Steampunk Rome I: An Ancient Industrial Revolution (Almost) – Roman History

For our final series, we’re doing the steam technology of the ancient world that died and had to be resurrected in 18th-century Europe. How close was Rome to being able to construct a working steam locomotive? That may sound silly, but you won’t think so after this episode!

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Custom map of Rome by Adam McKithern. Music by Rachel Westhoff. Maps, pics, references and more at

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Time/place: The Roman Empire, 10-70 CE

Dead Idea: Ancient Steam Technology

Co-host: Andre Sólo

Custom-generated map of alternate history Rome by Adam McKithern

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent, 117 CE

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6 thoughts on “Steampunk Rome I: An Ancient Industrial Revolution (Almost) – Roman History

  1. Excellent presentation! A lot of ancient Roman history seems to focus on the city of Rome only. Other cities and areas are discussed only when they involve war. As a result we are exposed to a Roman attitude towards technology that applies to the elite and wealthy of the City of Rome. People who got their wealth and power by violence, conquest and enslavement of others. That attitude is definitely hostile to advancement and change. As Tyrion of GOT says “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor.”

    However the empire was largely economic in nature. Many other cities made their living through industry and trade. One in particular was Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) right on the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers. This city was a critical node for trade between the interior of Gaul and Germania and the Mediterranean, serviced by slow moving wind and oar driven barges. To the southwest was the Loire coal mining basin and to the northwest was the Chessy-les-Mines area rich in copper and zinc. Iron ore was also available. An ideal point for an industrial revolution and the beginning of steam power.

    In fact the slow pace of human, wind and animal powered transport in that area literally begged for something faster. The first vehicles powered by steam power were river boats and they used low pressure steam, well within the capability of Roman Technology. Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans in 1783 successfully tested a steamship on the river Saône using machinery that would have been perfectly understandable to a Roman engineer.

    1. Glad you liked it! That’s very interesting, especially about the center of Lugdunum. Do you have some academic training in this, or just a self-taught history lover like me?

      1. Sorry this response is late. Anyway I’m just interested in alternate history. But as an engineer I love to imagine those critical nodes of history where things could change and technology that could change it.

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