In This Article Greek and Roman Technology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Periodicals
  • Historiography and Theoretical Approaches
  • Inventors, Invention, and Attitudes toward Innovation

Classics Greek and Roman Technology
by
John Peter Oleson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0169

Introduction

This bibliography is designed to survey the role of technology in the Greek and Roman cultures and their respective technological accomplishments, from approximately the 8th century BC through the 5th century AD. Technology consists of those human activities that intentionally alter the environment or natural materials to ensure human survival or simply a more comfortable lifestyle. All human societies build their technologies on the basis of what previous cultures have achieved. The Greco-Roman accomplishments in technology, however, were significantly more diverse than those of the earlier cultures of the Near East or the Mediterranean. They also show a coherent developmental sequence that reflects the shared attitudes and experiences of the Greek and Roman cultures themselves. The references collected here are not intended to be a compendium of literature concerning all the technological procedures, devices, and machines in use in the classical world. The objective was creation of a critical summation of our present knowledge of the Greek and Roman accomplishments in technology and engineering and the evolution of the technical capabilities of these cultures over the defined chronological period. Each section is designed to review the main issues surrounding that topic and then to list recent scholarly contributions that define the capacities and accomplishments of the technology in the context of the society that used it, the available “technological shelf,” and the resources consumed. Obviously, not all the important sources can be listed here, but they can be found in the bibliographies within the books and articles that are included. Important online sources are listed when they have stable addresses and a significant history. The material is organized in nine main categories: surveys, reference works, and periodicals; literary, visual, and artifactual sources; primary, extractive technologies; engineering activities and complex machines; secondary processes and manufacturing; technologies of movement and transport; technologies of war; technologies of the mind, including reading, writing, timekeeping, and calculation; and a final section concerned with inventors, invention, and attitudes toward innovation. The materials presented in this bibliography make it clear that the classical world was marked by remarkable technological advances in many areas, often fostered by the elite, and spread widely throughout the population. A technological Greek and Latin literature composed of both sophisticated compendia and workshop manuals did exist, although much of it has been lost, and both inscriptions and visual representations show that craftsmen and craftswomen were proud of their work and their products.

General Overviews

Numerous surveys of varying value have been produced over the last 50 years, and some earlier works, such as Blümner 1979, remains useful. Forbes 1964–1972 embodies a very old-fashioned approach, but the author compiles some useful data and illustrations, while Gille 1986 and White 1984 show a broader, more analytical vision. Greene 2000, Humphrey 2006, Rihll 2013, and Schneider 2007 provide shorter but up-to-date accounts of theoretical problems and major issues.

  • Blümner, Hugo. 1979. Technologie und terminologie der gewerbe und künst bei Griechen und Römern. 4 vols. New York: Arno.

    E-mail Citation »

    Surveys in exhaustive detail the techniques and terminology of most Greek and Roman arts and crafts. Although a century old, the study remains a fundamental reference work, particularly for the evidence in ancient authors. The illustrations are rudimentary, and the author had few archaeological data at his disposal. First published in 1875–1887 (Leipzig: Teubner).

  • Forbes, Robert J. 1964–1972. Studies in ancient technology. 2d ed. 9 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Assembles in topical chapters and volumes archaeological and literary evidence for various technologies from the Bronze Age through Late Roman period. Approach is descriptive rather than analytical, and illustrations, and bibliography are sometimes capricious. Nevertheless, a pioneering effort to bring order to the study of ancient technology, and several section remain useful. Volume titles: Volume 1: Petroleum (1964); Volume 2: Irrigation; Power; Land Transportation (1965); Volume 3: Cosmetics and Perfumes; Food; Pigments, Inks (1965); Volume 4: Fibres and Fabrics; Dyes and Dyeing; Basketry (1964); Volume 5: Leather; Sugar and its substitutes (1966); Volume 6: Heat and Heating; Refrigeration; Light (1966); Volume 7: Mining and Quarrying (1966); Volume 8: Metallurgy (1971); and Volume 9: Copper, Bronze, Iron (1972).

  • Gille, Bertrand. 1986. History of techniques. 2 vols. New York: Gorden and Breach.

    E-mail Citation »

    Coherent, detailed discussion of Western technology from its beginnings to the present. Proposes that Western technology consists of a series of separate “systems,” each of which consists of “technical structures” (a basic tool or process), “technical ensembles” (a complex of techniques to produce a product), or “concatenations of technical ensembles.” Originally published in French in 1978.

  • Greene, Kevin. 2000. Industry and technology. In The Cambridge ancient history. 2d ed. Vol. 11. Edited by Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey, and Dominic Rathbone, 741–768. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521263351E-mail Citation »

    Excellent short review of the main issues in the main Roman crafts and manufacturing. Considers social and economic context, demand, technological innovation, and conflicts between written and archaeological sources. Production shops were well organized, and manual labor was an honorable pursuit. There was no such thing as Roman technology but rather technology of Roman date. Also see Large-Scale Manufacturing, Standardization, and Trade.

  • Humphrey, John W. 2006. Ancient technology. Westport CT: Greenwood.

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    A short review of the main issues in the development of human technologies from the Palaeolithic to Late Roman period. What prompts change? What cultural traditions inhibit change? What effect do these changes have on their societies and civilization? Numerous line drawings, and frequent citations of ancient literary evidence.

  • Rihll, Tracey E. 2013. Technology and society in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Washington, DC: American Historical Society.

    E-mail Citation »

    A survey appropriate more or less to high school, providing a good review of technological innovation and social response.

  • Schneider, Helmuth. 2007. Geschichte der antiken technik. Munich: Beck.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent short review of the social and intellectual context of (for the most part) Greek and Roman technology. The main technologies are treated in thematic chapters that focus on issues of labor and attitudes. Few illustrations.

  • White, Kenneth D. 1984. Greek and Roman technology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    A major synthetic evaluation of Greek and Roman technology in its social context and of the relationship between technology and culture. Outlines the main directions of development in individual technologies, illustrated by selected examples. Sixteen appendices treat special problems in more detail, and thirteen tables provide a handy summary of the dates of various innovations.

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