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Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon

Professor Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point

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Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon

Course No. 1132
Professor Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point
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Course Overview

Famed for great thinkers, poets, artists, and leaders, ancient Greece and Rome were also home to some of the most creative engineers who ever lived. Many of their feats have survived; others have disappeared into the mists of time. But modern research is shedding new light on these renowned wonders—impressive buildings, infrastructure systems, and machines that were profoundly important in their own day and have had a lasting impact on the development of civilization.

The glories of ancient Greek and Roman engineering include these iconic buildings:

  • The Greek Parthenon: Arguably the most aesthetically pleasing structure ever built, the Parthenon achieves this effect through astonishing precision in its architectural plan and stone masonry construction.
  • The Roman Colosseum: This ingeniously designed, mammoth arena represents a grand compromise between traditional stone masonry and a revolutionary construction method incorporating brick and concrete.
  • The Roman Pantheon: The ancient world’s most ambitious engineering achievement, the Pantheon is known for its cast concrete dome that has never been equaled in beauty or construction ingenuity.

Also on the list of impressive achievements are ancient technologies that you use every day:

  • Roads: Networks of well-drained, hard-surfaced roads are a legacy of the Romans, who even installed curbs, wide shoulders, and periodic steps to aid travelers in mounting horses or carriages.
  • Water systems: Large-scale systems for supplying clean water and drains for carrying away wastewater were also developed by the Romans, whose aqueducts and sewers transformed urban life.
  • Pumps: The Greeks and Romans invented a variety of techniques to move water. One, Archimedes’ screw, remains in widespread use today in devices from combine harvesters to snowblowers.

These and many other developments grew out of the same conditions that produced new political institutions, stunning sculptures, outstanding literary works, and empires that constituted much of the known world. In such a climate, is it any wonder that technology also flourished? Yet the engineering exploits of the Greeks and Romans are not as celebrated as they deserve to be, and they have been long discounted by some historians. However, new discoveries combined with a reevaluation of evidence show just how clever our ancient ancestors were.

In 24 lavishly illustrated lectures, Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon gives you an in-depth appreciation for what the Greeks and Romans achieved and how they did it. Your guide is Dr. Stephen Ressler, a former professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a civil engineer, and a nationally honored leader in engineering education.

A Golden Age of Engineering

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology is a fascinating introduction to basic engineering principles and the science behind them. The course also gives a new perspective on one of the most productive periods in the history of civilization: classical antiquity. In case after case, you will find that engineering solutions reached during this era would not be surpassed for another thousand years or more.

These lectures are also ideal preparation for anyone planning to visit Greek or Roman sites. Even ancient building rubble is captivating if you know what to look for: tool marks, holes for joining pegs, projections used for lifting, and other signs that tell the purpose of a particular block of stone. Professor Ressler describes a field trip to an archaeological site in Turkey, where one of his students noticed chiseled Greek letters on foundation stones—markers that were clearly used to place the stones in their correct positions.

Clue by clue, Professor Ressler assembles a detailed picture of how ancient engineers went about their work. First you learn about the building materials available in antiquity and their strengths and weakness under different loads. Then you proceed to the three major sections of the course, which cover structures, infrastructure, and machines. Here is a taste of what you will learn:

  • Concrete: The versatility of form and composition of concrete made possible enormous structures and efficient new architectural forms in Rome’s awe-inspiring building program. Professor Ressler demonstrates the role of concrete in a sturdy Roman wall.
  • Cranes: Trajan’s Column in Rome consists of marble drums weighing as much as 60 tons each. How were they lifted into place? Professor Ressler shows how cranes powered only by human muscles were up to the job.
  • Catapults: Engineers improved catapults over a period of 700 years, developing new ways to store energy and propel a heavy projectile to its target. Innovations associated with this weapon include the universal joint, now used in automobiles.
  • Triremes: Professor Ressler’s favorite piece of ancient technology is the trireme, the racehorse of Greek warships, with three banks of oars and a bronze ram. Details of its design and construction were long uncertain—until 20th-century enthusiasts decided to build one.
  • Lead pipes: One of the many theories explaining the fall of Rome blames chronic lead poisoning from lead pipes used in water systems. But Professor Ressler explains why this idea does not “hold water.”
  • Slaves: A widespread theory contends that the Greeks and Romans had no incentive to develop labor-saving machines because of their access to slaves. But Professor Ressler proves that many ancient projects would not have been possible without unprecedented technology.
  • Get inside the Classical Mind

    An engineer in the mold of his versatile predecessors in antiquity, Professor Ressler not only created all of the physical models used in this course but most of the computer models as well. Unlike off-the-shelf graphics, these animations are tailor-made to answer specific questions in the lectures, deepening your understanding of how ancient engineers worked and giving you a realistic picture of ancient problem solving in action.

    Understanding Greek and Roman Technology opens with a thought-provoking lesson. In 480 B.C., Greek naval forces decisively defeated the invading Persian armada at the Battle of Salamis, thanks to the Greeks’ superior deployment of technology. The Greeks maximized the performance of their trireme warships to overcome a Persian advantage of 3 to 1. Had they not achieved this crucial edge, they surely would have lost, halting the growth of classical civilization before it could spread. What better demonstration of the influence of technology on the course of human events!

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2013
  • 1
    Technology in the Classical World
    Begin your exploration of ancient Greek and Roman engineering by probing the technological edge that allowed the Greeks to beat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Then survey the aims of the course and preview an impressive piece of technology that you will encounter in a later lecture. x
  • 2
    The Substance of Technology—Materials
    Study the engineering materials available in classical antiquity. First look at the simple physics of compression and tension. Then consider six specific materials: stone, wood, clay, copper, bronze, and iron. Examine how they came into use and how their properties influenced the design of technological systems. x
  • 3
    From Quarry to Temple—Building in Stone
    Gain a deeper appreciation for the ancient world’s most important construction material by following a block of stone from a quarry to its final resting place in the wall of a Greek temple. Learn how stone blocks were extracted from solid bedrock, moved many miles, and then fitted together without mortar. x
  • 4
    Stone Masonry Perfected—The Greek Temple
    Focus on the classical-era temple, one of the crowning achievements of Hellenic civilization. Where did it originate? Why are the many examples so architecturally consistent? What were the principles of Greek temple design? And what were its structural limitations? x
  • 5
    From Temple to Basilica—Timber Roof Systems
    No wooden roof of a Greek temple has survived from antiquity, yet we can surmise a great deal about how these impressive structures were engineered. Trace how Greek and later Roman architects covered large interior spaces with increasingly sophisticated timber roof systems. x
  • 6
    Construction Revolution—Arches and Concrete
    Learn how the physics of the arch solves the problem of the tensile weakness of stone. Then see how standard bricks and concrete greatly simplify and reduce the cost of monumental building. These technologies were the key to Rome’s construction revolution. x
  • 7
    Construction in Transition—The Colosseum
    Built in the A.D. 70s, the Colosseum reflects a transitional period of Roman building technology. Follow the construction of this mammoth arena from the ground up. Begin with the geometry of the building. Then focus on its blend of traditional and state-of-the-art construction techniques. x
  • 8
    The Genesis of a New Imperial Architecture
    Focus on two structures—Nero’s Golden House and Trajan’s Market—which are emblematic of Rome’s bold new imperial architecture during the 1st and early 2nd centuries. These buildings feature complex vaulted and domed structures, asymmetrical floor plans, and striking interior spaces. x
  • 9
    The Most Celebrated Edifice—The Pantheon
    Conclude your study of great classical-era structures by examining the greatest of them all: the Pantheon in Rome. Imitated but never equaled, this temple to all the gods incorporates Greek as well as quintessentially Roman architectural features. The stupendous dome is a work of engineering genius. x
  • 10
    Cities by Design—The Rise of Urban Planning
    Start a series of lectures on infrastructure in the classical world with a look at city planning. The Piraeus in Greece was an influential early example. Analyze the Roman approach to creating a rational order for their cities. Also learn the Roman technique for surveying a city plan. x
  • 11
    Connecting the Empire—Roads and Bridges
    At its height, the Roman Empire had 75,000 miles of public roads, organized into a system that incorporated way-stations, milestones, triumphal arches, and upward of 1,000 bridges. Investigate how the Romans created this impressive transportation network, parts of which have survived for 2,000 years. x
  • 12
    From Source to City—Water Supply Systems
    Delve into the history of water supply technologies. The Greeks solved the problem of transporting water across deep valleys by building inverted siphons. By contrast, the Romans preferred to use arcaded aqueduct bridges whenever possible. Why was this apparently extravagant technique often more practical? x
  • 13
    Engineering a Roman Aqueduct
    Design an aqueduct for a hypothetical Roman town. First identify a water source. Then consider its elevation and distance to the town, the possible terrain profiles for a channel, and the appropriate type of aqueduct. Conclude by examining the complex system that supplied plentiful water to Rome. x
  • 14
    Go with the Flow—Urban Water Distribution
    Trace the flow of water through a major city such as Rome—from the aqueduct to water towers, public fountains, buildings and private residences, and ultimately to sewers. Among the questions you consider: Did the widespread use of lead pipes create a lead poisoning hazard? x
  • 15
    Paradigm and Paragon—Imperial Roman Baths
    Complete your exploration of classical-era infrastructure by exploring one of the ancient world’s finest examples of an engineered system: the imperial Roman baths. Focus on the magnificent Baths of Caracalla, finished in A.D. 235, by spotlighting the major steps in its five-year construction. x
  • 16
    Harnessing Animal Power—Land Transportation
    Begin a sequence of eight lectures on machines in the ancient world. After an introduction to the simple machines described by the Greeks, focus on land transport employing the wheel and axle. Discover that wagon technology reached a high level of sophistication in the Roman Empire. x
  • 17
    Leveraging Human Power—Construction Cranes
    How were giant stone blocks lifted using only muscle power? Examine the technology of classical-era cranes, breaking down their components to understand how they provided significant mechanical advantage. Close with a theory on the construction technique used to stack the massive marble drums of Trajan’s Column in Rome. x
  • 18
    Lifting Water with Human Power
    In antiquity, water pumps were extensively used in ships, mines, and agriculture. Investigate how these devices worked. From Archimedes’ screw, to the waterwheel, to the piston pump, each had tradeoffs between flow rate, height of lift, and muscle power required. x
  • 19
    Milling Grain with Water Power
    By the 1st century A.D., waterwheels were widely used for grinding grain throughout the ancient world. Explore three different types of waterwheels that were perfected by the Romans: the undershot wheel, the overshot wheel, and the vertical-shaft wheel, each with its advantages and disadvantages. x
  • 20
    Machines at War—Siege Towers and Rams
    Focus on the ancient world’s most technologically intensive form of warfare—the siege—which provided a powerful stimulus for the development of large-scale machines such as siege towers and rams. Analyze several famous sieges, including the Roman attack on Jotapata during the Jewish War. x
  • 21
    Machines at War—Evolution of the Catapult
    Trace the evolution of the catapult, which overcomes the inherent human physiological limitations associated with the bow and arrow. From hand-operated crossbows, catapults progressed to giant artillery pieces able to shoot enormous arrows and hurl heavy projectiles. Revisit a type of catapult called the palintone from Lecture 1, and watch it in action. x
  • 22
    Machines at Sea—Ancient Ships
    Spurred by their dependence on maritime trade, the ancient Greeks became masters of nautical engineering. Follow the development of their ship design and sailing techniques, which were adopted by the Romans and paved the way for the great age of exploration in the 15th century. x
  • 23
    Reconstructing the Greek Trireme
    The trireme, a swift warship with three banks of oars, ruled the Mediterranean Sea in the 5th century B.C., when the Athenian empire was at its height. Yet only sparse evidence remains for what these vessels were like. Follow a detailed reconstruction based on tantalizing clues. x
  • 24
    The Modern Legacy of Ancient Technology
    Finish the course by exploring the legacy of classical-era technology, discovering that its influence is everywhere. From roads, aqueducts, and planned cities, to structural trusses, concrete, and the classical architectural style, the fruits of Greek and Roman engineering play a vital role in the modern world. x

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Your professor

Stephen Ressler

About Your Professor

Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point
Dr. Stephen Ressler is Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). A registered Professional Engineer in Virginia, he earned a B.S. from West Point and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University, as well as a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Professor Ressler's papers on...
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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by 124 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by On a Scale of 1 to 5, This Course Is a 6 I can’t recommend this course enthusiastically enough. Professor Ressler already did a great job with his first course, Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures, but he outdoes himself here. He comes back to buildings, of course, but now also examines ships, large-scale weapons, urban planning, aqueducts, sewers and construction equipment. Once again he demonstrates engineering principles with desktop models, whether arches, cranes or battering rams. You learn in Lecture 2 that chalk sticks have far less tolerance for tension than compression. In Lecture 6 he pours concrete and lets it dry. In the first lecture he shows off—strictly as a teaser--a spring-operated catapult called a palintone with a ping pong ball as the projectile, but he refuses to shoot it, forcing the viewer to wait until Lecture 21 to see it in operation. The fiend! He also supplies many animations, showing for example how the Temple of Concordia at Agrigentum was put together (Lecture 4) and how the Romans built the Baths of Caracalla (Lecture 15). In my favorite animation (Lecture 10), Ressler puts himself into a computer-generated field to show how Roman surveyors would use a groma with plum lines to lay out the street grid of a new town. Ressler’s lecture technique, sometimes a bit hesitant in the previous course, is just about flawless here. The course asks and answers three big questions. How was it built? How did it work? And more to the point for the history of technology, what was the broader social and political context for its development? It also pushes back against the notion that the classical era was one of technological stagnation. It’s true that the Greeks and Romans invented few new things (the screw, the water wheel and concrete) to what they learned from others, but they were very creative at finding new applications for existing inventions. An easy example is the Romans’ use of the arch in basilicas, baths and temples, and eventually churches. Both peoples diffused their technologies widely, ensuring their survival through the Dark Ages in the West and the Islamic conquest in the East. Scholars of the past claimed that slavery discouraged innovation, but Ressler dismisses this view as overstated. To lift a ten thousand-pound column drum without machinery, for example, one would have to employ a hundred slaves, each able to lift a hundred pounds; it can’t be done. According to new research, the Romans were also quite familiar with the water mill and the horse collar; medieval historians will have to revise the thesis that these inventions help explain growing rural production and population in the West from 950 to 1300. As in the previous course, Ressler displays an occasional puckish sense of humor. At the end of each disk are clips of a couple of bloopers. In one of them he badly misses shooting a target with bow and arrow, and then remarks to the film crew, “As an archer I make a pretty good engineer.” Okay, so he’s a bad archer, but he’s a great teacher. March 15, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Absolutely Fascinating; Superbly Taught Not much to add. This fully deserves its 100% recommendation tally, which I've never seen before with a substantial number of reviewers. One of TGC's best courses. Ancient civil engineering has never been an area of particular interest to me, so I put off watching for a while, but once I started . . . The material described, both intellectual and physical, is completely fascinating, and it is beautifully woven into the fabric of ancient Greek and Roman history, art, and architecture, as well as - of course - warfare. Professor Ressler is remarkable. His boundless enthusiasm is fortunately matched by his knowledge, his organization, his straightforward eloquence, and his ability to explain a technical field in a way that is engaging, comprehensible, and actually makes you want to learn more. And his physical models and computer simulations are wonderful. This course has my highest recommendation for anyone with any intellectual curiosity, even if you don't have a prior interest in the subject. And, as a side benefit, it provides a deep appreciation for the extraordinary technical and engineering imagination and achievements of those who lived millenia ago. Enjoy. May 21, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Six Stars, Please! This course is a beautiful examination of Greek and Roman technology with a great transition into modern architecture and building technology. Never have I learned so much in one course. Dr. Ressler's physical and computer models make learning challenging engineering concepts fun and interesting. I can't say enough about how wonderful this course is. As a professor, I took away many ideas for teaching as well as learning about the technology. The end of the course was great - watch until the credits are done! January 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Highly Informative, Useful and Entertaining As a tech-challenged liberal arts graduate who once considered engineering an alien subject, I initially absorbed Dr. Ressler’s course on “Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures” and marveled at his extraordinary skill in explaining seemingly complex engineering principles in simple terms for his mostly lay audience. When I saw his latest effort, “Understanding Greek and Roman Technology” advertised, I immediately chose the video download and watched all 24 lectures streaming on my iPad over the Christmas holiday, a viewing mode, by the way, that I highly recommend. Being an aficionado of the classical world, I was enthralled with the subject matter and fascinated by the professor’s explanations of ancient technologies. His super clear narrative is accompanied by two types of supporting models: small physical models of wood, metal and glass that he made himself, demonstrating how these devices were created and actually worked in antiquity; and secondly, highly sophisticated computer-generated models of more complex structures that show in detail how ancient engineers ingeniously designed and manufactured various machines to solve problems ranging from enhanced means of warfare to monumental construction to agricultural irrigation. While every single lecture offers fascinating insights into ancient technology, my favorites are his superb treatment of the construction complexities involved in the Roman Pantheon (lecture 9), Trajan’s Column (lecture 17) and the Greek Trireme (lecture 23). This course on ancient technology is, in my opinion, especially in combination with Dr. Ressler’s earlier course on engineering structures, among the very best of the “Great Courses”, in terms not just of personal enjoyment, but also in providing a valuable basic understanding of a multitude of human-engineered structures both large and small, ancient and modern. January 1, 2014
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