Category Archives: Roman

Ancient flying machines!

I’m telling stories about ancient technology at Gloucester History Festival on Saturday, and flying machines do come into it…

People have always wanted to fly. The stories of the gods and goddesses of the world imagine our earthbound chariots and horses into the air – think of Helios’s sun chariot, or Freya’s chariot pulled by cats. Bellophron rides Pegasus, a flying horse born of Poseidon and Medusa. The Egyptian god Horus was a falcon-god. In the Ramayana, gods and demons have vimanas, chariots powered by the air.

Daedalus and Bladud

The most famous story is, of course, that of Daedalus and Icarus. The great Greek inventor, trapped on Crete with his son, devised wings made of feathers, string and wax, and flew safely to Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo – something we often forget when thinking of how Icarus fell to his death. There was nothing wrong with Daedalus’s wings! You just had to use them safely, as with any dangerous tool. Inspired by this, King Bladud of Britain, who had studied in Athens in his youth, built himself a pair of wings through his studies in necromancy (did he channel the spirit of Daedalus?) and flew from the temple of Apollo in London – but like Icarus, he fell, and died.

Alexander the Great

More successful early flights include that of Alexander the Great. In the Alexander Romance, which first appears about the 3rd century AD, Alexander has a number of strange adventures: he travels down to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell; he defeats the barbarians of the north giants Gog and Magog, and, ahem, builds a wall[i] to keep them out; his sister is turned into a mermaid. But he also flies. His flying machine is fairly basic – he goes up in a glass-bottomed chariot drawn by griffins chasing either jewels or meat held perpetually out of their grasp. Alexander goes further than Daedalus or Bladud – he travels so far into space that he can see the whole world, likened to a coiled snake, satisfying his desire to see the ends of the earth – and not learning the lesson of Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage, from Cicero’s On the Republic. Scipio dreams of flight, and is shown ‘how small the earth appears in view of heaven’s own immensity’, thus learning humility and showing how the mind should kept on spiritual, not earthly matters.

Icarus … again?

The satirical writer Lucien took to the skies twice in his writing. Firstly, the well-known journey to the moon in his ‘True History’, in which the protagonists are shot into the air in their ship by a water spout. Less well-known is the story of Icaromenippus, who, like Daedalus, builds wings and flies to Mount Olympus – where he discovers that Zeus is planning to king all philosophers for being useless – or at least will get round to it after the long vacation! Menippus feasts with the gods (and in true Roman fashion, is placed with the least favoured gods on the bottom table…) and sneaks a taste of ambrosia and nectar, but is deprived of his wings and set back down on the earth again by Hermes.[ii]

Eilmer, a Wiltshire aviator!

Daedalus was also the inspiration to the first non-legendary flight in Britain, that of Eilmer of Malmesbury, the story of which features in my book, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Eilmer was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey, much later than all these classical fantasies, and was known to the writer of his story, William of Malmesbury. The story is told in his Deeds of the English Kings of 1125. Eilmer only died in 1066, and so there would have monks at the abbey who would have remembered Eilmer when William first joined the monastery as a boy in the late 11th century.

As a historian, William is surprisingly well-respected – one of my favourite accounts of his is of the witch of Berkeley, a rather fantastical tale, which he preambles with the following:

At the same time something similar occurred in England, not by divine miracle, but by infernal craft; which when I shall have related, the credit of the narrative will not be shaken, though the minds of the hearers should be incredulous; for I have heard it from a man of such character, who swore he had seen it, that I should blush to disbelieve.[iii]

This is careful distancing! So why not a flying monk? William states that he was inspired by reading a book on Daedalus, and was inspired to build a pair of wings. William also says that he flew for more than a furlong – more than 200 metres – before the twin problems of the wind and his own realisation of what he was doing caused him crash. Powered flight it isn’t – but nonetheless, Eilmer flew – find out more about him and his experiences with Halley’s Comet in my Wiltshire Folk Tales.

He was the first in Britain, only following three other accounts of tower jumping, one in China in the 1st century AD, one in the 6th, and one in Spain in the 9th. The first Chinese jumper glided 100 metres – so Eilmer’s glide was twice as long.  The Chinese seem to have experimented with man-carrying kites, as well, and possibly the Japanese, too.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that flight took off, as it were, first with balloons, and the rest was history!


A cat flew in 1648. The Italian inventor Tito Livio Burattini built a model winged ‘dragon volant’ … at least he knew the passenger would always land on their feet…[iv]

When researching Heron of Alexandria, however, I discovered the earlier inventor, Archytas, from Tarentum in southern Italy. Archytas created a flying creature – a pigeon, powered by steam! See the excellent Kotsanas Museum for more:



[i] Trump might well be inspired by Alexander, a fellow narcissist. It’s not just the wall – consider Alexander’s bouffant blond locks and, er, Trump’s…


[iii] William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmesbury (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1815), p. 264



1: John Peter Gowy The Flight of Icarus, 1635-7. The Prado, Madrid.

2. Illustration from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, French, c. 1420, BL Royal 20 B XX

3. Eilmer copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2011


Roman Wonders! Heron of Alexandria and Ancient Automata

In a couple of weeks on Saturday 9 September I’m telling stories, Roman Wonders, as part of the Gloucester History Festival. Last year I was there telling Gloucestershire tales with Inkubus Sukkubus, but this is a little different – the brief was to tell stories of Roman invention and innovation for a family audience. So what did the Romans invent? I didn’t want to tell stories of siege engines or roads, so I looked further afield until I found what I wanted – steam engines, vending machines and robots!

In the course of researching content for the show I was suddenly reminded of a Roman period inventor who would be able to supply the kind of Roman Wonders I wanted. His name is Heron (or Hero – from the Greek word meaning ‘protector’ or ‘defender’, not the bird.) and he lived Alexandria, probably around the first century AD, and he designed steam engines and We don’t know much about the man than that – and even that is debatable, with dates given for him between 150 BC and 250 AD! He was probably a Greek. After all, Alexandria, founded by a Macedonian king in 331 BC, was the capital of the great Hellenistic state that only came to an end in about 30 BC after Cleopatra VII’s death, when Egypt was annexed into the Roman Empire by Octavian.

Alexandria was an exciting place to be if you were a thinker or an inventor. The great museum (or mouseion – not the kind of museum I work in – but rather a shrine to the muses) there had been founded by the first Hellenistic kings, Ptolemy Soter, who may, like his friend and king, Alexander the Great, have been taught by the philosopher Aristotle. Ptolemy had travelled the world with Alexander, and seems to have shared his love of learning. It amassed as much of the knowledge of the ancient as it could. Unfortunately, its library was burnt down (probably…) during the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey in 48 BC… The library rose, phoenix-like, from the flames, and by Heron’s time it was flourishing again. The museum was a research institute and university, and Heron taught there. As we don’t know anything about his life, we can imagine a comfortable life for him, with a tenured position at the museum, some teaching, a lot of writing, and a lot of experimenting and completing commissions of his machines for temples and theatres and other clients.

He certainly wrote a lot – and here I am coming up against the fact that I didn’t even do physics gcse. He wrote on hydraulics, pneumatics, mathematics – and automata. He’s said to have invented the windmill, but typically, this innovation that would change the world he used to power a musical organ. Indeed, our Heron seems to have had a latent desire for the theatre as his inventions are extremely theatrical.

Simpler designs include mechanical birds that could sing and flap their wings – there was even one that protected her family of chicks from a snake! These were powered by either air or liquids, and are toys, curiosities:

Some of his most complex designs were whole mechanical theatres. To our jaded eyes these seem very simple, but imagine yourself back to the time of Heron and it would truly be a wonder. It moves by itself! Fires are lit! Water pours! The figures move! Music plays! This video, from the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, shows a recreated model of the Dionysus theatre:

However, among these less practical items, there are one that would have provoked religious awe. It seems that Heron was supplying the Alexandrian temples with the means making their parishioners believe that supernatural forces were at work… For example, Heron invented the first automatic doors. Today, we don’t think when a door opens in front of us, but then, the only way to open a door would have been with manpower … unless it was godpower that was doing it. Or mechanics. Outside, under the portico of a temple, there would have been an altar fire where sacrifices could be seen even by those who couldn’t go in the temple. Heron cleverly linked up the lighting of the fire with the opening of the door using weights and counterweights. Here’s a little video, part of an Ancient Discoveries programme by the History Channel:

Perhaps his most famous invention, however, was a steam engine. It’s called an aeolipile, and it works by heating up water and forcing the steam through two jets, which cause the ball to spin around.  Here’s Charles Baetsen’s recreation of it:


As it is, it’s a toy, but imagine if Heron had applied it! We might have had an industrial revolution nearly 2000 years before it actually happened. Admittedly, it’s probably very good for the earth that that didn’t happen, but I can’t help envisaging an alternative steampunk past that isn’t Victorian in style, but rather Roman. Crack out your togas, reenactors!

If you’d like to find out about these ancient technologies, and more tales besides, come and join me for my family friendly storytelling show as part of Gloucester History Festival at 3.45pm on Saturday 9 September at Blackfriars, Gloucester. It’s free! I’ll be blogging about the other tales I’m telling over the next couple of weeks – so come back to the blog for tales of Alexander the Great, the Roman god Vulcan and Aesop and more!


First image: Modern reconstruction of wind organ and wind wheel of Heron of Alexandria (1st century AD) according to W. Schmidt: Herons von Alexandria Druckwerke und Automatentheater, Greek and German, 1899 (Heronis Alexandrini opera I, Reprint 1971), p. 205, fig. 44; cf. introduction p. XXXIX