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I need help in figuring out how to form an air force in the roman empire. In my story a time traveller goes back in time to ancient rome and becomes emperor and begins his attempt at modernizing the legions. I would prefer if no magic was involved, other than that all ideas are accepted.

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    $\begingroup$ what has steampunk to do with ancient Rome? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 11, 2019 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ Why specifically "air force"? Have you resolved all other problems? Has he managed to update the economy, free the slaves, introduce gunpowder, revolutionize trade and industry, develop chemistry and metallurgy, etc. etc. etc. so that all that it's needed is the air force? Note that what he has when the air force is that remaining thing to be done is most definitely what most people would think as the Roman Empire. I would dearly love to read the ten or so books describing how the hero progressed from, say, Vespasian's Rome to the point where an air force makes sense. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 11, 2019 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP my first thought as well. Do Romans need an air force? What for, to wage war on the eagles? While the legionaries are roaming the skies, the barbarians would still be sacking the lands, so little benefit there. Maybe this could just be airdrops for faster transportation but...it needs serious investment in time and resources to make a fast air transport for significant amount of people. Some sort of zeppelin or balloon might be more likely to show up but it hardly serves a purpose. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Oct 11, 2019 at 6:53
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    $\begingroup$ are you asking for plane design under roman technology? or in how to use this air force in battle? or just how to form or train them to become air force unit? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Oct 11, 2019 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ I hate to say it, but this question is likely to get put on hold. Can you elaborate or add some examples that may have popped up in your mind so we can get more specific? "I want a roman empire flying Spitfires" kind of thing. Or maybe just an indication of powered flight, or is any way of getting one's feet off the ground..... $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Oct 11, 2019 at 16:25

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The only "airforce" that can be plausibly created in a lifetime of time-traveler are incredibly expensive hot air ballons and extremely dangerous human-lifting kites. Both used for reconnaissance and communications. But it's just not worth it. They would be just expensive toys with minimum applications.

  • Selfpropelled planes - definitely no. There was no light and powerfull power source. Those "steam turbines" were highly inefficient and heavy (made from bronze).

  • Gliders - maybe, but unlikely: unlike kites, they require stronger, more durable low weight materials, just to not fall apart in a midflight (nothing saying about landing). And, most important, they require extremely high for that time period crafting skills, to make that glider symmetrical and balanced enough to be stable at flight. And even if romans manage it - it will hardly lift one human and will have aerodynamic quality (glide distance divided by start height) less, then modern parachutes. And it can't be used for any military purpose (if not turned into kite)

Roman military mashine was perfect for that time period and region - it had nothing to improve. And the only challenge it had was itself. Civil wars did more damage for Republic and Empire than any enemy did.

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    $\begingroup$ >> But it's just not worth it., It is actually worth it, If I can make humans fly in that period of time, I might not even have to go to war. I can simply show of my magical powers and make the petty humans (of other nations) bow before the incarnation of GOD himself. $\endgroup$
    – V.Aggarwal
    Oct 11, 2019 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ There were so many incarnations of gods at that moment (emperor already was a leader of religion - those "august" title) - it would not make others bow, but provoke another civil war. And penecilin would had much greater effect than any "tech mirracle" $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Oct 11, 2019 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ Even with modern knowledge of fluids and buoyancy, I don't know that the Romans could even make a hot air balloon. I highly doubt they had access to a fuel source with enough energy density (consider hot air balloons that use refined fuels like propane), and I'm not sure they could even make an airtight fabric light enough to use as a balloon. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Oct 11, 2019 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ Romans had silk from China, and coal is good enough for reconnaissance blum sitting low, tight by the rope (you can always lift up more with another rope). We are not talking here abot crosscountry trips, but battlefield observations. $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Oct 11, 2019 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't think silk would be suitable due to its low melting point. But apparently the first hot air balloons used it, so I'll concede the point. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Oct 11, 2019 at 16:36
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As I have commented on other answers I do not think any traditional form of aircraft is viable for the Romans. They would need to bootstrap hundreds of years of advancement in materials science, metallurgy, mechanical knowledge, tooling and machining, mining etc. to produce any kind of engine, and not much less than that to make a hot air balloon.

That means we have to think outside the box.

Wooden gliders

Very situational, high risk of being shot down or just landing in an inconvenient place. Would require a nearby hill or mountain for a gravity-powered launch. Maybe you could launch one from a ballista or tow it behind a team of horses?

Seems like this is nothing but a liability though - and you might be better off just firing the ballista (or horses) at people.

Well-trained animals

Get pigeons to drop hot coals on the enemy. Bat-bombs. Release a swarm of mosquitoes and give the enemy malaria (biological warfare!) Angry war hornets. Launch rabid squirrels from catapults! Hm, now I think I'm getting off-topic.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd really like to see a wooden glider launched from a ballista! Seems like something the Romans would do.... $\endgroup$
    – cegfault
    Oct 11, 2019 at 15:47
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The time traveler shows them how to build steam engines and how to create electrical power. Then he shows them that steam engines are much better than slaves for many applications.

Then the time traveler announces he will sleep for 20 years to restore his godlike powers, and he will come back looking exactly the same.

The time traveler uses his time machine to jump 20 years into the future from his current point. He looks how far the romans have advanced and guides them some more, then he skips time again.

Once the first steam engine was built things moved fast in the real world, there even where steam powered planes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_aircraft

The hard thing our time traveler has to figure out is how to skip ahead to allow technology to advance and still remain emperor.

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    $\begingroup$ Steam power itself is not sufficient for this. The Ancient Greeks knew about steam power (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile). The reason it took so long for steam to become an industrial application was that society did not have the knowledge of mechanics, materials science and machining accuracy required to make a nontrivial engine. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Oct 11, 2019 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ There was never a steam powered aircraft which actually flew successfully with one or more people on board. The only one which at least came close was Henri Giffard's steam powered dirigible (1852), but even it was only half-successful -- it was not powerful enough to fly against the wind... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 11, 2019 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ My point really is that the time traveler can show them how to do stuff and just skip ahead, he/she is a time traveler after all.. After the start of industrialsation things moved incredibly fast. $\endgroup$
    – Fels
    Oct 12, 2019 at 18:01
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Powered flight would be extremely difficult, if not impossible in Roman times even if they had instructions. The primary difficulty would be the power plant which would require precision engineering of a sort that was not present in ancient Rome. Advances could be made but progress would be slow as so many required technologies would be needed the absence of each slowing the overall development down. Things like metallurgy, machine tools and electric power to name few.

It might well be possible to build gliders with detailed instruction, a lightweight wooden frame and stretched fabric skin. And they might even fly given enough time, effort and lives, but it is debatable if this would constitute an “Air Force”. Such craft would be very easy to damage and cumbersome to move around. It is unlikely they would be of much use during most battles, but might find some application.

If a city was under siege in a hilly or mountainous area such craft might be used to overfly the city and drop flammable materials or fire bombs. It might even work (although the danger of setting the glider alight would be a significant hazard). That said ballistae would probably be much easier, the real advantage of the glider would be as a brightly painted terror weapon.

Hot air balloons might also be possible made of paper or better still with silk, however paper is relatively heavy and silk was a very rare and expensive luxury item in Rome. Had such a craft been made it might have served as a tethered observation platform, but the practicalities of such an arrangement would have been dubious.

A fire balloon might have been slightly more practical as a terror weapon in some circumstances (although still at the mercy of the wind) perhaps for use inside a city during a siege. Wait for the right wind direction then loft some large paper balloons with highly inflammable payloads and a long cord. Let them drift over the enemy and then ignite and release the payload.

So in summary, a “proper” Air Force would not be a practical proposition, however some air based weapons might be developed. How practical they would be and whether they would constitute an Air Force are debateable.

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Paragliding and Parasailing could be options, especially because most cities (read: most military targets) would be near an ocean or river, where boats (with the right wind conditions) could be enough to get parasailers in the air and steering in the right direction. For areas near mountains or cliffs - where "near" could be a few miles away - paragliders could be trained.

Working and stable parachutes could be made from animal skins - albeit imperfect and dangerous by modern standards.

Warfare in Roman times often included besieging cities (where gliders could fly over the city walls), or meeting in large groups face-to-face in fields or hills (where gliders could route over bridges, rivers, or even simply group up and throw arrows from the sky). This would require defenses that were sealed above - digging ditches or building walls would not be enough defense. Furthermore, calvary would be vulnerable as they could not easily hide from the arrows raining from above, as foot solders had different shields.

This type of basic "air force" would give a significant and plausible advantage simply because of it's asymmetrical tactics.

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The obvious answer is to do hot air balloons.

But if your character is creative and has some historical interest, he could take inspiration from the first human propelled planes which were basically gliding-bikes. Bikes are a must have for your kind of story anyway (revolution of transports for the common people, can be used on Roman roads...), the emperor would just use a special one for his daring friends.

Also, if you aim to modernize Rome, you should seriously consider the invention of the radio. Though the Hertzian waves, the voice of your emperor could spread through the whole empire, protecting the borders from foreign aggressions would also be significantly easier.

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Your best bet for an aerial force would be to use balloons.

The Montgolfier Brothers Figured out how to make balloons out of paper and were able to lift fairly substantial amounts firing them with a variety of fuels. So you do not necessarily need silk or refined fuels to make them reliable devices to get up in the air.

The best way to use these wonderful things is for observation and for sniping! Tether the balloons to control where they go and allow them to get high enough out of archer range. From here, you have some options. Since you are tethered, you can rig a simple message system to raise and lower messages from the observers and Commanders on the ground. Use your technology expertise to make sure the balloonist and ground crew have reliable compasses. That way you can direct fire from Balistae and catapults. Heck, attach one balloon to each heavy weapon and they can begin firing at an enemy the ground crews can't even see.

Sniping, in a generic sense is another thing your balloonists can do. Get an excellent archer or crossbowman up there. They will be high enough that they should get some extra range from the bow. It's always a good thing when you can hit the enemy from far away. You might even be able to arrange some other nasty surprises for the enemy, like throwing pots of oil like molotov cocktails across enemy lines.

So even though you probably won't get powered flight, you can still have Roman Aeronauts doing a lot of things for you and they will even be able to shout: Mors Ab Alto

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