To the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome
November 12, 2017 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Could the Romans have had their own Industrial Revolution?
posted by Chrysostom (32 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, and the industrial revolution, what have the Romans ever done for us?
posted by SansPoint at 8:52 PM on November 12 [18 favorites]


It's interesting that slavery is seen as a reason to not expect an Industrial Revolution in Rome, considering that most of the advances of the First Industrial Revolution revolved around cotton.
posted by clawsoon at 9:09 PM on November 12 [14 favorites]


It's interesting that slavery is seen as a reason to not expect an Industrial Revolution in Rome, considering that most of the advances of the First Industrial Revolution revolved around cotton.
Yes, but…

Slavery in the South was what white supremacy saw as convenient, morally right, and profitable (a system has largely continued into modern prison labour). While it shared many of those qualities, slavery in Rome was different. It wasn't based on strict racial lines, manumission was common, and freed slaves became full citizens. There was little cultural shame in being the son or daughter of a freed slave, and social mobility for their descendants was fairly high.

In the South, the development of the cotton gin actually increased the demand for slaves; the first automated cotton picker didn't see commercial success until 1944.

To my mind, the greatest hinderance to a Roman Industrial Revolution was their addiction to military glory, which fed much of the slavery system: Ceasar's conquests of Gaul brought so many slaves back to Rome that the market essentially crashed. I don't see that changing unless there was an enforced period of peace of a century or more, which would reduce the number of slaves and act as a driving force to develop new technologies.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:50 PM on November 12 [18 favorites]


So Rome pops both a Great Prophet and a Great Scientist on the same turn? I hate playing on Deity.
posted by um at 10:13 PM on November 12 [28 favorites]


So in the article about the novel, a point of tension in Jerusalem is the Roman's building an abortion clinic in Judea. But Jews aren't historically anti abortion! in a Jerusalem that only contained Jews and Pagans, that wouldn't necessarily be a flash point. The whole concept of an industrial Rome is fascinating, but this novel seems poorly researched. Or like so many other Roman "novels" all the Roman pagan and Christian stuff is well researched, while all the Jewish stuff is what the author did a 5 minute google about. if that.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:22 PM on November 12 [10 favorites]


So far as slavery is concerned, you have to remember this is not about the USA, Eli Whitney or whether Romans could have invented the cotton gin - the piece asks whether they could have had a British-style development of steam engines, steel, railways and canals, iron bridges, iron ships, potteries, factories and yes, cotton mills.
posted by Segundus at 10:31 PM on November 12 [4 favorites]


I've found Mark Elvin's ideas on development useful, especially in connection with a far greater puzzle (IMHO): why didn't Song China take off into an industrial revolution? (They already had printing, gunpowder, mechanical looms, and clockwork.)

His suggestion was basically that the Chinese economy was already so efficient that large gains were not realizable (at least, not in the short steps required for development).

Or to put it the other way, 1700s Britain had an unusual combination of factors that made labor-saving devices immediately profitable.

This fits in with the argument that slave labor made Rome uninterested in additional productivity. (And FWIW Toqueville's observation about the difference between the pre-Civil War North and South. When you have slaves, "work" is something profoundly uninteresting to the elite.)

Elvin also points out that China (and, we might add, the Romans) had nothing like the Royal Society or the Academie Royale: a repository for ongoing science, keeping track of what was known and what was still to be addressed. Without this, the smartest savants get bogged down by the weight of unprovable non-facts (like alchemy).
posted by zompist at 10:36 PM on November 12 [27 favorites]


Isn't the obvious answer fossil fuel use?
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:07 AM on November 13 [2 favorites]


Regarding slavery in the south:
When the United States emerged as a world power in the years before the Civil War, the men who presided over the nation’s triumphant territorial and economic expansion were largely southern slaveholders. As presidents, cabinet officers, and diplomats, slaveholding leaders controlled the main levers of foreign policy inside an increasingly powerful American state. This Vast Southern Empire explores the international vision and strategic operations of these southerners at the commanding heights of American politics.
posted by robbyrobs at 1:52 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


I believe the other major factor in the industrial revolution was the use of fossil fuels in the production of iron. The creation of coke as a fuel in the making of beer turned out to allow this. The article points to the production of coal ... so they were so close.
posted by MikeWarot at 4:07 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


I came here to make the first Civilization joke but got beat by one turn. Darn.
posted by destrius at 5:40 AM on November 13 [11 favorites]


Maybe I am reading this wrong, and I am certainly no historian, but the industrial revolution was not just raw materials and economics: the Romans didn't have Newtonian mechanics, calculus or much of thermodynamics for example (not to mention simpler things like the algebraic notation to express most of modern science). No doubt they could have advanced to some extent if the incentives were there, but 1600 years of scientific progress don't just happen.
posted by Dr Dracator at 5:42 AM on November 13 [3 favorites]


MikeWarot: I believe the other major factor in the industrial revolution was the use of fossil fuels in the production of iron. The creation of coke as a fuel in the making of beer turned out to allow this. The article points to the production of coal ... so they were so close.

zompist talked about Song China. As it happens, the Chinese were using coke instead of charcoal in iron production by the end of the 11th century with a precursor to the Bessemer process to produce ~130 million kilograms per year of iron and steel.

There are many "the Chinese didn't have an Industrial Revolution because _____" explanations which have gone up in a puff of sooty smoke as we've learned more about the history of Chinese industrial development.
posted by clawsoon at 5:44 AM on November 13 [5 favorites]


Now taking orders for my upcoming togapunk novel. Form an orderly line.
posted by threecheesetrees at 5:52 AM on November 13 [9 favorites]


Ya, I'm for fossil fuel as the key ingredient too. Mining expertise in the Roman era was focused on metals for coin. There's coal in many of the areas under Roman influence, and the Romans are experts at mining and all that. They are going after gold and silver due to shortages of coinage.

Coal probably seemed uninteresting because charcoal was already a huge industry. Why would the very top of the command divert precious mining resources to dig out something that appeared fungible to charcoal?
posted by bdc34 at 5:56 AM on November 13


Segundus: So far as slavery is concerned, you have to remember this is not about the USA, Eli Whitney or whether Romans could have invented the cotton gin - the piece asks whether they could have had a British-style development of steam engines, steel, railways and canals, iron bridges, iron ships, potteries, factories and yes, cotton mills.

Part of the argument from Pomeranz and the California School is that slaves and other forms of exploited mass labour can be profitable alongside industrialization when industrialization makes one part of the process suddenly much more productive than another part.

We figured out how to industrialize the production of huge amounts of cotton cloth long before we figured out how to industrialize the planting and harvesting of huge amounts of cotton. Slaves were exploited to fill the gap. We still haven't figured out how to industrialize the production of clothing from cloth, so it's still being done by huge numbers of exploited workers. We figured out how to run railways and steel production on coal long before we replaced huge numbers of coal miners with machines. In fact, most coal mining is still being done most cheaply by large numbers of humans in Chinese coal mines, at the same time that China is exploding industrially.

If Rome had industrialized, there would've been plenty of economically viable work for slaves to do. I think that the argument that Roman slavery prevented industrialization - even with all the ways that Roman slavery differed from Early Modern slavery - is weakened by all the ways that slavery and other forms of exploitation have coexisting with (and have helped along) the process of industrialization.

If you want to know what I think were the critical factors: I have no idea. The more that I study the question, the more slippery it becomes. All the schools of thought have great counter-arguments against all the other schools. We have been able to dismiss a number of old explanations - e.g. "China was trapped in eternal Asiatic stagnation" - but, as the article points out, we will always run up against the fact that independently figuring out how to profitably exploit fossil fuels for steam power was a singular event which can never be repeated.

Here's another pointless-but-interesting question: Could we have had an Electrical Revolution without the steam-engine-powered Industrial Revolution?
posted by clawsoon at 6:18 AM on November 13 [7 favorites]


Could we have had an Electrical Revolution without the steam-engine-powered Industrial Revolution?

I was just thinking about that as I was showering... I'd imagine it might be possible for a pre-industrial society to discover and exploit electricity at least to some extent. Lodestones attached to water mills?
posted by destrius at 6:36 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


> I was just thinking about that as I was showering...

I believe this was Sagan's euphemism for smoking weed.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 6:45 AM on November 13 [5 favorites]


destrius: I'd imagine it might be possible for a pre-industrial society to discover and exploit electricity at least to some extent. Lodestones attached to water mills?

Could Faraday, Maxwell, Edison, Tesla and Marconi have changed the world without steam engines? How much did their work depend on fossil fuels? And to scale up from small water mills: Could the electric power station at Niagara Falls and power lines to nearby factories - or all the way to Buffalo or New York - have been built without combustion engines? Can one envision a world where canal boats are driven by overhead power lines? Which parts of the Industrial Revolution, exactly, did those inventors require?
posted by clawsoon at 6:50 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


FWIW, Helen Dale/ Demidenko/ Darville has some backstory herself.
posted by hawthorne at 7:03 AM on November 13 [2 favorites]


Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own.

What's interesting about Christianity in Rome was that it was initially seen as the religion of slaves, of the poor and the weak, and of women.

But, of course, women are the ones who were primarily raising the children, and so the children grew up in the faith of their mothers. It's how Constantine was first exposed to Christianity, through his low-born mother. Children getting their religion from their mothers is still true today.

The Roman Pantheon never had a chance.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:15 AM on November 13 [4 favorites]


As for the industrial revolution in Rome, there were a series of preconditions that it lacked:

1. Rome had no competing kingdoms/nation-states in Europe (until the late Empire). In Renaissance Europe, if an intellectual got sideways with their local prince, they could often flee to a more amenable court. There also was an ongoing correspondence between thinkers and natural philosophers across nations. Rome didn't have that same fertile interplay. The scientific method was a necessary precursor, and it arose out of this interplay.

2. The development of risk and insurance markets, which in turn gave rise to stock markets and exchanges, along with the development of liberal political philosophy in support of property rights, was a necessary precondition for the investment that allowed for the rapid technological development of the industrial revolution. If I can't either mitigate my risk or (if successful) reasonably profit from my risk, I'm less inclined to make the investment in the first place.

3. The development of republican and democratic ideals, coming out of the Enlightenment, which was itself fruit of the humanism of the Renaissance. There's a reason that England took the lead in the Industrial Revolution, and not, say, Russia. It's also not a coincidence that the Renaissance coincided with the Fall of Constantinople. The ideas were there, they just weren't in fertile ground in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. It was the departure of Byzantine scholars to Venice and other Italian city states, bringing with them ancient Greek and Roman texts, that set off the whole powder-keg.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:33 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


Oh, and the scientific method gives you the germ theory of disease, which gives you better hygiene and sanitation by the mid to late 1800s. Better sanitation helps you keep your population up in cities (to work in factories and the like) and helps prevent diseases like plague, which repeatedly devastated the late Western Roman Empire, depopulating it and and contributing to its collapse.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:44 AM on November 13


Discovery of electrical production via water mills and corresponding generation of kinetic energy via motors. Circuits built to transport energy from water mills to distant aqueducts for improved water distribution.

Somebody figures out that switching the circuit on and off can be used to quickly send a signal to the other end; beginnings of the development of telecommunications and information theory, with applications to warfare.

More complicated circuits constructed to quickly decipher messages on the wire; rudimentary computation develops.
posted by destrius at 8:05 AM on November 13 [7 favorites]


Two anecdotes:

The story goes that a clever dickens presented Tiberius with a goblet made of unbreakable glass. The emperor, impressed, asked if anyone else knew how to make the stuff. When told that no one did, he ordered the man killed. Pressure from the glass makers guild, perhaps.

Another clever dickens presented Vespasian with a means of transporting marble columns on the cheap. Vespasian did not have him killed (indeed, gave him a bounty), but declined his help on the grounds it would put people out of work: "You must let me feed my poor commons."

Whether true or not, the stories do seem to reflect an attitude uncommon today.
posted by BWA at 8:29 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]


Somebody figures out that switching the circuit on and off can be used to quickly send a signal to the other end; beginnings of the development of telecommunications and information theory

That would actually run contrary to how things developed in actual history: the semaphore line -- essentially, an optical telegraph -- pre-dates the electrical telegraph. They were proposed in the late 17th century and implemented at a national scale in the late 18th century; whereas the first practical electrical telegraph wasn't in operation until the mid 19th century.

You need a somewhat decent telescope for that to be a viable proposition, which has its own problems in terms of Roman implementation (in that they didn't have any), leaving wholly aside all of the societal differences between Republican Rome and and Napoleonic France that might make such a system more feasible in one case than the other. But the underlying point is that Rome making a leap from electricity to telegraphy would actually be novel: that's a not a leap anyone actually made. Rather, we made a number of smaller, incremental leaps, with a lot of innovation and dead-ends, and odd branchings-off -- maritime flag signaling (which certainly influenced semaphore) dates to at least a few centuries before semaphore was invented, for example.
posted by cjelli at 8:33 AM on November 13 [4 favorites]


You don't need fossil fuels nor electricity to enjoy a good Taylor Compressor.
posted by whuppy at 8:57 AM on November 13 [3 favorites]


The optical telegraph is a critical plot point in The Count of Monte Cristo (1844).
posted by Chrysostom at 10:12 AM on November 13 [2 favorites]


leotrotsky,

The problem with your "series of preconditions" is that they're a just-so story, and really can only be that.

This is because of the larger problem with this kind of historical analysis that clawsoon notes above: in the real world, as far as we know, the Industrial Revolution (if by that we mean the development of steam power and the resulting and associated technologies) happened only once. We have no other example of it happening anywhere else but in Britain in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, but it doesn't follow that it could only have happened there, or that everything about that place and time and culture must be present for these advances to happen.

So democracy (to a degree), the scientific method, liberal economic and political philosophy, the corporate form were present in Britain when the IR happened in real history, but were any or all of these necessary for it to have happened? We don't and really can't know the answer to that. It could very well be a coincidence that some or all of these features existed at the same time that various factors led to the precursor technologies and ideas that had been floating around Europe since the ancient Greeks, or even Egyptians in some cases, finally being pushed over the edge.

You may as well list speaking English as a necessary precondition, and wax eloquent about the uniquely expressive nature of the English language for scientific exchange that made these discoveries possible, because English was spoken in Britain when the advances happened.

In fact, also as clawsoon notes above, very often attempts to explain why the IR happened in Britain and not elsewhere using cultural explanations turn to Orientalism or other ugly belief systems to show how the East didn't develop that way, despite having many of the right factors, due to its inherent inferiority, despotic nature, etc.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:29 AM on November 13 [7 favorites]


leotrotsky: As for the industrial revolution in Rome, there were a series of preconditions that it lacked: 1. Rome had no competing kingdoms/nation-states in Europe (until the late Empire)... 2. The development of risk and insurance markets, which in turn gave rise to stock markets and exchanges, along with the development of liberal political philosophy in support of property rights... 3. The development of republican and democratic ideals...

The major challenge to your preconditions is what we're discovering about just how much industrial innovation happened in China, especially starting with the Tang and Song. All of your preconditions may have helped speed up development in England, but they're turning out to be much shakier as explanatory factors for investment and innovation than we originally thought. It turns out that lots of innovation can happen in a politically illiberal empire.

To be fair, Song China did have some of your preconditions, though they arrived at them via a different route. There wasn't a general liberal political philosophy, but liberal economic policies were in the mix at least as far back as the Han dynasty. They didn't have scientific journals and societies, but they were able to rapidly improve industrial techniques via active experimentation. (The same was true of most of the development in the early Industrial Revolution. It wasn't primarily math and formal scientific theorizing which allowed James Watt to greatly improve the steam engine; it was an intuition followed by a bunch of experiments, just like with most innovation throughout history. Math and formal science didn't become critical until they were required for the creation of the high-pressure steam engine and, to an even greater degree, useful electrical equipment.)

Another counterfactual to play with: If each of Imperial Rome, Song China, and Early Modern Europe had a steam engine plopped down in a coal mine which was good enough to drain some water from the mine but not good enough for much else, how long would it have taken each society to come up with something as good as Watt's engine? In the case of Western Europe, it took 180 years or so, as far as we know at this point.
posted by clawsoon at 10:48 AM on November 13 [3 favorites]




I came here to make the first Civilization joke but got beat by one turn. Darn.

um has completed Petra!
posted by um at 10:21 PM on November 14


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