Long Live the Empire
"This is the Roman Empire NOW", screams the front cover of Sophia McDougall’s debut novel, right above some crosses, replete with the crucified, silhouetted above a modern city skyline. No prizes, then, for guessing the central conceit of Romanitas. It is the 2757th year of the Roman Empire, the date counted ab urbe condita (i.e. from the founding of Rome itself), in a world where the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, as we know them, never happened. It is also a world in which Christianity foundered and died in its infancy, in which Islam never took hold, and in which Hinduism was Romanized; a world in which the Empire stretches across half of North America, China and Africa, and in which India and South America have been completely annexed.
The global map-scape is shared with only two other significant powers. The largest is Nionia, a Japanese-esque Empire that encompasses Australasia and the western seaboard of North America, as well as North and South Korea, and Thailand. Following an uneasy peace with Rome Nionia’s North American territories are demarcated by a great wall, not unlike Hadrian’s, streaking across the States in a diagonal just west of Arkansas. The second power is Sinoa, a China that subsumes Bangladesh, Burma and Vietnam to the south and Mongolia and swathes of Russia to the north. Only the southern tip of Africa remains independent of these three sprawling Empires.
However, despite the epic-ness of scope suggested by bare geography, Romanitas is not a novel on the large scale (although it is a lengthy 572 pages). It focuses primarily on events that take place in a small triangle of Roman Europe — in southern Gaul and northern Italy — and places three adolescents at its emotional centre. World-building and Empire politics are trusted to the reader’s imagination, and to the map inserted before the acknowledgements.
Marcus Novius Faustus is sixteen years old, newly orphaned and the Imperial heir presumptive. His father, Leo, brother to the current Emperor, and his mother Clodia, have recently died in a car accident. The novel opens with their state funeral. All around the Empire Romans watch Marcus, standing next to his parent’s embalmed bodies, give his first state speech on public "longvision". They see an imperious, serious future Emperor, while Marcus, for his own part, feels sick and wooden.
Miles away in London a young slave girl, Una, wearing stolen clothes and fresh bruises, glances up at a public longvision screen. Seeing Marcus, she reviles the emptiness of his official sentiments. She is on her way to rescue her older brother, Sulien, who is due to be crucified the next day having been accused of raping the daughter of his owner. Gathering together all her outrage at being unfree, and using her preternatural ability to read minds and influence thoughts, she means to walk straight past the guards, collect the key to her brother’s cell and escape with him to Gaul as runaways. And, powered by anger and determination, somehow she succeeds.
Marcus, meanwhile, is also destined for a life as a fugitive. The Rome of now, like ancient Rome, is riven with ambition and corruption. Only days after his parent’s funeral, Marcus’s secretary, Varius, voices his suspicion that Leo and Clodia were murdered because of their subversive, potentially world-changing views. Both had believed that slavery, the hereditary bondage on which the industry, economy and comfort of the modern Empire is founded, should be abolished, and that all human beings should have an inalienable right to their liberty. Once he became Emperor, Leo had intended to free the slaves and institute a fair and waged economy. Varius believes that Marcus, who shares his parent’s ideals, will inevitably be the next target. Too many people have a vested interest in being the masters of the unfree, and thus in changing the course of Imperial succession.
Only hours later, an attempt is made on Marcus’ life. With the help of Varius, he flees Rome in disguise, intending to take refuge in a mountain hide-away for escaped slaves (which his parents had sponsored) and wait until the source of the murderous plot can be revealed. Una and Sulien, hounded across Europe by vigiles, make slow progress towards the same place…
From there onwards the plot is pretty thin on the ground; for a novel of Romanitas’ length very little unexpected happens. The promise of intrigue in Rome is only barely fulfilled (the full deviousness of the conspiracy against Marcus being hurriedly tacked on in the final twenty pages). Far more emphasis is placed on the interminable journeying and escaping of the three teen protagonists. As is inevitable they soon meet up and struggle forward together over the obstacles along the way — the patrols, their hunger, their visibility, especially given Marcus’s internationally recognizable face. Certainly, there is good tension in all this, but the snail’s pace negates any real breathlessness or excitement. The middle part of the novel barely plods along. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the beginning and the end, both well paced, bracket a sizeable dumpling of plot-stodge in the middle.
However, McDougall does make up for the lack of exterior action with a fine, mature eye for interiority. Una, Sulien and Marcus are all well-realized, as is Varius. Even the relatively infrequent appearances of the Imperial family manage to convey a strong sense of individual personality. She feels free to dip in and out of her character’s consciousnesses, using her omnipotent third-person to its proper effect. Una especially, with her stubborn desperation and her repressed emotions, is a living creature. Her strength and her youth sit uneasily and precariously in her, even as her never-revealed but abused past hulks forward, threatening to destroy her.
Adjoining this flair for interiority is McDougall’s sense of prose: she writes well and the novel is full of pleasant similes and constructions. Take for example these three different ways of describing the crowd from the opening page:
But the glaring buildings and statues seemed planted deep in a heavy soil of black-dressed people, weighed down, wading. From above, the buildings and the people would look like one static mat, so densely and so nearly motionlessly were the streets filled. The Sacred Way, cleared for the procession to pass, closed inexorably behind it, like a syringe filling with black ink.
While the images compete, somewhat confusedly with one another, the descriptive effect remains tactile and suited to the perplexity of the eye falling on a multitude of people. Romanitas maintains this consciously poetic timbre throughout, invoking, as it does literally on several occasions, Virgil. This alone makes it feel like an ambitious book, even in the absence of grand plotting. It is strange in this way: as though it should be epic, as though its language is striving for epic (perhaps overmuch at times), and yet it remains constrained. It feels in one sense like a set-up novel, aching for bigger and better things, and in another like a character novel only fit for purpose.
But is it good alternate history? Well, no, I’m not really sure it is. McDougall’s Roman Empire is nothing more than a mixed reality, taking, as it does, vital, iconic characteristics from ancient Rome — Emperors, slavery, crucifixion — and some technologies of our own — television, telephones, trains, cars, air travel — and muddling them up together. In McDougall’s vision a single event changes the course of the Empire and ensures its survival along her trajectory (and she does give an extensive timeline in the appendix of the book). In our world, Publius Helvius Pertinax, the reformer who succeeded Emperor Commodus, was assassinated only weeks into his reign. In the world of the novel, however, he lived to rule for 12 years and undertook significant reforms to taxation and the army, and restored power to the Senate. His temperate reign set the Empire on a sounder base and determined its longevity. All of which is well and good — single events do cause historical landslides — and McDougall’s research seems thorough enough.
But after the event that caused the landslide, Romanitas doesn’t imagine any other great change — Rome’s system of government and governance remains basically the same, although the Imperial family does change with a realistic regularity. Its technological advances basically mirror our reality, and McDougall puts the onset of its technological age — the invention of cars and air travel for example — squarely around the time of our own. The development of flight only occurs in their equivalent to the early 20th century. This leaves a good number of "dead years" in her Roman history. Surely in the years that our Europe was recovering from the fall of the Empire we know, splintering off into nation states, repelling invasive forces, like the Vikings and Magyars, McDougall’s Rome would have been advancing technologically in tandem with its rapid expansion. Surely it would have been seeking speedier methods of travel and more convenient modes of communication to cover its vast land holdings and ensure economic growth.
Further, McDougall’s Roman technologies are really no different from our own. Their trains run on cables rather than rails and their cars on electricity rather than fossil fuels but nothing else in design or purpose is significantly different.
The fact of the matter is that Romanitas doesn’t try hard enough at being an alternate history: it wants to be a character story and manages it tolerably well, but in doing so it leaves its central conceit to flounder. Any re-envisioning of our present is mostly aesthetic, a ruse to make the narrative feel more exciting and alien than it actually is. It is just not enough. Other speculative authors manage to do both world-building and character. It puts McDougall behind in the game and it makes me think she doesn’t really know her chosen sub-section of genre very well. Still, this book is the first of a projected trilogy — the second, Rome Burning, being due sometime in 2007 — and further installments promise to vastly expand the geographic and political scope of the first novel. I’m willing to reserve my judgment as to McDougall’s alternate history credentials till then.