Engineering in the Ancient World (Revised Edition)

by JG Landels

Paperback, 2000



Call number




University of California Press (2000), Hardcover


In his classic book, J. G. Landels describes the technological advances of the Greeks and Romans with erudition and enthusiasm. He provides an important introduction to engineering, writing about power and energy sources, water engineering, cranes, and transportation devises. From aqueducts to catapults, he attempts to envision machines as they may have worked in the ancient world. He then traces the path of knowledge taken by early thinkers--including Plato, Pliny, and Archimedes--in developing early theories of engineering and physics.

Media reviews

Without a firm grounding in mechanical principles it is impossible to understand Classicist J. G. Landels' description of how mechanical devices worked, but when he describes the social or literary background to innovations, he draws together both obvious and hidden, underlying reasons or social
Show More
causes. For instance, horse power would have been efficient and could have been used in windmills, but the mill setup wasn't tall enough for horses until late and there was not enough available high quality pasturage to make horses economically viable. Besides, the Greeks and Romans did not favor horse meat.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member celephicus
Good broad overview of ancient tech. One quibble, the author mentions that he has done research on this or that by building models of various machines, but rarely does he seem to have published details. This is surprising in an academic, who usually will cite their own published works at the drop
Show More
of a hat.

The bibliography is also a little brief, only a few pages. Still an excellent book for the general reader. A particularly good discussion on Frontinus & Pliny as primary sources, explains why their books are rather strange to read for modern non-clasically trained readers
Show Less
LibraryThing member thorold
This is a very nice little book, aimed at the general reader, but written by someone who obviously knows what he's talking about both when making sense of ancient texts and when assessing the feasibility of ancient machinery, being equally ready to get his hands dirty building reconstructions of
Show More
Greek catapults and to set out simple calculations that show us what is and isn't plausible when it comes to lifting stone blocks or rowing triremes. Which probably accounts for the fact that it's still around and popular, nearly forty years since it first appeared.

Landels covers a range of what you might call "heavy engineering" topics - land and water transport, water supply, cranes, and weapons - but he doesn't go into any detail on less mechanically-oriented technologies like metalworking, textiles and ceramics. In a final chapter, he gives a useful condensed account of what we know about the main classical authors on technical subjects (Hero, Pliny-the-elder, Vitruvius, etc.).

Obviously, despite all its charm, this book is getting a bit long in the tooth by now. There's been a lot more underwater archaeology done since the seventies, there's a complete working reconstruction of a Greek trireme, people have tried to rebuild the Antikythera mechanism and work out what it's for, many more catapults have been built, etc., etc., none of which Landels was able to take into account. Also, modern readers are likely to have trouble with the trivial fact that it's all in Imperial units (Landels helpfully provides c.g.s. (!) equivalents to some of these). I enjoyed the author's occasional jokey interjections in the character of a surly artisan with a Mummerset accent, and his assumption that all his readers would be familiar with the experience of hand-cranking a car engine on a cold day or with the practicalities of working with World War II infantry weapons - when I was at school in the seventies, a lot of the people who taught me were of exactly that generation, so it was all quite nostalgic for me. But I suspect that it would be rather lost on younger readers!
Show Less
LibraryThing member jcvogan1
Learned quite a bit about mechanics. The bit about the Romans not knowing how to properly harness a horse was a real eye opener. Particularly enjoying the parts about water systems, probably because I understood them best. Author has a big axe to grind about theoretical versus technical education.


Original publication date


Physical description

240 p.; 8.1 inches


0520227824 / 9780520227828
Page: 0.3892 seconds