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Roman Republic: Res publica Romana • View topic - Roman Surveying #1

Roman Surveying #1

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Roman Surveying #1

Postby Marcus Minucius Audens » Thu Sep 15, 2016 5:22 pm



One of the areas that I have delved into in my research of the Roman culture has been the measurement of land and objects. We talk about the Roman engineers and the great works of roads and architecture but we rarely delve into how the work was measured and finally accomplished. We know that the early Egyptians had developed some basic means of measurement, and these early primitive ideas were brought into the Roman sphere and developed with constant use. During the period of the first centuries of the BC era these instruments were used in the Roman Republic to explore, measure and map a good portion of the Republic at the time. Later in the period between the Republic and Empire men like Julius Caesar and later Augustus utilized these instruments to good purpose surveying amd measuring large parts of the empire both for civil and military purposes. The instruments were used in the hands of what were called surveyors, after that instrumentation that was in use at the time. Now these surveyors were actually a part of the legion itself, long serving soldiers who wished to learn a trade and were allowed to be free of the ordinary tasks of a legionary and rather be involved in the tasks of the trade which the individual selected for the benefit of the legion. So, throughout the Roman world these men performed the jobs of surveyors, builders, and engineers. They labored at the laying out of military camps both permanent and temporary, the construction of roadways, centuriation (measurement of land), laying out of towns, buildings, and fortifications. The surveyors themselves we don’t know much about except that many of them, when leaving the legions when their service was finished, became well known surveyors.

However, there are a few handbooks or surveying manuals which were used by the surveyors which have come down to us over the ages. From those books we can gain a great deal of knowledge about how they worked and what exactly they were able to do. Surveyors were called in the late Latin language as a ‘gromaticus’ (‘groma’ man from ‘groma,’ the basic surveying instrument). However, a common term among the people whom these men served, they were known as ‘agrimensores’ (sing. ‘agrimensore,’ land surveyor). Another kind of surveyor or measurer was known as a ‘mensor’ (plural ‘mensores’), who might well be engaged in any of the following activities; a military surveyor, architectural surveyor, land surveyor, or a corn measurer.

In order to actually measure land, two techniques were necessary. For small areas of land, the surveyors used measuring rods, measuring lines specially marked for distance, and marker flags. For a greater amount of land area, the use of simple geometric mathematics was used for more detailed calculation involved in the longer distances and angles of the land limitations. The procedure was usually undertaken when the measurement of mountainous or difficult terrain was encountered. Together with the measurement aspect of his work, the surveyor was also obliged to use the tools of the surveyor of today, in the use of writing and drawing, which was also a large part of the surveyor’s task.

We find that the ‘groma’ was the instrument most used by the surveyor in pursuance of his work. This tool is constructed of a long shaft with a sharpened four-sided metal spike, very like a small spear point at one end. This feature served to insert the shaft securely into the ground. An offset arm on the other end supported a long shafted metal cross with plumb bobs hanging from each point of the four arms by a string. This instrument was used to primarily determine square corners which was the basic measurement value of the Roman surveyor.

Other instruments used by a surveyor would be: a sundial which had some elements of usage in survey, and there are two other instruments which were described and written about, but probably not used very much. The first of these was the ‘dioptra.’ This was a very complicated and finely constructed instrument and probably much too delicate for field work. The ‘corbates’ was a very heavy instrument and very bulky as well, probably requiring a wagon for transport. It’s very size and awkwardness made it unable to be used except for very special needs. In my next article on surveying instruments I will explain more about these instruments, with a greater description of each.

References:

>> Adkins & Adkins, “Handbook To Life In Ancient Rome,” Oxford Univ. Press, New York / Oxford, 1998.

>> Peter Connolly, “Greece and Rome At War,” Prentice-Hall Inc., 1981

Respectfully Submitted;

Marcus Audens
Marcus Minucius Audens
 

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