Were the Romans more energy efficient than we are?

According to Eon, we could learn a lot from the Romans about energy efficiency. To coincide with the launch of their new website which apparently helps consumers measure and cut down on their energy use, they have teamed up with Prof Andrew Wilson from the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University to come up with four ways in which the Romans were more efficient users of energy than us:

  1. Underfloor heating systems. Romans would light a furnace and then use a series of underfloor passageways to heat rooms around the villa. Much more effieicnt, says Eon, than nasty radiators.
  2. Using the same energy source to heat water and rooms. The hypocaust system used above could also be used to heat water, especially at the public baths.
  3. Water efficiency. Whereas we use drinking water to flush the toilet and shower with, the Romans had different quality water depending on what they used it for.
  4. Using recycled building materials. The Romans would use material such as broken ceramics as an ingredient in cement.

Which all sounds fine, until you read some of what was written about housing at the time. Most Romans of course didn’t live in villas at all, but often in tenement buildings and tower blocks, which were prone to collapsing and burning down.

In one letter to Atticus for example, Cicero, who owned several apartment buildings, writes flippantly:

The collapse of the buildings has not lowered the returns, indeed I think it may actually have increased them.

Plutarch meanwhile writes of:

the accidents that were familiar at Rome, conflagrations and tumbling down of houses owing to their weight and crowded state

But Eon is right in one way – carbon levels were much lower in 25BC than they are now.

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