Tuesday, October 13, 2015

AltHistory Scenario #11: What if the Roman Empire Never Fell?

Ooooh, this is a popular one. What if one of the largest contiguous empire's in all of history, home to great art (stolen from the Greeks), great literature (also stolen from the Greeks), military prowess (later taken from the Germans and Gauls and other barbarians) and vast wealth (taken from everyone not Roman) didn't finally fall in 467 AD when some Goths just got rid of the last Western Roman Emperor and the long, messy and very violent process of building the nation-state we know today began. To many people, seeing the stability, power and prestige of the Roman Empire, and all the chaos that came after it fell, it's fair to imagine what would happen had it survived. So that's what I'm going to do today!

However, I'll be honest, this could be one of the most implausible scenarios I've ever devised, and the reasons will be clear by the time I get down to the "Conclusion" part of the article at the end. Also, unlike usual, I may not do a lot of explaining, as this article is already late, and Wikipedia is a couple clicks away... so let's get going!

I'm already late, so let's not take any more time! Move, move, move!

Point of Divergence

First, as all Roman AH scenarios point out, this is if the whole Roman Empire didn't fall. Technically, the Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, and that lasted up until the 15th century when the Turks finally captured Constantinople, so, yeah...

There are several points in the history of the Empire where I could start from. Maybe Augustus' son survived, or maybe Constantine didn't divide the Empire into East and West, or maybe Caligula was a better emperor... but you know what, I'm not going to do any of it. Let's make it a bit more interesting, and instead, after the death of Augustus before he could name a heir, the Senate, which had been mostly sidelined under the first Emperor, decided to assert itself to say that only they could choose the First Citizen, or Principes, of the Empire. While the army, the aristocracy and the plebeians would all have their own candidate at different times, the Senate would be the decider.

Uhhhh... no, not him.

Immediate Consequences

For a while, this may not be as easy to put into practice as many would think. Maybe an emperor would decide that his son, no matter how smart or dumb he was, would be perfect to take over, no matter what the Senate says. Or maybe an army fighting the Germans would think their general would be better than some politician that never left Italy as the big cheese. Eventually, possibly after a civil war or two, it would be confirmed that the Senate was in charge of choosing the Emperor.

It's fair to say that if the Senate was in charge of naming the Emperor, the Emperor may end up mostly coming from the senatorial classes more often than not. However, I feel that that in this case, a psudeo-papal election style government system would be established, but could also mean that the Emperor would be more an administrator over time, rather than a primarily military officer, priest or judge, with these roles eventually devolved over the years to other senatorially elected positions.

Something the Canadian Senate wishes would happen right now...

However, the Emperor could still formulate policy, and without having to worry (too much) about soldiers and generals marching on Rome, a more aggressive expansion policy in Germania would take place, pushing the border of the Empire from the Rhine to the Elbe, bringing a huge area that in our history was the breading ground of the "barbarians" that helped bring down the Empire. Further expansion in any direction would be harder, with the Picts in Scotland, the icey mountains of Scandinavia, the vast open stretches of steppe and prairie in Poland and Ukraine, the Persians in Iran, and the Sahara desert in Africa all effectively blocking Roman influence to where it is.

The next major challenge to the position of the Roman Empire would be the rise of Christianity, and the growing movement to replace the polytheistic religion of Rome with the One True God of Christianity (and Judaism, though that might be overlooked). For a while, Roman leaders and the Senate would be hostile to this new religion that threatened there power base, but by 300 AD the issue would be more or less resolved, most likely with Christianity being accepted as a major religion, but not the official religion of the Empire. Since the Emperor was no longer the Pontifix Maximus as Augustus had been (and made the position of Emperor and Pontefix Maximus one and the same), the Emperor himself would not be beholden to defend the religion of Rome.

Or just give the job to Francis. He seems to know what he's doing.

Later Consequences

With the majority of the Roman Empire secure, shorter borders to defend, and a fairly stable government, it's not hard to see Rome lasting a bit longer than in our timeline. However, I don't think Rome would become a world spanning colossus as you see in many timelines (Superpowers on the Alt History Wikia comes to mind). Eventually, by the 400 AD, there would be troubles. the Sucilds in Persia would begin to pose a serious threat, as would the Huns roaring off the Central Asian steepe. The military, primarily an infantry force for hundreds of years, would be slow to adapt to the swifter, more destructive horse archer tactics of the Huns.

With the raiding in profitable areas of Germanica and the Black Sea, and a major break out threatening the wealthy center of Constantinople (not the main capital, but a major city and administrative region nevertheless), what would be OTL Berlin (Berlinicus? I don't know...), and Rome itself could lead to crisis and revolt, and the outbreak of new civil wars between different governors, generals, and the central government in Rome. Chunks of the Empire, such as Germania, Britannia, Egypt, Anatolia, and Spain, would break off as their own "empires," with their own senate and electoral system, pushing Roman borders back to Italy, Gaul, North Africa, the Balkans and Greece. While not all these nations would survive, many would remain unified and independent for decades, if not centuries, which would spur an earlier nationalist movement based on the old "successor empires" of the Roman Empire.

And maybe only a slight uptick in the number of people stabbed on the floor of the Senate. Who knows?

The next hundred years would be a story of decline, failed attempts to reclaim the broken off areas, and trying to repair the damage from the Huns. By 600 AD, much needed reforms will have taken place, and the now smaller Roman Empire is in a much better position. Any talk to reclaiming the full breadth of the Empire is just that, talk. The Emperor and Senate in Rome, which had taken a beating (and now had walls around it for the first time since the days of the Punic Wars) is still strong within the Empire, and with a reformed military, able to hold their own against the successor states, maybe even claiming more land back in time. Christianity would also be a major factor in the Empire at this time, with different people claiming they represent the true wishes of Jesus and God, leading to more strife that some divisive emperors would try to use to their advantage to pit one group against another, the naive Emperors try to ignore it, and the smart/lucky/uninterested would just let the church sort it out. In the end, there would be no one-unified church, instead several larger sects set up in places like London, Constantinople, Rome, Barcelona, and Berlin.

The process of reform, prosperity, crisis, fall, and rebuilding would take place multiple times over the next few hundred years. North Africa, along with the successor Egypt, would fall to the Islamic Arab armies in the mid 700s, and Gaul would eventually break away in the 900s. After the new millennium, Greece and the Balkans would also begin to leave the Empire, leaving just Italy for Rome. This would still be the wealthiest part of the empire, as most of the trade and goods went through Italy to go anywhere else, and a formerly farm driven economy would be replaced with a more mercantile, manufacturing economy. Think Venice, just over the whole boot of Italy and not a little swampy inlet in the north.

Because who thought building a city on the water was a good idea?

Many different modifications to the government would have taken place by now: centralization, de-centralization, more provinces, fewer provinces, more senators, less senators. But the main theme is that the Roman Empire was willing to reform when it needed to most, and would continue to do that. In the 1200s, as Crusade fever swept Europe, reformed Roman Armies, now focused more on heavily armored knights and a powerful navy, would lead the way more times than not. From the sands of the Levant to the hills of Spain to the Nile, new Roman Legions would march again, though not as conquerers (most of the time) but Warriors of the Cross (maybe).

After the Black Death, Italy would be severely underpopulated, as were many of the successor states of the old Empire, though many had now been reformed into nations like France, Germany, and Spain. While battles would take place between these nations, for the most part they were more likely to work with each other than anything else, the higher elites maintaining Latin as one of two or more languages many of these elites would speak. Latin would remain the main language of diplomacy and trade in Europe right until almost the present. After the set back of the Black Death, the economies of these nations would slowly recover.

After of course all the bodies are gotten rid of. Even those not quite dead.

Culture would also take a different path. Without a "Dark Age" to stunt the continuation of classical learning, art and literature, culture might develop both quicker and slower at the same time. Experimentation with ideas and technology from the past would be frowned upon, especially when they had proven their worth over the centuries, but by the 1200s, a Renaissance would emerge. This would be different, and not as a "rebirth" of ancient cultures, but new experimentation, sciences and arts would appear, similar to the Age of Reason OTL. The Leonardo da Vinci's and Rembrandt's, along with Newton's and Galileo's,  would appear sooner than later. Roman Italy would be the prime location for this to happen, as in OTL, due to the wealth and trade the peninsula has, as well as being home of where most of the surviving. Eventually democracy would come, and the Senate would become an elected body, much like the Assembly's that had been used 2000 years before in the old Republic.

After that... well, I don't know. Colonization of the New World would most likely not involve Italy to any great degree, like in OTL. The Industrial Revolution may not start in Italy either, as places like Germany, Britain, and Anatolia would be in a better position resource wise. By the modern era, Roman Italy would be a Middle Power, still wealthy, a tourist hotspot, with a moderate navy to control the central Mediterranean, and a weaker army and air force. However, the Emperor is still elected by the vote in the Senate, and the majority of people still speak Latin.

Thanks for giving that away, you stultus. 


Yeah, this is really one of the more implausible AH's I've done, but also perhaps the most realistic version of "What if the Roman Empire never fell?" I just can't think of a feasible scenario where the Roman Empire can last, well, forever. The government was unstable, the taxes got to high, Christianity destroyed the old religion but never fully replaced it, the barbarians were at the gates, the wealthiest part of the Empire broke away, there was lead in the water pipes.

This article really skims over a lot, and a few things I missed. Feudalism may or may not happen (possibly, but only when the big Empire starts crumbling), and my version of the Renaissance may never happen, and I just used the modern names of places because I didn't have my history text book handy.


So this brings me to my feeling of Empire's: while they are strong at one point, they eventually have to fall. There has never been a case where an Empire, after reaching it's apex, holding onto that position until the present. The Roman, Chinese, Mongol, Spanish, French, and British Empires, and all the other smaller ones, they all rose, stayed at the top for a while, then collapsed, either through war, disease, strife, reform or, in the case of the French and British, the cost became too much.

Really, the question shouldn't be "What if the Roman Empire never fell," but "How can the Roman Empire never fall?"

1 comment:

  1. I checked out a book once called "Roma Eterna," a series of short stories based on the idea of Rome never ending (as exemplified by the cover image of a man between Greek pillars watching a spaceship take off). As I recall, the author's theory was that the Biblical Exodus never happened, limiting the Jewish diaspora to a very tiny outlying group that had little to no impact on history, thus preventing the rise of Christianity. It's a bold choice, but one I found odd (and not just because I find it theologically suspect). It assumes that Roman conversion is the linchpin of "the fall," handwaving away all the other problems the Empire faced. I remember that Rome eventually made it to the New World (but of course) but lost interest halfway through, so I'm not sure how the Roman space race went.