It is a common opinion that Romans did not contribute anything to exact sciences, but did contribute much to engineering. (How can it be otherwise, anyone who has been on the territory of the former empire could see all these marvelous buildings, temples, walls, roads, bridges, aqueducts and bathhouses everywhere).

Can anyone name any Roman engineer, except Vitruvius?

To be more precise, there was a lot of excellent mathematics, physics and astronomy in the Roman empire. But this was done by people who wrote in Greek and had Greek names (though it is possible that some of them, like perhaps Ptolemy, were Roman citizens).

I do not count popular writers like Pliny (the elder) or Varro, who wrote huge low-quality encyclopedias: this is not science but popularization. (Same applies to Vitruvius btw).

I recently read the correspondence of Pliny the Younger (who was a governor of a province) with his princeps (Trajan). One of the main recurring topics is Pliny asking to send him an architect or a surveyor for his architectural or hydraulic works. To all these repeated requests Trajan replies that engineers are in great shortage in Rome, and why does not Pliny find one himself nearby, he is in Greece, after all!

Another piece of evidence is Wikipedia article on Greek and Roman artillery. 5 books on artillery survived. All Greek. Except Vitruvius, again.

Could it be that all these engineering marvels were really created by Greek engineers? Could it be that even in the area of artillery and siege engines the Roman empire relied exclusively on the Greek engineers?

EDIT. The author of the Wikipedia article on Vitruvius kindly made a "list of references" in Vitruvius book. Of the "writers who WROTE on architecture" there are 3 Latin names. Two of them are known only from this reference, the third one is Varro, who was certainly not an architect himself. Of the "architects" all 5 are Greeks. Of the "temple builders" one of the 9 names sounds Latin, other 8 Greek. On all other engineering - only Greek names.

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    $\begingroup$ Thought provoking question! I wonder who came up with the design of the Roman road or the aqueduct. The formulation of concrete, and the vaulted structure of the Pantheon. We're the Romans who did this too busy doing it to be writing about it? $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ To be more precise, Pliny was in Bythinia (on the territory of modern Turkey, on the Black sea shore). This was a Greek speaking part of the empire. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Just one thought I just had.. One argument (quite twisted, I admit it) to support the idea of "native" engineering is that one of the Roman religious titles was that of "pontifex" (literally, "bridge maker"). Ok, the meaning was more spiritual than just that, but I doubt they would have chosen that analogy if the "bridge makers" were foreign people. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ This suggests an interesting question. By "Greece" we should certainly mean "Hellenistic states" (roughly, the territory of Macedonian conquests). Certainly there are aqueducts and roads there. (I've seen many with my own eyes). The question is when exactly they were built. Before or after the Roman conquest. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ Do you know/read Roman Science: Origins, Development, and Influence to the Later Middle Ages (1962) by William H.Stahl ? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 7:05

2 Answers 2


One of the most important contributions of Latins to engineering was road-building. This certainly pre-dates contacts with the Greek civilization:

  • so called "strade consolari" departing from Rome (thus the Italian way of saying "all roads lead to Rome") and connecting the principal area of Italy were built already starting from the early Latin period (when Rome was still a kingdom) and mostly developed during III Century B.C. The beginning of road (and thus bridges) construction, in fact, was probably developed in connection with Etruscan civilization.

  • the reason why we do not have famous "names" from this period is that road engineers where soldiers. Roads were basically built by soldiers (the word "mile" comes from "miles=soldier" in Latin). What we do have is that nothing similar to the net of roads developed in Italy was present in Greece: 150.000km of "strade consolari". Many many names of Italian cities descend from numbers which were signalling their position along the roads (Treviso, Quartu Sant'Elena, Tor di Quinto, Sesto Fiorentino, Settimo Milanese, Nonantola, Decimomannu - are city names where you can find the words meaning 3rd, 4th, ... 10th).

The second important contribution to engineering were acqueducts: they were usually the construction that immediately followed roads. Also the first acqueducts predates connection with the Greeks.

  • The construction of Cloaca Maxima, Rome sewer system, goes back to shortly after the foundation of the city.

  • The Appian aqueduct, realized by Appio Claudio, here you have the name of the consul , goes back to 310B.c.- parallel the the construction of Via Appia, 16km of underground aqueduct. Again I do not think anything analogous was present in Greece at around the same time.

  • The aqueduct Anio Vetus (65km) was realized in 270 b.c. under Manio Curio Dentato e and Flavio Flacco that were nominated exactly for this purpose. But I guess that their role was mainly political and organizational and we do not have the names of engineers that practically did the computations and projects. Also Aqua Marcia (144 b.c., 92km, under Quinto Marcio Re) is at best contemporary to the annexion of Greece.

  • in any case we do not have a culture of thermal public baths in the Greek civilization even vaguely comparable with the one developed by Latins and that brought them to constructin thermae throughout the Roma empire, from Cartago to the English city of Bath.

Here I bet that, as I already said, engineers themselves were basically considered just technicians whose names were note deserving memory; we rather have the name of politicians that directed the cosntruction of this public buildings.

Many historical documents attribute to Latin civilization this engineering ability: Strabo, Dionisus of Alycarnassus,

Also for what concerns military engineering you have to consider that the Roman legions were, already from the Republican era, travelling together with a supporting praefectus fabrum that was basically an engineer concerned with road-building, camp fortifications and artillery constructions. The sieges of Veio (450 b.c) and Lilibeo (1st punic war 250 b.c.) saw the usage of "war-machines". So I guess there was a culture predating contacts with Greeks.

When you move to the Imperial era there are some factors to be considered. For Latins the Empire was a unique structure and famous emperors, writers, artists, scientists came from all over it and considered just Latin despite middleeastern-spanish-greek-african origins. Still it is true that in the so-called Hellenistic period everything that came from Greece was regarded as superior when it came to arts. It is therefore no surprise that for what concerned artistic decoration of buildings many of them were done by artists coming from the Greek area (in the large) and it was mainly name of artists rather than name of engineers that remained in history.

To summarize a bit: names of engineers usually did not remain in history (we do not know any of the people responsible for the project of Colosseum - to comment on Thoriya). We mainly know names of politicians under whose supervision many operas were built. (so, for example, Sesto Giulio Frontino, writing an opera De acqueductus urbis Romae, was more a politician than a technician, magister acquae in the I century b.C, born in Gallia Nerborense, now South of France). Certainly even Greek writers confirms the idea that road and bridges buildings and hydraulic constructions were mainly developed by Romans.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, we know the names of consuls but we do not know who the engineers were. This was the point of my question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ Yes: But as I said many constructions (roads, aqueducts) took place much earlier than the annexion of Greece. The fact that we do not know names of engineers has an explanation (they were just soldiers - it was not the kind of work bringing you to fame). The idea of having engineers working side by side with military forces is innovative for ancient times (no other examples). These 3 reasons to me strongly support the idea that Latins were indeed very good in engineering indipendently of connections with Greeks. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ To summarize, you asked: is it possible that all these engineering marvels were created by the Greek engineers? And the answer is no: many of them were created before and the lack of names of Latin engineers is not a clear sign saying the contrary. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ The word "mile" comes not from "mīles", but from "mīlle passűs", meaning "a thousand paces". $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael a Roman mile was estimated at around 1480 m. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 6:59

Lord Byron once stated, “While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand;/ When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall;/ And when Rome falls- the World.” The Colosseum not only depicted the incredible architectural skill of the Romans but also their superiority to others across the globe. Influencing most of the culture and traditions that have been integrated into our modern society, the Roman Empire is a stimulating model of how a single cultural group could shift the architectural world forever. Although inspired by the Greeks, the Roman style is entirely independent and distinct from all others; the Colosseum is only one of many of their historical masterpieces.

The Romans constructed the first ostentatious stadia. These colossal structures were architecturally unique due to the Romans’ inimitable engineering technique. The Romans used a skill different than that of the Greeks; instead of carving large masses of stone, the Romans had successfully implemented pouring concrete for their designs. One of the most world-renowned structures and most visited attractions in Italy is the Colosseum, attracting an astounding four and a half million tourists a year. Standing at a height of approximately 45 meters, with respected dimensions of 189 meters by 156 meters, the name is only fitting for this enormous structure (Claridge 1998). Vespasian; the Roman emperor ruling at the time, had commenced its construction in approximately 69 AD near the lake of Nero’s Domus Aurea which took approximately ten years to complete (Claridge 1998). This was a remarkably rapid construction, considering the limited technology that the Romans had access to.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know who were the engineers who built it? I don't. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko for me it's a research topic, I'll tell you after some research work $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko what is your point of view towards roman engineering? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have a point of view. What I have is a conjecture stated in my question. With some not very strong supporting evidence. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko absolutely right, that's why it is still research topic for us $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 3:38

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