This question comes from a philosopher (@PhiLoThough) and a physicist (@ThePhysicsMill). People interested in The Big Questions. Questions about the nature of reality itself. About the universe. About fundamentals. They think about gravitational waves and universal truths and everything in between. And both are (I assume, which I shouldn’t do but it fits where I’m going with this so I hope I’m broadly right) part of massive international academic systems, based on centuries old ideas of curiosity, inquiry, scientific philosophies and the unending desire of man to understand his world. And so, they wonder how the Romans thought about their questions and – perhaps – wondered why there are no Roman Pythagorases or Euclids or Archimedeses (there’s a word that was never meant to be a plural). Because there aren’t. You never learnt a formula in GSCE maths that was named after a Roman, or memorised a rule that was named in classical Latin. And why is that?
The short answer to this is very simple. They did no maths that wasn’t basically adding up, and literally did not care one bit beyond that. Indeed, a mathematician once said that if you read world history through contributions to maths, you’d not know that the Romans existed. And it’s true. The Romans had a staggering lack of interest in the fundamentals of mathematics, or of the universe or really of anything. The Romans were so poor at maths – and this is also the reason that we now use an Arabic number system and a Latin alphabet – that they didn’t have a zero. The mathematical concept of zero literally never occurred to them. No use for it. Admittedly the concept of 0 is bloody complicated. I’m certainly not touching it because – as I learnt from dating 2 theoretical physicists – maths scares me and makes me want to lie down under a blanket with a glass of wine and possibly cry a bit. But still, I’m just one woman with self diagnosed dyscalculia (like all the cool kids); an entire civilization and they didn’t even bother with it? That’s poor Romans. Poor.
Which answers that question doesn’t it. NOPE NO MATHS. Next. But there are two interesting things in that short answer. 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (don’t @ me) Romans so bad at it? And 2. If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?
So let’s deal with these shall we. Take up some of your afternoon.
Question 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (seriously, don’t @ me), Romans so bad at it?
The Romans were bad at maths because they absolutely didn’t care about it. The Romans were a staggeringly practical people. Just astonishingly uninterested in Big Questions. As far as the Romans were concerned, there was absolutely no need to question things because God did it. Or more specifically, innumerable gods did it. Infinite numbers of big and little gods and spirits. If gods couldn’t be immediately ascribed something, then it was probably magic.
This is something that is vastly underestimated now about the Romans, now we’ve reconceptualised them as either sex crazed, syphilis ridden knobbers or white toga’d British men with neat hair, paragons (*cough*) of the Glorious Empire (*cough*). In our imaginations, they’re still basically like us, by which I mean academics of western history. They’re white, they’re middle class and they’re pretty secular. They’re completely wrong. The Romans were religious and superstitious as fuck. To a weird degree. You know that woman your mum knows who wears a lot of purple and reads books about crystal healing and says she has an angel on shoulder and that some places have bad energy? She’d be considered to be borderline atheist by the Romans. Religion – by which I mean a true faith in the existence of supernatural, immortal beings, spirits, and powers who interacted with the physical world – permeated every facet of Roman life whether we acknowledge it or not.
Pliny the Elder wrote the greatest scientific work of the entirety of Roman civilisation: the Natural History – considered science simply because it’s got no ACTUAL gods in it(1). It Does however contain 12 entire books on plants and trees, one on magic, one on how great painting is, and chapters titled things like“Remarkable Circumstances Connected with the Menstrual Discharge,” Instances of Striking Resemblance,” and “The Most Chaste Maidens”, and not one mention of numbers.(2) The Roman concept of science was pretty damn different to ours is what I’m saying, and included painting. And grammar. And cool anecdotes that predominantly come from mythology. But if you don’t straight up say God Did It then it’s science. As far as the Romans were concerned everything was already explained. Gods. Or magic. Or both. Probably both. The Roman view of the world is basically the same as that of Battlestar Galactica. And why bother asking any more questions than that! The Romans mostly thought that the Greek preoccupation with such things that seemed to have no practical application was more than a bit suspect and probably bad for you.
Which brings us to question 2:
If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?
For all their embarrassing rubbishness at fundamental maths, Romans were spectacularly good at engineering and this is what I think is very cool and interesting about them. Without ever having the concept of 0 or any access to any maths higher than arithmetic, Roman civilisation invented spectacular feats of civil and military engineering, including aqueducts, dams, watermills, massive paved roads, hydraulic mining, and all kinds of mad shit for killing large amounts of foreigners as quickly as possible. In addition to this, they managed to work out some pretty impressive physics, basically inventing the freestanding arch and dome. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome, first built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian, is a staggering feat of architecture and engineering. It is a PERFECT 43.3m sphere made out of concrete. In order to reduce the load so it stayed up, the concrete gets progressively lighter as it rises, and hidden chambers throughout the dome support it. The Pantheon impresses civil engineers and physicists today as a work of brilliant engineering. But they did it without mathematically working out anything at all. Because fuck it, this is practical stuff, we can bludgeon our way through.
And just think of how COOL and impressive aqueducts are. Water is drawn out of a source – possibly many miles away – and run through miles of stone using gravity alone, supplied to homes through piping, then run back out again, put through a sewage system and dumped into a different body of water. The gradient were carefully worked out so that the flow of water didn’t overwhelm the aqueduct and to keep the speed slow and steady. All done with finger arithmetic and a dodgy looking spirit level. Could you do that? I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that if you gave me a youtube tutorial and a scientific calculator. And not just because I’m afraid of all the buttons on scientific calculators.
Engineering is the kind of problem solving the Romans liked. Theory and abstract concepts and intangible things were fancy-pants things that only rubbishers got involved in. Engineering a way to move water or make something cool or fire flaming balls of stone at a disobedient city was failing to recognise how much better it would be for them to be ruled by the Romans was the kind of thing REAL MEN did. In a way, Romans are like the people who write tabloid headlines that say BOFFINS or a deeply stereotypical “working man” who doesn’t see the point of university, deeply distrusts the concept of education or theory but by god can he put up a shelf. Basically, they’re a certain type of reddit commenter who thinks that certain types of education are just a waste of everyone’s time. Not painting though, that’s important.
So the Romans broadly ignored the underlying principles that allowed them to build arches and calibrate aqueducts and fling big flaming stones and small flaming clay thingys really far, they just worked out how to do them with knowledge of tools and materials and spaces and assumed it was magic if something confusing happened.
- The other that is often mentioned is Lucretius’s Poem On the Nature of Things because it seems to have physics in it. Lucretius is an Epicurean and his aim was thus to demonstrate that the gods had no impact on human life or natural events (in contradiction with deterministic philosophies like Stoicism which denied free will). He does not argue against the existence of deities, merely that they don’t impact humanity on the observable world. He is a naturalist and his science is broadly at the level of a 6 year old or an internet fan of Richard Dawkins.
- These are most of books 12-27, excluding the 5 about remedies; book 35; book 30. The chapters are 7.13; 7.10 and 7.35. It’s worth noting the Pliny himself was very sceptical of magic and astrology and considered it hokum, but the fact that he felt the need to include a discussion of it – and the striking similarities between the magic and medicine described – show how very pervasive it was amongst the Romans. The menstruation chapter is a great read for the ladies including insights about womb moles and the effects that menstruation have on women: