Ancient Impossible (2014) s01e09 Episode Script

Roman Empire

Rome was the greatest empire the world has ever known.
Why are Roman arenas engineering triumphs as well as celebrations of total violence? Imagine 25,000 spectators are crammed in here, and they're all looking for blood.
Did the Romans create a mobile and deadly armored weapon, the world's first tank? Wow.
That is one impressive machine.
And how was this ancient empire able to build a massive wall, straight across Britain, in record time? They were ancient geniuses.
What they achieved is truly extraordinary.
Monuments more colossal than our own, ancient super weapons as mighty as today's, technology so precise, it defies reinvention.
The ancient world was not primitive.
Their marvels are so advanced, we still use them now.
Travel to a world closer than we imagine, an ancient age where nothing was impossible.
The Roman empire became super sized through great feats of impossible engineering aqueducts bringing fresh water thousands of miles Super weapons that enabled the formidable Roman army to win against impossible odds.
But nothing sums up the power, violence, and glory of Rome like these massive arenas that were scattered throughout the empire.
And the greatest example is here in Rome, Italy.
There are many facets of Roman society that we've copied in part.
But what's remarkable about the Colosseum is we've copied all of it.
We've copied the entirety of it.
It is perfect.
The emperor Vespasian commissioned the Colosseum for the people of Rome.
But this was no ordinary gift.
Vespasian knew that the arena was the perfect way to control a difficult population.
If your people are fed and entertained, they're less likely to revolt, and here, they were entertained and more.
In arenas like the Colosseum, extreme violence was the most popular entertainment.
The expectations of the people when they came into the amphitheater is they expect blood.
They expect death.
Thousands of people died every year in arenas all over the Roman empire.
It was so effective in keeping Roman citizens content that almost every town had one.
To modern stadium architects, the achievement of building huge arenas like the Colosseum seems impossible.
It was effectively two amphitheaters back to back, welded together.
The construction is superbly efficient in the sense that they took the same section and repeated it into the oval of the complete shape you see today.
So there's a great deal of repetition, which is a very modern construction technique.
The scale of Roman arenas was impossibly ambitious, even for modern buildings.
Over 600 feet long, 500 feet wide, with a central area equivalent to a modern football field.
The Colosseum, Rome's largest arena, may have held crowds up to 80,000.
We would take two to three years to build that.
To think that the Romans built the Colosseum in about 8 years, a truly remarkable feat.
To understand how Roman amphitheaters worked, we've come to Nimes, Southern France.
Unlike the Colosseum in Rome, this arena has survived intact.
I'm in Nimes, and this has one of the most amazingly well preserved amphitheaters in the ancient world.
You don't need to reconstruct this.
It's all here before you, 360 degrees.
Modern entertainments, or sporting events, usually last just a few hours, but the Roman games would go on for weeks.
The contests honoring the emperor Vespasian involved 9,000 animals and 2,000 gladiators over the course of 100 days.
The typical activities that took place in the amphitheater in Nimes would be killing animals in the morning.
You had the bestiary, the gladiators trained to fight and kill or be killed by wild animals.
At noontime, you could have the execution of criminals, or you can go off and have a nice lunch and return afterwards.
The main event, though, was gladiators man against man in the afternoon.
Beneath the arena was technology that no modern stadium can compete with.
Today, sports teams enter their arena through a simple tunnel.
But in the Roman arenas, gladiators and their opponents made their entrances in high style.
We're in the hypogeum.
We're beneath the arena floor.
This is where the gladiators and animals would wait, and then, with the given signal, they'd be hoisted up by slaves using capstans and pulleys.
There's a lot of tech that's involved in the hypogeum area because you don't have people behind a curtain, and the curtain opens up and then there's the performance.
You have them popping up.
And this is about as sophisticated as it gets in a performance in the ancient world.
Experimental model maker Richard windley is investigating the backstage magic that made the blood and Gore of the arena possible.
We know from existing bronze bearings in the remains of the Colosseum now that some kind of winch system was used, possibly a windlass which is a kind of winding mechanism, basically.
So I've showed one of those here, and this works through a series of ropes and pulleys to actually lift the cages.
Now, we do know that very large animals were sometimes used in these shows, even elephants, so some of these devices would have had to have been very, very hefty.
Richard has calculated that up to 8 men would operate this windlass, and under the Colosseum, there would have been up to 80 of these elevators, an amazing feat that has no comparison in our modern world.
I've built a trapdoor and a simple operating mechanism to open and close it.
It's still quite a feat to think that the complexity of this whole project could be undertaken such a long time ago.
To entertain the masses, Roman engineers used their ingenuity to create even more events we'd think impossible today.
In the Colosseum in Rome, they were reputed to even be able to flood it with water to be able to stage naval battles for the entertainment of the crowd.
Did Roman engineers really achieve this impossible feat? We know that the city of Rome was served by hundreds of miles of aqueducts.
But how did the Romans get the water to the Colosseum? It started with an extraordinary piece of hydraulic engineering called a castellum.
It's not just the aqueduct bridge and the channel bringing the water to a city.
How does it get distributed throughout the entire city? You come here to the castellum to understand the sophistication of distribution in a Roman city.
This was civilization.
Structures like these distributed more water per head to the people of Rome 2,000 years ago than new yorkers get today.
It comes out right here into this large tank, and then the water is distributed in 20 pipes.
There were two lead pipes for every one of these holes here.
There are 10 holes total.
And it is an amazing enterprise.
The thing is, every aqueduct had a castellum.
And there's another intriguing clue to how they did it beneath the Colosseum itself.
The site of this mighty arena was once a lake created for the emperor Nero.
Archaeologists have found the water channels that fed the lake.
Could they have been used to flood the Colosseum, too? They did it by diverting an aqueduct into underground channels, which then flooded the entire arena.
But the most remarkable thing was they could then open up sluices and drain and dry out the arena in exactly the same time it took to fill it up to stage dry events the very next day.
Staggering.
The Roman arena is more modern than we could ever imagine.
This was the epitome of entertainment.
It all built on the foundations of the perfect technical infrastructure.
Forget television.
2,000 years ago this is the greatest show on earth.
Coming up, were the Romans the first to build stadiums with opening roofs? And later, the emperor Hadrian tames Rome's wild frontier with the empire's greatest build.
We believe that nothing could be as advanced as what we build today.
But 2,000 years ago, Roman engineers made the blueprint for what we think are modern buildings sports stadiums.
If we look at the Colosseum as a template for a modern stadium, then it's embarrassing really as a stadium architect to think that we can't really improve on it.
Stadium architect Andy Simons has discovered that much of his work today was already done by Roman engineers.
Roman arenas, like this one at Nimes, France, look identical to modern stadiums all over the world.
And incredibly, the geometry used is identical as well.
This arena is 290x180 feet, a ratio of 5:3.
By repeating this ratio of 5:3 in the angle of the seats, every spectator has a perfect view.
Everyone had a great view of the action, which is an astonishing feat of engineering and geometry for the day.
When we sit in a stadium today, we are experiencing something that goes back 2,000 years.
It's the sort of place that'd be familiar to any modern sports fan, with excited crowds, fans supporting their favorite superstar, even sellers selling snacks and drinks to the crowds.
If we stripped out the plastic seats from a modern stadium, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the Colosseum terraces and a modern stadium.
All around the arena are arches that both support the structure and provide access to every seat.
This design is so effective, it still hasn't been improved.
This has phenomenal architecture, phenomenal engineering.
What you see is quintessential Roman the arch and the vault on a massive, monumental scale.
And just like today, the people with top status got the best seats.
The lower tier had the senators, the prime position closest to the access and they had the maximum width of facilities to support them, and the easiest route in.
And as the building went up, of course the categories of seating declined through the equestrian and the knights in the second tier through to the free Romans in the third tier, and up to women and slaves in the top tier.
This structure limited the space in the top rows.
But even this was part of the Roman engineers' plan.
The staircases, it's believed, were deliberately restricted in width to limit the egress time for the top tiers of the cheaper seats so that they didn't impede the easy flow out from the best seats.
This incredible achievement was unique to the Romans for nearly 2,000 years.
We've only matched the impossibly advanced design of the Roman arena in the last few decades.
And there's one design feature we've literally just caught up with.
The Roman arena had its own climate control system.
What's so fantastic about this place is that you have the holes in place, which would have held masts, big timbers, on top of which was added the awning system so you could extend it from here toward the center of the arena, keeping the people in shade on a nice sunny day.
Called a velarium, it was controlled like a camera iris so that as the sun moved, everyone stayed in the shade.
How did this ultra modern system work? Richard windley is finding out with this incredible model.
However this was done was a staggering feat of engineering.
The principle that I've gone with in this particular model is one of what we'd now call a tensile structure.
One rope from each post, and this goes to a central elliptical rope in the center, this is pulled into an ellipse by careful tensioning of the cords.
Each one of these so called segments now will support a piece of sail cloth.
And there's a rope attached at the front end which goes over a pulley.
By pulling on one cord, we could extend the sail, and by pulling on the other one, we can retract it.
If I start and withdraw by pulling the cords, yeah, and that's starting to withdraw quite smoothly, actually.
Some modern stadiums have opening roofs.
But the Roman arena could do much, much more.
And this gives us the intriguing possibility that the velarium could have been moved in various ways, not just simply completely in and out.
But it could have been gradually moved to favor the sun as it moved through the sky, and if this was the case, it's certainly feasible.
But that is a very sophisticated piece of engineering and a very sophisticated concept, in fact.
This system was so advanced that modern buildings are only just starting to catch up.
If you take one of the stadiums with the soccer world cup in Qatar, that has a retractable fabric roof for exactly this purpose, pulled to and fro on wire guidelines exactly like the velarium did at the Colosseum.
We see that the Colosseum 2,000 years ago was so far ahead of its time.
But the Romans used their engineering and building genius for much more practical reasons, too.
Like defending the furthest reaches of the empire.
Coming up, a massive wall straight across Britain.
And later, what were the ultimate secret weapons of the mighty Roman army? We've seen the incredible technological achievements of the Roman empire, and how some are so modern, we're only just catching up with them today.
With Rome at the height of its power, one emperor, Hadrian, undertook the empire's greatest engineering project to secure its frontiers.
His most impossible task was to control the wild northern frontier of the province of Britain.
Britain Britannia was very important to the empire insofar as it was a productive province.
Further north, you've got tribes who've been pacified for the moment.
So this wall along this edge of the empire secures the boundary against incursion but also facilitates trade.
The end of the Roman empire was this frontier 73 miles long.
Hadrian sealed it with a vast wall on an unimaginable scale, far larger than any fortification in the Roman world.
Originally it was 10 feet wide and up to 20 feet high.
If an enemy managed to cross the wall, the Romans had another formidable obstacle lying in ambush.
But who constructed this mission impossible? The Roman army.
At the siege of masada, these super soldiers moved the equivalent of one and a half Empire state buildings to build a vast ramp.
In just weeks, Roman speed and efficiency moved the greatest man made mountain in the ancient world.
And subdued an impregnable fortress.
The Roman army had got an extended history of great engineering works, but Hadrian, he had to go one better a massive wall marking the northern boundary of the empire.
For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, this once mighty wall was robbed for building materials.
It seems impossible, but three Roman legions, about 15,000 men, built this 73 mile wall in just five years.
This wall contained 35 million cubic feet of material and all moved and cut by hand.
It's just incredible.
Roman soldiers only had the tool kits they carried on their backs, such as these.
The ligo was an entrenching tool that had the nickname, "the ankle breaker.
" You swing it with your legs apart, and if you don't pay attention, you end up breaking your ankles with it.
Secondly, we have a very famous tool, the dolabra.
Julius Caesar once said that more battles had been won with the entrenching tool, particularly the dolabra, than with the sword.
This was used for cutting out tree stumps.
It has a very sharp blade and a hook at the other end for levering up roots and that sort of thing.
To make the wall an even more impassable barrier, the Romans used existing natural obstacles like this cliff.
But how were these perfectly straight lines achieved along the course of the wall? The answer lies in another example of the Romans' mastery of massive construction.
The groma.
With these machines, great distances of straight lines could be marked.
This is the groma.
It's a simple and ingenious way of plotting straight lines and right angles.
This is how Hadrian's wall was laid out so accurately.
They're simply string and lead weights, but the mathematics involved in these machines set the Romans far ahead of anyone else in their construction work.
These plumb bobs, or plumb lines, ensure that the pole is completely upright and above the point you're measuring from.
Get an assistant with a pole and move him until his pole is lined up with the three plumb Bobs.
It seems impossible that the Romans could survey so accurately.
There were other monster fortifications in the ancient world, but this mighty Roman wall wasn't just about scale.
Sure, you can look at the great wall of China and think.
"Well, it's longer and bigger.
" But for the size for the work force Absolutely incredible.
Hadrian's wall, the engineering triumph of the Roman legions, was built in just five years.
The great wall of China took nearly 2,000 years and may have cost as many as a million lives.
The Chinese wanted an impenetrable barrier.
But the Romans wanted a modern frontier to control trade and migration.
The Romans can reach out into the immediately pacified area, and even further afield, to trade and obtain those resources without having to actually live there.
Hadrian's wall doesn't just show us that the Romans could achieve the impossible.
It's the beginning of the modern frontiers that control our world today.
Coming up, Rome creates snipers, repeating weapons, and artillery barrages to build an empire.
And later, insane emperor Nero sacrifices his empire to create a building beyond the imagination.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman empire adapted a deadly weapon so versatile, it predated modern snipers Machine guns Artillery barrages And even tanks.
The Romans realized that long range firepower was a game changer that could win against impossible odds.
How did this advanced military technology achieve the impossible? Rome was all about might and power.
In order to spread their influence, they had to face numerous armies.
And to conquer them, they built powerful weapons.
Here in Rome, Italy, there is a monument that tells us how Rome supersized its firepower.
Built for the emperor Trajan, it's a fascinating record of the Roman army in the 2nd century A.
D.
Trajan's column is 130 feet high with a 650 foot long relief of Trajan's wars winding around it like an ancient comic strip.
But we can see its details from these plaster casts made from its magnificent carvings.
This shows the weapon that emperor Trajan used to devastating effect the ballista.
The ballista was one of the most powerful weapons in the Roman arsenal.
It draws its power from two twisted skeins of sometimes rope, sometimes human hair, but particularly sinew.
These skeins of fiber the Romans actually called tormenta, almost like tormented souls, because as you crank them up You can hear them straining, almost screaming with the power which is pent up, ready to shoot.
The twisted fiber Springs protected by brass cylinders create the fighting power of this battle winning weapon.
The windlass pulls back the string attached to the ballista arms.
This creates enormous tension in the fiber spring, which left unreleased, is fierce enough to tear the ballista apart.
Just imagine the power and lethality of these types of weapons.
It's something you would never want to go up against.
Incredibly, a ballista target used by the Romans was found in the remains of a Roman fort.
These holes look like they've been smashed with the force of modern bullets.
Archaeological evidence from the Roman base camp of vindolanda on the Scottish border, they found animal skulls, and we know that they used these for ballista target practice.
It's good for the Romans, it's good for us.
For the first time, we're testing the power and accuracy of this incredible ancient weapon.
And now we're putting the ballista to the test.
I'm gonna see if I can clock the speed of the bolt.
This radar gun normally checks speeding cars.
Today it's going to measure the speed of a ballista bolt.
Oh, man.
Ha.
Take a look at that.
Whoo.
That is what they call a kill shot to the head at 70 miles per hour, just over 100 feet per second.
Whoo.
To give you an idea of just how powerful these weapons are, it was recorded at the siege of Rome that a bolt from a tower mounted ballista penetrated a goth's armor and pinned him to a tree.
This is a weapon of intimidation, and it screams "don't mess with Rome.
" The ballista wasn't just powerful.
It was deadly accurate.
The ballista shoots a heavy bolt, wood and an iron tip, with pinpoint accuracy long range, and it can penetrate armor.
So when a sniper sits back on a modern battlefield and takes out a man behind his ceramic body plates The Romans were able to do that with a ballista.
We know that at short range, the ballista worked like a sniper rifle.
But if you elevate the ballista, the bolt flies in a parabola rather than a straight line and you quadruple the range.
The typical Roman legion had about 60 ballistas as part of their armament.
They could deliver a deadly rain of about 120 bolts a minute at enemy troops a quarter of a mile away over 1,500 years before the artillery barrage.
We're using this ballistics dummy to show just how devastating this would have been.
You can see where our modern word "ballistics" comes from.
This deadly weapon didn't just fire bolts.
It could also fire solid shot.
This is an actual Roman firing stone that would have been shot from the ballista right here.
It's the size of a baseball, and it feels like a lead weight, and they've taken the time to Polish the surface so that it has a true flight path and it's accurate down range.
Imagine getting hit by that.
This test demonstrates the true power of the Roman weapons, and having the most powerful weapons in the ancient arms race allowed Rome to become the superpower it was.
And this versatile ancient weapon may have inspired a revolution in warfare.
Coming up, did the Roman empire engineer the world's first tank? And later, emperor Nero demands the impossible a massive rotating building.
When it was mission impossible for the mighty Roman empire, they turned to the ballista.
There's tantalizing evidence that the Romans used the ballista in another supposedly modern weapon system the tank.
In the Bodleian library in Oxford, england, there's exciting evidence that could rewrite how we view the Roman army.
The book I've got in front of me here is something quite remarkable.
It's a copy, a manuscript copy of a book written in the 4th century A.
D.
, probably round about 370.
We don't know the author's name, but his book was called "De rebus bellicis.
" It's about matters of war.
This book reveals amazing insights into advanced Roman military technology, like this full body armor.
The author came up with a lot of bright ideas that he then sent to emperor suggesting how they could defend the empire more efficiently and at less cost.
By the 4th century A.
D.
, the Roman empire had changed forever.
The emperor Trajan, master of the ballista's use on the battlefield, had expanded Rome's power.
But now the empire faced continual threats along its massive borders.
And the Roman army had to move fast to meet the next crisis.
The army is very different at the end of the empire.
They need cavalry to defend the thousands of miles of frontier.
So if your artillery is mobile, then that gives you extra firepower.
Now it's impossible to think that the Romans invented a tank, but they did.
This remarkable illustration in the Bodleian library is the vital clue that the Roman empire was able to achieve the impossible.
This was a giant ballista that was mounted on top of a carriage.
The ballista itself could swivel 360 degrees.
The carriage was drawn by two powerful armored horses.
It had mobility, it had protection, and it had firepower.
It was essentially a tank.
Archaeological evidence shows the Roman army had fully armored horses.
And they were used to drive this weapon system, the ballista quadrirotis, with all the characteristics of a tank nearly 2,000 years earlier than we ever imagined.
Like a modern tank turret, the ballista quadrirotis could fully rotate to face threats from any direction.
We know the Romans had spring suspension, so all in all, this was a highly mobile vehicle.
And when we think of a tank, and with its modern day characteristics, we think of firepower, mobility and protection.
And the ballista quadrirotis has got all three.
The Romans achieved the impossible, developing the ballista to make it the decisive weapon of the ancient battlefield.
The ballista's a powerful weapon.
But it seems incredible to think that you can also make it a semi automatic weapon.
Philo of Byzantium refers to one from the 3rd century B.
C.
called a polybolos.
There are detailed descriptions of a weapon called the polybolos in ancient Greek and Roman texts.
And scholar and ancient weapons expert Alan Wilkins has studied them to make his own polybolos.
It is a machine gun.
And the next machine gun in history is the gatling gun of the 19th century.
Just like a gatling gun, the polybolos was a hand cranked rapid fire weapon.
And like the gatling, gun it was a huge step forward in technology.
It is probably one of the most impressive pieces of ancient machinery because it has a number of firsts in ancient technology.
It's got chain drive.
This is the first known chain drive in Western technology.
But there's much more to this impossibly modern mechanism than a chain.
A gravity fed magazine takes 8 or 9 ballista bolts.
Keep this loaded, and there's no limit to how long this incredible weapon can fire.
A mechanical imitation of an Archer's fingers is locked over the bow string.
Turning the windlass pulls back the string, locking and loading the ballista, which fires automatically as soon as the string is fully drawn.
Rome's ingenuity perfected the ballista, creating weapon systems to perform roles still vital on today's battlefields.
Coming up, Rome's lust for luxury and outrageous displays of wealth push emperor Nero to create a building 2,000 years ahead of its time.
The Roman army used advanced military technology and rigid discipline to carve out the mightiest empire of the ancient world.
Yet Rome's ruthless ambition to achieve the impossible wasn't just confined to the battlefield.
You'd think that nothing from the past could match the wonders of our modern cities, but here in ancient Rome, engineers who were years ahead of their time created one of the greatest and most technologically advanced cities ever seen.
To see just how amazing the architecture of ancient Rome actually was, we've come to San Diego Home of one of today's most awesome buildings.
Al and Janet johnstone have created a house that actually rotates.
We get a lot of people volunteer to do the dishes at our house.
The sink is regular, but the view is awesome.
This house is a new step in architecture called "kinetic architecture" moving structures.
It's the next phase of architecture.
But could this architecture have already been achieved by the Romans? Beneath the ancient streets of central Rome lies a wonderful discovery.
This is all that remains of the domus aurea, the opulent palace of the tyrannical emperor Nero, that once occupied at least 100 acres.
Throughout the structure you have polished marble, and then plenty of fountains and lots of light sources.
And of course, you have the gilding on the ceilings.
Hence the name "domus aurea.
" "Domus" means "house.
" "Aurea" means "golden.
" The golden house of Nero.
This mega mansion was created on a scale that is impossible today.
But what did this unbelievable super palace have to match a modern revolving house? One ancient writer provides us with a fascinating clue from his description of Nero's palace.
Suetonius described Nero's private dining room as rotating as if it were in motion with the celestial bodies.
And no one really understood what suetonius meant by this.
Could it be that the ceiling was revolving and it perhaps had stars and moon painted on it? Or could it be that the walls were revolving? In the ruined labyrinth that was once the ancient world's greatest mansion is evidence that this amazing room actually existed.
It has what looks like the foundations of a revolving floor about 50 feet in diameter.
These remains show how Roman engineers created a revolving floor 2,000 years before we'd think it was possible.
How did the Romans rotate such a massive structure? 3D analyst James Dean is using the latest technology to re create this wonder of the ancient world.
The Romans reclined on couches like this at their dinner parties.
But how did the Romans make the floor rotate continuously? That seems impossible even today.
How would you have revolved a large banquet hall? There are lots of theories brute physical force, with weights, some sort of turning device? In San Diego, al and Janet johnstone's rotating house uses 21st century technology.
The house rides on the first floor.
And on the top of the first floor is a track and a one and a half horsepower motor and a reduction transmission.
Then the motor drives the second floor round that track in either direction at whatever speed you choose.
But what technology was available to the emperor Nero 2,000 years ago? What they think probably moved this huge revolving floor would have been effectively giant stone ball bearings.
The use of ball bearings nearly 2,000 years ago seems impossible, and that's not the end of the technological mysteries of Nero's rotating floor.
We've seen that the floor rotated on these ball bearings.
But how did they achieve yet another impossible task and get a continuous regular rotation? One method that has been suggested Is hydraulic power.
Knowing Rome's mastery of hydraulic engineering, it makes perfect sense.
But until further evidence is discovered, we can only guess.
No one has been able to work out how this incredible rotating floor worked.
It shows how Roman engineers could achieve the impossible dream of their insane emperor.
But Nero's high rolling lifestyle eventually led to his downfall.
In 68 A.
D.
, facing a series of revolts sparked by high taxes, Nero committed suicide.
Rival generals fought for the throne.
With outrageous spending and civil wars, the Roman empire was ultimately doomed.
But its legacy of achieving the impossible is still with us today.
The Roman empire set the standard for technology that forms a vital part of our modern world, from sophisticated, high tech weapons to totally modern architecture and the first revolving room, proving that the Roman empire was able to achieve the impossible, creating incredible technology we can still see in use today.