by Matt Appleby
A vision for a radically alternative Roman Empire.
|Author's Note: prompts for this month concern society and its values, particularly concerning family dynamics and religion.
One thing that's struck me here is, despite this being an alternate history exercise, a lot of what follows is largely unchanged from the real Rome. Maybe that's just a failure of imagination on my part, but I like to think it also says something about the nature of the Classical world. But I doubt I'm the best judge of that.
Races: Despite the radically altered timeline, this is still the 'real' world. There are no 'races' in the traditional fantasy sense, so we're not going to see elves or trolls or gnomes wandering around. However, in the more mundane sense of the term, the Roman Empire is among the most remarkable ethnic melting-pots the world has ever seen. At the centre, of course, is the Latins and the other Italian tribes, and around them is a truly stunning variety of peoples, from the Greeks to the Egyptians, the Celts to the Berbers, and seemingly all points in between (not to mention recent additions like the Igbo of West Africa and the Sabaeans of Arabia). Rome itself often tries to transplant its own culture onto all these others, as conquerors inevitably do, but this is more about political than social control, and many tribes are ultimately left to their own devices so long as they pay their taxes. It should also be noted here that Romans do not see 'race' in the way that we do: our modern obsession with dividing the world by skin colour would strike them as absurd. Instead, they have their very own way of being racist: anyone who isn't Italian, officially the only 'true' Roman citizenry, is summarily dismissed as just another 'barbarian'.
Customs/social norms: As just noted, the Roman Empire encompasses a diverse array of cultures, and no two provinces will share the exact same attitudes towards everything. That being said, a common set of 'Roman' social mores is still easy to determine. It ultimately comes down to the mos maiorum, or 'way of the ancestors', an unwritten code that most citizens seek to live up to. That translation is a fair indication of what it stands for: a deep conservatism, emphasising tradition and family unity. A 'good' Roman is expected to be disciplined, honest, pious and above all honourable. Interestingly, this code has survived a century of rapid industrialisation pretty much intact, its adherents resisting social changes even as they enthusiastically embrace new technologies. It is arguably this conservatism that has allowed Rome to stay 'Rome' despite everything.
Hobbies: Rome is a highly social culture, and life revolves around its public spaces, the forums, baths, taverns and many others. But by far the most (in)famous of all Roman pastimes are the chariot races and gladiator battles, enduring symbols of the ancient world's lust for blood. However, this image is perhaps misleading: whilst these contests are certainly lethal, and indicative of a world in which life ultimately has little value, many of the contestants are actually volunteers, as those able to last can expect highly lucrative careers. Furthermore, the true centre of mass entertainment is not the chariots or gladiators, but the ludi, religious/sporting/cultural festivals that champion athletics and theatre as much as they do more hazardous events. The city of Rome itself, between one-off and annual celebrations, can easily have nearly 150 ludi a year (and all public holidays, to boot).
Languages: Latin is arguably the most famous and influential language in history, dominating religious/legal/scientific discourse for centuries, and even now is a surefire sign of intelligence, sophistication and an expensive education. But in 200AD, however, this exhalted reputation is a long way off, and the Latin of this era is just another everyday language. The elite, as is their way, make an effort to speak 'properly', with a codified (and notoriously complex) grammar, but for the most part, the Latin spoken by regular people has as much in common with the speeches of Cicero as South London slang does with Shakespeare. And despite being the mother tongue of Rome itself, Latin is far from the only language spoken in the Empire: the Eastern Mediterranean mostly uses Greek, as it has since the days of Alexander, and all those subject peoples naturally have native languages of their own. Indeed, you could quite easily travel from one end of the Empire to the other without needing more than a few basic Latin phrases.
Healthcare: Like many of their public engineering works, the Roman sanitation system is among the most complex in the world. Their famed aqueducts carry water all across the Empire, even to the remotest of settlements, and every town and city has an extensive network of public toilets and baths, and underground sewers to drain them. Rome itself has the Cloaca Maxima, a sewer in use since 600BC, and which remains operational even into the 21st century. But sadly, despite all these accomplishments, in reality there are a great many problems. For one, as the urban population has exploded over the last hundred years, both water supply and drainage are struggling to keep up with this unprecedented demand, an emerging crisis not helped by the pollution from the new factories. For another, Roman medicine is hamstrung by its reliance on the Greek “Four Humours” theory, and their ignorance of bacterial or viral infection ensures that most of their sanitation efforts ultimately count for nothing: the public baths, despite a cultural obsession with cleanliness, are little more than giant disease vectors. Many of the larger cities, Rome and Alexandria in particular, are effectively in a permanent state of plague, and this is only going to get worse.
Family system: As noted in the description of the mos maiorum, family is at the very heart of Roman life. However, this means a lot more than the “nuclear family” of the modern day: the web of extended relations, long-time friends, employees and servants/slaves that comprise the Roman familia better resembles a clan or tribe. As its head is the pater familias, the patriarch, as much a chieftan as a father. In ancient times, his authority was absolute, even able to sell his children into slavery if he so desired, but those kinds of abuses have been largely curtailed under the Empire; nevertheless, no “true” Roman would ever dream of openly challenging their pater familias. There is also another way the Roman family differs from our own: adoption is widespread, in fact almost as common as blood relations, and is entirely devoid of the sensitivites with which we often treat it. Children can be adopted for all kinds of reasons, from all those we might expect, to merely cementing an alliance between houses. Even the Emperors are as likely to adopt their successor as they are to appoint their natural-born children.
Relationships: Ancient Rome has a reputation for enthusiastic debauchery, but sadly, it is largely undeserved. True, they make little distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality, and pornography and prostitution are both widely accepted, but neither of these things exactly equal “debauchery”. Romans, on the whole, are actually quite prudish: emphasising self-discipline above all things, sexual activity is highly controlled, and subject to equally moral, religious and legal censure. In particular, all citizens are legally required to marry – though on the flip side, divorce is easily obtained – and expected to have as many children as possible. This is as much a practical issue as anything else: given the Empire's poor healthcare, nearly half of all Romans will not live past the age of 5, and every woman able to bear children will need to have at least 6-8 during their lives just to maintain a stable population. (Incidentally, this is true of all pre-Industrial societies, and arguably represents the single biggest barrier to gender equality.)
Religion (Roman): The ancient world's understanding of “religion”, as with so many other things, is very different from our own. Rome's traditional faith, like its contemporaries in Greece, Egypt and elsewhere, has no central holy text, no lists of divine commandments, no formal conversion ceremonies, or anything else our Christian world would recognise as a religion. Overall, ritual matters far more than dogma: so long as the gods are respected with the proper rites, what each citizen actually believes is effectively immaterial. A charge of “heresy” would be almost nonsensical (“blasphemy” would register, though, because mocking a god or a God is equally foolish). Given this lack of dogma, the core ideas of Roman religion have been flexible enough to survive industrialisation largely unchanged, even as many aspects have been altered. In particular, Vulcan, god of the forge, has been promoted to join the head “Capitoline Triad” of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; and the traditional nature spirits, the “nymphs” of woodlands, rivers and oceans, have been supplemented by urban varieties, spirits of factories and steam engines that their operators seek to appease before working.
Religion (other): Roman polytheism, same as its counterparts in other countries, is highly syncretic, able to absorb foreign gods and rituals into its catalogue almost on reflex (indeed, the original Roman pantheon was shamelessly stolen almost wholesale from the Greeks). Unlike YHWH or Allah, who emphatically tolerate no rivals, someone can worship Neptune, Horus and Odin at the same time without anyone batting an eye: so long as the Empire's official Imperial cult – dedicated to deceased emperors – is at least given lip service, people are left to believe what they like. However, that's not to say Rome is truly “tolerant”: any faith that fails (or refuses) to integrate, like the Druids or the emerging Christians, is utterly crushed. The latter, specifically, is proving to be an even bigger problem in this timeline than in ours, having spread amongst the factory slaves in a manner akin to Victorian-era socialism. And much like those socialists, these Christians have revolution on their minds...