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Maps of the Roman Empire (vox.com)
345 points by kcovia on Aug 19, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 91 comments

The Roman Kingdom/Republic/Empire is a really fascinating period of ancient history. What's really mindblowing is when you realize that the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire didn't fall until 1453.

If you're looking for interesting listening on Rome, I highly recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History Podcast. The series Death Throes of the Republic focuses on the period where Rome transformed from a Republic to an Empire (maps 13-16). I just finished listening to that a few weeks ago, and it was amazing. Additionally, Thor's Hammer discusses what happened in Europe when Rome fell. There's also an older series on the Punic wars, but I haven't had a chance to listen to that one yet.

I love reading the book of Acts in the Bible because it relates their travels within a part of the Roman empire. What strikes me is how similar to modern day traveling it seemed to be, just in longer timescales. But the same way we could say today "I'll catch a plane to Madrid and from there I will proceed to Paris", you read there about people taking ships and then traveling on foot to other locations as if it weren't such a huge deal i.e. not as if they were saying "I'm embarking on this long journey to the end of the world, farewell!"

I guess we could say the part of the world covered by the empire was quite "globalized" at that time, in a sense.

Christianity wouldn't have spread nearly as quickly or as far if it hadn't been able to piggyback on the Roman Empire's infrastructure. On the flip side, after Rome's political influence left most of Europe, the parallel church structure was still there to help maintain civilization at least a little bit during the barbarian invasions and general collapse.

[Leaving out Mithraism, which also spread in similar ways, as well as any discussion of what exactly constitutes "barbarian" vs. "civilization" since it gets fuzzier the closer you look.]

The soldiers across the Empire came from all the imaginable parts of it. Going through the museums in Europe near to the former Roman camps, I've seen the statues of Egyptian gods brought or made by Egyptian-born soldiers or artisans, found between the statues of Mithra.

The Pax Romana was probably a big part of that. During that time a person could reasonably expect to travel through most of the Roman Empire without running into anything worse than local thieves and without having to deal with national borders.

Both before and after that time period in Western Europe, in contrast, any long-distance travel was likely to run into wars of expansion or civil wars, local warlords, or so on.

Another good podcast on the subject is Lars Brownworth's 12 Byzantine Rulers (http://12byzantinerulers.com/), which starts with the Roman emperor Diocletian and proceeds through the founding of Constantinople, the fall of the western empire, and the evolution of the eastern empire over the 1,000 years that followed.

The 12 byzantine rulers podcast led more or less directly to the history of rome podcast


Beware, its an investment of perhaps 200 hours?

Mike Duncan has since moved on to Revolutions and is currently in the beginning of the French revolution. Don't let that slow you down, its not like the history of rome is going to change much in the near future.

Then "the history of rome" podcast begat "the history of byzantium" podcast. Another investment in time which isn't nearly done yet.

There is also the British History podcast which is pretty good listening and technically on topic as it was partially part of the roman empire for a good while. Another work in progress.

(And I see sspiff and I posted within seconds of each other. Well, great minds think alike and all that...)

He wrote a book on the eastern "Byzantine" empire as well, Lost to the West, which covers some of the same ground as the podcast series but plenty of other material as well.

I'll second that, Mr. Brownworth's podcast is excellent, highly recommended.

Also by Lars -- Norman Centuries -- fascinating account of how Vikings ended up ruling Britain, Normandy, Sicily and leading crusades. http://normancenturies.com/

Some other great resources:

1. Mike Duncan's "history of Rome" covers the first 1000 years (http://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/)

2. Robin Pierson's "history of Byzantium" covers the final 1000 years (http://thehistoryofbyzantium.com/)

Holly shit a podcast about Byzantium I dont know, how is this possible. Thank you.

Just finishing up the Fall of the Roman Republic now, it's a fantastic series and podcast. Unrelated to Rome: Dan Carlin's Hardcore History series on the Mongols is equally awesome.


I'll second Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. The frequency of his podcast is pretty long, but it's worth the wait.

Yeah, they're really closer to an audio book series than a podcast at this point, but perfect for long road trips.

There is this TV show "Ancient Impossible" which showcases all kinds of awesome things that people built thousands of years ago. The achievements of Romans (along with Egyptians) are the most awe inspiring

The book "Ancient Inventions (Wonders of the Past)" is pretty good discussion of what ancient civilisations achieved.


How connected were the Eastern Romans to the original western ones though?

Would you say it's like the U.S. and Britain, more distinct or less?

More distinct, definitely. But the interesting bit is that they themselves would never have recognized this. Walk up to someone calling themselves "Roman" in 1 AD and you could find yourself talking to a pagan born in modern Italy who spoke Latin. Walk up to someone calling themselves "Roman" 500 years later and you could be talking to a Christian born in modern Turkey who spoke Greek, which is a very very different person. But both of them would have insisted that they were "Roman." (The idea of "Byzantium" itself as something distinct from the Roman Empire is a purely modern construction -- no Byzantine would have conceived of themselves as such.) So the idea of "Romanness" was socially constructed; it meant whatever people living in the empire at a particular time collectively decided it meant.

You can see a similar type of socially constructed identity by looking at "whiteness" in American culture. 150 years ago, a "white American" was strictly interpreted as a person of northern European ("Anglo-Saxon") descent. English, French, Germans and Scandinavians were "white people"; Spaniards, Italians, Irish, Poles, Russians and Jews were not. But fast-forward to today, and all those latter ethnicities are now commonly identified as "white" in American culture.

In other words, whiteness, like Romanness, is less a fixed identifier of a particular ethnic/religious/linguistic configuration and more a convenient way for people to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, "us" and "them."

By the medieval period, vastly different. There are stories about when the nobles of the first Crusade visited Constantinople they were thinking how much different the Emperors of the East were compared to what they knew of the old Roman Empire. As mentioned before the East was always different from the Western empire, but they really drifted apart in the 400's.

The problem with the question is that it simple depends. So first, even within the roman empire there was change. A Roman from 500 b.c. would not think 500 a.d. was very roman. A roman from 500 a.d. would not think 1400 a.d. is very roman.

So the answer to your question really is, in the begginning they where the same and then slowly shifted away from it. What can be said is that there is no clear break, no point where we can clearly say "here" now its something diffrent. This is why we have so many problems in nailing down the end of the roman empire or the begginning of the byzantine empire.

So I think, the only sencable thing to do is to still call them romans (or rather the roman empire).

More like north and south carolina, at least until things went sharply downhill for the western half.

Or perhaps a better analogy is its almost exactly like the U.P. of Michigan vs the mitten of Michigan (lower michigan?)

One problem with discussing how close two political orgs are over two thousand years is times change. Relations definitely had their ups and downs over the whole course of time. At times the religious strife between west and east was a little fiercer than anything that happened between US and Britain, at least post-1812.

(edited to add in a really good familiar analogy, at least some of the time ... Britain and Ireland)

Since Latin was the language of the western empire, but Greek the language of the eastern empire, I'd say that the two halves were more distinct that the U.S. and the U.K. are.

Death Throes of the Republic is my favorite podcast series ever and I've listened to a lot (having a braindead job where I would get away with just staring into a screen listening to podcasts all day long).

"Traveling around the empire was excruciatingly slow"

"The researchers estimate that it took 7 weeks to travel from Constantinople (at the eastern end of the empire) to London (in the far west)."

What a funny little empire with nice roads :). Check this empire:

"And say, the governor went to Yakutsk, not months, for three years. The first year we reach Tobolsk. The second - to Irkutsk. And in the third year of riding on horseback to the upper reaches of the Lena and floated with water to Yakutsk."



Some remarks:

1. Mercator projection gives Russian empires an unfair advantage.

2. The Romans ruled over arguably the best lands in the known world at that time, and a much larger part of the world population. Russia ruled/rules over vast empire of vast forests, inhospitable steppes and empty tundra, sprinkled with a few good spots and a few people.

3. Inefficient travel doesn't make a great empire.

That's not to say the Russian empire wasn't huge, or didn't have a lot of people, or wasn't powerful. It was the largest power pre-World War 1, and its remnant is still a major player. I just wasn't as important or dominant or influential or long lived as the Roman empire was.

Over 1500 years later? Come on. If you want size, and the 19th century, how about this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/The_Briti...

That's an extreme example, but really traveling anywhere before modern transportation was slow. I remember from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography that it took him two weeks just to travel from Boston to Philadelphia. And IIRC, he went by sea and almost drowned in a ship wreck along the way.

that's a lot of cold empty land! the roman empire was with a large and variegated population.

I can easily say that, if we have civilization, we can thank the Romans. Besides many things that they invented or "just" improved there were:

- Aqueducts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_aqueduct - Roads: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads

In Italy, the SS1 (Strada Statale 1, that means, State Road #1), is the "evolution" of the Via Aurelia, built by Romans in the year 241 BC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_Aurelia

But then the Barbarians from Northern Europe came...

I studied Latin and drank the koolaid, but recently read a book about early France which seemed to dispute the commonly held view that the Romans introduced everything technology wise. Bridges, roads and communication were certainly high on the list of "had it beforehand". It even has evidence to suggest that they had a sophisticated pre-internet decentralized voice communications network that operated by shouting down relatively quiet valleys. A review at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/1037205...

Western-centric histories also frequently forget the hugely significant contributions of Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain), Persia, India and China. Paper was pretty high up there on the list of civilizing factors, and it sure as hell wasn't Roman or northern European! Lenses came from Assyria. Lots of maths the Romans used came from Greece, and the Greeks were present in France before the Romans got there. Caesar himself wrote: The Celts do have writing: They use written Greek for both public and private transactions. But it is not lawful to commit either their rules or religion to writing. Thus, one could argue that the true innovation introduced by Romans may have been the liberation of the formerly slave-like commonfolk to glorious Roman pantheism and literary freedom!

Al-Andalus was waaaay after the Roman Empire.

True, just as Europe was civilized waaaay after the Orient.

Eh, that seems a bit of a simplification. If by "we", you mean, the "West", then sure. But if not, as one of the maps alludes to, China was busy building its own empire, and in many respects, in terms of local cultural influence, could be seen as the Greece or Rome of Asia. As Rome still influences Western culture today, Chinese culture heavily influenced Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. They have or continue to use Chinese script, their traditional architecture derives from a Chinese model, heck, the South Korean flag is covered in more Chinese symbols than the current Chinese flag.

Except unlike the Romans, they survived their barbarian problems, which is not a small feat, empire management is definitely tricky - just ask England. Arguably China's survival seems a bit awkward - perhaps it's better to go out with a bang rather than dwindle into decline and be spited. Though in the grand scheme of their long history, their current (or past, depending on who you ask) waning is a comparative temporary aberration. Personally, it'll be interesting to see if they'll ever recover from the cultural schism post-civil-war (ask many Chinese people that were on the losing side, and there's a good chance they will distance themselves culturally from "the Mainland", I imagine not too differently from how a South Korean would respond to being called North Korean, but who knows, I'm totally rambling now).

Here's what third-century China thought about the Roman Empire: http://io9.com/heres-what-third-century-china-thought-about-...


Roads: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/283915/Imperial-Hi...

Woodblock printing, paper, silk, porcelain, gunpowder, compasses...

> But then the Barbarians from Northern Europe came...

Sometimes I wonder how things would have been if that didn't happen.

So much technology that was lost, only to be re-discovered centuries later.

Indeed those few centuries after Roman Empire collapses is a great example of human race not (necessarily) advancing as time passes.

If you're interested in this type of thing, be sure to check out the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World [1]. I have a copy, and while it is expensive, it is simple _amazing_. I read Caesar's Gallic Wars again and followed the movements of the army using that book and it was an intellectual orgasm of note. I'll never read a military history book again without a detailed map, it completely changes the appreciation of it.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrington_Atlas_of_the_Greek_a...

For #9, if you'd like to see the tactical differences between Phalanx vs Maniple battle formations, someone made a game simulation:


Listening to the audiobook of The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar is rich in detail and really grabs you by the throat. The classically trained narrator is superb. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snft290-FRc&list=PLpO7W_VntC...

Nice one, but I prefer this gif about the decadence of the Spanish Empire... the end is quite funny.


The end is funny, but the start is wrong. In 1581, Brazil was Portuguese, due to the Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494. It's why Brazil speaks Portuguese instead of Spanish like the rest of Latin America.


True, but the animation is correct: because of a messed up succession, all of Portugal belonged to the Spanish crown from 1580 to 1640 - Felipe II of Spain was Filipe I of Portugal (followed by III/II and IV/III).

In 1640 Portugal fought for independence, and got a new dynasty going. That's shown in the sequence, Brazil popping out is noticeable ...

I stand corrected - I missed seeing Portugal itself painted red.

That's a strange URL for a gif.

That's fairly common. For example, hello.jpg (of goatse fame) is a gif as well.

Hank Green and friends produced a lovely set of videos that quickly and humorously go through the basics of the Roman Empire (among other things). It's part of a playlist on the Crash Course YouTube channel on World History.


Oops! I meant John Green! Hank is his brother.

Error on the legend on the map of the Rise of Constantine (section 31). The campaign against Maxentius should read 312, not 212.

Great eye. Will fix. Thanks.

No problem! Thank you, that page is interesting.

If you're interested in ancient maps, I've found that Geacron[1] very cool. It allows you to see a world map from any year since 3000 BC (of course with varying accuracy).

[1]: http://geacron.com/home-en/

The map cdn1.vox-cdn.com/assets/4822180/roman_civil_war.jpg seems to have mixed up labels for Roman Provinces and Client Kingdoms. I feel that about half instances of the word barbaric shouldn't have been used in the article. Also I don't see why unverifiable claims like 'Charlemagne persuaded the Pope to crown him' had to be used. Nice, informative work besides that.

It's almost entirely unrelated, but if anyone's interested I would like to plug my current favorite history book: Phillip Sabin's Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World. It uses a simple tactical (board) wargame system to explore ancient battles including several from the rise of the Roman Republic and Empire.

Lately I've become somewhat addicted to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcasts. His episodes about the Punic wars can be purchased here: http://dancarlin.com/dccart/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=...

Excellent and neatly packaged source of information. It would be great to have it translated into other languages.. I know so many people who would love to access this content but do not speak english.. How should I proceed to offer myself for voluntary translation?

I'm listening to an audiobook of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so this'll be a great companion.

Is it the one narrated by Bernard Mayes? I had a really hard time listening to that one because his voice is so unmodulated and relaxing that my thoughts would frequently wander or I'd fall asleep.

I wish we had such course in school. I may have paid more attention! Fantastic use of contextual imagery with digestible content.

A great page and very interesting light reading on the topic, however a rather loose definition of 'map' is in play.

Very interested. shows an easy to understand history lesson with great visuals.

A great summary, but I find it annoying people always only mention the Eastern Roman Empire in passing or as a footnote. It was a continuation of the Roman Empire in every way.

They were called "the Roman empire" or "romans" by themselves and the rest of the world. And they lasted another 1000 years, many of those as the dominant regional power, bringing the total lifetime of the Roman state up to a staggering 2181 years.

The Greek-speakers of the East kept on speaking Greek after they were folded into the Roman political model, and kept many of their other cultural and economic institutions, rather than being dragged off as slaves. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that Greek civilization lasted from 776 BC to 1453 AD, under various political models. A co-operative system born from the hilly Greek peninsular and jagged Aegean coastlines meeting the hierarchical system of the Romans co-existing.

The Roman culture was - for a very significant part - a carbon copy of the Greek. So in a sense, the Romans continued the Greek culture as much as they succeeded it.

I realize that the there are significant differences in the ancient Greek political model, and the Greek and Roman culture, and that the Eastern Roman Empire was for most of its lifetime Greek speaking. But it was still a continuous evolution of the Roman Empire, even if it tilted more towards Greek influences most of the time.

In a sense, you could indeed say the Greeks persisted for the entire era, as they had some form of local self-governance etc during the Roman era, and they dominated Roman politics for the last half of their empire.

I agree with you in general, but I had to pick some limits to make the piece manageable. Perhaps I'll do 40 maps on the Byzantines at some point in the future.

I understand, and as I said earlier, it's a great summary, especially considering how much you managed to cram into it while keeping it easy to digest.

When we think of Kings and Queens today, certain images pop into our minds that would not exist without the Byzantine emperors. The Byzantine emperors, starting with Constantine, were emperors in the most absolute sense of the word. They utterly dominated their empire to an extent few emperors of Rome ever did. Their rule and the iconography that sprang up around it were copied wholesale by royalty throughout Europe, which is why Europe's kings are so often portrayed, in art, in ways that are so similar to the Byzantine emperors. Constantinople gave the world the mold that all absolute rulers ever since have been cast in.

Those maps are good - yet they don't explain the Roman Empire.

It's actually tricky to explain the Empire. Over 7 centuries without _any_ significant technological progress. A political regime that is as archaic as its borders are vast - and it drove Europe's political agenda up until the 19th century.

It's possibly the most successful and devastating face of the plutocracy. When the Empire faded away in the 4-7th century, contemporary archaelogy now thinks that people's life actually improved. The tax and ideological burden of the roman overhead was a toll on entire societies.

Exactly - apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Surprised by the hate - didn't suppose people were so attached to the Roman Empire. So:

- Sanitation: "invented" in India, perfected in the middle east and imported to Rome from there

- Medicine: aryuvedic, greek, chinese and babylonian medicine all eclipse Rome's. The Empire definitely did not invent anything there. Lookup Hippocrates for a big founder.

- Education: also a Greek and Egyptian tradition.

- Wine: strange claim. "Invented" as far back as Neolithic. Massively used in Greece. Rome improved the way wine barrels can be reused.

- Public order: not sure what you mean. There was order and dense cities before the Empire. Codified political systems and local law enforcement as well. If the "city" order is your point, then Rome and Babylon are "inventors".

- Irrigation: like most others, Rome imported fertile crescent know-how. Zero roman invention.

- Roads: the technology for smooth, paved roads existed before Rome in most middle-east. What Rome brought is empire-wide cheap labor and strategic need for straight lines (legions move faster). You could compare it to high speed rail today. Did France "invent" it, or did it get most clues from Japan? Most roman roads, being actually built for the military and not for trade, were abandoned quickly because they were too steep for long-distance cargo.

- Fresh water system: water supply in urban area has not been invented in Rome, imported as well. Like roads, cheap labor and cheap capital turned existing tech into massive, continental infrastructure

- public health: like therms and public baths? Common in the whole mediterranean world (still today).


In comparison, the Mediterranean world before Rome discovered within a few centuries: - the pulley

- the screw

- the water mill (greek invention just before roman conquest. The windmill was invented later on in Europe during the "middle ages")

- cement (also greek-born)

- millstone (india)

Were the Romans great engineers? Yes. For instance they brought together cement and arch technology to build some of the larger structures of that time.

Yet the Roman empire a time of great inventions? No. Few innovators in tech and abstraction. Ptolemy was egyptian. Archimedes was actually killed by the Romans when captured.


@vacri and others below: where did I say "roman republic"? I only mentioned the Roman Empire. A deeply flawed regime built on clientelism and which survived through a flow of capital from new territorial extension towards the insiders. It was indeed crazy archaic - the integration of religions, private interests and decision making is hard to imagine to modern minds. For centuries, the Emperor actually fed a large part of the capital, paid by capital inflow from new conquests, with many critical decisions taken upon Omen interpretation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augury

I know how much love there is in the US for roman law -- but roman empire? You definitely want to be out of it.

>Surprised by the hate

What hate? You seem to take this pretty personally. For what it's worth, the post you're replying to was a reference to Monty Python's Life of Brian. Your post contained interesting information though, so I'm sort of glad you missed the joke.

What did Rome ever do for us? They made the peace and the single state that made the spread of all of this technology happen so quickly. Britain had nearly none of that stuff before the Romans.

This is pretty wrong. The view you describe arises from the complete renewal in the history of the Middle Ages that occurred from the 1950s onwards, and which established that the commonly called "Dark Ages" weren't so dark after all.

But that's not to say that there wasn't a precipitous drop in life quality after the end of the Roman Empire. Recent archeological finds have improved our understanding of the details of Roman daily life way beyond what we used to know even thirty years ago.

For a good and accessible overview of the latest finds in Roman archeology, I'd recommend "The Fall of the Roman Empire and the End of Civilization" by archeologist and historian Bryan Ward Perkins.

He highlights how much the Roman world had in common with our own period, most notably in terms of mass production of standardized goods (e.g. pottery), integration and specialization of local economies in a globalized market throughout the Empire.

The breakdown of this Empire-wide integration led to a dramatic decline in standards of living. To take just two examples extracted from the book:

- pottery finds in Britain reveal that before the Roman conquest, the vessels commonly used were all locally produced and of average quality. The integration in the Empire brought the mass-produced, standardized, high quality Roman pottery into the British economy, so much so that all levels of society had access to it (as illustrated by the archeological finds). This competition drove the British pottery industry out of the market, to the extent that by the time the Romans had to abandon Britain, there was no significant pottery production on the British isles anymore. The outcome is that the potteries found in the tombs of the first Anglo-Saxon kings are of a much poorer quality than those of the British peasants five centuries earlier - to say nothing of the Roman-made pottery a hundred years before.

- In the Roman Empire, thanks to mass production of roof tiles, almost every house had roofs made of clay tiles. This provides a host of benefits, notably in terms of durability and improved health thanks to increased insulation from humidity. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, European housebuilding went back to starch roofs - which in addition to be a poor way to protect yourself from rain or humidity can be a breeding ground for diseases and pests. It wasn't until the late 15th century that the prevalence of tiled roofs reached an extent comparable to that of the Roman world more than a millennia earlier.

I really recommend this book, it shows how the past 15 years of archeological finds have illuminated how close the Roman society was to a sort of proto-consumer society; and how much was lost when it disappeared.

This is interesting stuff, thanks. It's also fun to think about the remarkable advances in things like geared devices, automatons and water wheels in the Hellenistic period through to the end of the Western Empire. Most famously the Antikythera device: http://hist.science.online.fr/antikythera/MORE-DOCS/Greek%20...

It's tantalizing to imagine the next steps from these sorts of devices, like windmills, clocks, programmable mechanical looms, steam power, etc. Given the quality of the engineering in the Antikythera mechanism, it might have been within the technological abilities of Greco-Roman society to develop a classical era version of industrialization. Of course, then you get into the whole debate about whether a slave society has an economic impetus to industrialize (I think they do, following Sidney Mintz's point in "Sweetness and Power" that Caribbean sugar plantations in the 18th century were proto-industrial, factory-like spaces, but that's another discussion).

"Pretty wrong"? What's the contention?

1/ you say that anglo-saxon kings had lower quality pottery. I said many in the former western part of the empire were better off because they were under a more local, less taxing government, and more affordable

2/ are you saying that 100% people during the roman empire had brick houses and clay roofs? They had not - it seems it was a middle class city trait. After the empire, cities declined and more independent villages developed nearer to actual production areas.

It also looks like you are mostly talking of the british isles post-Rome, which are not representative of how the continent went through the fading away of direct Rome government.

If you were to ask a villager in current France under the (elected) Clovis rule - 5 years before Rome is sacked - if his great grandfather was better off 50 years earlier under a roman militaristic region governor? Probably would be happier.

Another question would be: was the "end" of the roman empire a more prosperous time than its beginning? No it wasn't - trade was higher between 1-200AD than in the 4-5th century. And that's my whole point: the (western) Roman Empire wasn't sustainable, depended on cheap slave labor and conquests, and was not designed to solve new problems.

What about roman concrete, I heard they also had the steam engine, but steam technology was regarded as useless because of the abundance of slaves.

Wikipedia seems to indicate that they were responsible for a number of technological advancements.


The Romans did have some interesting technology, but one of the things to notice about it is that the highlights are all "imperial" biased: Sturdy roads, aqueducts, buildings, and military equipment are basically the things you want to have in order to consolidate and maintain power over a large area for a long period of time. One historiographical stance to take is that, rather than being a deterministic progression like a game of Civilization, a group of people can become trapped within a locally-optimal set of technologies and their attention diverted ("bread and circuses") from other possible breakthroughs while the political leaders squabble for control.

In contrast, technologies like the printing press have subversive uses and tie in directly to the political changes of the Renaissance.

The invention of the printing press is interesting.

There was a flourishing book trade in the Roman Empire, but like most everything else books were produced through slave labour, there was enough of it to go around - imagine a big room full of scribe slaves and a reader slave at the front dictating from the master copy. Even in a podunk backwater town like Oxyrhynchus you could buy mass-produced books of quality. What was different in the time of Gutenberg is that there was a demand for books again, but scriptoria couldn't keep up with it. Mass production of books just had to happen, and this time around it had to be done without a plentiful supply of literate slaves.

There is something to be said for idea that circumstances determine what inventions will be made - it seems that right now the best minds in Western civilization are hard at work at Wall Street and Facebook, as if the most pressing problems were how to work the stock market and how to make better targeted advertising.

That is an interesting thought, but actually I would say that there have never been so many people been inventing new important things at the same time.

Smartphones, new ways of communication (such as Facebook), finding information (Google, Wikipedia), artificial intelligence (such as deep learning), ... just to name a few examples from the technology field, one of many.

"Sturdy roads, aqueducts, buildings, and military equipment are basically the things you want to have in order to consolidate and maintain power over a large area for a long period of time." The first three are also the things you want to have, well, civilization. You know, clean water, the ability to conduct trade outside of your immediate area, etc. It's about economics, not control.

Strangely, policing roads is a major factor in civilization. If you can't get your goods to market in the next town because of road bandits, then the towns are effectively cut off from one another.

There's even an argument (somebody's thesis) that patrolling roads was the single greatest event (invention?) that led to the end of the so-called dark ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Let me see if I can remember the chain: Safe roads led to trade, the return of currency as a valuable resource, the need of Lords for gold instead of cattle, oxen and straw which led to the rewriting of traditional peon contracts. Following that, inflation drove the Lords out of the counties to the cities, lifting the yoke of the local despots and freeing the country.

On counter though, like in a game of Civilization, a population prospers technologically when more basic needs are satisfied. It's thanks to the stability the Romans enjoyed that they were able to elevate it's society culturally and technologically.

Didn't Gibbon say that the standard of living in 1st century AD wasn't re-attained until the 19th century?

R.A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome discusses the role of Goths, http://sentent.blogspot.com/2010/05/r-lafferty-and-semitic-g..., "One of the odder notions that he put into the book was the idea that the Balti, the leading clan of the Visigoths, were not originally from Germania but were aliens to northern Europe."

Life may have improved compared to the tail end of the empire, when economic problems (and misguided attempts to fix them) and raiding barbarians made life difficult. An exodus from the cities was happening, inflation was out of control, and rigid rules attempting to reverse the economic changes failed horribly (but hey, macroeconomics is hard, and wasn't really figured out until the 20th century).

But what about compared to Rome and the empire in its heyday? What about before empire compared to during empire?

> When the Empire faded away in the 4-7th century, contemporary archaelogy now thinks that people's life actually improved.

That shouldn't surprising, should it? I haven't studied history much at all, but I would have assumed that there would be a significant bump in quality of life.

In the recent past, the period between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance was called and considered the Dark Ages. The common assumption was that it wasn't a great time.

I don't think the negative concept of "the Dark Ages" has has been considered valid for many decades, even in basic history classes. The term is still used, of course, but anyone with a basic history education should know that it only implies a relative lack of historical record (which is also decreasingly the case), rather than a period of intellectual darkness or decrease in quality of life.

Yes, "explain" is misleading and we took it out of the title.

Over 7 centuries without _any_ significant technological progress.

This is nonsensical myth. The Romans had plenty of technological progress, particularly in construction and military technologies. As for an 'archaic' regime, they had a political system that kept together one of the world's only 1000-year nations, and whose influence is seen in any modern democracy that bears a 'senate'.

I've never really understood people's needs to say that the Roman empire wasn't all that great, particularly with the slogan "no technology" or "copied everything from the Greeks". The Romans certainly had superior socio-political technology, given that the Greeks never showed a lot of aptitude for maintaining an empire.

I looked at the map overlaying the US to contrast the relative size of the Roman Empire. I think it might be shown a bit bigger than it was. We vacationed in France and Rome and took a train overnight between them. That train had a ton of stops. I'm pretty sure that even without the stops, it would take longer than a night to travel by rail from approximately Montana (where France would roughly be) to the south-eastern Gulf Coast region (Italy).

Edit: Checking Google maps and more maps on the OP page I think I mis-calculated Italy's position in the purple blob, it would probably be around where Kansas is.

Italy is over Wyoming. I think you're confusing it with Egypt, which is in the lower-right of the map.

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