Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 1): evidence that Ancient Rome was a pre-industrial society

Garrett Ryan, “Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 1)” (Toldinstone, 26 February 2022)

This video and its second part could have been combined into one exploring and explaining why the Roman Empire never experienced an Industrial Revolution on the scale that took off in Britain in the late 1700s / early 1800s and spread to continental Europe. On the other hand, such a video, longer and self-contained, would have had to cut out the entertaining story about the Roman noble who invented a steam-powered engine that generated vibrations in a building he shared with an annoying neighbour that introduces this first part which looks at the potential the Roman Empire had for large-scale industrialisation and manufacturing. Dr Ryan firstly dispels modern myths and stereotypes about Roman society that argue that Roman culture and technology discouraged the use of labour-saving devices. In particular, Dr Ryan points out that the Romans were keen on opportunities for making profit – and the technology that enabled such opportunities – as exemplified by the dense trade networks within the empire and between it and other cultures, and that the institution of slavery was a costly investment for large landowners who would have looked favourably on technologies that either gained more output from the slaves they had or dispensed with slave labour entirely if the outputs generated with the technologies justified getting rid of slaves.

After dispensing with the myths, Dr Ryan makes a strong argument for Roman imperial society being on the verge of an Industrial Revolution: mass production in pottery and Roman garum (fish sauce) along with standardisation and the energy and labour systems and facilities needed to support such production was present; mining across the empire was organised on a massive scale; power sources based on water were used; and individual Roman scientists and engineers experimented with using steam to power turbines.

As always with his videos, Dr Ryan argues for the Romans being more innovative and technologically minded than we give them credit for, clearly and succinctly with examples and anecdotes backed by colourful photographs and other visual illustrations. This first part could have been a bit longer and its pacing a bit slower for viewers to savour more fully. There is a sense of a steady escalation towards a climax that will appear in Part 2 and a slower escalation would heighten audience anticipation of that climax.

The presentation is quite sober and not as droll as other videos in the Toldinstone series though the topic of whether Rome could have had an Industrial Revolution has attracted enough attention (and perhaps enough ridicule of Roman society as being too stagnant to have had such a breakthrough) that perhaps more entertaining stories would have made the video appear more facetious than serious.