The water-mill, “perhaps the only aspect of ancient technology to escape obscurity”,1 has—with good reason—been allotted a particular significance for the history of economics and technology. Not only was it the first prime mover in the hands of man, but the importance of water-power for the evolution of European industrialism from the Late Middle Ages onwards is so obvious that it has broadly been equated with economic growth. Considering the importance attached to the phenomenon, it is, however, astonishing how little effort has been made, until recently, to establish the basic facts concerning its early history.
The essential literary sources were well known in the seventeenth century and were supplemented in to the nineteenth century by some epigraphical evidence.2 Archaeology entered late into the discussion. Mills were discovered occasionally, but their importance was little appreciated by the excavators. Some are mentioned cursorily in archaeological publications, but they were almost completely ignored by students of water-mills up until the Second World War. During the late 1930s, however, the situation changed drastically through careful publications about three important Roman water-mills: the Agora of Athens, Venafro, and Barbegal.3 This could have been the beginning of more serious efforts to illuminate the history of early water-mills. Instead, a new generation of economic historians managed, for a long time, to thwart such efforts completely by more or less denying that water-mills were of any importance at all in Antiquity.4 Only in the 1980s did a new attitude to the issue prevail: the last two decades have added enormous amounts of new facts to our knowledge, and important synthetic and analytic studies.
1 Greene 1994, 24.
2 See particularly the material collected in Beckmann 1788, 1–68; Blümner 1912,
3 Parsons 1936; Jacono 1938; Benoît 1940.
4 See, particularly, Bloch 1935; Gille 1954; White 1962, 79–83; Finley 1965.