The Engineering of the Roman Army by Jean Claude Golvin

roman army engineering

It is a visually very attractive book, with a large format and very good illustrations. Now, it has made me short in terms of content. roman army engineering is edited by Desperta Ferro Ediciones and its authors are Jean-Claude Golvin and Gerard Coulon.

It is true that both at the beginning of the books and in the conclusions they explain the objective of the book, which is demonstrate the participation of the Roman army in the great public works (which he demonstrates only with concrete examples that I think are not generalizable). Thus, the book, which is divided into the great land works, aqueducts, roads, bridges, mines and quarries, colonies and cities, shows examples of this type of construction in which the participation of the legions is documented in some way.

But everything is very brief, on the one hand I would have liked them to delve into the engineering aspect of the type of construction, since only very general information is given. In this sense the book has disappointed me.

On the other hand, there is the issue of the hypothesis itself. Although it is true that he always finds a case in which he has participated, I do not think they are enough to be able to generalize, far from it. I suppose it will be a subject that they will continue studying.

Here as always I leave the notes I have taken. If you are interested you can buy it here.

Participation of the army and legions in Roman public works

roman army engineering book review

Different experts participated in civil engineering works: mensores (surveyors), libratores (surveying engineers)

The word engineering derives from the root genius. That demonstrate in the effective ideas and ingenious solutions that they used to solve the technical problems that were appearing in the works.

(Maritime engineering will be dealt with in another book)

In antiquity, the Latin term architectus it had a much broader meaning than it does today. In addition to designating the people who planned the buildings, it also referred to the military engineers who conceived and built the war machines, the specialists in time measurement (the gnomonic), the inventors of construction artifacts and, more in general, to everyone who was dedicated to mechanics.

According to Vitruvio in the I century a. C, architecture is a science adorned with numerous theoretical teachings and with various instructions, which serve as an opinion to judge all the works that reach their perfection through the other arts.

Regarding Architecture, Vitruvio mentions that every architect must be good at subjects such as drawing, history, geometry, mathematics, optics, philosophy, medicine, hygiene, astrology, and even music. This is related to the term polymath that I hear more and more.

Few architects of Antiquity are known: Vitruvius, Apollodorus of Damascus, L. Cornelio who was praefectus fabrum (responsible for military engineering) and then architectus. Lucio Coceyo Aucto, Aelio Verino.

More is known about the sponsors who financed the works than about the architects and their works.

Types of trades related to construction, 3 of a technical type: architectus (architect), librator (level geometer), and mensor (surveyor) and 6 types of manual: structos (mason), lapidarius (stonemason), tignarius (carpenter), tector (stucador), pictor (painter) and scandularius (tile installer).

Other related terms are: Immunes (specialized workers). fabrica (workshop), sarcinae (personal luggage of the soldier that consisted of saw, basket, shovel and axe). In the workshop, the magister fabricae commanded and had an optio (non-commissioned officer)

Tools for topographic measurements: groma (surveyor's square), corobate to calculate unevenness, rulers, rods and compasses.

Maius tympanum to lift large loads of up to tons.

Fistuca (an equivalent of the pile driver)

Spectacular projects with Julio César I d. C. The Druso dam, the Druso channel and the Corbulón channel.

The Mariana Trenches.

The Isthmus of Corinth. 6 km of open-air canal. Saving of 10 days of navigation. Crossing the isthmus was 6 km for 3-5 hours. At the end of the seventh century BC

Nero wanted to imitate other greats like Xerxes and Alexander the Great. Other works by Xerxes are the Athos channel in 480 BC. c.

The work on the Isthmus of Corinth was abandoned and has almost completely disappeared. There is a new canal from 1894.

Nero started many projects according to Suetonius and Tacitus.

Canal del Averno 237 km. The author of the book talks about how they use the prisoners of the empire.


The term aqueduct (aquae ductus) designates a channel (specus) that channels water from one or more springs to a deposit built in an inhabited place. Arches in Pont du Gard, Seville, Cherchell (Algeria)m Inverted siphons in Lyon, about 8 siphons and Aspendos in Turkey with triple siphon.

Opus reticulatum

We talk in much more detail about aqueducts in the article on roman aqueducts.

Construction and repair of roads

It shows some examples of the participation of the army in the roads, but does not explain how they were built. They talk about paved roads.

But I have found people who contradict this thesis

In this short Isaac Moreno Gallo contradicts this theory. It refers to Raymond Chevallier and his book Les voies romanes. Where, after reviewing more than 100 documents, he only finds 4 or 5 that refer to the intervention of a certain legion in the construction of roads, the rest are contracts with private companies, as today.


He speaks of 4 types of Roman bridges: wooden, ship, stone and mixed bridges, in which stone pillars, arches and wooden boards were juxtaposed.

A great example of a mixed bridge was the one that Trajan had built over the Danube.

Military engineers were great bridge builders.

Caesar in 55 B.C. C commanded to create a bridge over the Rhine, in the Gallic War. The Rhine is 400m wide

Until then, the Rhine had been considered an inviolable, mythical river, impassable for routes and the ultimate limit of the Roman Empire. It was one of the largest rivers known and with a very impetuous current. Caesar destroyed the bridge as soon as he crossed it.

The bridges of ships of fast construction and its great difficulties, allows to adapt to the fluctuations of the water. They were very good for an army. A row of ships supporting a platform were lined up. An example can be seen on Trajan's Column.

The problems were aligning the ships and stabilizing them.

Simitthus (Chamtou) bridge in Tunisia. It had Numidian marble quarries (marmor numidicum), a yellowish and pinkish rock that was in high demand.

Martorell Bridge over the Llobregat River (Only the padded ashlars are discussed, the rest have been restored, rebuilt at different times.

Getodacian Kingdom? (look for info)

Gigantic bridge over the Danube in Drobeta. The work was divided into 3 infrastructures. The causeway that ran along the Danube, the channel dug into the river bed and the Drobeta bridge.

the iron gates

The Romans began to carve a path in the vertical rock between 1,5 and 2,1 m wide. The canyon of the Iron Gates. In this sector the Danube forms a spectacular rocky gorge that currently separates Romania to the north and Serbia to the south. In this gorge, about 130 km long, the width of the river ranges from 2 km to 150 m at its narrowest points. Its rugged shores cut through the mountains of the southern Carpathians, rising more than 300 m above the water level. Between 1963 and 1972 Romania and Yugoslavia built a huge dam (the Djerdap hydroelectric complex (now Serbia)

The 1.135 km bridge rose about 14m above the average level of the river and was supported by 20 stone piers that supported huge wooden arches whose surgery reached 50m from axis to axis. A platform was placed on top of the structure that supported a 12 m wide roadway.

Pozzolan concrete that can set under water. The bridge was built by the architectus Apollodorus of Damascus.

mines and quarries

Damnati ad metalla, condemned to work in the mines and quarries.

In England the Mendip Hills lead mines of Somerset.

Gold deposits of the Hispanic northwest in the province of Tarragona, Asturia, Gallaecia and Lusitania.

Numidian marble (marble numidicum) ranging from light to dark yellow through the pink of the Chemtou quarries (simitthus) on the border between Tunisia and Algeria. the most demanded stone in the world only behind the Egyptian imperial porphyry.

The red porphyry in the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea in the Main milad valley (Mons Porphyrites) and the Mons Claudianus granite.

The gray grodiorite (look for this rock)

Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyritas was 140 km from the Nile, in the middle of the desert.

Granite does not support the slightest bending stress, which makes elongated objects very fragile to transport columns of 5 and 8. They used 6-axle carts pulled by donkeys and/or dromedaries. Sledges that advanced on rollers were also used.

Colonies and cities

The foundation of any city, according to tradition, was structured based on three steps, three culminating moments, although it is something that has been increasingly discussed since the 70s.

First, a magistrate and a topographical engineer defined and marked out the decumanus maximus, one of the main axes of the city oriented from east to west taking the sunrise as a point of reference through a groma.

Second, with the same instrument, the perpendicular to the previous axis was raised from the point where the machine had been parked. groma, thus drawing the thistle maximus oriented from north to south

Third, the urban layout was delimited by ritually digging the primordial furrow with a plow (the so-called sulcus primigenius), which over time would coincide with the layout of the fortifications and the perimeter of the pomerium, the religious limit of the enclave.

Once these three steps were completed, all that remained was to implement an orthogonal network of secondary streets, for which it was enough to draw a succession of parallel lines starting from each of the two main axes.

He talks about the relationship between the amphitheater and the creation of cities and colonies, as well as the army and gladiators.

The lighthouse of La Coruña, the Tower of Hercules. It was a lighthouse from the 41st century AD, 18 m high and with a square plan of XNUMX m on each side.

The most important work of public interest was the drainage of swamps and sloughs

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