Dear Unbound Worlds readers, please enjoy part one of ‘Decline and Rise’ a guest essay by Clash of Eagles author Alan Smale. When you’re done, check out part two here!
About Clash of Eagles:
The Roman Empire never fell. Now, in 1218 AD, jaded commander Gaius Marcellinus leads his legion into North America confident that he will find easy victories and the gold necessary to finance his Emperor’s endless wars with Mongol China.
Marcellinus couldn’t be more wrong. The inhabitants of Nova Hesperia have impressive fighting skills, along with sophisticated flying machines constructed of wood, skin and sinew which decimate even his disciplined legionaries. And after a harrowing march into the middle of the vast continent, Marcellinus will face the full might of the Mississippian mound-builder culture in a battle that will change his life forever….
“Decline and Rise” – Alan Smale
In my debut novel, Clash of Eagles, the ancient Roman Empire did not fall on schedule and now, in 1218 A.D., a Roman legion has crossed the Atlantic to invade the newly-discovered North American continent.
Yes, you read that right. Romans invading North America.
There they will face a mighty wilderness, confront the Iroquois and Mississippian cultures, and get much more than they bargained for.
Now and then I encounter polite incredulity at the notion that the western Roman Empire could survive until the thirteenth century with recognizable classical legions, their soldiers armed with the familiar gladius, pugio, pilum and all the rest. Some people assume that, since the Roman Empire declined and fell in our universe, it had to fall. That the Imperium’s collapse was almost preordained, a consequence of marauding tribes from without and moral decay and degenerate leadership from within.
I think this greatly overstates the case.
First, let’s look at what really happened. Then I’ll offer up a straightforward way in which it might have turned out very differently.
In the third century A.D., everything went to hell for Rome. It’s known as the Crisis of the Third Century for good reason. The Crisis was foreshadowed by the atrocities and persecutions of the Emperor Caracalla (198-217 A.D.) – of whom more later – and the utter bizarreness of the next emperor, the flamboyant and decadent zealot Elagabalus (218-222). His successor, Alexander Severus (222-235) tried to bribe the Empire’s enemies to go away rather than facing them in battle, alienating his legions, who eventually assassinated him. Certainly dark days for the Roman leadership.
This breakdown of Imperial power was followed by a half-century in which 26 men ruled as Emperor, many of them army generals claiming the position by force. In the process of almost constant civil wars the frontiers were stripped of troops, allowing a broad range of incursions by foreign “barbarian” tribes plus a resurgence of attacks from the Sassanids to the East. Just to mess with the Empire further, the Plague of Cyprian (probably smallpox) hammered it from 250-270 A.D., further reducing military forces while helping to promote the spread of Christianity.
That sounds pretty tough. How could such a Crisis have been averted?
Well, inherent stability notwithstanding, Rome had introduced significant constitutional changes before, notably under Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.). With sufficient will and strong leadership, such things were possible.
So let’s go back to the beginning of the Third Century. Emperor Septimius Severus has died, leaving his empire to be ruled jointly by his sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla is thoroughly unpleasant, and his murders, massacres and persecutions make him a close runner-up to Caligula for paranoid brutality. Caracalla clearly has no intention of sharing the Empire with a brother he hates, and murders Geta within the year. Caracalla then strides off as sole ruler into his reign of terror.
By all accounts, Geta was a much calmer, more thoughtful and reasonable man than his brother (although perhaps this is a low bar). And perhaps on one critical day in December 211 A.D., Geta could have been just a little luckier, surviving Caracalla’s attempt on his life.
… And so, in the world of Clash, Geta escapes his grisly fate and flees Rome for Britain, where he is greatly respected by the legions. Factions align. Senators and armies choose sides. The Empire descends into a bloody ten-year civil war, and almost collapses in the process. But ultimately, Geta wins.
Geta and the Roman Senate have experienced a cataclysm they never want Rome to experience again. They have looked into the abyss of chaos and societal collapse, and backed away. When Geta proposes civil reforms to limit his own Imperial power and that of his successors, and plants the seeds for military reform to curtail Roman legions’ bad habit of supporting their own candidates for the throne and acting as kingmakers, the Senate is right behind him. The Severan Dynasty solidifies the Empire. Classical Roman culture perseveres. And there is much rejoicing, Roman-style; feasts and gladiatorial games and such.
Nothing about this scenario is at odds with Roman psychology. From Julius Caesar onward, the Senate would have dearly loved to curb the powers of both their dictators and their generals. Emperors used the power of the legions not only to put themselves into the Imperial purple but also to maintain themselves there… and to win arguments with the Senate.
If legions are not distracted – and often destroyed – by the Imperial struggles all through the third-century Crisis, Rome’s long-term future looks much brighter. A strong army can defend Rome’s borders. Strong Emperors can beat back the Parthian resurgence.
What about the Barbarians, you say? Well, massive migrations of hostile tribes and other encroachments into the Empire, had been halted in earlier centuries by the likes of Julius Caesar and Trajan (98-117 A.D.). Trajan, for example, smashed the hell out of Dacia in 101-106 A.D. If the Romans were anything, they were ruthlessly efficient in their slaughter of their enemies. It wouldn’t have been pretty. But it would have been effective.
And so in Clash-world, quite unknowingly, Emperor Geta puts in place the safeguards that prevent the Crisis. His successors prove to be equally competent. The Empire continues to be ruled through strong central control. The military stays solid. The Rhine is never crossed by “barbarian” tribes; Rome is never sacked by the Visigoths. The Empire is never split by power-sharing emperors and Byzantium – Constantinople – never rises to become dominant. The western Roman Empire lives on.
But does it live on unchanged? Does Roma still have recognizable legions in the thirteenth century?
We’ll talk about that next time.