by Matt Appleby
A vision for a radically alternative Roman Empire.
|Author's Note: and now finally, two years after it started and a year later than I had planned, here is the last section of this guide. These final prompts, despite the mixed bag an "Other" tag implies, are actually mostly concerned with culture: art, music, food, etc.
I've also included an outline for the short story, to give a rough idea of what it might've been. Maybe some day I'll actually write it, or something like it.
Recent events: All alternate histories start with a 'point of divergence', the first incident where the fictional history branches off from the real one. In this case, the Pax Machina began in 50AD, with Heron of Alexandria, one of the greatest engineers in history, responsible for a huge number of mechanical marvels, from a holy water vending machine to steam-powered automatic doors. Whilst the theory was likely developed a century earlier, by far his greatest work was building the first aeolipile, nothing less than a Classical-era steam engine. In the real world, this device remained an impractical novelty, obscure even at the time; in the Pax Machina, however, Heron was able to refine the aeolipile into a machine capable of significant industrial use. At first, the Roman world was slow to adopt this innovation – many aristocrats and merchants, grown lazy on endless slave labour, were unable to grasp its true value – but as with all technologies, it eventually reached a point where there were enough users to make it not just new but fashionable, and from there even this famously conservative society couldn't get enough. By 100AD, the sky was already the limit, and over the next century, as this one machine inspired further more, the pace of change has only increased. What 300AD will look like in the Pax Machina, for better or worse, no one can tell.
Music: All cultures across the world, no matter how ancient, regard music as an essential part of life, and the Romans are no exception. Music can be found everywhere, at parties, gatherings and ceremonies across all social classes and all degrees of formality, from the cradle to the grave and all points in-between. However, whilst this much is familiar even in the 21st century, the ancient understanding of “music” is still very different from our own: musicians are not artists, composing and performing their own songs, but merely tradesmen, hired for an event to set the mood required. The idea of watching a band perform, as an occasion in itself, is something that it would not occur to a Roman to do.
Art: As with music, art is enormously important to Roman life, but in a way that is guided entirely by the appetites of the patron, rather than by the passions of the artist. And, as with so much else about Rome, what the patrons want is to steal from the Greeks: indeed, most of the “Greek” sculpture that has survived into the modern world is in fact Roman copies. Despite the Empire's expansion, and increased contact with Gothic, African and (via overseas trade) Indian artistic traditions, the Classical fashions in sculpture, painting, mosaic and pottery remain dominant, and will likely do so for as long as the Pax Machina lasts. Unlike the Victorians, who obsessed over foreign art even as they dismissed foreign artists, the Roman elite remain unmoved by anything beyond their borders.
Literature: In Rome, much like elsewhere in the ancient world, poetry, essays and letters are the dominant forms of literature (the currently more fashionable novels and journalism, at least as we in the modern era understand them, are at least another thousand years off). This is one area in which the Romans have arguably excelled in their own right, with many of history's most influential works coming from their poets and thinkers, from Virgil's verse epics to Julius Caesar's war diaries, via Tacitus' histories and Catullus' (still-shocking) comic poetry. More to the point, this literature, unlike so much else about Roman culture, is not confined to the elite: the crudest of graffiti can still quote whole passages, showing just how widely-read even the most low-born of Imperial citizens can be.
Theatre: Even when considering their poetic and philosophical achievements, theatre can be argued as Classical Greece's defining cultural contribution, so therefore it should come as no surprise to find that the Romans have adopted it wholeheartedly. Indeed, imperial citizens loved a good play even more than they loved a good gladiatorial bout (the Empire's more singular contribution to the history of entertainment). However, unlike in the field of literature, Roman playwrights seem to have little to say overall: whilst original works about contemporary issues are certainly numerous, the most popular and enduring plays are mostly just re-workings of Greek classics.
Food (diet): The Roman menu is very different from the modern Italian one. This is mostly down to ingredients: pasta is unknown until Marco Polo's voyages in the 1300s, and tomatoes and chillis will have to wait until the colonisation of the Americas two centuries after that. The poor mostly subsist on the state grain ration, with those lucky enough to live in rural areas also having access to local vegetables. The wealthy, as in other eras, consider food the sole exception to their usual elitism, and will hoover up delicacies from wherever they can be found, especially the still “exotic” African and Arabian colonies. “True” Romans, surprisingly, are mostly vegetarians, regarding meat as “barbarian”. The provincial subjects in question, of course, are not nearly so fussy.
Food (dining): Being both highly social and highly urbanised, the Roman Empire is obsessed with collective dining. The poor have little choice: inner-city insulae have no space for kitchens, leaving their occupants to eat meals in the nearest tavern (luckily, most cities can easily have a tavern per block, or even more). The rich, who wouldn't be caught dead in such places, instead spend their time attending banquets at each others' villas. In the modern era, the Roman society banquet has a reputation for relentless hedonism, but this is sadly (mostly) an exaggeration. Some could even be downright staid, being more about business deals than feasting and drinking.
Fashion (clothing): Clothing in the Empire, especially when compared with the 21st century, is surprisingly regimented. Citizens of all classes, whether male or female, share the same basic tunic – or a toga at the most formal of occasions – with the only variance being in material and colour. Even this is tightly controlled: purple, for example, as by far the most expensive of natural dyes – created from a very specific type of sea snail – is reserved by law solely for the emperor. Industrialisation has, in a way, only made this tendency worse: factory slaves can now mass-produce identical tunics on a scale never before seen.
Fashion (accessories): No matter the restrictions on their dress sense, the wealthy in any time and place will seek ways to show off their wealth, and the Roman elite are no exception, saving their ostentation for their accessories. Hair is the major obsession, and no matter a citizen's standing, only the wildest of cuts will do (the modern beehive would be regarded as downright tame). For many men, in fact, a woman's hair has sexual allure, with acres of poetry put forth on the subject down the centuries. Jewellery, the gaudier the better, has been a major industry since the dawn of time, with the Empire proudly continuing that tradition; cosmetics, whilst looked down on by the afore-mentioned men, are enthusiastically applied by any woman who can afford them. The latter, sadly, often proves to be a poor idea, as Roman make-up contains far more lead than is good for the complexion, but placing beauty before self-preservation is a common human foible.
Title: Around Every Corner: A Marcus Severus Mystery
Main Character: Marcus Severus, retired frumentarii agent.
Plot: Marcus is happily retired, tending a small-holding in Mauretania. He receives a letter from Shadya, a childhood friend, asking him to meet her in Alexandria, to help with a problem she refuses to explain. During the journey – on the new train line, taking days rather than weeks – Marcus is approached by Adrian, a former colleague in the frumentarii, who asks him to report on Shadya, but again refuses to explain why. On arriving in Alexandria, Marcus quickly reunites with Shadya, and discovers the problem: she has joined a Christian cell, and is sheltering Ruth, a Jewish fugitive, and her young son Peter, supposedly a descendent of Jesus himself. Marcus attends a meeting of the cell, and watches them argue over Ruth and Peter. Most back Shadya's plan, of having Marcus smuggle them to India, but a radical faction led by Simon seek to use them as figureheads in a slave revolt; Marcus privately notes that the people being argued over are not consulted. He then rendezvous with Adrian, who reveals that the frumentarii are already aware of Ruth and Peter, and want them handed over for execution. Marcus gives up Simon and the rest of the cell, but omits any information on the primary targets. The cell is raided by the cohorts urbane, with Shadya and the others killed; Simon escapes, and Marcus rescues Ruth and Peter in the chaos. Ruth reveals that she has no interest in the Christians' goals, and merely seeks to escape; Marcus, already thinking along the same lines, puts her and Peter on a train back to Mauretania. He is confronted on the platform by Simon, who prepares to shoot him. Whether Marcus survives the encounter, or what becomes of Ruth and Peter, remains unknown.