Roman engineering

Evidence of the brilliance of ancient Roman engineering can still be found all over Europe. Many Roman roads, over 2,000 years old are still used today and architectural marvels such as the Colosseum draw thousands of tourists each year.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Importing Roman Spirituality

This expedition will explore some of the contributions the Romans made to engineering and design.


Aqueducts, a system of providing clean water to an area, already existed in southwest Asia for centuries before the Romans copied the technology. However, Roman engineers worked out how to build them on an unprecedented scale. 

Due to another Roman engineering feat - a city wide sewer system in Rome - the river Tiber was heavily polluted. In order to supply Rome with fresh water Roman engineers designed and constructed these massive aqueducts many of which still stand today.

Providing Water

Roman aqueducts were designed to bring water from distant clean water sources such as mountain springs. The longest aqueducts stretched across almost 100 kilometers. 

Agricultural activities were banned around aqueducts to protect water quality, however side channels were created that benefited agricultural practices. 

Transporting the Water

These aqueducts used gravity to transport water. They required ongoing maintenance to prevent leaks and clear out blockages of sediment. They were built high to ensure adequate gravitational slope and so that the aqueduct could be built on top of any existing structure. 

Supplying the Town

The water passed through a mesh screen for final filtration before being stored in covered reservoirs. The water then supplied fountains, public baths, public latrines (toilets), and even private villas.

Over 500 years 11 aqueducts provided Rome inhabitants with 1 cubic meter of water each.

Roman Architecture

The Romans were prolific builders and many of their great architectural achievements can still be found in cities all over Europe and in some parts of Africa. Their survival over 2,000 years is a testament to the ingenuity of both the materials used and the design. 

The Pantheon

The Pantheon in Rome was built almost 2,000 years ago by Emperor Hadrian, and it is widely thought to be a temple for the gods. This building demonstrates 2 Roman engineering feats - Roman concrete and the use of domes in architecture. 

Building with Concrete

The invention of concrete by the Romans revolutionized buildings. Concrete is light and easily molded into almost any shape, allowing Roman architects to experiment with different building forms.

Roman concrete consisted of three parts: limestone, pieces of rock, and volcanic ash.

The Dome

The Romans wanted a large, open area without columns blocking the space. The dome solved this problem. Made out of concrete, it has carved shapes called coffers which reduces its weight. The Pantheon dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. 

The Colosseum

The Colosseum was designed as a giant entertainment center for the Roman people.  Constructed with stone and concrete, it remains the largest amphitheatre ever built. 

Historians estimate it held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, all whom enjoyed entertainment such as gladiatorial battles, battles between men and wild animals, executions, and even staged naval battles. 


Added almost 30 years after the Colosseum first opened, the hypogeum featured several technological advances. The series of underground chambers covering 6 acres served a wide variety of purposes. 

Spanning 2 levels, it was used to store props, house slaves, and keep wild animals. 

Wild Animals in the Colosseum

The popularity of wild animals in the Colosseum destroyed populations of African animals. Hippopotamus disappeared from the Nile and according to some sources, the Northern African elephant went extinct.

During the first 100 days of the Colosseum’s opening, over 9,000 animals were killed.


The best seats facing North and South were reserved for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins. The other seats in a tiered arrangement reflected the rigid class structure of Roman society, with Senators closest to the arena, and ordinary citizens at the top, furthest away.

Roman Military Engineering

The Roman army was the most sophisticated and well trained army of the ancient world. Although the majority of soldiers rarely saw enemy action, the Emperors used these men wisely by ordering them to build roads, perform general policing duties, and carry out other tasks to keep them fighting fit.

A life of a soldier was extremely well paid and after 20 years service a soldier could retire with the equivalent of 13 years pay.


After a day of marching, a Roman legion would set up a fortified camp. Every camp used the same design, meaning each soldier knew where everything was no matter what legion he was in and messengers could deliver their communications to the correct place quickly. 


After the Romans conquered the Greek state, they began to adopt and modify Greek technologies, including military devices. The torsion powered ballista used tensioned animal sinew to fire projectiles with great accuracy and was a favorite weapon of the Roman army.

Pontoon Bridge

Pontoon bridges were not invented by the Romans but were well adopted by them. These temporary bridges were constructed using anchored boats (pontoons) as the base and building a road along the top. 

Extremely quick to build, they effectively helped to transport armies and equipment. 

Rome at Leisure

Public baths were an integral part of Roman life. Citizens would move through the different rooms of a bathhouse, starting in the “hot room.” Each room after that held water with a slightly different temperature, progressively cooling down before a final cold plunge.


This Roman innovation found at public bathhouses heated rooms via a system of tunnels that carried hot air under the floor. Underground furnaces would pipe the hot air around tiles stacked up in the floor cavity. 

Furnace Room

Located under the baths, the furnace room would heat the bathing water and provide steam for the “hot room” where citizens would first enter. The water was transported via a system of lead pipes and the baths even had an extensive draining system. 

Hollow Walls

The walls of the warm rooms in the baths were hollow. Warm air from the hypocaust rose up under the floor, as well as between the spaces in the walls, which in turn heated the whole room. 

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