This is the beginning of a “Timeline” series of posts for the purpose of trying to write out a linear chronology of certain historical events to give to my son and daughter so they can understand some basics of western history from their dad’s perspective. I don’t know: how long it will take me to write, when they’ll get around to reading it, or where it will take me. The gist of this exercise is to go back around 2,000 to 2,500 years and use Rome as the crucible starting point as to where we are today in America. The goal is to follow a generic timeline from Roman times through the dark ages, crusades, middle ages, Renaissance, and the birth of the USA. There will possibly be some posts that bop around as certain topics lead to a desire to learn more about a certain subject and lead toward some tangential movements in this process. To get an idea on any disclaimers about the view of history presented here, click on the page link titled Historical Disclaimer at the top of the page or click here. Lets get started.
Timeline Part 1 – Setting the Stage for an Empire
In the Etruscan region of Italy (today called Tuscany) there was a she-wolf that raised two young brothers who had been cast out of their family: Romulus and Remus. Romulus is said to have killed his brother and named the city of Rome after himself. The people living in this area of what’s now Italy were the Etruscans. It was an Etruscan society that the people of Rome were born out of. It was a safe haven or asylum for slaves and pirates. It was the diversity of the people that brought about the right ingredients for the best minds in the world to share their ideas and forge a society that would in a few short centuries control 25% of the world’s population.
The first technological marvel created by the Romans was a sewer system: The Cloaca Maxima. This sewer was an Etruscan technology that changed the world. This sewer system transformed the city from a swampy marsh and unified a culture; it allowed Rome to take off like a jet airplane. The Cloaca Maxima carried effluent from the heart of the city out to the Tiber river. It’s ironic to think that perhaps the world’s greatest and most advanced society was born out of a sewer system; not only ironic, but ironic on so many levels for this author. Many could read this and argue points of where this kind of technology came from and I’m not here to do that. It is understood that the Greeks and Carthaginians had built many things before this and made many technological advancements. I think the point is that it’s important when talking of history to speak of concrete remnants to provide authenticity. It’s important to always look at things from the viewpoint of tangible evidence as much as possible. Only concrete, documents, archaeological finds, and economic evidence can give any semblance of truth. What is written on paper cannot always be trusted on its own, but if it can be corroborated, with other tangible evidence, it can help us get a better picture of what really happened in the past. If you have a comment that can help fill in the blanks, please leave it and help me get the story straight. I make no claims to be an accredited historian and know that you can never know everything. Again, I digress, but it’s important to lay down some foundation of where I’m coming from in this post as it is the first post in a series.
This sewer would allow the Romans to build the downtown forum. This forum had the affect of allowing the people to consolidate and become the most advanced civilization of their time. Rome quickly became a regional powerhouse. These Roman precepts are very similar to American ones in the sense of being a melting pot society where the best brains of a diverse population could be free to think and advance at a rate like no other society. Freedom was key to Roman society. The latin word they used for freedom is libertas; and Romans, during the time of the Republic especially, valued nothing more than their libertas.
As their power grew, the next technological marvel that would propel the Romans further even faster were roads. This again was an Etruscan technology. In 312 bc, the Via Appia was built as a main highway connecting Rome to central Italy which was already falling under Roman control. There were only a couple modes of transportation back then: walking, horse & cart, and ship; so roads were a big deal. The Via Appia originally stretched 132 miles from Roma to Campagna.
Roads seem like something that have just been around forever, but the truth is this was cutting edge technology. They provided a means for the Romans to resupply and move people at a rate like never before. The roads the Romans built were intimidating more than anything. It could be argued that they were a precept to psychological warfare. People would be held in awe as they saw them and would think twice about messing with the Romans knowing they could quickly and easily get many legions of troops wherever the road went; and in a hurry. If you had never seen a road before or a legion of men moving down one, you might shit enough bricks to pave a little trail yourself. This was yet another technological marvel that would usher in more dominance for Rome. These first roads were all straight with 90 degree turns because of the sighting tools the Romans had, but a straight road with 90 degree turns was about a thousand times better than no road. Obviously this is where the old saying comes from: “all roads lead to Rome.”
Soon after the roads and sewer systems were established the republic grew rapidly. The Romans would soon defeat Carthage and spread the empire’s boundaries to western Europe. Many battles were surely won simply because of the fear struck into the hearts of so many people who had never witnessed such technological marvels.
Later under Augustus, the road network would be expanded to all corners of the empire and very quickly Roman style cities were popping up with all the standard Roman characteristics: a forum, a basilica, a theatre, an amphitheater, &c.
Recently built cities would invite people to them. People would flock to them because, like today, that’s where the jobs were. Insurgencies were not as wide spread as one might think because people would see these cities as an advancement of humankind and embrace them. Roman cities that still exist to this day are a testament to this fact: London, Paris, and Bonn. These cities sold the Roman influence even further. Why wouldn’t you want a better lifestyle? Why wouldn’t you want a job? These were the biggest, fastest advancements of civilized society. Now, I don’t mean to make the Roman society out to be all fairy tails and lollipops either. Insurgencies would be put down swiftly and without discrimination – this too had the effect of discouraging revolt. It’s true that Romans were very clever at managing peoples’ psyches by allowing them to keep their religions or customs to abate revolt. But, if that didn’t work, they were the masters of ruling by fear and oppression too. All of your mafia movies harken back to Rome in this regard. That is: you pay your dues and buy into the system, and you can pray however you choose. You stand up to the system, you will most assuredly meet the sword.
To build these cities Romans had a secret ingredient that allowed them to build faster and stronger than anyone else: Roman concrete. Roman concrete was a huge breakthrough because it was water proof. It was made of stone and volcanic ash called pozzolana. Early concretes were simply a lime mortar mix that would set but would eventually break apart. With the pozzolana, the concrete would be much like a modern day concrete. In fact, it could be used underwater which revolutionized construction because now people could build permanent piers, harbors, and bridges. This was just one more huge advancement for economic commerce, warfare, and Rome.
Even with all the aforementioned technological breakthroughs, the most famous of all was the aqueduct. This changed the quality of life in a way that would forever be a demand of human beings. Look at the evolution of running water and think about how integral it is in every facet of your daily life. This too, began with Roman engineering and creativity. Once again, I know the Carthaginians had water in their households and I’m not here to argue about that. I’m just saying, no one did water to the city like the Romans. The Aqueducts were an advancement like no other in human history.
The concept of the aqueduct was something simple: water seeks its lowest level. The complication of building the aqueduct, however, was an enormous engineering feat of its time. The aqueduct sloped a gentle 3 or four inches for every 100 feet. The marvel of this feat is that sometimes this slope would need to be calculated over 20 or 30 or even 40 miles. Then, this concrete structure would have to accommodate this exacting straight line slope through miles and miles of uneven terrain. In many cases when the water flow would need to make it’s way through a mountain, the roman engineers would drill perfectly angled tunnels right through the mountainside.
As the aqueducts spanned through hillside and valley, the aqueduct would be built up to maintain the gradual slope. In cases where the aqueduct would need to be over 6.5 feet high, the Romans conserved building material and added strength by perfecting an ancient building technology called the arch. By perfecting the arch, the Romans once again advanced technology by leaps and bounds. They would build a wooden arch that would allow them to place all the bricks in an arch. Then, when the keystone was placed in the center, the wooden framework could be removed. This increased strength, used less building material, and allowed them to span greater distances in buildings than ever before. By the 2nd. Century A.D., homes had running water – think about that in this way: even through the middle ages, people did not have running water in their homes.
Water is so fundamental to society. Sewers are so fundamental to society. Please stop and think about this for just a second to let it have some impact on how you view your society and your economy. If you didn’t have a toilet in your house or couldn’t go to your sink for a drink of water, your iPad wouldn’t be quite as dear to you would it?
Later when we look at the fall of the Roman Empire you can see what I mean. A city, Rome, that sustained a population of 1.2 million people in its hey, would be almost instantly reduced to a population of 12 thousand when Germanic tribes destroyed the aqueducts. That’s a 99% reduction of the population! All because of one simple thing, water. Think about that America: no water = no superpower. Never forget your fundamentals.
Now that the ground work has been laid for an empire, it’s time to talk about the beginning of the end and start our approach to the Year 1. In the next post in this vein, we’ll take a look at Tiberius Gracchus (not to be confused with Tiberius the emperor or Tiberius the Elder). Tiberius Gracchus is quickly becoming one of my favorites in Roman history. We will examine what was taking shape in Rome during Tiberius’ time and how it is very similar to America today. This is the end of Timeline Part 1. Look for the post Timeline Part 2 for the next post in this series.