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Understanding Greek and Roman Technology

Expand your knowledge of Greek and Roman civilization with this in-depth study of their innovative technologies and feats of engineering.
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 240.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from You will love this! I have now completed 80 Great Courses and Dr. Ressler's courses have moved into #1 and #2 as courses which I have found to be both fascinating and informative. I retired from teaching history (more than forty years) to middle and high school students. Dr. Ressler's ability to deliver his lectures with such a warm and engaging style sets him apart from the other professors of courses that I have experienced from the Great Courses. History and Science courses are by far my favorites, but the majority of the instructors of the Great Courses are not terribly impressive delivering their well prepared lectures. Dr. Ressler's presentations have been outstanding. He sets a high bar. If I had experienced his lectures on Greek and Roman Technology and Epic Engineering Failures when I first began my Great Courses studies three years ago, the lectures which followed would have been major disappointments. If you are looking for both Great Courses and Great Professors, Dr. Ressler's courses will inspire you as they have me. I recommend his without reservations!
Date published: 2023-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bravo Dr. Ressler! This has to rate as possibly the best educational course ever!!! I learned so much about ancient construction methods and technology. I also gained a deeper appreciation for the professions of engineering and architecture. I taught Kinesiology and used a lot of models like "Elvis the Pelvis". Dr. Ressler's models however are all amazing and so instructive. The computer graphics are also fantastic. The level of preparation and attention to detail as well as the clear explanation of principles in this course honors those ancient architects, inventors and craftsmen who combined to create the technology covered in the course. Thank you to all involved!
Date published: 2023-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Course- Very educational and entertaining Such a wonderful experience. Dr. Ressler is a gifted, enthusiatic presenter who brings historic technology to life by understanding the thought and planning that went into each project. You'll come away in awe of just how ingenious the ancients were.
Date published: 2023-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the most enjoyable courses offered Professor Ressler presents a great course. He delivers the material in such a way that is both educational and entertaining. He has a commanding knowledge of the subject material. I can see why this course is so highly rated.
Date published: 2023-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wildly Entertaining (oh, and educational, of cours Having just watched this entire course for the fourth time, I can unreservedly recommend it for everyone. A large part of the appeal of this course is due to the charm of the professor and his clear delight in his subject matter; but his ability to convey knowledge is second to none. I am a complete layman insofar as my understanding of math and science in general, and engineering concepts in particular; my degree is in English and music and I barely made it through my obligatory college math and science classes.  Fortunately for me, Ressler presents his information in plain English, carefully defining terms where necessary, adding in photographs of historical sites, showing computer graphics and animations, and building models to clearly explain and demonstrate the concepts.  Even I had no trouble grasping the information being taught.
Date published: 2023-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This guy is a real find! I am not an engineer. But I am a scientist and I appreciate well-engineered instruments. The basic facts of engineering covered in this course are timeless, and the ability of early architects and engineers to develop them to such a high technical level is stunning. I found that I couldn't stop watching each of these lectures, even though in other hands the subject matter would have been sleep-inducing. This is the mark of a truly gifted instructor! The timing, the level, and the choice of examples all showed a high level of ability and lots of experience. The demonstrations were masterful. Congratulstions on a particularly great course.
Date published: 2022-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I should have gone to West Point! Dang, if I'd known I could become an engineer studying with Dr. Disaster (see his other class), I would have decided to try for a military career! This class is super! The models, the building of concepts step by step, everything is pitch perfect. SO many times we discover that our ancestors 3,000 y.a. had amazing engineering skills. PLEASE, everyone: the Romans called everyone else 'barbarians.' However, we in the 21st century should not use their contemptuous vocab! We switched Eskimo to Inuit and Indians to indigenous North Americans, etc. etc. The indigenous people of Europe deserve basic respect. They did not build vaulted basilica and complex aqueducts - but that's like saying every culture that does not create iPhones are 'savages' - the 17th-20th century contempt for every non-European, non-American culture. It's the same thing. Indigenous Europeans built admirable, socially-complex cultures and they deserve to be called 'indigenous Europeans' or 'native societies of the non-Roman world' - so many potential options. The Romans buried two Celtic prisoners alive, as a sacrifice to their gods, to save them from Hannibal, so ..... just because you can build an aqueduct (you can engineer in stone) does not make you morally superior. One thing I wish Wondrium would insist on: it's not AD, it's CE; BCE, not BC. Continuing with Before Christ, etc. for our international dating system - in the 21st Century? Come on! Most scholars are following the 'new' guidance (from 50 years ago, plenty of time to transition) but we all should.
Date published: 2022-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Ancestors Although I mention a few favorites here, this course has something for anyone interested in technology or building things. Doing this on audio is probably hopeless. What is most amazing about Ressler's course is how early “the ancients" figured things out complex technologies. His enthusiasm, depth of knowledge, and models brilliantly illuminate the many principles and engrossing stories of the great ancient effort. Example: Around 3200 BC, Ressler tells us that a bit of tin was added to copper to produce bronze. When I heard this, I asked myself: could I even identify tin ore? Would I ever think of throwing it into molten copper? Other Great Courses help. Tin is "chalcophilic" that is, sulfur loving (“Understanding the Periodic Table by Davis) allowing it to remain in sulfurous magma veins rather than sink into the earth. Like gold, its primary ore (cassiterite) gradually erodes and tin collects in river gravels as black “pebble tin". But the ancients had no such help. The curiosity of some ancient smith (or child) did the trick. Ressler, who also teaches at West Point, abounds with admiration of our forebears. One might expect an engineer to be conversant in the “flavors" of material stress (L2). He, however, also discusses the geochemical thin layers of clay atoms altered by kiln firing leading to new properties as crystalline ceramic. The Greek truss beam (converting load from bending to tension and compression) is the backbone of modern homes. L3 describes the huge efforts for quarrying marble (metamorphosed carbonate limestone, translucent up to 12 inches thick!) from stair-stepped hills. Cutting a series of holes along a groove at the base and then splitting it off with wedges was done manually. It was then moved down to a wagon with up to “12-foot-diameter wheels and…37 teams of oxen"! L4’s “entasis” discusses correction of an optical error in human vision by a slight upward arc in the Parthenon’s floor. L6: Discovery of concrete: mixing lime with a glassy, lighter-than-water volcanic pumice called pozzolana (rhyolite or dacite froth from super volcanoes - L8 Great Course: Nature of Earth, Renton) changed the world. On he goes: L6 – mass production and standardization; L7 - the polycentric oval of the Coliseum and its amazingly rapid construction; L8 – the octagonal vault, travertine, Trajan's Market with corbels to reduce outward tipping of a vault on a pier, the Roman claim to the earliest flying buttress, and kind words for Nero! L11 – Roman straight roads: construction specialized for infantry but not carts; Caesar's pile-driven Rhine trestle bridge; L12 to 15 - water systems including a 6th century BC 3,400 foot tunnel; Pergamon’s million gal/day 25 mile pipeline with an inverted siphon 2 miles long and 650’ deep; 250 PSI lead pipe; how calcium carbonate build-up was removed from water systems; Rome's 3rd century BC aqueducts exceeding NYC's capacity until the 20th century; ancient continuous vs. modern intermittent water flow systems; "the myth of lead poisoning”, “icky” ancient sewer systems and the marvels and purpose of Roman imperial bath construction. From L17 on, the technologies discussed center on heavy-duty industrial machines and war machines. Ressler’s models and visuals are of enormous help here. If you enjoy sailing, his L22 detailed description/visuals on ancient ship compensation for sagging and “hogging”, joinery, and sail/ rope identification are enormously helpful. L23 ‘s detective story about the reconstruction of a Greek Trireme is another high point COMMENT: It was a dark and stormy night...the plane could not take off…there was little time. We threw my son’s small luggage into the car and took off into the foul weather. His next day would be packed, and I urged him to sleep while I slowly drained two large vacuum bottles of coffee. Arriving early, we woke the hotel owner at 2 a.m. and paid a night’s rent for three hours sleep. As I drove out of the campus four hours later, I momentarily saw my Cadet in his first West Point formation. This 2014 course is an unofficial example of quality education that’s worth sacrificing for. It is also reflection of the devoted efforts of The Great Courses to bring the best teachers to us.
Date published: 2022-09-19
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Famed for great thinkers, poets, artists, and leaders, ancient Greece and Rome were also home to some of the most creative engineers who ever lived. Modern research is shedding new light on these renowned wonders-impressive buildings, infrastructure systems, and machines that were profoundly important in their own day and have had a lasting impact on the development of civilization. Now, in Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon, get an appreciation for what the Greeks and Romans achieved and how they did it. Your guide is Dr. Stephen Ressler, a former professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a civil engineer, and a nationally honored leader in engineering education.


Stephen Ressler

In over two decades as a teacher, I've never experienced anything quite like commitment of The Great Courses to rigor in the course development process and uncompromising production quality in the studio.


United States Military Academy, West Point

Stephen Ressler is a Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he taught for 21 years. He holds an MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia. He served in a variety of military engineering assignments in the United States, Europe, and Central Asia. He has focused his scholarly and professional work on engineering education and has won numerous national awards for engineering education and service.

By This Professor

Understanding the World's Greatest Structures
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology
Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach
Do-It-Yourself Engineering
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology


Technology in the Classical World

01: Technology in the Classical World

Begin your exploration of ancient Greek and Roman engineering by probing the technological edge that allowed the Greeks to beat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Then survey the aims of the course and preview an impressive piece of technology that you will encounter in a later lecture.

32 min
The Substance of Technology-Materials

02: The Substance of Technology-Materials

Study the engineering materials available in classical antiquity. First look at the simple physics of compression and tension. Then consider six specific materials: stone, wood, clay, copper, bronze, and iron. Examine how they came into use and how their properties influenced the design of technological systems.

29 min
From Quarry to Temple-Building in Stone

03: From Quarry to Temple-Building in Stone

Gain a deeper appreciation for the ancient world's most important construction material by following a block of stone from a quarry to its final resting place in the wall of a Greek temple. Learn how stone blocks were extracted from solid bedrock, moved many miles, and then fitted together without mortar.

30 min
Stone Masonry Perfected-The Greek Temple

04: Stone Masonry Perfected-The Greek Temple

Focus on the classical-era temple, one of the crowning achievements of Hellenic civilization. Where did it originate? Why are the many examples so architecturally consistent? What were the principles of Greek temple design? And what were its structural limitations?

29 min
From Temple to Basilica-Timber Roof Systems

05: From Temple to Basilica-Timber Roof Systems

No wooden roof of a Greek temple has survived from antiquity, yet we can surmise a great deal about how these impressive structures were engineered. Trace how Greek and later Roman architects covered large interior spaces with increasingly sophisticated timber roof systems.

31 min
Construction Revolution-Arches and Concrete

06: Construction Revolution-Arches and Concrete

Learn how the physics of the arch solves the problem of the tensile weakness of stone. Then see how standard bricks and concrete greatly simplify and reduce the cost of monumental building. These technologies were the key to Rome's construction revolution.

35 min
Construction in Transition-The Colosseum

07: Construction in Transition-The Colosseum

Built in the A.D. 70s, the Colosseum reflects a transitional period of Roman building technology. Follow the construction of this mammoth arena from the ground up. Begin with the geometry of the building. Then focus on its blend of traditional and state-of-the-art construction techniques.

30 min
The Genesis of a New Imperial Architecture

08: The Genesis of a New Imperial Architecture

Focus on two structures-Nero's Golden House and Trajan's Market-which are emblematic of Rome's bold new imperial architecture during the 1st and early 2nd centuries. These buildings feature complex vaulted and domed structures, asymmetrical floor plans, and striking interior spaces.

35 min
The Most Celebrated Edifice-The Pantheon

09: The Most Celebrated Edifice-The Pantheon

Conclude your study of great classical-era structures by examining the greatest of them all: the Pantheon in Rome. Imitated but never equaled, this temple to all the gods incorporates Greek as well as quintessentially Roman architectural features. The stupendous dome is a work of engineering genius.

27 min
Cities by Design-The Rise of Urban Planning

10: Cities by Design-The Rise of Urban Planning

Start a series of lectures on infrastructure in the classical world with a look at city planning. The Piraeus in Greece was an influential early example. Analyze the Roman approach to creating a rational order for their cities. Also learn the Roman technique for surveying a city plan.

27 min
Connecting the Empire-Roads and Bridges

11: Connecting the Empire-Roads and Bridges

At its height, the Roman Empire had 75,000 miles of public roads, organized into a system that incorporated way-stations, milestones, triumphal arches, and upward of 1,000 bridges. Investigate how the Romans created this impressive transportation network, parts of which have survived for 2,000 years.

35 min
From Source to City-Water Supply Systems

12: From Source to City-Water Supply Systems

Delve into the history of water supply technologies. The Greeks solved the problem of transporting water across deep valleys by building inverted siphons. By contrast, the Romans preferred to use arcaded aqueduct bridges whenever possible. Why was this apparently extravagant technique often more practical?

28 min
Engineering a Roman Aqueduct

13: Engineering a Roman Aqueduct

Design an aqueduct for a hypothetical Roman town. First identify a water source. Then consider its elevation and distance to the town, the possible terrain profiles for a channel, and the appropriate type of aqueduct. Conclude by examining the complex system that supplied plentiful water to Rome.

29 min
Go with the Flow-Urban Water Distribution

14: Go with the Flow-Urban Water Distribution

Trace the flow of water through a major city such as Rome-from the aqueduct to water towers, public fountains, buildings and private residences, and ultimately to sewers. Among the questions you consider: Did the widespread use of lead pipes create a lead poisoning hazard?

27 min
Paradigm and Paragon-Imperial Roman Baths

15: Paradigm and Paragon-Imperial Roman Baths

Complete your exploration of classical-era infrastructure by exploring one of the ancient world's finest examples of an engineered system: the imperial Roman baths. Focus on the magnificent Baths of Caracalla, finished in A.D. 235, by spotlighting the major steps in its five-year construction.

29 min
Harnessing Animal Power-Land Transportation

16: Harnessing Animal Power-Land Transportation

Begin a sequence of eight lectures on machines in the ancient world. After an introduction to the simple machines described by the Greeks, focus on land transport employing the wheel and axle. Discover that wagon technology reached a high level of sophistication in the Roman Empire.

31 min
Leveraging Human Power-Construction Cranes

17: Leveraging Human Power-Construction Cranes

How were giant stone blocks lifted using only muscle power? Examine the technology of classical-era cranes, breaking down their components to understand how they provided significant mechanical advantage. Close with a theory on the construction technique used to stack the massive marble drums of Trajan's Column in Rome.

31 min
Lifting Water with Human Power

18: Lifting Water with Human Power

In antiquity, water pumps were extensively used in ships, mines, and agriculture. Investigate how these devices worked. From Archimedes' screw, to the waterwheel, to the piston pump, each had tradeoffs between flow rate, height of lift, and muscle power required.

31 min
Milling Grain with Water Power

19: Milling Grain with Water Power

By the 1st century A.D., waterwheels were widely used for grinding grain throughout the ancient world. Explore three different types of waterwheels that were perfected by the Romans: the undershot wheel, the overshot wheel, and the vertical-shaft wheel, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

29 min
Machines at War-Siege Towers and Rams

20: Machines at War-Siege Towers and Rams

Focus on the ancient world's most technologically intensive form of warfare-the siege-which provided a powerful stimulus for the development of large-scale machines such as siege towers and rams. Analyze several famous sieges, including the Roman attack on Jotapata during the Jewish War.

31 min
Machines at War-Evolution of the Catapult

21: Machines at War-Evolution of the Catapult

Trace the evolution of the catapult, which overcomes the inherent human physiological limitations associated with the bow and arrow. From hand-operated crossbows, catapults progressed to giant artillery pieces able to shoot enormous arrows and hurl heavy projectiles. Revisit a type of catapult called the palintone from Lecture 1, and watch it in action.

34 min
Machines at Sea-Ancient Ships

22: Machines at Sea-Ancient Ships

Spurred by their dependence on maritime trade, the ancient Greeks became masters of nautical engineering. Follow the development of their ship design and sailing techniques, which were adopted by the Romans and paved the way for the great age of exploration in the 15th century.

34 min
Reconstructing the Greek Trireme

23: Reconstructing the Greek Trireme

The trireme, a swift warship with three banks of oars, ruled the Mediterranean Sea in the 5th century B.C., when the Athenian empire was at its height. Yet only sparse evidence remains for what these vessels were like. Follow a detailed reconstruction based on tantalizing clues.

33 min
The Modern Legacy of Ancient Technology

24: The Modern Legacy of Ancient Technology

Finish the course by exploring the legacy of classical-era technology, discovering that its influence is everywhere. From roads, aqueducts, and planned cities, to structural trusses, concrete, and the classical architectural style, the fruits of Greek and Roman engineering play a vital role in the modern world.

33 min