What if Rome never fell?
An interview in which I outline ideas about the continuation of the Roman empire beyond the 5th century, up to the dawn of the Renaissance.
Originally published in All About History, no. 23.
We're speaking of the Western Empire, which after a long decline symbolically fell in Ravenna in 476. But an enhanced Senate continued to exist for more than a century afterwards. The Roman concept of state was continued for almost a millennia by the Holy Roman Empire, and the Western Roman Empire continued to exist 'on paper' but only as a legal formality. Let's also not forget that the Eastern Empire continued until the 15th century. Given all that, it'd be a phenomenal situation if Rome never fell. 'Never' is the key idea here. For a Western Roman Empire still in existence today would have to be so different from the reality of what made it the Roman Empire that we could hardly call it that at all! A surviving Western Empire which had reintegrated with the Eastern Empire might well hold vastly disproportionate influence over human affairs everywhere. It would encompass, and indeed define, most if not the whole of Europe, as well as other parts of the world.
A surviving Western Empire which had reintegrated with the Eastern Empire might well hold vastly disproportionate influence over human affairs everywhere. It would encompass, and indeed define, most if not the whole of Europe, as well as other parts of the world.
Roman legions, consisting of Mayan warriors too, march to the gold regions of Peru and California, returning to Rome with spoils that make the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem look like a prize at a village fete lucky dip.
How would Rome's government be different?
To keep the empire stable, a balance would have to be struck between tight, autocratic rule by an elite oligarchy (with no monarchy abhorrent to Roman ideals), intelligent decision making, and the machinations of prestigious, well-connected individuals. The expensive civil wars that contributed to the collapse could be averted if Rome had reformed the system by which the emperor was selected after the 3rd century when the senatorial class was marginalised and any connection with the imperial family was sufficient to make a claim. Almost all emperors after that time were army officers or imperial officials (stratocracy). That led to rivals and bloody conflicts. From the mid 3rd century emperors also wasted time with matters that previously were dealt with by an imperial legate. If he was unwilling to trust anyone else to deal with a distant problem it would be neglected, and the trend towards smaller provinces made it even harder to get things done. The solution was Diocletian's Tetrarchic system from 293, quartering the empire, each part ruled by a sovereign emperor. But each group selfishly favoured its own aims and proved reluctant to assist other parts of the empire. So the system crumbled from almost constant civil wars which weakened the empire.
With much more radical reform it might have worked if the Tetrarchy reformed into a Supreme Imperial Office comprising more regional co-emperors, who were chosen only from the Senate. And if reform included the chance to become a senator or any official on personal merits, not just for being one of the landed classes. Intelligence and capability also have to carry real political influence, basically an oligarchy of technocrats. Each office is decided by a small closed election, a bit like the way the Pope is chosen from a group of cardinals. The periods of service are fixed, like the President of the United States, so no office gets too much influence over the rest. Only soldiers are allowed to keep their jobs as long as they are performing well, but no general can become Emperor. That's very important, as is keeping the army properly paid. All bribery is punishable by the most dreadful forms of execution in the Colosseum. It's a system where anyone can become an official, or even emperor. Yet still oligarchal and Roman enough to preserve the ideals that work so well in the empire's favour – conquest, assimilation, expansion. That's the basic theory, anyway.
How possible is it for Rome not to have fallen, what would have to be different?
From the end of the 2nd century levels of trade and prosperity fell, never again achieving the levels of the early Principate. By the mid 3rd century, when the empire split into three competing empires and widespread civil unrest massively disrupted the trade network, the degeneration of Imperial finances escalated. The state's inability to pay its troops increased too. Essential items such as weapons, clothing, and food became part of soldiers pay, and much trade took place without currency. One response was to debase the currency. In the second half of the 3rd century the silver content of the antonianus fell to only 2%, causing hyperinflation, which had to be dealt with by Aurelian in 271 and 274 by raising taxes and eradicating the bad coinage in Rome and Italy but not the provinces.
To prevent continual currency devaluing, Rome would have needed to grow its silver and gold reserves. Mines in Italy were not large or reliable enough, so instead Rome could stem the amount of silver it exported to India in return for spices, curtailing its taste for luxuries. Difficult! Preferably, they could discover new sources that exist in central Europe or sub-Saharan Africa, or by voyaging to Mesoamerica where silver and gold is plentiful and fairly easy to reach. Excellent cartography and astronomy borrowed from Persia is key to making this possible.
In the Mesoamerican scenario, the Romans come up against the Maya, sparking conflicts that the Romans would be hard-pressed to win in harsh jungles, and greatly outnumbered. Instead, they muster their advantage in technology and international connections to cajole the Mayans into a trade alliance to develop their civilization – exchange steel, machinery, and urban planning for Mayan gold and hardwoods. With diplomatic outposts established in Mayan cities, Roman legions, consisting of Mayan warriors too, march to the gold regions of Peru and California, returning to Rome with spoils that make the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem look like a prize at a village fete lucky dip.
Each office is decided by a small closed election, a bit like the way the Pope is chosen from a group of cardinals. The periods of service are fixed, like the President of the United States, so no office gets too much influence over the rest.
How might Rome have progressed beyond the 5th century?
In the 600s the new religion of Islam gallops out of Arabia, and Muslim armies began a war against both the Romans and the Sassanians, already fighting since the 200s. Many factors would have to go into Rome winning the war against this fresh expansion. For one, Rome would need the resources to defend the Middle East, which supposing they still have western Europe and north Africa, and are investing deeply into gaining a foothold in Mesoamerica as I envisage, it is still questionable unless they can make up with the Sassanians. It's a logical step for them to build strong diplomatic relations with other empires, the Hunnic, Sassanian, Rashidun, Umayyad, Mongol, and subsequent empires.
Despite all the negative connotations of being an empire, a surviving, generally non-belligerent Western Roman Empire would in some sense be the model of a well-governed, prosperous, cosmopolitan society, having evolved beyond the strife and economic problems that dogged its early history, exacerbating its actual demise. On the other hand, the cost of this may well be an even more hierarchical and brutal society, with slavery still rooted, and a very harsh law code.
Would the world as a whole be more or less technologically advanced?
In certain areas I suggest it would be a lot more advanced, provided there's no stagnation of scientific enquiry that happened in Europe across Late Antiquity. Instead of the intelligentsia putting so much effort into Christian religious doctrine and hoarding ancient knowledge in closed monasteries, there is a freer circulation of information that allows engineering to innovate much faster. Steel was known to the Romans, and sooner or later they must have realised that making tools from it instead of just weapons, would increase agricultural productivity, and architecture would develop faster for its use in tools, cranes, and girders.
The principle of steam power was already known to the ancient Greeks. If the Romans had cottoned onto the possibilities of that, combined with iron and steel it's feasible they could have invented the steam engine, hence locomotives, revolutionising long-distance transport, a rail network spanning the empire. The Industrial Revolution could have started a thousand years earlier, and would have marked the beginning of the end of the slave system. This isn't necessarily for everyone's benefit. More powerful engines of war, including firearms, might well have encouraged emperors to expand the empire's boundaries, bigger wars and extra pressure on state finances and reductions in the overall standard of living. But if the empire is not to fall, ambitions of conquest must be held in check, maintaining the delicate balance of international relations.
Are there any key events that could have stemmed Rome's fall if they went differently?
One that stands out is the Battle of Adrianople in 378 when Roman forces of the Eastern empire lost some ten thousand lives to the Visigoths under Fritigern in modern Turkey. This gave the Goths free rein in Thrace and Dacia, a major instigator of the process that led to the fall of the Western Empire. The blame for this calamity rests with the Emperor Valens (364-378). During negotiations, premature attack broke out from the Roman side, and Valens allowed this to force his hand, ordering a general attack that spiralled into a disaster, including his own death. If Valens had kept his head, who knows? Instead of being the 'Last True Roman' as he's been called, he might have been the greatest of them all.
9 August 378
Battle of Adrianople
Emperor Valens heeds the advice of the cautious Western general Richomer not to attack, instead of the hawkish Eastern general Sebastian who urges the order. Valens negotiates, stalling while reinforcements arrive, and wins the battle.
No More War?
The Goths are assimilated, preventing their plunder throughout Thrace. With British and Irish territory stabilised, Rome trains on Scandinavia and the Ukraine, establishing an arctic frontier across the Baltic states. The ensuing massive cost entails harsh taxes which provoke Empire-wide rioting.
Majoran uses an enhanced fleet of 65 ships (not 40) to win against the Vandals at the Battle of Cartagena (real timeline 461). He retakes Sicily, gradually reverses the Vandal usurpation of North Africa. Rome expands into sub-Saharan Africa.
The Second Pax Romana
After three years of deliberation by the new Supreme Consilium, reforms are announced for all offices of the legislature and executive to forever eradicate corruption. Finances rebalanced, imperial wealth starts to surge.
Black Death Averted
Grain ships carrying bubonic plague from Egypt sink in a storm before reaching Constantinople. The averted Plague of Justinian allows the Eastern Empire to populate faster by a factor of two.
Invention and Expansion
The first outing of Minerva's Arrow, a steam engine that runs on rails, is a centrepiece of a year-long festival of art and technology in Rome. The rail network gradually expands to all frontiers.
Holy Land Wars
A Roman-Axumite alliance in Northeast Africa prevents the Islamic expansion into North Africa, but loses Mesopotamia to the caliphate powers. Four years later Rome loses control of Jerusalem.
New World Alliances
After three years of exploration and conflict in Mesoamerica, Rome establishes trade and diplomatic relations with the Mayans, helping prevent their civilization's collapse. In Peru they extract tribute from the Chavin culture. In California they enslave Native American societies.
Return of the Black Death
From one trade caravan on the Silk Road plague reaches Europe and then a ship bound for Mesoamerica. Half the empire's population and those of its neighbors, around 290 million, perish.
15 April 1452
With a thousand years of super-accelerated progress in all fields of human knowledge at his disposal, Leonardo Da Vinci is born in a suburb of the Florentia-Roma mega-city, the largest on Earth...