How important were technological innovations in shaping the buildings of ancient Roman and medieval cities
Chant holds that ‘historians have often charged the Romans with a lack of technological creativity’ (Textbook, Chapter 3, p85) so with that as a base it would be very easy to conclude that the simple answer, at least with regard to Rome, was not at all. In order to assess the importance of technology I believe that it is necessary to look beyond at other possible influences in order to assess how they may have influenced and shaped matters.
It is noticeable that the majority of major population centres were close to navigable waterways, so in one respect the simple mater of transport technology, and specifically water-based transport, was of particular importance since it was often cheaper and more efficient to move stores by water than by road. That the warehouses’ location generally ‘reflected the importance of water transport’ and were built in such a manner as to deny access with wheeled carts shows how much Roman society relied on manual labour, particularly slaves.
Roman cities tended to be laid out in a grid pattern, much as the Greeks had laid out their own colonies centuries earlier. Any changes to buildings which may have impinged onto the communal space were not permitted unless specifically approved by the authorities-almost a precursor of modern planning restrictions, per say. However, this is in contrast with how the cities of the Islamic-influenced areas came to regard the family as the primary driver and allowed an almost “anything-goes” approach to buildings being extended into the streets.
There can be little doubt that the use of concrete by the Romans allowed for significant strides to be taken with buildings, since they were able to build higher than they could with the existing technology and employ arches in a manner that had hitherto been unseen. Simple physics meant that a concrete arch acted in a similar manner to a stone lintel and created little lateral deflection, thereby negating the need to support the pillars of an arch as had previously been required. Its use also meant that buildings could be constructed more quickly in order to keep pace the Rome’s expansion.
Another major technological advance was the use of bricks-in much of northern Europe wood had been the principle building material, bringing with it many improvements in the way that wood could be worked, including the increased use of the mortise and tenon joint and the development of a new range of carpenter’s tools by the Romans. The importance of this lay in the fact that London, Lubeck and other major cities had all been severely damaged by fire during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the wooden buildings which formed them were razed to the ground.
The introduction of lime mortar in the Muslim Egyptian capital of Fustat allowed buildings to be constructed that were five and more storeys in height and the use of limestone columns gave leant them further strength. This was echoed elsewhere as Goodman states that tall buildings were being created not only out of necessity, to deal with the physical constraints of geography but also as a succour to the vanity of the rich and powerful
Goodman states that Hodges contended that ‘one of the few Roman innovations pf industrial production’ lay in the form of glass blowing, which allowed for windows to be glazed against the elements, as well as for decorative purposes. It also led to the use of double-glazing within bathhouses and encouraged builders to pierce walls in a manner, which had been unheard of earlier.
I believe that it is important to note the effect existing technologies on buildings, both within and without Rome. The availability of water was vital to any city, and the Romans employed aqueducts to transport water vast distances, whilst in contrast many medieval cities were obliged to look elsewhere for their water, employing wells or other sources. Goodman notes that ‘hydraulic technology became a Muslim speciality’ (Reader, p135) and that the discovery of a Roman aqueduct in Seville was ‘the occasion of jubilation’ as it was quickly put to use ‘supplying drinking water for the city’. Elsewhere in ‘Algiers the design of roofs….was influenced by the need to conserve rainwater’ (Reader, p134) as the conventions and beliefs of Islam again bent the needs of the populace
Religion also played an important part in how cities were shaped-much of the area that had fallen under the influence of Rome also fell under the influence of the Roman Christian religion, and churches were at the cutting edge of advances in stone working, with vaulted roofs, higher walls and greater spans than ever before. By contrast in the east of the former Roman Empire, mosques were built and began to take over the roles of many former public buildings, being used not only as places of religion but also as schools, courts and arena of local government in a manner far removed from the sole function of the church as a place of worship. Goodman explains that since all mosques had to face Mecca they were responsible for driving the manufacture and use of scientific instruments, allowing astronomical observation to determine the orientation of the prayer niche
This can be seen to have been a key reason why squares, which had existed around the areas in which the mosques were built, began to be built over, again in contrast to many Christian towns. Furthermore, Kennedy tells us that Muslims believed that ‘the commerce of a city rather than its monumental buildings’ were the chief source of interest (Reader, p98). This can be directly attributed to the fact that the founder of Islam, Muhammad, was a merchant himself.
Religion also played a major role in how the respective societies of the Islamic and Christian worlds developed-Muslims used more water cleaning themselves than they used for drinking and introduced public bathhouses on a scale which was unprecedented
The physical constraints of geography also played a significant role in creating some of the cities of Islam’s twisting streets, as did the walls of other cities within the “western” states, which had been formed as a defensive mechanism and were later used to provide succour to city-dwellers.
In conclusion, whilst technological advances played an important role in shaping the buildings of Roman and medieval cities they were only one factor amongst many, albeit that it might be argued that technological advances were “primus inter pares” in this regard. Indeed, society was in many ways a greater influence than technology itself as is witnessed by the influence of religion in the overall equation. A further example can be seen in how the Roman emperors sought to flaunt their power and influence to ‘demonstrate…their dominion over the rest of the world’ (Goodman; Reader, p95). As Kennedy suggests the ‘changing aspect of the city was determined by long-term social, economic and cultural forces’ all of which was inter-dependent on the other.
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