by Matt Appleby
A vision for a radically alternative Roman Empire.
|Author's Note: the prompts for this second month concern the government, economy, transportation and related matters. I've also added in a bit on the slave trade, given it was one of Rome's pet obsessions.
I've gone back and edited the map, as I said I might, in order to account for some information included here. To save rooting through old pages, just click here: "Pax Machina" .
Utopia/dystopia: No three-dimensional culture can be described as either utopian or dystopian. The tapestry of humanity is simply too complex: even in the worst of times, there are still those able to build themselves lives of peace and contentment. That being said...if you look purely at larger trends, then life in the Roman Empire, for all its achievements, is not overly pleasant. The poor will toil, suffer and die, as is the plight of all workers everywhere; the rich, whilst surrounded by wealth and ease, are consumed by paranoid dynastic feuding, often of the murderous kind; everyone, rich and poor alike, lives and dies on the whims of the emperor, men who are often mad, bad or both.
Transportation: The Roman road network is one of the most extensive and reliable ever to exist, justly celebrated for the effort put into its construction. Over the last twenty years, it has become supplemented by the first steam locomotives, an invention that is as much of an icon of this industrial revolution as it was of our own. Whilst the train network is still tiny, with less than a dozen lines, they already reach to some of the furthest provinces, and new routes are being built at a feverish pace. On the seas, the navy has made extensive use of stream-powered triremes, an essential part of their exploration and colonisation of Africa and Northern Europe. However, ship design has not kept pace with engine power, and vessels capable of trans-oceanic crossings are still decades away. Looking further ahead, there are already early experiments with steam automobiles, but they are only novelty items at this point. Aircraft and airships, whilst seemingly obligatory in steampunk, are merely pipe dreams here.
Businesses/trades: Given that it controls an entire continent, the Roman Empire is effectively self-sufficent, with every trade you could imagine it would need found somewhere within its borders. Industrialisation has only increased this, with armies of steelworkers added to the armies of farmers, miners, craftsmen and the myriad others. Labour is strictly divided along class lines, all the hard graft being left to innumerable slaves and the poorest of free workers. The aristocracy, by contrast, are so far removed from the working world that they are legally forbidden from running businesses, but such are the estates they own, this is hardly a threat to their wealth.
Government: Before Rome was an Empire, it was first the Republic, the famed ancient democracy from which nearly all modern democracies, ultimately, draw their inspiration. But that was a long time ago, and by 200AD, the senate and the civic assemblies serve only to enforce the emperor's will. The outer provinces and colonies lack even that fig leaf, being run directly by imperial-appointed governers. And in the most practical terms, the loyalty of the army is more important to an emperor's long-term rule than the loyalty of the senate. All of this means that, as only one man makes the key decisions, the effectiveness of the government depends entirely on that man's competence. Which is unpredicatable at best.
Currency: The Empire uses a variety of coins, most notably the denarius and the sestertius, whose relative values vary greatly depending on the current economic climate. Unlike 21st-century currency, Roman coins include real precious metals, and lowering their purity (and thus value) in order to print more money is the go-to short-term salve of nearly every emperor. The rapid growth of industrial capacity, and thus availability of metals, has done nothing to curb this habit. Indeed, most emperors seem to view coinage as little more than a way to distribute their portrait.
Economy: On the plus side, even before its recent advancements, Rome controlled one of the wealthiest civilisations the world has ever seen, and that is even more true now than ever. Indeed, the amount of coin flowing through its veins is truly mind-boggling. On the minus side, their version of economic planning is whatever the latest emperor thinks is sound strategy, and those strategies are not always sound. So whilst the economy may be large, it is also highly unstable, and fortunes are lost as easily as they are won. In the long term, the empire's new factories are chewing through natural resouces at an unprecedented rate, and at some point that debt will have to be paid.
Education: Like many aspects of their society, Rome's education system has been cribbed almost wholesale from Classical Greece, a culture they both dismiss and fetishise. Whilst there is no formal state schooling, nearly everyone has access to some kind of education, depending on what they can afford (which for most is not a great deal). The richest children are bought private tutors, usually Greek slaves; most others go to the Ludus and Grammaticus, ad-hoc schools set up in whatever room or street corner the teachers can find. Beyond practical skills and basic literacy/numeracy, Roman schooling focuses on rhetoric, philosophy and civic duty, with science and engineering gaining in importance over the last few decades. Ultimately, a well-educated Roman citizen is expected to know a little bit of everything.
Social classes: Even by the standards of such things, the Empire's class system is notoriously complex. Very broadly, it can be broken down into three groups: the aristocratic patricians, the common plebians, and the serf-like proles. In the early days of the Republic, the patricians held a near-total stranglehold on society, but by 200AD, the distinction between the classes is almost academic: a wealthy plebian can (and will) hold more political power than most patricians. In real terms, the “patrician” title is now mostly just a way for emperors to reward loyal followers. And all of this merely concerns “official” Roman citizens: most of the Empire's population actually consists of the various native kingdoms and tribes under provinical rule, who occupy an entirely different status again (though they can still be elevated to full citizenship with little difficulty).
Slavery: The Roman Empire, like most of its contemporaries, is built on an immeasurable supply of slave labour. But this is very different to our modern understanding of the practise: for one thing, it entirely lacks the racist dimension of the Atlantic trade, instead being mostly a way to deal with criminals, debtors and prisoners of war. For another, many slaves can expect a better quality of life than the free poor, along with legal protections from abuse and even the right to earn a wage. But before you get the wrong idea, also note that many other slaves, particuarly those condemned to the mines, have nothing but short lives filled with unimaginable torment. Industrialisation has added an extra element to the latter: across the empire are factory compounds the size of cities, where armies of slaves toil in conditions worse than even the most feverish of Dickensian workhouses.
Trade networks: Internally, with its sprawling road network and total control of the Mediterranean, the Empire is a never-ceasing web of commerce even to its furthest provinces. The new train lines, growing longer and more numerous by the day, are only increasing this. Externally, whilst Rome has no formal trade agreements with anyone, there is a constant stream of merchant ships crossing both to and from surrounding nations, most prominently the Parthians of Mesopotatmia, the Aksumsites of East Africa and the Kushans and Cholas of India. Despite Rome's keenness to maintain its technological edge, this trade is allowing its neighbours to quickly build up industrial bases of their own. Parthia even has the beginnings of a train network.
Warfare: Whilst Rome has not discovered gunpowder, their advanced understanding of pneumatics has allowed them to develop an equivalent, air guns capable of regular battlefield use. It is this invention as much as any other that has allowed their rapid expansion, especially in finally defeating the Germanic tribes that caused so much trouble in earlier centuries. But the Empire does not have everything its own way: Germanic survivors, along with displaced Gothic tribes from Scandinavia, have allied with the Sarmatians of the Russian steppes, and their new Confederacy has managed to halt Roman advancement for the time being. And in the east, the Parthian Empire, Rome's long-standing archenemy, has managed to regain the parity it had lost in the early days of industrialisation. Both sides are in an uneasy peace, unwilling to risk their current gains, but war is inevitable.