by Matt Appleby
A vision for a radically alternative Roman Empire.
|Author's Note: the prompts for this first month concern the overall setting, with notes on geography, climate and architecture.
Genre: Alternate history/quasi-steampunk.
General landscape: This is a very alternative vision of the Roman Empire, one over a century into a classical-era industrial revolution. Technology has advanced to an equivalent of the Napoleonic Era, though, for reasons to be elaborated on at a later date, this is far from a direct comparison. The 200AD of Pax Machina only superficially resembles any period of history that we know.
Prominent features: This is an alternate Europe/Near East, not an entirely new world, so the physical terrain is still the same as what we know. Britannia hasn't suddenly migrated, the Alps haven't changed size, and the Danube is still the same length. However, as this an alternate history, political boundaries have changed a great deal: after a century of industrialisation, the Roman Empire has grown enormously, conquering the entire British Isles, expanding eastwards as far as the Crimea and the Baltic, and founding colonies in Scandinavia, West Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Sky/weather: The Empire's rapid advances in industry, and consequent exponential growth in population, are beginning to have catastrophic effects on the global climate. Air and water pollution, already serious problems in the Mediterranean region, have increased to levels that our timeline will not see until the 1800s. Rome itself is suffocating under a permanent smog cloud, killing hundreds of people a year; the elite, despite claiming to be civic-minded, have responded by permanently fleeing to their rural retreats. A few public figures, though, are making efforts to curb the problem, but not enough to see a real difference.
Plants: Whilst this new timeline has not led to the evolution of new flora, it must be noted here that, in the expanded Roman Empire, what already exists comprises a spectacularly diverse array of ecosystems. From the ancient oaks of Britain to the scrublands of the Mediterranean, the grasses of the eastern steppes to the mangroves of the Gambia and Niger rivers, the arid deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to the cold ash wastes of Iceland...just about anything you can imagine can be found within the borders of the new and improved Empire.
Animals: On the one hand, because this is 1,800 years in the past, some species that went extinct by the 21st Century are still around, most prominently the Auroch of Eastern Europe and the Great Auk of the North Atlantic. On the other hand, the Empire's greatly increased need for resources is having a severe impact: the Auroch is already facing extinction, and a number of species once considered ubiquitous, such as the deer and the wolf, have seen their numbers collapse drastically. The Romans themselves are oblivious to this growing problem, and would not care about conservation efforts even if they knew, so things are likely only going to get worse.
Buildings: Roman tastes in architecture owe a great deal to the Greeks, to the point of plagarism (by the by, variations on this theme are going to crop up a lot). Their combined 'Classical' style is easily the most iconic and influential in history: nearly everything that follows, from Gothic to Baroque to Modern, is in some way a reflection of or reaction to it. However, unlike other Greek-influenced aspects their culture, architecture is a field where the Romans exceed, rather than just imitate, their Greek forebears. With their invention of the arch, not to mention concrete, Rome can build on a scale and grandeur previously unimaginable: their aqueduct network, to pick but one example, spider-webs to every corner of the Empire, and remains viable until the Renaissance and beyond. What's more, this is all before industrialisation and its advances: with improved smelting technology, iron construction has been added to the Roman engineers' repertoire, and they are now even experimenting with the first skyscrapers. The 158m-high clock tower at the Library of Alexandria, a trail-blazer in this technique, has beaten the Pyramid of Khufu to become the tallest building in the world.
Urban/rural balance: Even in our world, the Roman Empire is by far the most urbanised civilisation of antiquity. New cities are founded almost every day, built to awe subject peoples with the Roman way: streets in ordered grids, filled with grand monuments and bustling markets and workshops. All but the wealthiest urbanites are crammed into insulae, the earliest apartment blocks, often a dozen stories high, built cheek-by-jowl with the elites' luxurious townhouses. And under the Pax Machina, this obsession has only increased: Rome and Alexandria have over two million inhabitants, a number our world will not match until the 1800s, and many other cities are close behind. That being said, in an empire as large as Rome's, countryside is still easy to come by, as all those cities must be supported by even more farmland (and the rich must have space for their rural villas). Also, given the Empire's recent vast growth in size as well as in population, the many new colonies and frontier provinces are still largely undeveloped wilderness.