|Hmmm, thinks: if I were a Roman engineer, where would be the best place for me to stand under this bridge so it can be tested? (The Ponte di Tiberio, Rimini, dating to the principates of Augustus and Tiberius, early 1st cent. CE)|
First, never get on a plane if the pilot is not on board. ...We shouldn’t expect Mr Taleb to be very accurate about the Romans, mind. In 2017 he infamously had an online shouting match with Professor Mary Beard, the eminent Roman historian, in which he insisted tenaciously (and falsely) that there was racial purity within each province in the Roman empire.
The first heuristic addresses the asymmetry in rewards and punishment, or transfer of fragility between individuals. Ralph Nader has a simple rule: people voting for war need to have at least one descendant (child or grandchild) exposed to combat. For the Romans, engineers needed to spend some time under the bridge they built -- something that should be required of financial engineers today. The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge after it was built.
-- Taleb, Antifragile (2012), chap. 23
|I’d better grant that later in the same chapter Taleb adds a couple more snippets about the Romans which are at least partially accurate. (1) Roman soldiers had to swear a military oath on joining the army (apparently Taleb believes other armies don’t do that); (2) there existed an extremely rare military punishment called decimatio, the random execution of 1 in every 10 or every 100 soldiers (Taleb comments that ‘putting more than 10 per cent to death would lead to weakening of the army’ -- apparently a 10% casualty rate wouldn’t do that). It’s clear he gets his ancient history mainly from popular culture.|
|Predictable aswer alert! (QI, ‘Keys’, 2013)|
Stephen Fry. In Roman times, they’d get the constructor of the arch to stand right under the arch when the support scaffolding was taken away, just to show that he had faith enough in his own, er ...Notice how Stephen Fry spots the problem with having this as a story about bridges: he makes it about arches instead. There’s no basis for that either, just some imaginative rewriting, to try to get the story to make some kind of sense.
Tim Minchin. Well, it’s natural selection of arch-builders, isn’t it. Is that guy any good? Well he’s still here!
Isy Suttie. I like that idea of getting people to test things. It’s like going to a barbecue and getting someone to try the sausage.
-- QI, series 11 episode 8 ‘Keys’ (first broadcast 25 October 2013)
It wasn’t QI or Taleb that invented the story. The oldest version I’ve found is a signature line used in a USENET post back in 2004:
"When Roman engineers built a bridge, they had to stand under it while the first legion marched across. If programmers today worked under similar ground rules, they might well find themselves getting much more interested in Ada!"Robert Dewar was a computer scientist who ran a company involved with the Ada programming language. Is he the ultimate origin of the myth? Who knows.
-- Robert Dewar
But I will say this: to me, it sounds awfully like the kind of thing you might hear from a tour guide.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the story really originates with the Pons Fabricius, in central Rome. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from the Forum and from the Circus Maximus, and just around the corner from the Theatre of Marcellus. It was built in 62 BCE, and it’s still in use for pedestrians and cyclists to cross between the east bank and the Isola Tiberina.
|The Pons Fabricius, a.k.a. Ponte Fabricio|
L FABRICIVS C F CVR VIAR FACIVNDVM COERAVITBut in separate places, the following gets tacked on:
L(ucius) Fabricius G(ai) f(ilius), cur(ator) viar(um) faci<e>ndum, c<u>ravit
Lucius Fabricius, son of Gaius, curator in charge of making roads, supervised (the building of the bridge)
EIDEMQVE PROBAVEIT / IDEMQUE PROBAVIT(Don’t mind the spellings, that’s just what Latin looked like when Caesar was in his 30s.)
and the same man (i.e. Fabricius) approved it
The modern Italian derivative, ha provato, is more specific. It’s almost always going to mean ‘he tried, he demonstrated, he tested’. So if someone like a tour guide were explaining or describing the inscriptions, I’m imagining they might well give the the meaning as ‘test’.
And just to show how plausible this is, here’s an ancient history website set up by an Italian family that reports the inscription exactly like that.
A latin inscription above the arch, on both sides of the bridge reminds us that it was built by Fabricius curator viarum (warden of roads) and that "idemque probavit" - he personally tested it.I suggest we’ve got three stages in the development of the myth:
-- ‘Ancient Roman Bridges’, MariaMilani.com, May 2006
- The original: ‘Fabricius supervised the bridge, and the same man (idem) approved it (probavit).’
- An intermediate version, like on the MariaMilani site, with the mistranslations: ‘Fabricius built the bridge and personally (mistranslation of idem) tested it (mistranslation of probavit).’
- The misinterpretation of the mistranslation: ‘Fabricius built the bridge and personally tested it by standing underneath it.’
Of such things are myths made. Even ones as small as this.