Rome fascinates us, bewitches us even in the high tech 21st century. It stretched for over 1229 years, it reached the heights (occasionally depths) of military achievement, produced the social, cultural and legal framework for the entire Western world, gave us its engineering genius and left us a richness in architecture, power politics, literature and art. It taught us about conquest, corruption and polarised values. We can’t leave it alone and still mourn its passing with a nostalgic sigh.
Every generation loves a Roman story, whether high art like Horace from French dramatist Pierre Corneille in 1640, dedicated to that man of power, Cardinal de Richelieu, or Ridley Scott’s epic film Gladiator, enjoyed by millions. Despite varying depth of research and the uneven nature of original sources to base their work on, plus a healthy dose of dramatic licence, the storytellers have kept us hooked. Writers have written books about an aspect of ancient Rome to suit their own time: Lindsey Davies’s humorous detective Falco, Robert Graves’s I Claudius, Simon Scarrow’s adventures of military buddies Macro and Cato.
But suppose we suppose a little… What if the Roman Empire hadn’t disintegrated into city states, papal lands and petty kingdoms or short-lived vestigial provinces like the Domain of Soissons? Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy is based on a dystopian world where the Roman Empire has survived to contemporary times and now dominates much of the world. I’m not too sure about the fantasy elements, but it’s a book rich in detail about an alternative timeline. Watching Trees Grow by Peter F Hamilton is a whodunit murder mystery, but set over two hundred years of an alternate history where society is still based around the Roman Empire. John Maddox Roberts’ Hannibal’s Children featuring Marcus, rather than Publius, Cornelius Scipio is equally fascinating as the Roman state retreats after defeat by Hannibal. And then there’s INCEPTIO, set in a small, tough Roman state that has survived from the late fourth century into the modern day…
So how does alternating history work?
Although the time when the story takes place can be in the past, present or future, there is a given “point of divergence” when the alternate timeline splits from the standard timeline and that must be in the past. I took Theodosius I’s banning of non-Christian religious practice in AD 395 as the point of divergence for my alternate Roma Nova stories. There is no going back; the timeline can’t be changed back by some clever plot development, time machine or technical gizmo. And the narrative should show some of the consequences of the change and describe how the alternate world works.
In both the real and alternate timelines of Roma Nova, i.e. the shared history before the split, the Western Roman Empire didn’t ‘fall’ in a cataclysmic event as often portrayed in film and television; it localised and eventually dissolved like chain mail fragmenting into separate links, giving way to rump states and petty kingdoms facing the dynamic rise of the new peoples of Europe particularly the Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians and Alamans. The Eastern Roman Empire survived, eventually shrinking to the city state of Byzantium, until the fall in AD 1453 to the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Some scholars think that Christianity fatally weakened the traditional Roman way of life and was a significant factor in the collapse of the Western Empire. Emperor Constantine’s personal conversion to Christianity in AD 313 was a turning point for the new religion. By AD 395, his several times successor, Theodosius, banned all traditional Roman religious practice, closed and destroyed temples and dismissed all priests. The sacred flame that had burned for over a thousand years in the College of Vestals was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins expelled. The Altar of Victory, said to guard the fortune of Rome, was hauled away from the Senate building and disappeared from history. Thus Rome lost some of its essential “romanitas“.
The Roman senatorial families led by Symmachus pleaded for religious tolerance, but Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence. And his ‘religious police’ driven by the austere and ambitious bishop Ambrosius of Milan, became increasingly active in pursuing pagans…
The alternate Roma Nova timeline of INCEPTIO
Many things in an alternate Rome would seem the same as the ones we know about in our real time; anchors such as social structures and attitudes, politics and customs. However, some could have changed radically over the centuries, displaying the innate Roman genius of “learn and adapt”.
In AD 395, three months after the final blow of Theodosius’ last decree banning all pagan religions, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia. Led by Senator Apulius at the head of twelve other senatorial families, they established a colony – Roma Nova – based initially on land owned by Apulius’s Celtic father-in-law. By purchase, alliance and conquest, this grew into Roma Nova.
Norman Davies in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe reminds us that:
…in order to survive, newborn states need to possess a set of viable internal organs, including a functioning executive, a defence force, a revenue system and a diplomatic force. If they possess none of these things, they lack the means to sustain an autonomous existence and they perish before they can breathe and flourish.
I would add history and willpower as essential factors. Roma Nova survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures.
Despite their hidden power of influence, women in ancient Rome were circumscribed by repressive traditional attitudes. However, towards the later Imperial period women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Divorce was easy and step and adopted families were commonplace.
In Roma Nova, Apulius, founder and leader of the new colony, had married Julia Bacausa, the tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She had left her native Virunum twenty years before, travelled to Rome, found Apulius and married him the day of her arrival. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four daughters were amongst the first Roma Nova pioneers so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, and their fierce desire to survive, eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their new homeland and way of life. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.
Service to the state was valued higher than personal advantage, echoing Roman Republican virtues, and the women heading the families guarded and enhanced these values to provide a core philosophy throughout the centuries.
Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high grade silver in their mountains, their efficient engineering and technology, and their robust response to any threat.
Remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople, Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe. Nearly two hundred years later, they used their diplomatic skills to help forge an alliance to push Napoleon IV back across the Rhine as he attempted to expand his grandfather’s empire.
Prioritising survival, Roma Nova remained neutral in the Great War of the 20th century which lasted from 1925 to 1935. The Greater German Empire, stretching from Jutland in the north, Alsace in the west, Tyrol in the south and Bulgaria in the east, was broken up afterwards into its former small kingdoms, duchies and counties. Some became republics. There was no sign of an Austrian-born corporal with a short, square moustache.
Twenty-three years before the action of INCEPTIO in the early 21st century, Roma Nova was nearly destroyed by a coup, a brutal male-dominated consulship and civil war. A weak leader, sclerotic and outmoded systems that had not developed since the last great reform in the 1700s and a neglected economy let in a clever and ruthless tyrant. But with characteristic resilience, the families fought back and reconstructed their society, re-learning the basic principles of Republican virtue, while subtly changing it to a more representational model for modern times.
Today, although tiny, perhaps the size of Luxembourg, Roma Nova (photos here) has become one of the highest per capita income states in the world. Its citizens are proud to consider themselves as Roman.
Then visit the other Wonders of Rome on this bloghop:
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