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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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5 out of 5
145 Reviews
99% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1132
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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
  • 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

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 145.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Appreciate the ancient structures you visit during I bought the DVR course before digital downloads, but lost it. Had to have it, so I got the digital download as a replacement. It's that good a course!
Date published: 2017-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful display of ancient technology This course is presented by Professor Stephen Ressler, a retired Brigadier General in the US Army Corps of Engineers who taught at the Military Academy at West Point for twenty-four years. He traces the use and application of technology in buildings, roads, and ships in the Greek and Roman period, showing how they were constructed, used, and modified based upon the technologies of the day. Although not directly related to Scripture (my field of study), this course provided fascinating background to the world of the Bible, the buildings that existed in the cities the apostles visited, the boats that Paul sailed in and the roads he walked upon. It was continually interesting, and the models he made were brilliant illustrations of his point. (And the "outtakes" at the end were hilarious!. He and the film crew must have had a lot of fun doing this).
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now that's (educational) entertaintment! I'm coming to the last couple of lectures, and I'm sad for it to end. Ressler has been an excellent lecturer, but what I really have liked are the visuals, including the photos, computer graphics, and especially the models! A lot of work must have gone into building all those models. Of course, the prof lectured about the impressive Pantheon, which I have visited. A fascinating new thing I learned about was the flat arch. And the Roman ram tortoise siege machine! And many more ancient engineering marvels. I've been interested in Greek and Roman history for a long time, and this course on the engineering aspect really adds to that history.
Date published: 2017-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science and History in one! This is an absolutely fascinating course. My kids loved it, though they hung in suspense, waiting to see the catapult fired. I have one kid, who is particularly interested in ancient history and this course inspired her to also learn science!
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinarily informative and organized. Prof. Ressler has done an amazing job of illustrating his presentation with models and graphics that must have taken considerable time and ingenuity to create. Based on these clear examples he is able to link the technology of the ancient world to wider developments in civilization and thought. He clearly loves this work, and that element of warmth and interest permeates the entire presentation. The result is an engaging and informative course that goes a long way in illuminating the impressive achievements of the ancient world, achievements that form the foundation for the world we live in today. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the classical world and its contributions, or in technology in general.
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worthwhile A carefully constructed series of video lectures by a very knowledgeable speaker. It has greatly changed my perspective of that period in history. An enjoyable experience for me.
Date published: 2017-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How did they do that? I've just finished this course and can't praise it enough. Professor Ressler has an almost magical ability to clearly explain how things work, not just the mechanics of them but why certain things happen. The computer graphics that support the course are excellent but Professor Ressler's models are simply brilliant. You don't need an understand of math or physics as he clearly shows you, i.e. what happens when a structure fails and why it fails. His knowledge of his subject is vast and his enthusiasm when explaining it is contagious. He is a truly inspirational teacher. I did this course along side a couple of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): The Archaeology of Portus and Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City. The MOOCs were great but Professor Ressler explanations of Roman technology made them so much better. As a result, I've now bought several more courses by TGC covering this period of history. I enjoyed this course so much that I've now bought Professor Ressler's other courses: Understanding the World's Greatest Structures and Everyday Engineering. I just wish TGC offered courses by Professor Ressler covering the period between the Romans and today. I'd love to do courses by him explaining the technology of the Medieval period (including castles) and the Industrial Revolution as I know they would help me understand these periods better when I start studying them. Whilst writing this review, I had another idea. It would be truly wonderful if TGC and Professor Ressler could also develop a course that explained how all of the major technological advances (from all periods of history and all regions of the world) actually worked.
Date published: 2017-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned so much I bought the dvd set so I could have the book but used the video streaming exclusively. It was nice to be able to watch lectures on my idpad or iphone. The professor is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject matter. I was a little apprehensive that it would be too technical but Professor Ressler explained it very well so anyone could understand the material. This course gives a great overview of some of antiquities greatest technology...I was not disappointed and found I wished there were more lectures.
Date published: 2017-05-07
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