Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What If Wednesday: The Roman Empire Never Falls

Timelines about the Roman Empire never falling are almost as popular as American Civil War or World War II alternate histories. That being said, I always found the reasons for why Rome never fell to be lacking and hope to throw my own scenario in the ring and see if it generates any discussion.

To clarify, when I say "Roman Empire" I mean the Western Roman Empire which fell in 476 to Odoacer. I realize that the eastern half of the Empire continued to exist as the Byzantine Empire, but popular history usually does not label them as Roman, so for the sake of this article I won't either.

With that out of the way, if we want to prevent Rome from falling, we need to look at why it fell in the first place. The generally accepted theory is that the Empire fell because of barbarian invasions. That theory, however, does not paint a full picture. It only gives the specific cause of death, but says nothing of the overall health of the Empire. Following the end of the Pax Romana 180 AD, the Empire began a gradual decline as civil wars raged across the Empire over succession to the Imperial throne. A couple of strong emperors, like Diocletian and Constantine, attempted to stop the decline, but their effort were too little too late. To fix the Empire, we will need to change things farther in the past.

I have always been a fan of the economic reasons for the collapse of Rome. These range from agricultural decline, lack of economic freedom and slavery hampering ingenuity. Fixing these issues would be difficult and would require a major paradigm shift (or assistance from alien space bats) for Classical civilizations. It seems near impossible, but to give Rome the best chance you would need some reform minded emperors not distracted by civil strife throughout the Empire.

Perhaps fixing the system of succession could help. Rome was notable that those who took the purple were not always the son of the man who held it before. This actually gives us some hope because it means competent men have the chance to take control over incompetent children of the current reigning Emperor (as what happened when Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius). The problem is such a structure breeds strife as factions (army, bureacracy, Senate, etc.) fight over who gets the top spot. A more formal framework would need to be adopted to ensure a peaceful transition to power, especially if the current Emperor dies before naming a heir. Perhaps the Senate would then act as the College of Cardinals does today for the Pope.

A more stable Empire could then deal with the immediate threat of barbarian invasion. In fact, they may even take advantage of the golden opportunity to assimilate the barbarians into Roman culture. Many of the Germanic tribes who "invaded" Rome were actually refugees who were pushed west by more powerful tribes (like the Huns). I fear, however, that I am starting to get optimistic. Its just not plausible for large empires to stay together indefinitely (unless you count China as an exception). It is probably unlikely Rome would avoid all potential civil wars or survive other "barbarian" invasions (Arabs, Norse, Magyar, Slavs, etc.).

Perhaps Rome surviving on the German/Italian model would be appropriate. By that I mean that because of a longer Pax Romana Latin culture is even stronger in Europe. If the Empire does collapse, more successor states like the Byzantines arise allowing for a future reunification down the line. Thus in this scenario we have multiple versions of the Empire that reunite following brief periods of strife. We may even see future versions of the Roman Empire having a written constitution that structures the empire into more of a federation. Instead of the eagle, the phoenix may be a better standard for these future incarnations of the Empire.

There are still many variables that could wreck the scenario above. What if Rome changes the course of the migration of the steppe nomads from west to east? What if the Roman Empire's size and power makes it complacent and they are unprepared for a more dynamic rival? What if the author of this piece just doesn't know what he is talking about? That sounds the most likely actually, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments and if want to submit your own scenario email me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com for a chance to be featured on What If Wednesday.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. The lack of a strong tradition of hereditary succession was actually a cause of Roman weakness -- a bug, not a feature. It meant that any general could take the throne by force, which was a formula for civil wars. It's much more important that the succession be peaceful and accepted as legitimate than that some "optimum" candidate take over.

    Imperial Rome's problem was that it had a monarchical system with a Republican, in fact anti-monarchic, formal ideology. It's not an accident that the "four good Emperors" each adopted an heir, not having a natural one -- until Marcus Aurelius. Who was a very smart man and knew that his sone was hopeless, but left him as heir anyway. For one thing, the -army- (the crucial institution) preferred a hereditary succession.

  2. Recent research has downplayed the notion of economic decline within the Empire. The plagues and civil wars of the 3rd century certainly hurt, but the rural areas mostly recovered strongly int he 4th century and according to the best archaeological data, apart from some frontier areas the population and production in rural areas reached their peak in the late 300's, just before the collapse of the Western Empire. Cities and long-distance trade had gone downhill, largely because the economy had become more decentralized and because provincial areas had caught up.

    One big reason for the Fall of Rome was simply that the opponents got a lot stronger. Again, archaeology indicates that the Germanic peoples became steadily more numerous, with vast increases in cleared area and land under the plow. They also spread -- by the 300's, the whole area north of the Danube (and into the Ukraine) was dominated by the various East-Germanic kingdoms like the various Goths and Vandals and Burgunds.

    Meanwhile in the east the weak Parthian state had been replaced by the strong and militantly aggressive Sassanids, who were a much more formidable opponent and who were ideologically dedicated to taking back all "formerly Persian" territory, meaning the whole of Asia up to the Bosphorus.

    So Rome now had strong enemies on both frontiers. That made the burden of military costs enormously higher than it had been in the palmy days of the Principate.

  3. To me the question is not "why did Rome fall," but "how did Rome manage to maintain itself for as long as it did, over such a vast expanse." I think a collapse of some sort was inevitable, and marvel that civil authority and bureaucracy was maintained so well, so far and wide, for so long in antiquity.

    Any sort of Roman Continuity scenario, in my mind, would probably necessarily involve a series of smaller, successor states to the Empire, perhaps owing allegiance of some sort to Rome itself, sort of a grand feudal system encompassing most of Europe and north Africa. Rome as it was just doesn't seem sustainable to me.

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  5. The East Roman empire lasted; China spent more time united than divided, on the whole. The Great Big Empire is the natural unit at that level of technology.

    1. Okay, I've spent a couple of days thinking about something that might add something to what Matt and the great Mr. Stirling (not to mention Mr. Turtledove!) have to say on the subject. I am sure I am retreading old ground here, but...

      One of the many appellations of the Ottoman Sultans was "Kayser-i Rûm." In 1543, Hayreddin Barbarossa and his corsairs threatened Rome from the mouth of the Tiber, but withdrew due to French diplomatic pressure.

      so What If Barbarossa did capture Rome? Orthodox Christian elements in the Ottoman court (which were strong), would have called for a campaign to reunite the long-divided Pope and Patriarch under the aegis of the Sultan, or New Roman Emperor.

      In other words, Rome falls and is disunited (like China), but (like China) is reunited much later by barbarians. The Osmanid Dynasty of Rome might not have lasted very long, but like the Yuan Dynasty of China, it would lay the political groundwork for a united state that could be usurped by a native power (I vote for the Croats) and rule in both Constantinople and Rome as Emperors.

      ...not that these people would speak Latin, or be Christian, or be in any way similar to the classical Romans, but at least the name sounds impressive.

  6. Sheer contingency also has to be factored in. Harry Turtledove did a good "Rome Lasts" AH in his young-adult series; the breakpoint is that Agrippa, Augustus' right hand all-round henchman, doesn't predecease him -- Augustus was notoriously sickly, but lived a long time for a man of his era. Agrippa was strong as a bull, until he suddenly died. With Agrippa available, Augustus has a trusted general to consolidate the conquest of Germany; Germany becomes, like Gaul, thoroughly Romanized. That gives the Empire a much shorter easter border (Elbe-Carpathians-Black Sea) much further away from Rome.

    That was politically important. Roman emperors lived in terror of someone in a legionary command on the Danube, or especially on the Rhine, making a bid for the Purple. Both were inconveniently close to Italy. If the main concentration of regular troops was another 800 miles away, and fewer border legions were necessary, it would take a fair bit of the political strain off the system.

  7. It's often said that the Empire was less expansionist than the Republic, but that's not altogether true. About a third of the territory ruled by the Empire at the death of Augustus was conquered during his (admittedly long) reign.

    And Augustus had -plans- for much greater expansion. Germany had been conquered but was lost; and his generals were planning a great campaign up into Dacia and what's now the Czech Republic when a massive revolt in Illyria distracted them.

  8. There are two major ways to spark a Western Roman continuity scenario:
    1. Remove the Huns. If they don't migrate west, they don't displace other peoples and strain, and later breach, the Roman frontier to settle in, and later claim, chunks of the Western Empire.
    2. Remove the Sassanids, which will reduce the military pressure on the Empire and free up military forces to deal with the Huns and the migration of the Germanic peoples into the Empire in the 5th Century.

    Even with a point of departure that created one of these two scenarios, both halves of the Empire would still have to deal with succession issues and civil wars.

  9. An interesting possibility if the Goths had beaten the Huns rather than vice-versa; probably the whole of eastern Europe as far as the Volga would be Germanic-speaking.

    1. Perhaps a weaker Han China, leaving the Huns no reason to push West? Or stronger states in Central Asia, blocking their progress into Europe?

  10. I think that there are two topic moments in the History of Rome. Caesar's assassination and Teutoburg defeat. changing one of both maybe things could have evolved differently.
    Caesar was planning a war against Parthians and who knows maybe could have won. Varo was defeated with deception by traitor Arminius,, if he had stayed loyal probably the german tribes could have been civilized like Gauls and Britons.

    1. I suspect that if he survived the attempt that actually killed him, eventually there would have been a more successful attempt. This is because his personality prevented the only way the one thing could have removed the perceived need for his assassination: Periodically handing absolute power back to the senate and including them as the final arbiters in a system of succession planning.

      If he had announced that aside from stepping down from the role of dictator once the immediate need had passed, the senate would not have seen the killing of their greatest general as necessary. If he also came up with a bloodless system of succession planning that included the senate, for times when the dictator of the day did not survive the need, Rome would have been left with a legitimate way of establishing a meritocracy. Once people started calling themselves "emperor" the senate would have had a legitimate place contributing to the selection of said emperor. Getting rid of duds would still have been a bloody business, but they would have had a less bloody model for selecting replacements.

      However, this would not address the decline in the empires economy once they backed off on the whole invade and plunder business model.

      To correct that, would have required both defeating Arminius in the Teutoburg forest (so the Romans don't loose their taste for conquest in northern Europe and slaughtering the rebellious Germans to discourage other rebellions) and also finding something valuable for their economy in northern Europe.

      The problem is that (IIRC) under the Germanic tribal laws, helping the Romans was a capital offence. So if not Arminius, then somebody else or a succession of "somebody elses". The eventual end result is still the same: Without providing a valuable commodity, Rome decides northern Europe is more trouble/expense than it's worth.

      Over the following 200 years it became almost a right of passage, for the new emperor to lead a raid into Germania. But none of them saw the place as worth reconquering and occupying.

      If they saw it as a way of shortening their frontier, gain further control of important trade routes or gain access to gold or some other commodity, then they would have had a go (Like in Dacia). But as it was, they saw it as an area of low population (so limited taxes) with limited farming and mineral wealth on the way to nowhere. If they knew about the iron deposits or had a use for the coal deposits or the coke and potash that could have been made from the thick forests that covered northern Europe at the time, things may have turned out differently.

      Then there is the cost of transportation. The most profitable markets were in Rome. Anything mined or grown north of the German highlands would take too long and cost too much to transport to Rome. If they had managed to join the Rhine and the Danube or the Danube with one of the lowland rivers and the Mediterranean sea with a canal, then maybe. But as it was, to get to and from central Germania, everything either had to go overland, via the north sea or both.

      The only way round this economic limitation that I can think of, would have been either extensive canals with some very significant locks or some kind of railway. Both of which would have been extremely obvious and vulnerable to rebellious locals.