Thursday, July 12, 2012

Roma Eterna

I do like a good alternative history book. Especially when it's do do with Roman history. Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna is more a series of short stories in a single alternate history than a novel, and it traces a parallel history where the Roman Empire never fell. The point of divergence is the Exodus - in this world, the Exodus failed, and Pharaoh recaptured the Israelites and kept them in slavery. The rest of european history stayed mostly the same, but Christianity didn't happen. The knock-on effects meant that the Western Roman Empire didn't collapse.

The divergence is explained by two scholars in the opening story, and then the book moves on. Each story is related to a key event in the history of this alternate Rome, moving forward over the centuries, to the final story, set in 1970.

If you like Roman history, you'll enjoy this book. I certainly had a hard time putting it down - I read it over the course of a few days. It feels reasonably true to Roman culture, though I took issue with a number of things, including: the strange coincidence between the dates of particular events in our timeline and the timeline of the book; the stasis of Roman culture and religion over the centuries (implying that the author felt that Christianity, for example was a unique phenomenon, rather than just the best contender at that time for a societal niche that was sitting empty); the emergence of Islam (which is really a syncretion of Judaism, Christianity, and local Arabian superstitions, and so wouldn't have emerged in any similar way in this timeline).

Many of the episodes in the book are very entertaining, and it is an interesting alternate history. However, it feels a little distopian; I'm not sure I'd want to live in that world, dominated by that Roman Empire. Surely over the centuries a little of the democratic theory developed by the Greeks would have taken effect, and Rome's semi-democratic republican past would have resurfaced, particularly once an industrial revolution happened. I've seen it argued (Hobsbawm, maybe?) that the conditions of relative economic and intellectual freedom that existed in Britain were a necessary catalyst for an industrial revolution - that despite the relevant technological preconditions existing in other places earlier, the lack of sufficient economic incentives for innovation meant that revolutions just didn't happen. A fun read, regardless. I should probably read more of Silverberg's books; I've enjoyed both of those I've read.

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