Do Any Ancient Roman Records Still Exist Today?

The ancient Roman culture is credited by modern historians with inventing almost every modern convenience and technology prior to the advent of electronics, including:

  • Air conditioning
  • Aqueducts
  • Arched bridges and rooves
  • Books
  • Civic buildings for magistrates, councils, courts, and clerical workers
  • Concrete
  • Construction equipment including cranks and hoists
  • Dams
  • Extensive highway systems
  • Fast food
  • Flushing toilets
  • Hot and cold running water inside homes
  • Indoor heating
  • Industrial factories
  • Lighthouses
  • Mobile army surgical hospitals
  • Ox-driven reaper for farms
  • Paper
  • Professional public entertainment
  • Sewers
  • Shopping malls
  • Steam power
  • Taxis (chariots with meters that determined fees)
  • Water-powered mining machines

Ancient Roman documentThe Roman people sought in every way to make their lives comfortable, although most of their industry and machinery was powered by slaves and animals, not by motors and engines as today. But one of the greatest innovations of the ancient Romans was the collection of governmental documents in archives.

Tax records, records of land ownership, public decrees, and many other documents were carefully recorded on papyrus, vellum, and parchment. These ancient documents were stored away for posterity but when the Roman way of life began to crumble due to civil war and barbarian invasions most of the ancient archives were plundered, destroyed, or allowed to rot away. Today only a small percentage of Roman documents still exist.

Nonetheless, you can read translations of many Roman documents online, including legal texts, military documents, and historical texts.

The ancient Romans were not the first culture to create extensive historical records. Record-keeping goes all the way back to the Egyptians and Sumerians, who recorded their laws, histories, and occasional economic activities on clay and stone. Egyptians used the papyrus plant (from which Roman paper was derived) to record magic spells, dietary information, and even medicinal practices.

What makes Roman record-keeping unique is that it was so widespread. All Roman soldiers were required to read and write if they wanted to become citizens. And all citizens who wanted to serve in public offices were required to read and write as well. Millions of Roman citizens were literate people, and they wrote letters, scrolls, books, wills, and special legal documents.

The Roman education system survived into the medieval period because it was preserved by the Roman Church and by the Byzantines. When medieval cities began establishing universities in the High Middle Ages they drew upon the remnants of Roman science and education. Unfortunately, most Roman records had already been lost by that time. In fact, many Roman records have only gradually been found and restored over the past few centuries.

Those records that still exist are kept mostly in museums and university archives, carefully preserved for scientific study. The documents have been transcribed and translated into many languages through books and computers.