We all had a good laugh when John Cleese indignantly asked “What have the Romans ever done for us?” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but it might surprise you to hear that – in addition to sanitation, roads and aqueducts – the Romans quite literally cemented the foundations of the modern world.
- 1. Rome wasn’t built in a day: In fact, the size and duration of its construction is evidenced by no less than 94 underground quarries beneath the city, leading Alexander Armstrong in a recent BBC documentary to describe it as “a metropolis built on top of an enormous Swiss cheese!”
2. As old as the hills: Although it’s unclear exactly when Roman concrete (which they called opus caementicium) was invented, it seems to have been in widespread use from about 150 BC. Some scholars reckon it was developed as much as a century before that.
3. The Portland version: Roman concrete was very different from the modern version, using a hydraulic setting cement rather than our more familiar Portland version.
4. A volcanic advance: In the BBC TV series, What the Romans did for us!, viewers saw how Roman builders added volcanic ash to their concrete to make it more durable and prevent cracking.
5. Ashes to ashes: Apparently, the best concrete for underwater structures was made using volcanic ash from the area around the Gulf of Naples, especially from the town known today as Pozzuoli. Ash with similar characteristics is still known today as ‘pozzolan’.
6. Talking about a revolution: Arches, vaults and domes – common in architecture now, but rare in the ancient world – were only made possible by Rome’s ‘Concrete Revolution’. In fact the Pantheon Dome, the best-preserved ancient Roman monument, is also the biggest and oldest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
7. If they could see us now: the Romans had the roads and the transport network, but how much easier their building projects would have been if they’d had access to ready-made cement in durable plastic bags from Breedon Cement!