Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.24

Tracey E. Rihll, Technology and Society in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds. Historical perspectives on technology, society, and culture, 10.   Washington, DC:  American Historical Association; Society for the History of Technology, 2013.  Pp. ix, 92.  ISBN 9780872292017.  $15.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Milo Nikolic, Memorial University of Newfoundland (

Table of Contents

This compact booklet is part of the series “Historical Perspectives on Technology, Society, and Culture” whose ten titles (to date) cover a broad chronological and geographical range (e.g. classical antiquity, Ming China, Ottoman Empire, military-industrial complex). The series aims to “address technology in its social and cultural context” and is directed at instructors in high school, college, and university (vii). The approach is laudable and fits well within the research focus on the interaction between ancient technology and society that has been growing strongly as a sub-field of Classical Studies over the past two decades. It is inexpensive and a quick read that should appeal to those who are looking for a fast overview of the topic.

In spite of the low price, the production is decent, and the volume is richly illustrated with 56 colour photographs, one line drawing, and two maps in colour. Of those, only the quality of the maps is insufficient, due to the reduced size necessary to fit the format of the volume. The photos in general are well produced and, although small, serve their intended purpose.

An introduction that sets out the rationale for the author’s selection of topics is followed by chapters on ancient economic productivity and growth, food production, preservation, and distribution, water collection and distribution, building construction, textile production, and mining and metallurgy. A conclusion and a bibliographic essay round the volume off. The selection of topics works well within the stated goal of presenting technologies that are “culturally critical” (1). The idea behind it is sound, and the selection of material covers good and relevant ground.

There are a number of small infelicities that more thorough editing would have caught. While some of these issues may have resulted from the exigencies of the compact format and the intended audience, the unevenness in tone and quality makes it appear as if material had been added at the very last minute.1 A few examples stand out.

In some instances, the author asks the reader to take leaps of faith, e.g. by stating that the physical mobility of artisans in classical antiquity was high because “a significant proportion of them” were slaves (11). Would free artisans not also have had mobility? Furthermore, it is unclear how the fact that streets in Greek cities frequently contained flights of stairs supports the assertion that Roman overland trade used porters and pack animals “probably more” than wagons and carts (21-2). Likewise, information that wet nurses in early modern Spain were suckling animals in order to prolong lactation is, at best, a tenuous basis for the assumption that the same happened also in classical antiquity (19). Soranus (Gyn. 2.12) does, in fact, seem to imply that wet nurses suckled animals, albeit in order to extract excess milk, but Rihll does not mention this passage when it would be most appropriate.

At times, Rihll overlooks sources. She writes that “we think” digging tunnels by having individual teams work in opposite directions was unusual (32; who is “we?”) when, in fact, all qanats and most long Greek and Roman tunnels were built in that manner.2 Finally, the text presents Vitruvius’ description of a castellum divisorium at face value, while the divergent surviving examples at Pompeii and Nîmes receive only a side note (“[…] though reality as attested in the archaeology is more variable”) and remain without reference to scholarly articles (33).3

Some passages are very thoroughly referenced4 while other pieces of information are unreferenced. The mention of the “earliest surviving apprentice contract” would have benefited from a reference (14) as well as the detailed description of number, size, and surface lining of cisterns in the Lauriotike (30). Likewise, there is no reference pointing to secondary information about the house of Simon the Cobbler in the Athenian Agora (42) and none for the assertion that the gold plate on the cult statue of Athena in the Parthenon had been removed several times (60). The discussion of Roman concrete does not have a single reference to the extensive material published by Oleson et al. (45).5 One might ask whether detailed references are necessary in a work that addresses lay audiences. My quibble is primarily that once an editorial decision about the detail of referencing has been made, it should be carried through consistently.

There are other small problems, such as the jumping back and forth between the metric system and imperial units for lengths and volumes, the outdated and incomplete bibliography presented in the Bibliographic Essay6 and the fact that Vitruvius’ text is variously cited by its English and Latin title (De architectura on pp. 48 and 52, On architecture everywhere else).7

Nonetheless, despite its few problems, the work provides an interesting and largely reliable introduction to ancient technology for a high-school or first-year university audience. It packs a strong punch in a slim format at a decent price.


1.   According to the notes, some of the websites that serve as references have been accessed as late as mid-January 2013, while the listed publication date of the book is March 1, 2013.
2.   Hodge, A. T. (2002). Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth) pp. 20ff; Grewe, K. (1998). Licht am Ende des Tunnels. Planung und Trassierung im antiken Tunnelbau (Darmstadt: von Zabern).
3.   For example, Kessener, P. (2005) “Reflections on the Pompeian castellum divisorium.” in S. Mols, E. M. Moormann (eds.), Omni pede stare. Saggi architettonici e circumvesuviani in memoriam Jos de Waele. Electa Napoli and Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali; Hodge (above n. 2), pp. 279ff; Kessener, P. (1995) “The entrance of the castellum divisorium at Nîmes.” BABesch, pp. 179-191.
4.   For example, the list of Greek and Roman contributions to modern technology is heavily peppered with close to 40 references on a mere half page of text (15).
5.   See the bibliography at Roman Maritime Concrete Study (ROMACONS). Incidentally, the reference to reinforced concrete as a Roman contribution points to a chapter by Janet DeLaine in which she specifically asks why the Romans did not employ reinforced concrete in spite of their familiarity with all ancillary technologies: “Why, then, did the Romans not take the simple step forward and create true reinforced concrete?” DeLaine, J., (2007), “The cost of creation: technology at the service of construction.” in E. Lo Cascio (ed.), Innovazione tecnica e progresso economico nel mondo romano (Bari: Edipuglia) p. 245.
6.   For example, Rihll references the 1991 edition of Hodge’s Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply, although a second edition has been available since 2002.
7.   The book suffers from a handful of typographical, syntactical, and grammatical errors, e.g, figure caption to Fig. 6, chapter 6 (61) “to make sturdy stool when unpacked”.

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