Rome Across the Rhine

A Larger Roman Empire

Introduction

Scope

This is a discussion of how the Roman Empire might have expanded more than it historically did, and the consequences. I realise this is something everyone has talked about, but I couldn't find anything like it on the web. And I'm choosing a point of divergence that's just different enough I hope it's original.

The text of this document is David Bofinger's, the maps were drawn by Hans Peeters.

Motivation

As usual in my alternate histories, I'm not sure of my own motivation. Partly, just to get this all straight in my own mind. Hopefully to provoke some debate.

Background

The Present

It's the first decade of the Christian era, though obviously nobody calls it that yet. Rome was founded about seven-hundred and sixty years ago. Augustus rules Rome, though he recognises republican forms and not everyone has yet figured out that the republic will never come again.

The Golden Future

Looking forward in our own history, Rome will enter a golden age roughly covering the second century A.D.. The leadership is excellent, life and liberty secure, and everything works. There's even a resurgence in the arts.

What caused it? Presumably a variety of factors, but one may be that the Roman emperors had hit on a pretty good method of arranging the succession. Each emperor would pick out a competent subordinate, and adopt him as his son and heir. There are obvious weaknesses in the idea: the risk of electing a skilled sycophant; the possibility that emperors would choose successors that agreed with them on major issues. (Pope John Paul II seems to be doing this as I write, using the mechanism of appointing conservative cardinals to the body that will elect his successor.) But for a century the system worked very well.

The other point to make is that while the second century is a high point, it's really the culmination of a very impressive period of Roman administration dating back to at least Augustus. From 14 B.C. through to 235 A.D. most Roman emperors are pretty reasonable. Not all, of course, but utter bastards like Caligula are definitely anomalous.

The Dark Future

But by 235 A.D. the Roman ability to find competent leaders has gone to pieces so completely one wonders if the society has been struck with madness. By the 250s and 260s internal problems will be supplemented by external enemies: most importantly the Persians and the Goths. But something had obviously gone horribly wrong long before they made an impact.

The main problem is that civil war has become the standard method of determining the new emperor. Civil wars aren't new, of course: Augustus started the empire with one and there was another in 69 A.D.. But their frequency is. Most of the time, during the early empire, if the troops proclaimed a new emperor he got the job without fighting.

In the further future the empire is saved and reformed by the like of Diocletian. But it's never really quite the same again. Diocletian had some ideas that were good and some ideas that were really bad and some others that sounded good but never worked. One idea in that last category is that senior emperors should appoint junior emperors to rule half their empire and succeed them as senior emperor. In practice, nobody felt obliged to respect the dead emperor's choice. The habit of civil war had become too strong.

Point of Divergence

The Illyrian and Pannonian Revolt

The historical long-term boundary of Rome in Europe was along the Rhine and Danube rivers. In 6 A.D., however, the Roman empire of Augustus was already across the lower Rhine and expanding across the Danube. The lure was a eye-catchingly wealthy barbarian state in Bohemia, which these days is more or less the Czech republic. The Marcomanni and Quadi resisted strongly, but were about to collapse when the Roman armies had to be pulled back to deal with a revolt in Illyria and Pannonia (roughly, Hungary and the former Yugoslav Republics).

Bohemia

What if there'd never been a revolt? With no revolt, Rome will take Bohemia, and make a tidy profit from looting it. The Bohemian leadership resisted, so they'll be dispossessed. We can't rule out a few Bohemian kinglets changing sides early enough that they get to keep their territories as clients of Rome, but most of Bohemia will be a province, ruled directly from Rome.

Deleting the Revolt

Not hard to arrange, as points of divergence go: it might be a falling out between conspirators, followed by a knife in the dark; an over-talkative plotter, followed by a thousand revolutionaries on crucifixes along the main roads; or just a sudden attack of rationality, followed by an accurate evaluation of the revolt's chance of victory. Because the revolt failed, of course: this is early imperial Rome we're talking about. But by the time the provinces were thoroughly pacified the opportunity was gone. Rome never did take Bohemia. And another reason for that was a German that the Romans called Arminius.

Teutoburger Forest

Arminius is the Latinised name of someone who undoubtedly called himself Hermann or something similar. He was a local leader and a Roman ally in north-western Germany. This was a somewhat pacified area only recently put under Roman control, the other major bridgehead across the Rhine-Danube frontier. Romans called it Greater Germany, to distinguish it from Upper Germany and Lower Germany across the Rhine.

Arminius ambushed and massacred the three Roman legions assigned to Greater Germany. This was more than ten percent of the Roman army, wiped out in an area they'd thought reasonably safe by an army they thought friendly. The disaster (most of this document will take a Roman point of view, obviously from Arminius' point of view it's a memorable victory) changed the course of history. It would be a long time before the Roman army built up to its earlier level. And the empire never got Greater Germany back, or most of its expansionist drive: see the section on Augustus' testament.

But what if Rome had another base in the area, such as Bohemia? Would that change Arminius' actions, or the results of those actions?

To be honest I have no idea. In fact, I'm not sure anyone clearly understands Arminius' motive in turning against Rome: opacity is, after all, a vital aspect of the art of treachery. Still, we can identify a few factors that may have affected his thinking. First, Arminius would be aware of the presence of Roman forces in Bohemia. He couldn't destroy all their forces on this side of the Rhine and hope to use it as a defensive barrier. Historically the Rhine wasn't a barrier to Rome, but the less-engineering-competent Germans might have hoped it would be. (It's been pointed out that the forests of unconquered southern Germany are a much better barrier than the Rhine, so forces in Bohemia aren't really all that close.)

He'd also have an object example of what happens to German leaders that resist Rome. Contrast that with Arminius' historical observations of Rome: proof that resistance was possible, and evidence that Roman campaigns sometimes had to be abandoned because of trouble at home.

Arminius may also get to see what happens to client kings under Rome, which in the short run isn't always that bad. OK, sometimes it's bad: Boudicaa's daughters were raped; and the Visigoths got a hard time before Adrianople, for instance. And in the long run, the country gets turned into a province and the heirs are bypassed. But I assume that neither of these things has happened yet to any Bohemian clients.

There's plenty of room for doubt here. Perhaps Arminius wouldn't have cared about any of these motivations. But I'm going to assume by fiat that he does: that he decides ally status isn't so bad, and leaves the German legions alone. Arminius is then written up by history as a briefly important but generally uninteresting client ruler.

I've also had it pointed out to me that an active German front wouldn't have Varus as its commander. Varus was a jurist, chosen for his administrative ability rather than his generalship. If Rome is getting ready to expand further into Germany it will assign a leader that Arminius will find a bit more of a challenge. A Roman victory, probably even a draw, will be followed by the disintegration of Arminius' coalition of tribes.

Consequent Expansion

Quadia and Marcomannia

The title of this section is a possible Latin name for Bohemia, if the Romans follow their convention of naming places after the people who live in them. Potentially a fairly wealthy province, which of course is why the Romans ever went there in the first place. “Quadia” just means “the land of the four tribes”, and “Marcomannia” something like “the land of the people who follow Marcus”. Both names are indications of the jury-rigged nature of German political machinery in this era, the latter may also be evidence of the importance of Roman renegades in providing to the barbarians those elements of civilisation they found useful.

Germania Magna

Latin for trans-Rhine Germany. I doubt it's going to be all that civilised or all that lucrative for a long time, but it will serve a useful purpose as a source of recruits. It will also put Rome fairly close to the source of amber, they should be able to turn a profit on that.

Dacia

Dacia was the Latin name for an area that today is more or less Romania. Historically Dacia was conquered in the first years of the second century A.D.. Rome wanted Dacia because it was rich. It was also quite sophisticated — not quite a civilisation yet, but a long way in advance of of more primitive “barbarians” such as the Germans. (Presumably this was either a cause or a consequence of its wealth, I'm not sure which.) The Daces are ethnically more or less Thracians.

Dacia was never integrated into a frontier: it remained a vulnerable extension of the empire north of the Danube. It was abandoned during the great crisis of the third century, ironically not until a few years before everything started getting better. So it's fairly easy to imagine it not being abandoned.

In the alternate timeline Dacia is a Roman province. The Dacians had a good army and wouldn't have given up before they'd been clearly defeated, so I'm assuming any client kingdoms are minor affairs, as in Marcomannia and Quadia. Dacia, which may or may not extend all the way to the Black Sea, is still somewhat isolated from other Roman possessions by the Sarmatians.

Sarmatia

The Sarmatians are a terrifyingly warlike people inhabiting the Tisza valley, north of the Danube. They aren't related to their neighbours on either side, their closest relatives are probably the Iranians (that will give Rome so much trouble in the East). Sarmatian territory wedges in between Bohemia and Dacia. In the long run they have to be pacified, if Rome is to hold its trans-Danubian provinces.

It's a big ask, but Rome will have strong incentive. Left unconquered the Sarmatians will, sooner or later, attack anyone with property or worthwhile land who lives anywhere near them. Even across the Danube the Romans won't be entirely safe. If Rome can take the area then the Tisza river (a tributary of the Danube) provides convenient communications to help them hold it. And the Sarmatians, once conquered, will make fine recruits for the Roman army.

Elbe and Carpathians

Broadly speaking, the traditional frontier for Rome was either

The empire might consider including the “nothing” (i.e. no defensive terrain) part of the frontier because they could make it much shorter that way, cutting off the end of a narrow wedge of land instead of following the longer (but more defensible per unit length) rivers that formed its sides.

The potential frontier I'm looking at here is something along the lines of

The points we need to address are:

I think all these problems are soluble, but I'll admit they are substantial in combination. Still, this is early imperial Rome we're talking about, a terrifyingly capable organisation.

Britannia

Rome made an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Britain in the middle of the first century B.C., and a successful one in the middle of the first century A.D.. It's tempting to think these will be delayed if Rome is distracted on its European border.

Parthia

Rome's other active boundary was in the middle east. When Rome was doing well it controlled Armenia (Eastern Anatolia, not the modern Caucasus state) and when it was doing very well it controlled Mesopotamia (the urbanised area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in modern Iraq). When Rome was doing badly both these territories were under the control of whoever ruled Iran. In the period of our point of divergence this is Parthia, but from 226 A.D. they were supplanted by a Persian dynasty, the Sassanids. In the seventh century Rome (or, if you prefer, Rome's Byzantine successor) basically destroyed the Sassanids, and they might well have conquered a substantial chunk of their territory had not the Arabs and Islam made all the old rivalries moot.

We've distracted Rome away from the East: more of its effort will be spent in Europe. That may strengthen Parthia's hold on Mesopotamia and Armenia, and delay its collapse. On the other hand, Rome may be generally more expansionist. Historically, Trajan more or less had Mesopotamia when he died and it was abandoned by his successor, Hadrian. A more aggressive successor to Trajan might have held onto it, or Hadrian might if the mood of Rome differed. Rome would need a big army in Mesopotamia to defend it against this timeline's analogues of Parthia and Sassania. But maybe no more than it needed historically to defend Syria and Palestine against the same threat. In fact, maybe less: Parthia can be seen as a partnership between Iranian military skill and Mesopotamian wealth in the same way that the Western empire, say, got its money from places like Africa but its soldiers from places like Illyria. A Parthia in control of Mesopotamia is much wealthier and hence much more dangerous than a Parthia deprived of it, not to mention the positive effects on Roman coffers.

Psychology

The Bequest of Augustus

The disaster at Teutoburger Forest had a terrible effect on Augustus. Stories of the time describe him screaming at the dead Roman commander in Germany to “give me back my legions”, it's tempting to make comparisons with, say, Stalin's loss of control in the first few days of Barbarossa, or Hitler's after Stalingrad.

In Augustus' case communications delays made the short term disruption less of an issue, but the long term impact was severe. When he died he left a will advising his successors not to try to expand the empire. Many of them, most notably Hadrian, followed that advice; and though the empire still expanded in a few areas, most of the drive was gone.

A Rome that retained that drive would be stronger in some ways and weaker in others. It would almost certainly grow larger, with the economic advantages that implies (Rome was always good at encouraging trade). But it would also find itself burdened by the need to hold down barbarous marches. It would waste resources in profitless and pointless foreign wars. It might waste less in civil wars, assuming there'd be more prejudice against Roman fighting Roman: at least one historical emperor turned aside from an opportunity to break a rival in order to fight German invaders, but the sentiment was far from universal. The empire would be in general more militaristic, but there's not a great deal of scope to get more militaristic than it already was. There's a risk of encouraging ruinously high levels of military expenditure like that of Vegetius, who ruined the Roman economy paying for an unreasonably large army (ironically, pro-military spending types still quote his maxim “in time of peace, prepare for war” today).

Dead Weight

As the empire prospered Rome itself became an unproductive sink for the empire's surplus wealth. Initially that was because Rome the city determined who ruled Rome the empire, via the senate and the lynch mob. Even after that ceased to be true, when the frontier legions were deciding who would be emperor and the administration was being done in Ravenna or Milan, Rome continued to be subsidised.

It's hard for me to explain why, except in that established privileges are hard to remove. Since I can't explain what caused it, it's hard to say whether the changes stemming from my point of divergence will affect it. In general terms, however, the empire of the alternate timeline focuses less on Rome the city and more on the outlying provinces as being important. So perhaps Rome will be less pampered than historically, with the resources going instead to subsidised colonies in border provinces. Of course, border provinces of an expanding empire become inner provinces sooner or later, but will still fight to retain their special porivileges.

Bread

The practical subsidy was the dole. This started out as a food ration for the poor, but became something that the Roman people thought they deserved even if they weren't poor. I assume it helped Rome develop its huge population: over a million at its peak. Rome will probably never grow quite so large in the alternate timeline.

Circuses

The impractical subsidy was the popular entertainment: most famously, the gladiatorial contests. The Romans saw these contests as a vital aspect of maintaining Rome's martial spirit. These contests, so the theory went, connected the modern Roman with his more violent past, preventing him from becoming too demilitarised. This touching faith that watching someone else torn to shreds by wild animals could improve one's value to the Roman army seems odd to us today. I can't see that this timeline will be any more or less enthusiastic about the games than the historical one, but perhaps there'll be more focus on battles and less on other aspects. (“Today we shall observe a recreation of last year's victory by the emperor over ... can anyone pronounce this name?”)

Structures

Division

The late empire was divided into two or four parts, depending how you see it. It didn't happen all at once, there were a few fits and starts, but by the fourth century it's pretty permanent. There were two reasons for it. The administrative reason was a perception that the empire was just too big to rule from one capital.

The political reason was a desire to create heirs presumptive for the top job (people who'd been running a quarter of the empire anyway) who could assume the throne without the need for a civil war to prove their qualifications. This was basically a failure: people fought anyway. The administrative idea was that the empire as a whole was just too big for one person to govern, and since the local ruler was always going to be very powerful he may as well be given a title and authority to equal that power. It's hard to say whether this semi-feudal approach was the best solution.

The idea was that each half of the empire had:

In the alternate Roman empire, the second point is less of an issue, because there are always barbarous provinces, recently pacified and full of unemployed young men with belligerent attitudes, a certain moral flexibility and nothing better to do than join the Roman army.

A larger empire may need more than two/four pieces.

Capital

The later western empire located its capital close to the fronts where military threats existed. Milan was a popular choice, so was Sirmium on the Danube. The Eastern empire retained Constantinople, I suppose because it was just too nice a place for a capital to leave it.

The new empire will want some sort of administrative centre, perhaps a capital, up near the new frontiers. It will need good communications both laterally (along the Rhine-Danube, perhaps) and longitudinally (back to the imperial rear areas like Gaul and Italy). Perhaps Vienna, or a large town in Bohemia, would be suitable.

Citizenship

There's a period in which a common way to get Roman citizenship was to join the army. You quite likely wouldn't have to fight any battles — the catch being that most people died of more or less natural causes before paying out. Later, everyone got citizenship.

Rome needed citizens for colonies in the frontier provinces, like Colchester and Trier and many others. The more expansionist Rome will need them worse, because it has more barbaric places to hold down. So expect the army to be creating a lot of citizens, but also expect the empire to be more reluctant to give away the special privilege of — and incentive for — service.

Regionalism

A scourge of the third century empire was the rise of regionalism, with parts of the empire making a serious effort to break away. Sometimes this was inspired by a foreign allied kingdom trying to build its own empire on Roman collapse (e.g. Palmyra under Zenobia). Sometimes it was a home grown imperial claimant settling for a consolation prize (e.g. a competing empire in Spain and Gaul).

Will this happen more or less in the alternate timeline? I don't know.

Legitimacy

Rome always had a problem with legitimacy — a lot of the time there wasn't any. In the alternate timeline there's a new source of legitimacy, that in the historical timeline was throttled by Augustus. That principle is “who would be emperor prove himself by conquering the enemies of Rome, if necessary making them first”. It may not be a great principle by which to run an empire, but it may also be better than nothing.

Brute Force

The commonest way for the emperor to be chosen, in any time of troubles: who commands the loyalty of the army?

I'm guessing the army will answer “the one who led us to victory over ... what were those blue guys called, Fabius?”. Most imperial claimants will have records in wars against external enemies — there are plenty of wars to go around, after all. Those with bad records won't get a look in. Those with good records will also get a lot of credit in Rome. So perhaps army and senate will be less at odds.

A good record against the barbarians is important because the barbarians are always unfriendly. The barbarians are unfriendly because Rome keeps attacking them. Rome keeps attacking them because a good record against the barbarians is important. Oh, and because they're always unfriendly.

Economics

Recruitment

Recruitment should be easy in the short term. Plenty of barbaric provinces from which to take the scum of the Roman world. But in the later empire the army historically recruited Germans. In the alternate timeline the Germans are getting gradually more civilised, and that could be a problem. This is an “expand to survive” empire.

Costs of Empire

The army will cost a fortune. No way around that, and eventually it's going to ruin the peasantry, debase the coinage and collapse the empire. I don't see an out for this, unless it's someone coming to his senses and getting the empire back on a more historical course. By the time this happens, though, a lot of places that were barbarous will have become civilised, and the empire will find itself with wuite different threats and resources.

Agricultural Exhaustion

The Mediterranean littoral isn't really made for the intensity of classical agriculture and it's going to degrade.

Agricultural Expansion?

More robust soil is being conquered throughout northern Europe, but it needs technology (the mouldboard plough) that Rome doesn't have yet. Historically it arrived from or through the Slavs but not until centuries after Roman control in northern Europe was destroyed. I don't think Rome will be saved by this.

Religion

Christianity

I assume it still exists, and still becomes popular in the East. Whether it spreads through the west is anybody's guess. It's also possible that these effects will delete Christianity allowing something else to take its place.

The Competition

The army is more important in this setting, so maybe a warrior religion like the cult of Mithras or Sol Invictus will have a better chance, at least in the western empire. Other possibilities include something non-Christian descended from Judaism, or influenced by Zoroastrianism. I'm assuming that “primitive” polytheistic religions like the classical Greek and Norse-German pantheons will fail to satisfy the sophisticated audiences of the later empire.

Conclusions

I Don't Have Any

I suppose I need a timeline here, I'll probably come back and do it eventually. If you have any comments on any of this, please don't hesitate to tell me so.

Hans Peeters has continued this essay with some light-hearted hyperoptimistic extrapolations of the Roman conquest of the world.


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