving devices because slaves did much of the work for them. Another possibility is that, since the Greeks and Romans held manual labor in low esteem because it was performed by people of low social status, they had little interest in applying their scientific knowledge to this area. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans simply channeled their energies into loftier pursuits, such as philosophy*, politics, trade, and conquest, rather than into technology.

The most important feature of ancient technology was the spread of existing knowledge rather than the creation of new ideas. This was especially true during the Roman Empire, when the army and the imperial* government spread Roman technology across a wide area of Europe, Asia Minor(present-day Turkey), and the Near East.

* smelting process that uses heat to melt an ore and extract the pure metal

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

Energy and Mechanics. Mechanics is the branch of technology that enables people to use energy to do things as efficiently as possible. The writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio and a Greek author known as Hero of Alexandria provide modern scholars with much of the information about the mechanical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their writings are among the few works on engineering and mechanics that have survived to the present.

The main source of energy in the ancient world was human or animal power. Most work was accomplished by people tugging on ropes, putting pressure on levers, or turning wheels. Oxen occasionally turned the large wheels that drove some equipment, such as millstones for grinding grain. They also hauled loads in carts. For faster transport, people used teams of mules and horses. Ancient people used the same kind of harness on these animals that they used on oxen, and this type of harness cut into the windpipes of mules and horses, preventing them from using their full strength.

The people of the ancient Mediterranean knew how to make the most of human energy. As early as the 500s B.C., the Greeks understood many of the principles of basic mechanics and the workings of simple machines, such as the lever, the winch, the crane, the gear, and the treadmill. All of these immensely useful devices transfer energy or increase force. They enabled ancient people to move or lift very heavy loads, such as the stone columns of temples. The Greek scientist and inventor Archimedes is alleged to have said that if he had a long enough lever and a place to stand he could move the earth. By the middle of the 400s B.C., the Greeks were able to lift weights of 3 or 4 tons, and by the early A.D. 100s, Roman engineers had built cranes that could handle weights of 35 tons or more.

The Greeks and Romans did not use wind or steam power, but they did use waterpower, although not extensively. Around 100 B.C. they invented the waterwheel, a device that used the pressure of falling or fast-flowing water to turn a wheel. Around A.D. 200 people of the Mediterranean developed waterwheels to grind grain or lift buckets of water. A well-designed wheel did the work of 25 men.

Remember: Words In small capital letters have separate entries, and the Index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more Information on many topics.

Technological Triumphs. The Greeks and Romans achieved great success in transporting and handling water. Around 530 B.C. engineers cut a tunnel through a hill to carry water to the Greek city of Samos. The Romans, building on Etruscan expertise, were clever and ambitious water engineers. Over a period of 400 years, they built a system of stone channels called aqueducts that carried water from springs and reservoirs to Rome and several other Roman cities. Aqueducts supplied Rome with between 80 million and 120 million gallons of running water each day.

Most people in the ancient world obtained their water either directly from rivers or from wells that were as deep as 50 feet. People had known since prehistoric times how to use a bucket, rope, and winch to raise water from underground. By the 100s B.C., they also used pumps. Force pumps were devices with several chambers that opened and closed when someone applied force to a handle or lever. These pumps took in water on one side and expelled it into a tube or pipe on the other. Screw pumps used an invention by Archimedes called the Archimedes’ screw. An Archimedes’ screw consisted of a pole that had a thin strip of wood wound around it in a spiral, all of which was enclosed in a barrel-shaped wooden frame. The pumper placed the bottom of the screw in the water, tilted the device at an angle, and then rotated it. The spinning motion forced water into the screw and up the enclosed spiral passage to spill out at the top. In addition to raising drinking water from wells, the Greeks and Romans used pumps to irrigate gardens, remove water that had seeped into mines or leaked into ships, and fight fires.

During the Hellenistic* period, inventors produced several ingenious devices. Hero of Alexandria described a water clock, a water organ, devices that used heated air to open the doors of a miniature temple, and a small engine that used steam to turn a rotating ball suspended above a kettle. The inventors—and everyone else—regarded these creations as amusing novelties. No one saw the need, or had the desire, to make larger versions for industrial use.

Aqueducts were not the only evidence of the outstanding skill of Roman engineers. The Romans built a network of roads that was unsurpassed in quality until the 1800s. Paved with stone so that they could be used in all types of weather, equipped with drainage ditches, bridges, and milestones, these roads ran straight and smooth throughout the empire. Messengers, troops, and merchants used these roads to travel between Rome and its most distant provinces*.

The Greeks and Romans also traveled by sea. By the 400s B.C. the Greeks manufactured freighters that carried many tons of cargo. The size of freighters increased steadily throughout Hellenistic and Roman times, until the largest Roman cargo ships carried loads of 1,000 to 1,200 tons. In the A.D. 100s one of these mighty vessels was blown off course and ended up in the port of Athens, which at that time was a commercial backwater outside the trade routes. The ship’s arrival caused a great stir. “What a size the ship was!” one observer wrote. “The crew was like an army. They told me she carried enough grain to feed Athens for a year.” Such large cargo vessels did not again sail the seas until the late 1700s.

Along with mighty ships, the Greeks and Romans built harbors. Instead of relying only on natural harbors—protected bays where boats could anchor safely—they improved on nature by adding moles*. The Hellenistic age introduced a new device that benefited all mariners—the lighthouse. Ancient lighthouses were beacons that guided ships to port rather than warnings to steer them away from danger. They consisted of towers with carefully tended fires at the top. The huge lighthouse in the harbor at Alexandria was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Throughout history, inventors and artisans* have devoted much of their effort to creating weapons of war. The Greeks and Romans developed many military machines, some planned and paid for by rulers. The kings of the Hellenistic period competed with one another in ain arms race that included warship design, missile projectors, and siege* towers. One of the most effective ancient weapons was the torsion catapult, a machine that created enough force by twisting a rope around and around on its axis to hurl rocks and javelins through the air. Some ancient sources claim that Archimedes constructed a catapult that could propel a 175-pound stone 200 yards. A barrage of such missiles could batter the gates and walls of any city.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* mole stone or earth barrier that protects the shore from waves

* artisan skilled craftsperson


The ancient Greeks and Romans had mixed feelings about technological progress. The Greeks honored the mythical figure Prometheus as the founder of civilization. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and goddesses and gave it to humans. Fire made possible the crafts of cooking, pottery, and metalworking. The ability to use fire separated people from the beasts and enabled them to develop the arts and sciences. On the other hand, some ancient philosophers, such as the Roman poet Lucretius, believed that technological progress led to excesses of luxury and greed and to a general moral decline.

The Greeks and Romans expressed their technological skill in the hundreds of temples and other monumental buildings they constructed throughout the Mediterranean region. Such construction would not have been possible without a large body of designers and workers highly skilled in the principles of mechanics and knowledgeable in regard to the properties and uses of various materials. For example, the Romans invented concrete, and they perfected the architectural features of the arch, the vault*, and the dome, which encouraged freedom and variety in the design of roofs. Many other achievements, such as the manufacture of coins, the improvement of glassmaking techniques, and the use of furnaces and pipes to heat public bathhouses, show the degree to which technology shaped life in the ancient world. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Clocks and Time Telling; Coinage; Construction Materials and Techniques; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Military Engineering; Mining; Roads, Roman; Science; Ships and Shipbuilding; Textiles; Transportation and Travel; Waterworks; Weapons and Armor.)

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid

* vault arched ceiling or roof

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!