[ExI] what if

Tomasz Rola rtomek at ceti.pl
Mon Dec 17 18:11:42 UTC 2012

On Sun, 16 Dec 2012, Anders Sandberg wrote:

> Many people overestimate the amount of military activity in the Roman 
> empire. Sure, they were fighting left and right at the borders, but the 
> vast interior was (when not having a civil war) mostly peaceful and 
> doing trade, agriculture and the usual commerce of a civilization. They 
> had great civil engineering prowess, but there were no new geometrical 
> or mathematical results under the Republic or Empire, no mathematicians 
> of note, and nothing we would call science.

Oh. When I wrote "Romans (and other ancients)" I meant Greeks, too. Sorry 
for misunderstanding. I think we should limit extent of our dispute to 
ancient Romans and Greeks and to medieval Christian Europe. Because, of 
course, there were direct inheritors of Antiquity - Muslims, who 
translated Greek works into Arabic and built all those great stuff, proto 
gliders and human shaped automatons and whatnot and speculated about 
atomic bombs. And there were Chinese, too, who kept up with rest of the 
world while not inventing for quite a long time.

To be frank, at first I wanted to agree with your theses, I am no 
historian so I wanted to let go. But after a while I decided I would not 
agree, at least not this time :-).

> Everybody raves about the loss of cement, but forgets that the Romans 
> had de facto lost the academy/university of the Greeks.

Well, everybody raves about loss of the Athenian Academia and the 
Alexandrian Library, but forget that for all the vast geographical space 
which knew any Greek influence, only those two are worthy enough to be 
mentioned after two thousand years. Sure, there were philosophers living 
between Syracuse and Damascus, but I don't remember any Greek philosopher 
or writer living between Damascus and Indus river. Even Greeks themselves 
were not uniform, Spartans for one example disregarded anything that they 
could not use in support of their warfare.

I think Romans were, simply put, results-oriented folks. And good for 
them. Because from all Greek science, only few theories can be considered 
a foundation of modern science, and only to some extent. The rest was 
junk, theories of humors and elements, number juggling and other stuff 
we'd call pseudoscience nowadays. I cannot be sure (not enough data, does 
not compute) but maybe they did right when they kept what _worked_ and 
ditched everything else.

> A medieval person would actually have noted that they were low-tech: no 
> stirrups, no knitting, no three-field crop rotation, no heavy plough, no 
> blast furnaces, no complex mechanical systems (Romans had some, but they 
> were special siege engines, while Medieval towns were replete with 
> cranes, mills and crude clockworks). The medieval guy would have been 
> impressed by the scale and overall wealth of the Romans, but he would 
> know plenty of things they did not know.

Well, you may be right about Romans, I am not a historian. But I will try 
to defend them a bit.

As a side note, I wouldn't bet this relation would hold with Greeks. I 
think a typical Greek was much more exposed to technology, with automatons 
standing in public space in some cities, from what I have read, and 
various mechanized special effects employed in entertainment (both on the 
streets and in theatres, I suppose).

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_of_Alexandria ]


"The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet."

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automaton#Ancient_automata ]

The question arises if a typical Greek knew there were strict rules behind 
the works of such automaton, rather than small gods running inside and 
turning the wheels. I don't know.

When it comes to Romans, they were not the last folks either.

"Mainly known for his writings, Vitruvius was himself an architect. In 
Roman times architecture was a broader subject than at present including 
the modern fields of architecture, construction management, construction 
engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, materials 
engineering, mechanical engineering, military engineering and urban 

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvius ]

So I would speculate their engineering was more like practical science 
rather than repetition of learned rules. BTW, roads!

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_road#Via_munita ]

BTW2, a water clock was easy to make and it could be quite accurate, 
surpassed only by pendulum clock, but this happened ca. 350 years ago:

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_clock ]

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christiaan_Huygens#Clocks ]

Overally, I side with Greeks, but not as much as you seem to. They and 
Romans were different, can be demonstrated by comparing their attitudes 
towards education:

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Ancient_Rome ]

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Ancient_Greece ]

OTOH I don't think Romans were unworthy their salt :-).

As of Roman technological advances, you might see this:


To name the few, books, portable abacus, glass windows, newspapers, ball 
bearing, stenography, sewers...

Hard soap!! My favorite.

Also they were the first to use water-powered mills and wheeled plough. Or 
so it seems.

Now, about medieval...

I wonder what kind of things a medieval guy would know better than ancient 
Roman? From what I've read, Romans had better literacy rates. At least I 
remember reading that it wasn't unusual for grunt soldier to sign his 
name. Romans used indoor plumbing in their houses and they knew flush 
toilets. Medieval sanitation, I'm afraid, was a poorly smelling joke.



The translation is a bit flaky, but it says ancient Egyptians, Chinese and 
Romans used flush toilets, among other sanitary devices, whereas in 
Versailles they installed first toilet in 1768 AD. 

In favour of medievals, educated folk knew zero and Arabic/Indian 

I mean, if we define Medieval Age as starting after fall of Rome and 
ending somewhere around Gutenberg's press, fall of Byzantium and discovery 
of USA by Columbus, it's about thousand years. Renaissance is not included 
into this era. I know it wasn't as "dark" as some would like it to be, and 
there were smaller, Church-or-kings-inspired renaissances before the Big 
One, but OTOH was there really such a huge development during this long 
period of time? Even if we compare to previous thousand years and agree 
second half of it (Roman half) was stagnation, which I think it was not.

Of course, there were great men in Medieval period, too. Like Roger Bacon. 
But I also see that both ancient and medieval world view, including their 
science, was a mix of acceptable and strange, ranging from observations 
that are a basis of modern science, to numerology, theory of humors, 
elements, claims of celestial bodies posessing souls etc. Actually "the 
strange element" of science persisted well into 18-19 century. Isaac 
Newton, for example, was not only founder of modern science, but an 
alchemist and occultist, searching for philosopher's stone and elixir of 
life (he also predicted that world would end after 2060, which coincides 
with predicted Coming of Singularity, which in effect would make him 
obligatory member of some Transhumanist circles ;-) ).

[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton's_occult_studies ]

So, to sum this all, I am still of opinion that ancient (Greek and Roman) 
guys were, on average, better developed than medieval guys (in Christian 
Europe). At least if we limit ourselves to judging only science and 
technology. Maybe ancients had no recent fancy inventions, maybe their 
tech was crude sometimes, compared to later guys. On the other hand, 
whatever they had, they used it better IMHO.

Even if I were somewhat wrong, maybe it's better to be wrong with Romans, 
because AFAIK their shit worked, mostly. An alternative would be engaging 
into questionable searches for questionable shit envisaged by some wise 
guys which mostly didn't worked, only sometimes produced wonderful 

Thomas Arvus, foederatus Poloniae, barbarus et ingeniarius, programmator 
et centurio computatri


** Linguae C programmator quaeritur, utrum computer quod habebat Buddha
** natura. Sicut responsum, magister fecerunt "rm-rif" in programmer
** scriptor domum presul. Et tunc C programmator factus illuminantur ...

(Well, ok, it would be better if I really learned Latin in any systematic 

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