Could the Ancients Have Had an Industrial Revolution?

Mark Koyama, an economist at George Mason University, published a piece on whether Rome could have had an industrial revolution. He presents three common theories on what causes runaway economic growth. Roughly summarized, they are: 1.) free markets and a stable legal system, 2.) a colonial system that brings in resources to the center, and 3.) a culture of innovation that constantly seeks to improve existing technology.

The author sides most strongly with the third of these possibilities. He argues that in any plausible counterfactual to Rome’s actual history, this culture of growth would simply be absent. There was never that febrile atmosphere of 17th century Holland or 18th century Britain, where trade and industry gained new vigor and social respectability.

Dam Square
Amsterdam’s Dam Square, the center of the Dutch commercial revolution.

I would suggest that what specifically was missing in the case of Rome was a ratchet. By that, I mean some way to lock in the gains of new inventions. Where both the Dutch and British had many social and commercial mechanisms to spread knowledge of new innovations, Roman technology stayed in use only so long as the state continued to fund it. There was no widely-diffused base of knowledge that was constantly passed on and modified, resilient enough to survive political upheavals.

To put this in perspective, consider how stunningly little of Rome’s engineering knowledge endured the collapse of the empire. Imperial authorities erected aqueducts and amphitheaters, and laced the land with a complex network of roads and bridges. Yet none of these feats of engineering ratcheted; all such knowledge was lost with the fall of Rome.

Take elevated aqueducts, for example. They were used and maintained for centuries after the empire collapsed in the west, yet no new ones were built in Western Europe over the whole of the Middle Ages. Why not?

There were plenty of medieval monarchs who had the power, wealth, and inclination to try. Theodoric, Charlemagne, and Philip Augustus all engaged in massive engineering projects of their own. But not one of them watered their cities with new aqueducts. Had the idea occurred to them, there would be no one who could realize it; the last men who had the engineering and organizational skills to execute such a complex project were long dead.

The grandeur of Rome’s civil works belied a certain fragility. The expertise that created them would die with the state; there were no enduring institutions to keep such knowledge alive.

pont du gard
The Pont du Gard, one of the most impressive surviving Roman aqueducts.

The situation was somewhat similar in commerce. This is relevant to the question at hand because, although active trade does not spur technological progress by itself, it is almost certainly a necessary precondition. It is interesting, therefore, that the economic vigor of the Roman Empire was also centrally directed.

Roman commerce was quite vigorous, to be sure. Huge grain shipments were regularly made from Egypt to the capital, mines from Spain to Anatolia turned out many kinds of metal, and spices and glassware from Syria were traded all across the Mediterranean.

But much of this occurred only at the direction of the emperor. Egyptian grain was paid for with state funds to feed Rome’s poor. Mines were state-owned. Much of the empire’s economic activity was therefore not governed by the laws of supply and demand, but by the dictate of imperial authorities.

The trade in luxury goods and exotica from the East was indeed driven by demand, but this demand was only created by the enormous concentration of wealth at the Roman court. Once the empire collapsed in the west, so too did trade between the eastern and western Mediterranean.

So for all the astonishing engineering feats of the Romans, they were unlikely to incubate an industrial revolution. Is there anyone in antiquity who could have? Perhaps: those notoriously metaphysical Greeks.

After Alexander

The Hellenistic kingdoms founded in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death formed the basis for a new intellectual society. Greek-speaking intellectuals spread across the eastern Mediterranean and were patronized by newly rich and powerful suzerains.

Hellenistic Kingdoms
The successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire.

Where Classical Athens cared more for poetry and abstraction, the philosophers of the Hellenistic Age were intensely practical men. Their astonishing inventions and mathematical discoveries represented the single greatest burst of human ingenuity up to that point in history.

The list of first-rate thinkers of this time is enormous: Philo of Byzantium, Archimedes, Ctesibius, and Eratosthenes were but the most prominent. Their sheer rate of invention was dazzling, not just in mechanical devices, but in the practical fields of science and mathematics that allowed for further invention.

Ancient Industrial Revolution
Archimedes’ screw, a simple and efficient pump used for irrigation.

Just a partial list of their creations is as follows: new types of siphons and pumps, which were used to design a fire engine; the astrolabe and star charts, which made navigation easier; gimballed platforms to create steady surfaces on ships; chain drives, which were used to create a repeating crossbow; a primitive steam engine, to what purpose unknown.

Ancient Automata

Hero of Alexandria, who lived soon after Rome had completed its conquest of the Hellenistic world, was the culminating genius of that age. He deserves singular mention for his work in automation.

Among many other works and discoveries, Hero devised systems of pulleys, weights, and axles that functioned as primitive analog computers. These computers would use a constant input (the energy from a falling weight) to rotate an axle, which would then spool and un-spool other axles in a predetermined sequence. Each of these other axles would drive a separate mechanical device—a series of programmed operations, in other words. Hero used these devices to mechanize theater sets and create moving statues of gods to be placed in temples.

Antikythera recreation
Modern recreation of what the Antikythera mechanism would have looked like.

As frivolous as these automata of Hero seem, their underlying principles evidently seem to have been extensively developed by the Greeks, unmentioned by their texts. A stunning device which used a very sophisticated form of these principles was recovered in modern times from an ancient underwater shipwreck.

This device was named the Antikythera mechanism after its place of discovery. It was evidently being transported from Rhodes to Rome at the time of its sinking. Rhodes, then another great center of Hellenistic learning, had just been conquered by the Romans, so the mechanism was likely loot being taken to the capital.

The Antikythera mechanism itself was a box containing 37 differential gears (yet another new invention) that turned several separate dials. Modern research has concluded these dials probably represented solar, lunar, moon phase, and eclipses. The device, in other words, was a calculator that modeled celestial motion to a high degree of accuracy.

The astounding fact that no ancient texts even mention it can only leave us to wonder what other lost inventions there were. And what else could have been invented, had historical circumstance only been more favorable? It is worth considering what allowed such creation to flourish.

The Profits of Patronage

The individual men of genius responsible for that age of wonders owed much of their productivity to the patronage they received. Kings at Alexandria, Pergamon, and Antioch all competed to draw the best scholars, each founding great libraries to attract them. These libraries served both as vast collections of documents—encompassing nearly the sum of the world’s knowledge at the time—and as working laboratories of sorts, where resident scholars could convert their ideas into material reality.

The Ptolemies of Egypt were the most successful in this venture, their Library of Alexandria winning undying fame. They assembled there the most brilliant scholars of that brilliant age: Philo, Hero, Ctesibius, and Eratosthenes were all active at Alexandria. So too were numerous other scientists, geographers, historians, and mathematicians, whose contributions were avidly sought out by learned men around the Mediterranean.

It was not just practical engineering and mathematics that flourished in this environment. The Hellenistic kings, as heirs to Alexander’s generals, were constantly at war and so patronized military engineers as well. Their client scholars designed new types of catapults, ballistas, siege towers, and other siege engines. As in any age, military and civilian technology cross-fertilized each other, opening up new paths of innovation.

Ancient Artillery
Modern replicas of ancient artillery, including a repeating ballista.

Outside the libraries and courts, humbler technologies with nameless inventors also proliferated across the Greek-speaking world: the wheel-operated olive press, a more efficient way to squeeze out olive oil; watermills, which used the flow of a river to grind flour; and steady advancements in shipbuilding that improved navigation.

Watermills are an interesting example of the more mundane inventions of the Hellenistic Age that stand in contrast to the monumental projects of later Imperial Rome. Small enough in scale to be built on individual estates, they soon spread across large parts of Asia, North Africa, and Europe.

Greek watermill
A direct descendant of the Hellenistic watermill in modern Greece

They were soon adapted to uses far beyond their original purpose, such as fulling cloth, crushing rocks, and forging metal. This adaption and improvement occurred continuously through the Middle Ages into the modern era. There is something similar in spirit between this and inventions such as the spinning jenny that characterized the early Industrial Revolution.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Just as Greek learning was spread far and wide, so was Greek commerce. Since before the Classical Age, city-states had set up colonies from the western Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Greek cities traded amongst themselves, competed for new trade routes, and sent out colonies that grew into flourishing cities in their own right.

This trade continued and intensified in the Hellenistic Age. Merchants traveled farther afield than ever before, venturing into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Greek sailors soon discovered how to reach India in a matter of weeks by harnessing the monsoon winds, drastically reducing the arduous land or coastal route. Even as Greek monarchs vied for prestige and influence, their subjects traded with one another—taxes were a major source of state revenue, so it was in the authorities’ interest to encourage commerce.

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Let us now take an extended digression into the military history of another age. This may be a bit jarring, but the reason for it will become clear.

Building an army (not to say commanding one) is essentially an engineering problem: how do you construct a resilient machine that is responsive to your commands, and can accomplish its task with an efficient expenditure of resources?

European armies experienced a dramatic revolution between the 14th and 17th centuries that made them better engineered. They were more disciplined, better organized, and more responsive to their commanders’ orders. These improvements in command and control, even more than concurrent improvements in weaponry, made 17th century armies much more effective fighting forces than their predecessors.

(To emphasize this point: I would bet on a 14th century army, drilled and led by a 17th century general, against a 17th century army commanded by a 14th century general. I would not, however, bet the same against an 18th century army).

Spanish Tercio
Spanish tercios used new combined-arms tactics to dominate 16th c. battlefields.

Alongside these organizational changes, weapons technology was also rapidly developing. Gunpowder weapons came onto the battlefield and swiftly got more accurate at much longer ranges. So when European armies came up against the large, organized armies of Asian states in the 18th and 19th centuries, they cut through them like butter. The Austrians and Russians began rolling back the Ottomans, British and French expeditionary forces started carving out huge territories in India, and European merchants of all stripes began seriously menacing China.

Why did European militaries improve so much in this short period? The full answer is infinitely complex, but the single most common reason given by military historians is as follows: the continent was composed of many small states which were always fighting, but could never completely vanquish one another. This bloody competition spurred a rapid evolution in tactics and weaponry.

Large Asiatic states, like the Ottoman, Mughal, or Chinese empires, by comparison, were not subject to these same evolutionary pressures. In all three, the emperor had by far the strongest army for thousands of miles around. By virtue of superior numbers and weapons alone, the central authority could steamroll any challengers.

This meant they did not have many enduring rivals. When enemy states or rebellious provinces were subdued, their armies were dissolved and their territories absorbed. Civil wars might occasionally bring down an empire, and emperors were overthrown in palace coups, but whoever emerged victorious won everything. There was hence no pressing need for constant innovation; too much innovation could in fact be dangerous, as it might give an ambitious upstart a decisive edge.

War of Spanish Succession
War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), which embroiled all of Europe for 12 years.

In marked contrast, large-scale warfare regularly swept Europe, pitting coalitions of states both large and small against each other. Enduring rivalries, such as existed between France and England, among German principalities, and among Italian cities, did not allow for all-conquering victors. If Spain, France, or Austria grew too strong, groups of lesser powers would gang up to take it down. A balance of power was ensured, with winners making gains, but never taking home all the spoils. A perfect recipe, in other words, for runaway evolution in arms.

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So what do European arms tell us about Greek industry, other than to make an obvious comparison between military and economic competition?

Consider the grim-faced Roman legions, as they hacked and stabbed their way around the Mediterranean. Their victories imposed upon those lands a peace that would mostly last for half a millennium. This Pax Romana centralized enormous powers into the hands of an emperor. It was what gave him the ability to direct the course of trade and order grand new construction projects.

The entire Mediterranean world now looked more like an Asiatic empire: it saw a period of dizzying brilliance, followed by a long, slow, and irreversible decline. It was no longer like modern Europe, a region where some powers might rise or decline relative to others, but where overall wealth and technology continued to grow.

The overwhelming might of Rome thus brought the great Hellenistic age of invention to an end. The driving force behind the intellectual and commercial ferment—the competition at all levels among states and individuals—was removed. The fruits were harvested and sometimes even improved by the Romans, but their seeds were not sown back into fertile ground. The eastern Mediterranean would never again see such a brilliant period.

So what, at long last, is the counterfactual history that could produce an ancient industrial revolution? It is one in which the technically imaginative Hellenistic kingdoms continue to invent and compete with one another. It is one where Rome therefore never dominates the Mediterranean; the early republic is checked hard and early, preventing it from establishing hegemony.

Just such a counterfactual leaps to mind, for it has already been pondered many times before: after winning at Cannae, Hannibal marches on Rome and does to it what Scipio did to Carthage.

Oh, what the world might then be.