Roma æterna
January 25, 2013 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find some educated speculation about how the Roman Empire might have avoided its decline, and how it might have developed (and affected world history) had the empire not fallen? Would prefer works by historical scholars, but alternative history works would be OK if thoroughly researched and detailed.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
That the Roman Empire declined and fell in 476 AD is a view associated with the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon. Historians since the 1970s tend to look at the period as one of transition from the Classical period to Medieval Europe. See Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction (also available for illegal download if you're into that sort of thing.)
posted by goethean at 3:00 PM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Arguably, the Roman Empire survived until around 1452 or so in the Byzantine Empire - that's up to the Renaissance Age. If you accept that premise, you can review its history up to that moment for part of your answer.

While there's a lot of recent scholarship on the decline/fall of the western empire, I haven't seen much outside of short stories in alternative history on how it would appear today.
posted by Atreides at 3:22 PM on January 25, 2013

The classis alternative history about this is L Sprague De Camps "Lest Darkness Fall". The author was considered something of an expert on the ancient world and it is considered a fairly sane alternate history (as far as any of them are-the genre tends to 'just so' stories really really badly).

Also Harry Turtledoves "Household gods" is set at the beginning of the decline era and an interesting take on the genre.

as to how history would have gone, despite the Glory of Rome, the society was technological moribund and based on slave labor. It might not have turned out well at all...
posted by bartonlong at 3:25 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

"What if the Empire hadn't fallen" is predicated on the notion that it did fall, which is not really how historians look at it these days.

For one thing, I'd definitely suggest looking at the actual history of the so-called Byzantine Empire, which even called itself the Roman Empire. That part of the Empire centered on Rome didn't fare so well, but even when the "Western" Roman Empire was still a going concern, Rome itself was just one of many major cities, and rarely functioned as a terribly important capital, except for symbolic purposes. The Western Empire just sort of... faded away, becoming less and less relevant to the people it ostensibly governed, until at one point people long afterward drew a more-or-less convenient line and said "here, it fell." It wasn't like the breakup of the USSR or, say, the British Empire, where you can clearly say "And at this point there was no more Empire."
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2013

Yeah, I was just going to pop and say that the Roman Empire didn't exactly fall. If you want to be really goofy, you could say that the Roman Empire extended all the way to Peru and the Philippines under Charles V.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2013

But as Tomorrowful points out, I think it's fair to say that the Rome-based Roman Empire—the Rome of the Caesars, the Senate, and so forth—did indeed fare poorly. So I think it's reasonable to ask about a what-if scenario in which Rome itself remained the center of a powerful and relatively cohesive empire. Or put another way, why did the center of gravity of the empire move away from Rome, and what, if anything, could have been done to avert that?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:44 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, so how about when Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar transformed it from a republic into a monarchy?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:47 PM on January 25, 2013

The History of Rome podcast speculates on this during the last 50 or so episodes. One idea I find attractive is that the Italian-born aristocracy finally drew the line at letting Germans into the upper eschelons (unlike the Thracians of an earlier century). Perhaps, if they had, those groups would have been more invested in the Empire rather than looking for chances to peel of chunks of it. Anyway, if you are interested in Rome, you could do worse than listening to Mike Duncan's dulcet tones.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:57 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Or put another way, why did the center of gravity of the empire move away from Rome, and what, if anything, could have been done to avert that?

Well, that's largely a question that was answered by Constantine. He built a new eastern capital -- Constantinople -- to more effectively manage the empire. One of the key problems with running it from Rome was that Rome was a pretty inconvenient place to have a capital, since it was way off to the west of the really important stuff, and halfway down a huge peninsula behind a bunch of mountains. If the Sassanids are massing on the Armenian frontier, and the Emperor is in Rome, well, that's sort of inconvenient.

In light of that, it's unsurprising that the eastern empire gradually became more important, as the west faded out of significance. And, again, keep in mind that the eastern Roman Empire stood until the Ottoman Turks finally took them out in the 16th century.

(I've heard the rise of Islam as another contributing factor for the ultimate demise of Rome, but that seems like a very big if to base an alternate history on.)
posted by Sara C. at 4:17 PM on January 25, 2013

That the Roman Empire declined and fell in 476 AD is a view associated with the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon.

That's not Gibbon's view. He takes his history right up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
posted by yoink at 4:42 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Reddit. duh.

In a more serious vein, Peter Heather's relatively recent "The Fall of the Roman Empire" examines pretty much all the things you are asking about, from a non-speculative viewpoint.

Here is a Q&A with the author at The New Yorker, and here is an academic review.

It's been a couple years, but if I recall correctly (and I may not) his operating thesis is roughly that extraterritorial military campaigns were a requisite element in the development, deployment, and maintenance of imperial political power, and over time it became more and more expensive to project this power, leading to the use of mercenary forces recruited from the borders. Over time, these forces brought their cultures into the empire and shifted the culture's direction while at the same time adopting many aspects of the prevailing Imperial pan-Roman culture.

The aspect of his analysis that struck me as new was his emphasis on examining the emerging documentation of large-scale population migration out of Asia and into Europe creating turmoil and competition for resources on the borders of the Empire. This is an area I am far from expert in however and what is novel to me may be old helmet to a devoted scholar.
posted by mwhybark at 5:12 PM on January 25, 2013

Not sure if your title was alluding to it or not but have you read Roma Eterna? Had mixed reviews and focuses on the upper classes but pretty epic alternate history.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:40 PM on January 25, 2013

Reddit. duh.

You could also try searching for "Rome" in the Historical What-if Subreddit.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:52 PM on January 25, 2013

Robert Silverberg, one of the greats, wrote "Roma Eterna," which is Alt. History. Its components were variously published as short stories or novellas, of which I've read only one, "Via Roma," in which a kilted savage from the Tin Isles visits the capital. Oh, I see Wretch729 beat me to that one.

Also, FWIW, Rebecca M. Meluch wrote (as R.M. Meluch) a series of SF novels collectively called "Tour of the Merrimack," which are probably a bit right-wing for the taste of many, but includes a powerful spacefaring US, a less powerful spacefaring UN as a minor power, and a rebel-colony-turned spacefaring power called Palatine, which models itself as a new Roman Empire, its citizens as cultural descendants of Rome, having maintained an underground society since the original empire's collapse. Palatine models its military and government on the patterns of Rome, which probably means that the author wanted to write space operas but also liked to really geek out on Roman history.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:27 PM on January 25, 2013

Hi, I'm a Roman historian, just here to say that speculative fiction is where you should be looking, not academic literature. "What if" is not really a game that professional historians play, at least not before a few stiff drinks.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:04 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

The serious historians on reddit hang out in AskHistorians. There are several Roman historians that post every day about this.
posted by sanka at 9:48 PM on January 25, 2013

You might enjoy the TV show Caprica, about a Roman-style civilization in the near future with access to space ships and sentient robots. The show pretty explicitly compares the modern USA to this fictionalized Roman empire. The plots weren't great but the backstory was fantastic.
posted by miyabo at 2:14 PM on January 26, 2013

There are several more alternate history books here. In general, I found alternate history books were fun to read but the history in them was questionable.

I also recommend hang out at AskHistorians. AskHistorians' Master Book Lists for ancient Rome also have couple books you might be interested in.

The Fall of Rome and End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. A work that has quickly become a standard, it uses archaeology to provocatively draw a harsh line between the Roman and post-Roman world. It also functions as an excellent introduction to archaeology and the Roman economy.

How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is the author of numerous works of popular history and is very familiar with the form. He provides and excellent and detailed narrative, as well as an analysis focused on political systems

AskHistorians' FAQ for Decline of Roman Empire and Late Antiquity will answer many questions you will have. If you need more foundation for your historical study of Roman Empire, look at this relevant post from Blue.

Now for my opinion.

The city of Rome cease to be important after Crisis of Third Century. In a sense, Crisis of Third Century, was a real world example of how Roman Empire avoided its decline. It was by luck that Roman Empire survived. It was increasingly unsafe for emperors to stay in Rome while crisis was going on in the frontier. The capital of Roman Empire was whatever the emperors happen to be located. After fourth century most emperors don't even bother to live in Rome. During the Tetrarchy the four emperors were headquartered in Trier in Germany, Milan, Sirmum in Serbia, and Nicomedia in eastern Turkey. Even after the empire was reunified then divided into Eastern and Western half, the headquarter of Western empire was in Ravenna, while the Eastern empire was in Constantinople.

Traditionally you will see historian listed 476 AD as fall of Roman Empire. I think it was silly to list 476 AD as date of any important. First of all, there was still an Emperor in the Constantinople. Even Odoacer, the general who deposed the last western empire sent a word to eastern emperor Zeno that "the west… no longer required an emperor of its own: one monarch sufficed for the world" So even the person who supposedly caused the fall of Roman Empire still agree there was a Roman empeor. Unfortunately for Odoacer, Zeno dislike him. Zeno would sent another barbarian king to destroy Odoacer.

Other speculative questions you might want to consider:
What if the Roman won Battle of Cape Bon in 468?
What if Plague of Justinian didn't happen and Justinian successfully restored the Roman Empire?
What if the Crusaders didn't sack Constantinople.

posted by Carius at 7:35 PM on January 26, 2013

You might also look earlier to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, a disaster that cemented the Rhine as Rome's northern boundary.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:26 PM on January 28, 2013

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