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August 01, 2010


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Eric F.

Question: You were lamenting that the podcast has become a bit of a history of Rome's emperors. I've also noticed this, and I suppose that it is to some degree unavoidable, but I have a suggestion to add some non-emperor, political, military content. To wit: can you put on a podcast regarding Roman technological advancements? What types of things did Roman society invent, adopt and popularize? Regarding these advancements, when did they occur. Was Roman technological life different in say 200 a.d. relative to 50 b.c.? To the extent that the semi-schooled have ideas about what the Romans accomplished in terms of advancements, we think of roads and acqeducts, but sort of assume that these things cropped up before the time of Caesar and were more or less frozen in place until the empire collapsed centuries afterward. I am curious about general advancements in infrastructure, agriculture, mettalurgy, military science and the like. Just throwing it out there.

Eric F.

By the way, as a Zin fan, you may be interested in some extremely unflattering info about the man that was recently released:


Relatedly, I found your podcast on the stratification of Roman society to be simplistic, probably because of the Marxist orientation. I understand that you had a very wealthy head of the empire and some pretty darn wealthy guys just below. From there you seem to be saying that we had millions of destitute masses, living as little more than beggars. When I visited the ruins at Pompei, I saw what seemed like the remnants of a wealthy merchantile zone. Presumably, this orderly zone had to have been supported by a mass of cash paying customers who had at least some money to rub together. I guess what I'm wondering is whether you vastly oversimplified what life was like for non-senators. I wouldn't trade places with a plebe, but I'm skeptical that once you got past the senatorial class, you had millions living lives of desperate penury.


@Eric F - One gets the idea as Republic shifts to Empire that Wealth, Power and Land become increasingly centralised in the hands of a few, that become an even fewer still. That is to say that the roots of medieval feudalism are to be found in late Roman Latifundia, gigantic estates worked for a noble figure at the top who owned almost everything while the individual workers were free only in name.

As for a "marxist reading of history" well, sorry if the truth hurts, but there were a lot of class conflicts in Roman history. Remember the Gracchus brothers? Not everything was always hunky dory with the Pleb masses.

Eric F.

Andres, I am not asserting that life was grand for the plebes, not at all. I was merely commenting to the effect that there was likely much more to Roman society than a tiny, tiny fraction of wealthy and an overwhelming percentage of the utterly destitute. As for "class conflicts": what would that term explain? The History of Rome seems to think it helps to explain the rise of Christianity. Seems plausible, although on a VERY delayed timeline. Does it explain the eventual success of the barbarians? I don't see how that fits. Was there really any system that could disperse wealth in an ancient world with such a relatively small amount of aggregate wealth in the first place? Beats me. This was a worls without aggregations of capital, without name brands and chain stores and huge manufacturing facilities. Every last bit of the place was small scale compared even relative to England circa 1700. I think it's a challenge to graft a Marxist analysis on every last societal structure throughout history. It strikes me as the equivalent of analyzing an ant colony or a beehive through a Marxist prism. Marx was wrong about 1800, and he is if anything even more wrong about 180.


@Eric F - Good idea that about the technological advancements within the Roman world. There was a wealth of very advanced engineering knowledge that was obviously present within the Roman world, but was then lost for 1,500 odd years until even the present day. Including, but not limited to, water-proof mortars for reservoirs, specialist concretes (think Pantheon dome), an understanding of flow rate within aqueducts, subsidence within building foundations, load-bearing arches, bridges... the list goes on. The question I've always wondered is where was this knowledge was stored, and how was it disseminated? What there an M.I.T. of the ancient world somewhere in Rome?


Eric — regarding Howard Zinn...what information about him did you find unflattering? I realize there are over 400 pages in the FBI file to slog through, I'm just wondering where in those pages (many seem to concern changes of address only) you found the unflattering bits. Any hints? In the 30 or so pages I've read my take-away is that it's unflattering to the FBI — they sure wasted a lot of taxpayer money — but nothing new about Zinn.

The History of Rome has a Marxist orientation? Wha??? That seems like a stretch to me, but maybe I missed something. Could you enlighten me? Maybe the FBI should open on a file on Mike.

Finally, I'm also curious about the evolution of technology over the history of the empire. Just a guess, but I bet the availability of slave labor put a damper on innovation, at least "down on the farm." On the other hand, the many wars and culture clashes probably led to advancements. Certainly in the field of medicine if nothing else. And have you checked out the Antikythera mechanism? Whoa! My guess is that the MIT of the ancient world was in Greece, and the CalTech was in Egypt (or India...or China).


Luise (Tasmania,Australia)

let's not forget the Nebra Sky Disc...

Eric F.

The info on Zinn may not be new to Zinn experts, but it looked new to me. Among the stuff provided under the FOIA request is that he was active in the communist party at a time when Stalin was running the show in the USSR. I find that nauseating, but maybe I'm just behind the times. I grew up during teh cold war days and the drum beat of propaganda as to how wonderful things were behind the iron curtain was absolutely astounding. And the jerks who made these claims never gave an apology or accounting after the wall came down. There's still 15% or so of the country that will talk to you for as long as you let them about how wonderful things are in Cuba.

I think in this day and age it's more likely that the FBI would keep a file on you if you are NOT sufficiently left wing...

I love Mike's podcast and have learned an absolute ton about Rome from them. That said, when he mentioned his affinity for Zinn, I noticed that Zinn's orientation of "class struggle" as explanation for everything influenced a few of his discussions on the organization of Roman society. It's a point of view that I just don't find persuasive.

On technology: Mike has discussed advancements in Roman military tactics (i.e., the two part discussion, "a phalanx with wings" -- although I never did understand why the other guys couldn't just copy that...), but not so much in other areas. I don't know much about the topic and would love to hear more, and again a picture of how things changed over the course of the empire's duration. If I can add another point, the Roman alphabet was different than other written communication systems. Was this advantageous? When was the final form of the alphabet crystalized? Did it matter because much of the population was not literate anyway?

John P

Well Eric ownership of land was the basis of wealth in agricultural societies. With the overwhelming control of land and slave labour by a select few (and it is obvious why that would be so from a market point of view...big farms are more efficient than small ones) there was an overwhelming problem with mass poverty in the Empire. It was a problem they never really beyond free games and the grain dole.

There were things like mercantile trade BUT since the costs of transport prior to rail-roads were enormous so you were really only importing luxury goods to sell to the rich since nothing else would be profitable. That makes for a rather small market to sell to and a low number of people holding jobs like that. All this was well known and discussed before Marx was even born.

But you can see those factors at play all over the pre-industrial world. We never really had to deal with those dynamics as much here in the United States because land was so plentiful and then the Industrial Revolution broke out.

Oh and can we please keep any conspiracy theories about the FBI out of this? Fels was just making a joke.

Eric F.

"Well Eric ownership of land was the basis of wealth in agricultural societies."

I don't see that as being a descriptive statement. Were there any non-agricultural socities in the western world at this time? Why would Rome have a different poverty problem than the Germans or the Parthians?

"Big farms are more efficient than small ones)"

I doubt that was the case back then once you reach a relatively small level of scale. It wasn't as if you had mechanized operations that could usefully take on thousands of acres. Nowadays, there is a clear advantage in applying a tractor over 1,000 acres and not 10, but that's much less clear cut when you are using an ox. The family farm even in this country wasn't truly dead and buried until less than a century ago.

"There were things like mercantile trade BUT since the costs of transport prior to rail-roads were enormous so you were really only importing luxury goods to sell to the rich since nothing else would be profitable. That makes for a rather small market to sell to and a low number of people holding jobs like that."

I understood the wealth of Britian, for example, was in timber and other more mass-consumables. I don't doubt that there was big bucks to be made in moving light objects salable at a huge mark-up, but I don't think the empire's strength was based on moving around baubles for a few people.

Further, Gibbon discusses at length how the barbarians marveled at the prosperity they saw in the Roman lands as they were plucking them clean. Did this somewhat higher tide only raise a few boats, or were the people generally better off? Presumably the people were indeed better off, presumably something societally worthwhile was lost when Rome disintegrated. Otherwise, the fall of Rome is really the slow burning fuse of the liberation of millions of slaves from an emperor and senatorial class. That's not really the story, is it?

All that said, I'm perfectly willing to stipulate that I would NOT want to be a plebe!

Jeff Steen

Was there any kind of coronation or investiture ceremony for the Emperors? I'm guessing that, if there was, it was considered optional, since some of them never went to Rome. If not, was there anything that was considered a definitive, "He is NOW the Official & Legal Emperor" indicator?

Fon Silvers

Mike - Thank you very much for THoR...awesome podcast! I started listening late and just caught up through the 100th episode. You mentioned the possibility of someday writing a book. That someday should be now. Don't wait until you have finished recounting all of Rome's history.

I have experience writing a book (http://www.amazon.com/Building-Maintaining-Data-Warehouse-Silvers/dp/1420064622/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1280973366&sr=1-1). The surprise is that at first you don't write a book. Instead, you write a book proposal. This is the book that helped me write my book proposal (http://www.amazon.com/Nonfiction-Proposals-Anybody-Revised-Updated/dp/039952827X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1280973515&sr=1-4).

Right now you have the A#1 ticket to getting a book published - an audience; and, you have the A#2 ticket - a popular topic. Your writing is on the same par as David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose - precise, accurate and accessible. Anyway, please consider writing and publishing a book on THoR.

Thank you.


HEY loved the inanimate carbon rod reference!! Caught me off gaurd and i about soiled myself! awesome!


I love this cast, but after 100 episodes I still have to struggle with the pronunciation of some names... as a Romance language native speaker "CURR-AH-cula" doesn't sound anywhere close to "Caracalla" to me! The same for "PAR-RHUN-ees" a couple of episodes back... turns out it was meant to be "Perennis"... Mike's Latin is very sui generis... no pun intended.

Here's something of help:



Without question the material condition of Roman society at nearly all levels was far higher than that of the barbarians. There is a revisionist school of history that argues that the barbarian cultures were actually advanced civilizations, despite their illiteracy and inability to build or create anything permanent. This is unpersuasive, to put it mildly.

If you want to get a feel for what life was like in the second century, a great place to start is Jerome Carcopino's classic "Daily Life in Ancient Rome.". Superb scholarship written so that it is easily accessible to the general reader.

Luise (Tasmania, Australia)

I'd like to ask, does one great civilization's inventions and advancements naturally develop in isolation, without the influences from other groups? Though doubtlessly, there were in Rome, inventors and men with original ideas, as the Empire expanded the incorporated folk would surely have added to the collective understanding of how the world works, ideas absorbed and improved on by those Romans with the luxury of time to spend on a given problem, not just fighting for basic subsistence. I'm guessing technology flows between communities, like food influences, language and religious practices. The clincher is having individuals in a society with enough wealth (time and money) to devote their attentions to technology.

Justin Akkerman

Hello Good People,

The distribution of wealth tends to follow a mathematical distribution. This is commonly known as the 80/20 rule. It is also the known as the Zipf distribution.

The distribution of wealth tends to follow the same pattern regardless of government or epoch. It is a very long drop from the one to at the top to the next one down. This drop continues a few ranks and then very quickly levels out for a slow decline that is nearly imperceptible.

The only real question is do the people at the start of the slow decline have enough to "get by"? If they do, they you have a comfortable civilisation. If you don't then times are hard. Regardless, these bottom masses do not hold much of the aggregate wealth.

I make no assertions as to the cause of this distribution. As far as the communist/capitalist struggle goes, I don't have a dog in the fight. I am merely describing the results.

Steve Gad

In response to Agustin's post about Mike's suspect pronunciation of names et all, I don't think Mike is particularly guilty of any crime. Since we can easily access a more detailed account of any given event if we so wish, Mike's Podcasts must be praised as being responsible for an easy to digest introduction, to what could ordinarily be a very laborious undertaking.
I've had a long fascination with ancient Rome, and take Mike's series to be well written and superbly delivered entertainment, rather than a detailed and definitive account.
In Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" series, Dan himself always informs the listener he is simply a "fan of history" rather than the fount of all knowledge, so he can have a little more license with his delivery - albeit brilliantly realised - and is able to challenge the listener a little more, by the very fact that he bends a few rules of convention.
I think Mike should be forgiven for any slight embellishments, funny insights and certainly for pronunciation errors, as the thing is such compelling listening.

Jacob Lyles

For some reason, episodes 103 and 104 are not showing up on iTunes.

Laurence Bachmann

Now on my 110th episode, I have to weigh in. Quoting Dwight K. Shrute to explain the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard is truly inspirid. Really, really, brilliant. There are times I have found this pod too sardonic; other times I thought "why does he sound like Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter everytime he pronounces Marc Aunt-Knee? It's madding!"

But these are small quibbles. The pleasure derived from the vast amount of information assimilated here is considerable, and Mike Duncan has done history buffs a great service pulling it all together. Only a real love of the topic could keep someone slogging through the demands this enterprise imposes. Congratulations and many, many thanks. Very well done.

Larry Bachmann

--and a tip of the cap to Mrs. The History of Rome. She must have the patience of a saint.

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