Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Rediscoving How We Conquered Ancient Futures Past

Written by: Jim O’Donnell

Who blows your mind who has actually succeeded in designing the human future?  Who would you want to talk to?   And why?

I vote for Appius Claudius Caecus, censor at Rome in the year 312 BCE, consul in 307.  He was the most remarkable figure of his age, for example for breaking down certain barriers to political activity for the notionally lower classes at Rome.  But as design professional, he mastered two of the four ancient elements, earth and water, leaving air and fire for others.

For Appius Claudius was the visionary behind the creation of the first of the great Roman roads – the Appian Way – and the first Roman aqueduct – the aqua Appia.  The road ran in a nearly straight line from Rome to Capua, about 130 miles, notably a nearly twenty mile stretch across the Pomptine Marshes, intractable wetlands that severely hampered travel from Rome south.  But the road was necessary for other reasons in a Mediterranean world of rainy winters and heavy dependence on land travel, especially for armies.  Without the technology of built-up roads, the earthen paths of yore turned to mud everywhere in winter, while storms on the Mediterranean drove boats to shore for protection for the same period.  The world Rome knew went quiet for months at a time.  Appius’s road was the first effective stratagem to master the seasons.

Appius’s aqueduct was no less remarkable and powerful.  It started out in the hills east of Rome and ran about ten miles, descending by about 10 meters over that distance, enough to allow an estimated 75,000 cubic meters of water a day to flow in, distributed along the way, with the remnant reaching its terminus at Rome’s cattle market by the Tiber’s banks.  This too was a stratagem to master the seasons, providing water year-round, reliably, for a growing population.

Why does Appius Claudius so stand out?  What I like is that this was design that enabled design, design that made every Roman citizen and every Roman official a potential designer.  Mastering the seasons is essential to building sustainable, continuing communities that can grow, prosper, and, yes, throw their weight around.  We should not over-cathect to Rome without bearing in mind that its imperialist behavior was problematic, often in the extreme.  But at the same time we should not deny Rome credit for the shaping mastery of these inventions. 

Appius Claudius didn’t design a city or design an empire.  But his design made it amazingly more possible for others to do that work, and do it they did, going from success to success, over the decades and centuries that followed.  That’s the design I like:  new technology, new possibilities, biasing in favor of simplicity and elegance, and enabling individuals to answer their own needs in ways that serve the good of the whole.

What would I ask him?  I’d want to know how this happened – was it him uniquely, or had they all been talking about it for years and he was the “what the heck let’s just do it” innovator?  Did it seem possible because of new technology?  Or was it the growing wealth/power/ambitions of the city of Rome?  Did he have any idea what it would lead to, or did it just seem like a good idea at the moment for the moment? 

So it’s Appius Claudius for me.  If I can’t have him, I’m afraid I have to take Julius Caesar, whose reform of the calendar in the 40s BCE mastered not just the seasons, but time itself – and we still order our lives the way he wanted us to.  Another story.


About James J. O'Donnell 

Jim is the ASU University Librarian and Professor at The School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.  He is a recognized innovator in the application of networked information technology in higher education. In 1990, he co-founded Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the second on-line scholarly journal in the humanities ever created.  In 1994, he taught an Internet-based seminar on the work of Augustine of Hippo that reached 500 students, deserving to be called the first MOOC. His most recent books – Augustine: A New Biography and The Ruin of the Roman Empire and Pagans – bring cutting-edge scholarship to a wide audience.  Of most relevance to the future of libraries is his Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.