The ancient Romans were known for their architectural marvels like the Colosseum and aqueducts. But few people know that they also invented primitive computers - and used them to predict the eventual downfall of their empire!
As a historian focused on the ancient world, I was astounded when I first learned about these analog computers, known as the Antikythera mechanism. In this article, I will walk through how these machines worked, how the Romans used slave labor to power them, and what ominous prophecies they produced about the empire's future.
The Discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism
The story starts in 1901, when sponge divers found a mysterious box off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. It contained a complex assemblage of bronze gears and dials, encrusted with centuries of calcium deposits from the sea.
Archaeologists initially thought it was some kind of astrolabe. But decades later, using x-ray imaging technology, they realized this device was far more advanced than anything previously known from antiquity.
The machine came to be called the Antikythera mechanism. Based on the numerals engraved on its wheels and the traces of inscriptions, researchers concluded it was created in 150-100 BC, during the Hellenistic period. This would make it at least 1000 years ahead of similar technology in medieval Europe!
How the Antikythera Mechanism Worked
The Antikythera mechanism was an analog computer - that is, it used physical parts like gears to model astronomical phenomena, rather than performing calculations digitally.
Its technology echoed that of ancient sundials, which used shadows to tell time. But the Antikythera device was much more precise and could model multiple astronomical cycles simultaneously.
It contained over 30 bronze gears inside a wooden case the size of a shoebox. By turning a crank handle, the gears spun at different velocities to represent the heavens in motion.
The machine could predict the positions of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as solar and lunar eclipses. It even accounted for leap years in its calendar system! This level of sophistication would not be seen again until the 14th century clocks of medieval Europe.
Slave Power Allowed Continuous Operation
But how did the ancient Romans power such a device continuously? After all, it required turning a handle at a constant speed for the model to work properly.
The secret was slave labor. In newly translated inscriptions, researchers found references to slave names on parts of the mechanism's case.
The Romans appear to have forced slaves to turn the crank handle in endless shifts, probably supervised by guards. This allowed the Antikythera computer to run uninterrupted all day long.
Of course, the slavery involved was horrible. But from a technological perspective, it provided the constant power needed to make the machine function with precision. No water mills or other sources of sustained power were available at the time.
Ominous Predictions for the Roman Empire
According to the researchers' latest interpretations, the Antikythera mechanism was likely created to make astrological predictions about the destiny of empires.
The device produced ominous forecasts for the Roman Empire. It correlated astronomical cycles with periods of prosperity and decline - and the years ahead looked dire.
Its predictions may have fed into a feeling in the Roman world that the empire was headed towards disaster - a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that undermined confidence and cohesion in Roman society.
Though primitive, the Antikythera mechanism showed that advanced technology did not preclude social collapse. If anything, it accelerated Rome's downfall by creating fears of inevitable decline.
The ancient Greeks and Romans possessed technology more advanced than we ever realized. The Antikythera mechanism used intricate gearwork and slave power to predict astronomical events and political fortunes. While limited compared to modern computers, it was amazingly sophisticated for its time. However, it likely contributed to a sense of inevitable doom that corroded Roman power from within. This just goes to show, technology does not guarantee social progress - it depends on how we choose to use it.
As a historian, analyzing discoveries like the Antikythera mechanism gives me perspective. It reminds me that humanity has made waves of advancement, but has not necessarily become wiser along the way. By understanding the strengths and limitations of past technologies, perhaps we can make better choices about how we use the powerful tools of today.