AHC: Roman Atlantropa

I was having a discussion with e of pi about hair-brained schemes when, between the two of us, we came up with one of our own, and I must warn you all, it's a doozy:

Atlantropa (or Panropa) was a project devised by German architect Herman Sorgel in the 1920s IOTL. It involved damming several of the major waterways of the Mediterranean basin to provide vast amounts of hydroelectric power for industrial Europe, along with reclaimed land for the highly territorial populations of the era. It achieved some degree of popularity at the beginning of the Great Depression, before it faded only to again pick up some currency during the height of the "United Europe" mania of the post-war period. Even assuming that a project of such grand scale is technologically feasible, it never would have happened in the 20th century for geopolitical reasons - only if the entire Mediterranean basin were under the control of a single power could such a thing be politically achievable. As we all know, that situation has only happened once in recorded history. Fortunately, that one time, the civilization in question was known for their engineering prowess (especially with regards to water), their fondness for public works projects, their large and hungry population, and their willingness to do most anything for the good of Senatus Populusque Romanus.

Which is why the thread is in this forum. Consider this the ultimate evolution of the "steampunk industrial Rome" scenarios - not only does Rome survive, not only does she industrialize, but she maintains control of the entire Med basin, and develops her engineering technology to the level where such an advanced project is within her grasp, and that she has the political will to make it happen. Can the Romans assert the ultimate control over mare nostrum?
 
As much as the Romans are admired for their engineering capabilities, I believe they were a step behind the Hellenistic Greeks. Still, since I have no idea if this is possible. Maybe it'd be more likely in a Hellenistic empire spanning the Mediterranean, but I guess the Romans could pull it off. Then again, Im not going to pretend to know how feasible this is, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
 
This idea is interesting, in its absolutely crazy way.

Of course, Atlantropa was outlandish foolishness when first proposed and hasn't gained much from the time passed.
Assuming that, somehow, the Romans industrialize while keeping their Empire more or less intact, well, their enginerring abilities are... well, whatever. They might industrialize in 900 AD, for all we know, and get the technical ability to go on with Atrantropa in, say, 1400, after that of course they collapse after one the worst ecological disasters ever recorded.
 
Completely an utterly impossible.

It was calculated in the 30s that just to build the Gibraltar Dam alone would require the entire planet's concrete production to be dedicated to this sole task for about 40 years- you're probably looking at 5 times the length at least for Rome considering the difficulty with supplies (where they're going to get all that volcanic ash for their concrete I don't know).

This is, of course, ignoring the fact that even a unified power controlling the med wouldn't want to enact the Atlantropa project for the simple reason that it has no use other than crippling the entire economy, climate and culture of the Mediterranean, rendering every port useless, reducing rainfall and replacing fertile seas with infertile, salt-saturated soil that can't be used for farming.
 
This is probably not the place to wave a little Greenpeace flag around, but it would destroy the environment of the Mediterranean.

Also, IDK if the Romans' engineering was that far advanced. Viaducts, aqueducts, roads, yes. I've never heard of the Romans attempting a dam.

And also, what would the purpose be this dam? The Romans don't have electricity, or any pressing energy needs. So reclaimed land would be used like the polders in the Netherlands. And even then, who's to say that this land would be usable?
 
As much as the Romans are admired for their engineering capabilities, I believe they were a step behind the Hellenistic Greeks.
Really? All due respect to Ancient Greece, but I'd consider engineering one of the few disciplines in which the Romans were unquestionably their better - we don't talk about Greek roads and bridges which are still in use today, nor do we marvel over Greek plumbing and central heating, nor do we admire the ingenuity of the Greek arch.

Not to take anything away from what the Greeks did build, of course.

slydessertfox said:
Still, since I have no idea if this is possible. Maybe it'd be more likely in a Hellenistic empire spanning the Mediterranean, but I guess the Romans could pull it off.
Politically, the main problem with a Hellenistic empire being in a position to attempt something ludicrous like Atlantropa is twofold:

  • Alexander's empire never controlled the entire Med - not even close; and
  • His empire almost immediately fractured upon his death - to be picked apart, appropriately enough, by the Romans (among others).
That said, another of the hair-brained ideas I had was to somehow tie this into (and perhaps make it the end result of?) the classic "WI Archimedes is captured alive by the Romans" POD. Obviously Archimedes wouldn't be designing any dams, but who knows how many years - or even decades - the knowledge he would generate might trim from the centuries (or millennia?) it would take for Atlantropa to be realized from a POD in 212 BC. (Hey, go big or go home, right?)

It was calculated in the 30s that just to build the Gibraltar Dam alone would require the entire planet's concrete production to be dedicated to this sole task for about 40 years- you're probably looking at 5 times the length at least for Rome considering the difficulty with supplies (where they're going to get all that volcanic ash for their concrete I don't know).
Fair enough - it would take an exceedingly long time and a great deal of resources. Which is why only a strong polity with an established track record for public works projects built on a grand scale might be able to pull it off. However, volcanic ash is probably one of Rome's lesser concerns - don't forget that Mount Vesuvius is within spitting distance of the Eternal City and is specifically known for ejecting large volumes of ash as it erupts. Consider Pompeii (if we're to assume that the famous eruption of AD 79 isn't butterflied). Perhaps the Romans might feel the need to excavate the city much earlier than IOTL in order to secure the ash for concrete production?

Alex Richards said:
This is, of course, ignoring the fact that even a unified power controlling the med wouldn't want to enact the Atlantropa project for the simple reason that it has no use other than crippling the entire economy, climate and culture of the Mediterranean, rendering every port useless, reducing rainfall and replacing fertile seas with infertile, salt-saturated soil that can't be used for farming.
I'm not a geologist or hydrologist, nor do I know the least bit about either of these fields, but there is such a thing as soil desalination. Assuming they could somehow salvage (for lack of a better term) the salts they extract, that might actually serve as a motivator for the Romans - they loved their salt.

As far as ecological concerns...

This is probably not the place to wave a little Greenpeace flag around, but it would destroy the environment of the Mediterranean.
The Soviet Union willfully destroyed the Aral Sea for the benefit of their cotton crop in Central Asia IOTL; granted, that was on a smaller scale, but it does happen.

JonasResende said:
Also, IDK if the Romans' engineering was that far advanced. Viaducts, aqueducts, roads, yes. I've never heard of the Romans attempting a dam.
Oh, yes, the Romans built plenty of dams - some of which are still in use to this day.

JonasResende said:
And also, what would the purpose be this dam? The Romans don't have electricity, or any pressing energy needs. So reclaimed land would be used like the polders in the Netherlands. And even then, who's to say that this land would be usable?
The AHC acknowledges an industrial revolution as a precondition for Atlantropa to proceed.

Thanks for your input, everyone - however outlandish and improbable this might be, it's still a lot of fun to think about.
 
Even allowing for soil desalinization, that would still be a ludicrously massive ecological disaster. And yes, the Romans valued salt, but unless they devise a way to fuel a portable fusion engine with it, I am at loss as to why they could ever think that they would need to dry a substantal part of the Med to get it.
That doesn't mean it couldn't be attempted, of course; humans seem to a knack for embarking in incredibly crazy projects that backfire horribly.
One would hope that any society with the technical, economical and political ability to pull off such a scheme, or even the delusion thereof, would also have the scientific basis to understand why it is stupid beyond description in the first place. But honestly, OTL has provided a lot of counterexamples, although on far smaller scale (off the top of my head, Aral Sea has been mentioned, and there was an even crazier Soviet scheme to divert the Siberian rivers into Central Asia; I have been told that the Aswan Dam has proved a fairly spectacular bad idea, don't quote me on that though; there's a couple of very embarassing problems with nuclear reactors; and on an even smaller scale, Vajont is a particularly embarrassingly example - sorry for linking Wikipedia, the article however is decent summary of the events as I know them).
 
Fair enough - it would take an exceedingly long time and a great deal of resources. Which is why only a strong polity with an established track record for public works projects built on a grand scale might be able to pull it off. However, volcanic ash is probably one of Rome's lesser concerns - don't forget that Mount Vesuvius is within spitting distance of the Eternal City and is specifically known for ejecting large volumes of ash as it erupts. Consider Pompeii (if we're to assume that the famous eruption of AD 79 isn't butterflied). Perhaps the Romans might feel the need to excavate the city much earlier than IOTL in order to secure the ash for concrete production?

Nowhere near enough I'm afraid. Roman Concrete was much more similar to Portland Cement than modern concrete, and as such is considerably weaker. Even assuming that we're talking about reinforced Roman concrete, then you probably need to double or even triple the dimensions of the dam. At this point we're probably talking about over half the empire's entire workforce engaged in simply making the concrete for it, with another quarter in transportation and building, leaving the remaining quarter to cover everything from beauocracy to the military to farming and manufacturing everything else which is needed. Now it's possible that they could move on to modern concrete which would reduce the amount needed to a slightly more feasible amount, but considering the amount of money required to plough into this project, it seems to be a bloody big target for accusations of waste which could topple a government, and the first thing that would be put on hold if cash was short. It's just not all that practical a way of doing anything (indeed that was the whole point, secure peace by bankrupting everyone and tying up the global workforce and resources on a massive boondoggle that would take decades to build).

I'm not a geologist or hydrologist, nor do I know the least bit about either of these fields, but there is such a thing as soil desalination. Assuming they could somehow salvage (for lack of a better term) the salts they extract, that might actually serve as a motivator for the Romans - they loved their salt.

As far as ecological concerns...

The Soviet Union willfully destroyed the Aral Sea for the benefit of their cotton crop in Central Asia IOTL; granted, that was on a smaller scale, but it does happen.

Oh, yes, the Romans built plenty of dams - some of which are still in use to this day.

The AHC acknowledges an industrial revolution as a precondition for Atlantropa to proceed.

Thanks for your input, everyone - however outlandish and improbable this might be, it's still a lot of fun to think about.

Yeah, but Moscow wasn't sitting on the Aral Sea, nor was it central to the entire economy of the Soviet Union. This is more along the lines of New York deciding to go ahead with plans to infill the entirety of the Harbour or the US deciding to drain the Great Lakes or the Soviet Union damming the Baltic and rendering the ports of St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad useless. It's pointlessly self-destructive beyond any reason.

And as for soil desalination, well it might just be possible to do eventually, but not before the entire ecology, economy and political system of this Rome collapses. Not to mention the seismic issues related to having to try and dam the Straights of Gibraltar and Messina.

The bottom line is, I'm not certain it's technically possible to actually pull of Atlantropa using even modern technology. The damns are at the very limits of the technologically possible given the fact that they need to be earthquake proof and would be squashed lengthways by continental drift. Digging new channels and canals and so forth for ports would be possible but a project as large as building the dams themselves, and the soil desaliniation is quite possibly beyond current technology to achieve within a human lifetime even using all this new power from the dams. Even ignoring political issues, even an industrialised Rome would be almost certain to fail.
 
Really? All due respect to Ancient Greece, but I'd consider engineering one of the few disciplines in which the Romans were unquestionably their better - we don't talk about Greek roads and bridges which are still in use today, nor do we marvel over Greek plumbing and central heating, nor do we admire the ingenuity of the Greek arch.
[\quote]im pretty sure the Greeks had all I the above . Seriously though, at least science in general took a step backin the imperial age. The Romans learned almos everything not military they knew from the Greeks.
 
Even ignoring political issues, even an industrialised Rome would be almost certain to fail.

The OP will have to forgive me if I misunderstood him, but I believe the idea is that if the Romans have an Industrial Revolution in 900 they would be able to harness the production to build the dam by the 1400's, just as OTL had an Industrial Revolution in the 1800's and will presumably be up to the challenge at some point before the year 2300.

Although it's a bit weird to imagine "future technology" in 1400, but who knows? If we extend 1000 years out to 1900 with an industrial Rome POD, there is absolutely no way to predict what they would be capable of.
 
It involved damming several of the major waterways of the Mediterranean basin to provide vast amounts of hydroelectric power for industrial Europe, along with reclaimed land for the highly territorial populations of the era. It achieved some degree of popularity at the beginning of the Great Depression, before it faded only to again pick up some currency during the height of the "United Europe" mania of the post-war period. Even assuming that a project of such grand scale is technologically feasible, it never would have happened in the 20th century for geopolitical reasons - only if the entire Mediterranean basin were under the control of a single power could such a thing be politically achievable. As we all know, that situation has only happened once in recorded history. Fortunately, that one time, the civilization in question was known for their engineering prowess (especially with regards to water), their fondness for public works projects, their large and hungry population, and their willingness to do most anything for the good of Senatus Populusque Romanus.

Atlantropa or whatever it is called is absolutely the most insane thing I have ever heard of. The aftermath of taking out a huge body of water such as the Mediterranean would effect the entire world one way or another. It would mean the Sahara expanding across into Europe and Asia! IT IS INSANE and coming from someone who has loved the Mediterranean sea all my life. It would be absolutely impossible.
 
As much as the Romans are admired for their engineering capabilities, I believe they were a step behind the Hellenistic Greeks.
How so? And besides, according to OP this rome would have survived and advanced(though I am not at all qualified to judge the feasibility of this project).
 
I would suggest that the Romans would not use concrete for the whole thing for several reasons.

Most big dams iOTL are earth-fill - but that still requires a concrete or whatever surface.

The biggest problem I see with concrete is that you can't build a concrete dam IN water. IIRC, big dam projects diverted water flow to build (at least part) of the dam on dry land, then switching the diversion so the other side could be done. You can't do that with an ocean strait.

I would guess that what would happen would be that massive boulders would be tipped into the strait, with the expectation that once they filled it up, the dam would (largely) be in place. Of course, you're talking cubic km of rock, which would be ... 'interesting' ... to quarry and transport to the site, but given a couple of thousand years....

Ball park figures
narrowest portion is 14km
depth at that point .9km (round to 1km)
assume a triangular cross section with 45 degree slope, that's a 1km² cross section.
total volume is therefore ~14km³ (or so. 45 degrees is a steep slope, but the depth won't be .9 km the whole way).

Assuming rocks with a specific gravity of ~2.5 (average for limestone, a bit light for granite), and you need 35 billion tonnes of rock.

Assume a wagon can carry 1 tonne of rock, and that you can arrange a constant stream of wagons to bring and dump rock one every minute (and that you're doing it from both sides of the strait). (So that's 30sec / tonne)

there's 3.1E7 seconds in a year, so that's 1E6 wagons or tonnes of rock dumped / year. So.... Hmmm... 35k years to build it.

Oh my.

Hmmm... How about ships dropping 100 tonnes, arriving once every 5 minutes... that gets it down to 3.5k years. Nope. Not much improvement.


Edit:
Rail! That's the ticket. You build a rail line coming in on each side with horse drawn rail carts each holding up to 100 tonnes of rock, and dump THEM into the straits at 1/minute.

There. We can bring the whole project down to about 350 years, which is ... ridiculous, but theoretically possible.
 
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