Saturday, June 18, 2011

Robert Silverberg: Roma Eterna, an SF Novel

I'm not a great fan of alternate history works, but there are a few exceptions. One is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Of course, I'm a great fan of Robinson, so that might partially account for it. Maybe. Another exception is this one: Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna. The basic theme is that Rome didn't fall but remained the pre-eminent power into the 20th century, or at least until the late 1960's when the novel ends.

Spoiler Warning: I will reveal significant events and themes in the work.

The significant turning points in the novel, at least as I see them, are as follows.

The Hebrews never escaped from Egypt. The Pharaoh's army reached them before they got to the Reed Sea, killed most of them, and returned the rest to slavery in Egypt. Consequently they never reached the Promised Land and established their own homeland. Christ, therefore, never appeared and Christianity did not emerge as the dominant religion in Europe. Rome managed to defeat the Vandals, and the Roman Empire did not fall in the 455 AD as it did in our world. Finally, Islam, like Christianity, never materialized to become the dominant power that it did in our world.

The novel is a series of 9 short stories and one novella-length story, "Getting to Know the Dragon." I had read the novella in an collection of short works and that's what tipped me off about this work.

One interesting aspect of the work is the way Silverberg frequently manages to tie in his fictional world with our world. Part of the fun in reading the work was searching for these links. Some I will mention below, but there's others that I missed. If any of you have identified some that I missed, I would appreciate hearing about them.

Silverberg adopts the convention of using the Roman calendar and therefore using the Roman notation for the years. Since the Romans began counting the years approximately 754 years before the Christian era, all one needs to do is subtract 754 from the dates to convert to our calendar. I will use the Roman years--AUC-- but will place the Christian Era year in brackets--754 AUC [1 AD]


PROLOGUE: 1203 AUC [449 AD]

Two historians get into a discussion of their topics--one is researching religious cults and in this way, Silverberg tells us of the failure of the Hebrews to escape. There is also some discussion of what might have happened if the Hebrews had escaped.



This takes place some 70+ years after Rome had fallen in our world. An ambassador from the Byzantine half of the Empire is in Rome to arrange a political marriage between the son of the Roman Empire and the daughter of the Byzantine Empire. Since the Emperor is dying and the eldest son is away hunting, it falls to Maximilianus, the second son, and his drinking and carousing friend, Faustus, to entertain and negotiate with the ambassador. During the visit, the Emperor dies and the eldest son dies in an hunting accident. Maximilianus now is the emperor, something he always claimed he had no interest in becoming.

For an interesting comparison, you might read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt 2. In Shakespeare's play, Prince Hal, heir to the throne associates with bad companions, especially Falstaff. When Henry IV dies, Falstaff thinks he will become a powerful person for he is Prince Hal’s (now Henry V) drinking buddy. When he meets Henry and acts as he always did with Prince Hal, Henry says, ‘ I know thee not, old man.”

Similarly, when Faustus meets Maximilianus after he becomes Emperor, he begins to talk to him as they did in the past. But, Maximilianus responds: “You speak as though you know me. Do you? And do I know you?”



A member of the Roman Emperor's court has incurred the Emperor's wrath and is sent to Mecca, which is actually not even a part of the Roman Empire at that time. He is to keep watch on the economic maneuverings of the Byzantine Empire and to protect the economic interests of Roma. However, his overriding goal is to get back to Roma. Shortly after he arrives in 1365 AUC [611 AD], he meets an idealistic and charismatic religious teacher and eventually begins to see him as a future threat to the Empire.

In our world, Mohammad, who was born c.570 was in Mecca in 611 AD. In 1364 AUC [610 AD], he had a vision and believed that God has called him to be a prophet and to begin preaching the word of God. Around 615 AD, Muhammad flees to Medina, for he has made numerous converts and more powerful enemies. By 622 AD, he has converted most of Medina, and within a decade of so he has conquered much of Arabia. This never happens in Roma Eterna.



This is the story of the second attempt to conquer the Mexican and Peruvian empires in the western hemisphere, and the second attempt ends even more disastrously for Roma, both economically and militarily. Roma is so weakened by the second failure that the Byzantine

Empire is now considerably stronger by comparison



This takes place some ninety years after the previous story and details the consequences of the failure to conquer Mexico and Peru. Roma has been so weakened by the failure, that the Byzantine Empire is now much stronger and is poised to conquer Roma. The story is told from the point of view of an official in the Roman government and his mistress. With Byzantine armies approaching from two directions and a Byzantine fleet in place to land another army where it chooses, the two attempt to decide just what they should do--remain in Rome and be subject to the Byzantine Empire or flee, and if they flee, where should they go?



Some two hundred and fifty years later, the fortunes of the two empires have been reversed. Decadent rulers of the Byzantine Empire allowed Roma to break away and once again become independent. Then in 2196 AUC [1443 AD], Roma defeats the Byzantine army and conquers Constantinople, thus bringing about the fall of the Byzantine Empire and reuniting the two halves under Roma. In our world, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople.

This tale is told from the point of view of a wealthy and attractive widow in Venice and focuses on her changing views of the Roman conquerors, especially those who are rich and powerful.



Draco is an accomplished painter, sculptor, poet, architect, engineer, and historian. His patron is the son of the ailing Emperor. Draco is Latin for Dragon. In this story we learn about Draco, and his illustrious ancestor, Emperor Trajan VII. At one point he feels he was born too late; he is now the last Renaissance Man. Draco, I think, is loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci, who was also a painter, architect, sculptor, and an engineer, with journals and notebooks that were hard to read. Draco lived about three hundred years after da Vinci, who was considered to be an ideal Renaissance Man.

At one point Draco wonders what his legacy will be. Perhaps his notebooks, if anybody could read them, may save his name for posterity. The Wikipedia entry about da Vinci's journals point out that they are difficult to read and explains: “The journals are mostly written in mirror-image cursive. The reason may have been more a practical expediency than for reasons of secrecy as is often suggested. Since Leonardo wrote with his left hand, it is probable that it was easier for him to write from right to left.”

Draco's dream is to write a history about the Emperor Trajan VII and his epic journey around the world. Trajan was sufficiently confident about the stability of the Empire at this time that he saw no problem in leaving Rome for several years.

Trajan's journey around the globe began in 2278 AUC [1524 AD] and ended in 1529 AUC [1529 AD] In our world, Ferdinand Magellan began his trip in 1519 AD and ended in 1522 AD. Trajan and Magellan both began their journeys in Seville, Spain. Trajan ended his in Seville 5 years later, while one of Magellan's three ships also returned to Seville. Magellan, of course, died along the way while Trajan survived.



Two consuls initiate a reign of terror in their attempt to prevent the overthrow of the emperor by democratic forces within the empire.

In our world, the French Reign of Terror lasted from 1789-1799 AD, bringing about the fall of the French monarchy. In 1799 Napoleon initiates a coup and declares himself First Consul.


VIA ROMA: 2603 AUC [1849 AD]

A visitor from the province of Britain comes to the heart of the Empire. In his naivete, he completely misses the political intrigue about him and is shocked when the Emperor is overthrown by democratic forces who establish, or rather claim that they are re-establishing the Roman Republic as it was thousands of year ago.

In our world, the 1840s were years of unrest in Europe as numerous popular uprisings attempted to overthrow various monarchies and principalities and establish republics--all were unsuccessful at that time. Italy itself was in turmoil as several competing factions attempted to gain political control.



Several children discover an old man living in an abandoned hunting lodge that once belonged to the emperor. Those who were responsible for the overthrow of the emperor thought they had killed every member of the family, but rumors persisted that one child had survived. If he had survived, he would be in great danger for the new government could not allow any member of the emperor's family to live and possibly become a focal point for a counter-revolution. This is sort of a male version of the Anastasia legend that came out of the Russian revolution.



In our world, Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon, took place in 1969. In a way, Silverberg ends Roma Eterna the way he began it, with the Hebrews.

Overall Rating: Very good. The central character is the Roman Empire, and it is what unites the various short works. The focus is upon the stories of the characters which is set against the background of the Empire.

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