Steampunk Rome II: The Industrial Revolution That Didn’t Happen (And Why Not) – Roman History

So why didn’t Rome undergo an industrial revolution? Today, we take a look at some of the contributing factors for 18th-century Britain and see how Rome stacks up.

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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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5 thoughts on “Steampunk Rome II: The Industrial Revolution That Didn’t Happen (And Why Not) – Roman History

  1. Great show as always but a couple of thoughts about this one.

    First Slavery: The British Empire of the 18th century was also a slave based empire too. Sure the UK itself didn’t have slavery but its colonies in North America and the Caribbean certainly did have them. In fact, they weren’t freed until 1833; still the British textile mills knew exactly whom they were buying from when they bought American cotton.

    Second Transportation: I would argue that in terms of seafaring the British far surpassed the Romans. The British merchant ships could sail in just about any ocean and by the 18th century have a reasonable expectation that they’d arrive safely. This gave the British trading empire a longer reach than anything the Romans could grasp – the British were trading directly with the Americas, West Africa, the Chinese, Indians etc. It also resulted in another financial innovation you didn’t mention: insurance. Your shipping company could buy a policy and have some peace of mind that if your ship sank in transit you’d recoup some of your losses.

    Third Agriculture: European agriculture in the 18th century became even more efficient thanks to the introduction of many new world crops. The potato especially could be grown in many areas not previously suitable for grain agriculture. Granted European potato cultivation really took of in the 19th century but this was a far more efficient source of calories that could be grown relatively cheaply.

    Fourth Theory of Progress: The issue isn’t whether or not the Greeks admired engineers or craftsmen, rather, it’s whether or not they believed that things would be different in the future than the present and that technology would be the reason things are so different. I can remember reading some quotes by Thomas Jefferson discussing railroads and steam power where he points out that it’s probably the first time in centuries that there has been a significant change in the way people do things. Such theories were starting to gain traction in the 18th and 19th centuries, in addition to other radical ideas like republicanism, freedom of religion, or that there are way more than four elements and water isn’t one of them. The idea that technology will create a substantially different tomorrow than today is an idea that basically underpins the whole concept of modernity. I’m not quite sure there are any sources where the Romans took that view.

    1. Hi Jason. All very good point. We probably framed things a bit awkwardly around those particular issues. I don’t disagree with anything here, and the point about the potato is an interesting one I hadn’t thought of. Thanks!

  2. One of the problems with Roman industry is that resources have to be relatively close together to start things off. Also there has to be a vibrant trade economy so that the benefits of steam power outweigh the cost of steam power. Also there has to be long term stability to allow a relatively inefficient steam technology to evolve into something better. All of these factors have to come into play.

    Unfortunately these factors didn’t happen simulataneously for Rome. The Mediterranean was relatively poor in available resources and far apart from each other. South western Britain where our industrial revolution began was far away from major trade routes. Germania (ie: the Rhur valley) was what you would consider a militarized zone, one step away from invasion or rebellion. Rome itself is filled with wealthy elite and impoverished masses and very little prosperous middle class to buy the goods your industry provides.

    The one place that could have had all of the factors in place (Raw material, vibrant trade, wealthy middle class, manufacturing base) was the Gallic city of Lugdunum (Lyon France). Unfortunately the notorious political stability of the Empire struck at the wrong time. The Battle of Lugdunum took place in 197 AD. Lugdunum never fully recovered from the devastation of this battle and a starting point for an industrial revolution never had the time to develop.

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