Energy Europe Innovation Technology

Energy in ancient times

Cordoba watermill
Nicholas Newman Eniday May 2017

We may assume too readily that the Romans, lacking the fuels which power the modern world and the sophisticated technologies which have harnessed water, had only a feeble command of energy, but we would be mistaken. Archaeology and historical research have long since shown that the Romans—masters of architecture and military technology—were also skillful exploiters of many natural resources which they transformed with heat, light and power…

This vast empire, stretching at its height from the British Isles to the Middle East, could not have been attained without an efficient use of energy in all its forms—wind power, water power, and combustion of wood, coal and oils. This feature highlights the energy sources and technologies that enabled Romans to import grain from Egypt, silks from China, cook, heat and light homes, power their workshops and coin stamping mills, and operate pumps to remove water from mines.


The Romans used water power to grind corn, cut wood, make music and even tell the time. For instance, the flour mills of Barbegal in southern France and those on the Janiculum in Rome, relied on water power and were described by Vitruvius in his De Architectura of 25 BC and mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia of 77 AD. There are examples of surviving Noria waterwheels near Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, which lifted water from the river into small aqueducts for distribution to nearby settlements. These waterwheels were commonplace where rivers and settlements were in proximity. Read more

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