Surprising Ways in Which the Roman Empire Was Super Progressive

The Roman Empire, despite all its faults, was truly ahead of its time in many ways. The nation was far from perfect but their advancements simply can’t be denied. The government looked after the poor, gave them places to live, fed them for free and even provided their military with comfortable pensions after completing their service. Below are some ways that the Roman Empire was surprisingly super progressive.

1. Insulae: Social Housing

A sudden boom in the Roman population led to the development of communal housing known as insulae. They were mostly built by private landlords, though the government played a crucial role in the development of a few. According to a Roman text known as the Regionary Catalogue, there were at least 44,850 insulae in 315 AD alone, compared to 1,781 domus or single-family unit homes. They were pretty modern too as many of them were typically four or five stories tall with some going all the way to eight stories. The bottom floors were often shops or workshops while the upper floors were private residences consisting of between one and four rooms.

2. Natural Theory of Disease

In 36 BC, Roman writer and scholar Marcus Varro was onto something when he said that new buildings shouldn’t be built near swamps due to the risk of minute creatures that couldn’t be seen by the eye, entering the body through the nose and eye, leading to serious illnesses. The theory wasn’t a mainstream one, but most Romans had a pretty accurate way to avoid illnesses: keep fit, drink clean water, clean yourself regularly, rest when ill, avoid moist environments and don’t stay in one spot for too long.

3. Military Pensions

Soldiers completing their military service in the Roman Empire (16 years for Praetorians and 20 years for regular legionaries) were entitled to a pension which came in the form of land during the empire’s earlier years. However, due to frequent land disputes, Emperor Augustus Caesar replaced the former system with a monetary payment scheme which awarded each legionary with 12,000 sesterces along with a bronze plaque as proof of completion of his service. Retired soldiers lived happily off this pension and were even able to purchase properties.

4. Free Food

As Rome’s population grew rapidly, many impoverished farmers were forced to head to the city for work as many wealthy landowners were buying up all the agricultural land in the rural areas. This led to a large group of people who struggled to find regular work or even feed their families. Emperor Gaius Gracchus tackled this issue by implementing the grain law of 123 BC where grain was offered at half the market price once a month. Later on, the grain was given for free, but only to the empire’s poorest 200,000.

5. A Fire and Police Force

An especially bad fire in 6 AD led to the creation of Rome’s first fire and police department. It consisted of seven cohorts of 1000 men, each known as “vigiles,” whose duties were to maintain law and order. They were tasked with dealing with crimes and minor offences as well as tracking down and returning runaway prisoners. As for dealing with fires, the vigiles were well prepared for that. They were equipped with buckets, water pumps, axes, acetum to extinguish fires, hooks for pulling down burning roofs, and the fire engine was a horse-drawn cart fitted with pumps.


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