Sci Fi Thinks on the Roman Empire Alot

There seems to be gossip (told half in jest, half in earnest, like most gossip) that has come to tickle womenfolk recently, to discover how often their menfolk think about the Roman Empire. As all but our women know, men ponder about this topic often. How could one not?

Here is an example from Twitter:

But no one yet has asked how often science fiction folk think about the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire is pondered often by we Slans (as no one but the silliest and most froward of science fiction fans calls us), perhaps more often than by you Muggles (as no one but the silliest and most froward of science fiction fans calls all y’all).

But once it is understood why men think frequently about the Roman Empire and women less so, it will be clear why Slans think about it as frequently or more so.

Here we speak but of men of the West, the men of what once was called Christendom. A man of the East is more likely to ponder the Mongols and Manchus, or contemplate the reign of the Shogun, or think on Ashoka and Mahound than he is to dwell on the legacy of Caesar.

But we of the West owe all we are and all we have to that legacy: the Kaiser of Prussia or the Tsar of Russia styles himself after the Caesars, while the Senate building in America mimics Roman precursors even to the shape of column and dome. The Roman fasci is on the reverse of the Mercury dime. Our calendar still remembers the name of Augustus. The Vicar of Christ is seated in Rome.

Meanwhile our modern roads of macadam crack and decay under weed and weather, whereas the Roman straight roads from England to Asia Minor were so constructed by a secret lost to time that cracks seal themselves.

In the same way that in Biblical days, the Hebrew patriarch and psalmist never found Egypt nor Babylon far from his mind, so too from Medieval days onward, is the glory of Rome at her height, her cruelty and strength, but also her beauty, far from the modern mind, nor the great, long, slow, terrible collapse, and the flood of barbarians and Byzantines who despoiled what they could not re-create.

One would suppose all Westerners would think of Rome as one might think of a long-dead stepmother, a beautiful but cruel woman of wealth and stature, but perhaps murdered by a barbarian. But it is men more than wives who ponder her. Why is that?

Despite what you have heard, men differ from women. Despite what you have heard, this does not mean the sexes are unequal, nor that one oppresses the other. The relationship, rather, is one of mutual and complementary interdependence, each supplying the other’s lack.

Despite what you have heard, men actually hold leadership roles as protectors and providers. We are naturally paternal. Women flourish as nurturing and sustaining. They are naturally maternal.

Unnatural men can be girlish, effete and prissy, but everyone hates them, including themselves. Unnatural women can become mannish, bossy and bitchy, but everyone hates them, including themselves. (I will refrain from making a comment about the politics of those who rebel against nature, as the implication speaks for itself.)

This means men are naturally more inclined to contemplate ventures and dangers in the abstract, conquering the barbarian, as a matter of reason; while women more inclined to practical matters, setting things in order, domesticating the menfolk, as a matter of emotion and sentiment.

Why do men think about the Roman Empire more often than women?

I will be bold enough to tell you the real reason. It is twofold: The masculine spirit naturally seeks conquest and naturally foresees danger.

First, we men envy the Romans for conquering the world.

It galls us that the Romans, armed with shield and lance and sheer bloody-minded military discipline, conquered three continents, and then build aqueducts, domes, colosseums, and enacted a Republican form of government superior to any prior or since. Meanwhile, we with our supersonic computers and nuclear rockets cannot even keep unwashed paynims out of Europe, or looters out of department stores.

Second, we men blame ourselves for letting the Roman Empire fall.

It galls us that we do not know why it fell. There is much debate, but no agreement. Currency inflation played a part. Moral corruption played a part, sexual perversion and demoralization of the military. In any case, we lost the Empire. We stooped to the barbarians, the filthy Germans, and even after two world wars those Huns are still a threat.

The Fall will happen again in this generation unless we men can figure out the reason and act to stop it before it is too late. You cute little women do not need to worry your pretty little heads about this dread and dire situation. You concentrate on more trivial matters, like whether the family should buy a new house, and where we are moving, how many kids to have, and what job the hubby should seek. That stuff. Woman’s work.

It is man’s work to think about the Roman empire. It haunts us.

Science fiction contains of weird tales set beyond the edge of the map or beyond the reach of the calendar: and with the terrestrial world all mapped out, the final frontier is the extraterrestrial. “Wither now? What next?” is the perennial question of SFF. Will it be the future of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or George Orwell’s 1984? Star Child or Big Brother?

So the question of whether current civilization will grow into glory as the Roman Empire did, or collapse into the darkness as the Roman Empire did, is not only a natural question, for the futurist, it is an inevitable one.

Not having the Lens of Arisia ready to hand, and being out of practice with my Vulcan Mind Meld, we can only guess how often the sci-fi community contemplates the Roman Empire by seeing how often reflections or references appear in our favorite works.

STAR WARS is the Roman Empire in space.

While some elements in the story, like the term stormtrooper, comes from the Third Reich, all other elements are reflections of the Roman Empire: there is a galactic Senate mentioned, praetorian guards, and so on.

To be sure, it is a version of the Empire facing the rebels with a particularly American revolutionary flavor: Han Solo is a smuggler, Luke is a farmer, and Princess Leia is a Virginian highborn lady. So while the Empire might otherwise be parallel to the British Empire (all the Imperial officers sport British accents), nonetheless it had no Parliament, but a Senate — if you recall it is mentioned as being disbanded when the Death Star is deployed.

So any fan of STAR WARS thinks about the Roman Empire, at least by proxy.

Likewise, the federation in STAR TREK is pretty clearly a One World Government version of American Federalism, with an unhealthy dose of socialism thrown in, and the Klingons are the Soviets — but the Romulan Star-Empire is the Roman Empire, with hardly even a change of name. They have centurions and proconsuls and prefects and so on.

Therefore let us take a completely unscientific and uncontrolled poll of the most popular science fiction books. This list is a compellation from several sources and polls found here and there about the internet, but I invite any skeptic to compile his own, either from award sites or reader’s choice awards, and simply see how many sci-fi stories reflect the Roman Empire.

I limit myself to a sample of thirty. No serious fan will have a top ten list that does not include at least one of these books.

Let us divide the list in to what directly or indirectly refers to the Roman Empire, in her conquests, her glory, her decadence, or after her fall, or picking through the ruins, and what does not.

Taken in chronological order:

(1895) THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells

After the Fall.
While not a direct reference to the Roman Empire, the images of grandeur in decay which meet the eyes of the Time Traveler in A.D 802701 are Romanesque. The splendid but dusty palaces are inhabited by a race of effete fructivores, childlike in their innocence but lacking childlike curiosity, who could neither replace, repair, nor account for them. The Time Traveler assumes at first —wrongly— that he is seeing the leisure of utopia. In fact he is looking upon the Darwinian end-product of an eon-long division between toiling proletarian and idle aristocrat: This is a perfect and shocking symbol both of the corruption caused by wealth and the splendor left behind.
Indirect reference.

(1898) THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H. G. Wells

Days of Conquest.
This work contemplates a superior race conquering England as ruthlessly and handily as the English conquered the neolithic aborigines of Tasmania. The invaders are felled by disease, just as, back in the day, Europeans in Panama were decimated by Yellow Fever.
The Martians are clearly meant to depict the British Empire — taken from a socialist point of view, which dismissed the Brits as cartoonishly evil — not the Roman. It could be considered on a Roman theme only if all tales of conquest are.
Indirect reference, or none.

(1932) BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley

Twilight of Corruption.
Society here is depicted as corrupt and luxurious as Rome at her height.
Huxley’s dystopia is literally visited by a savage named Savage, that is, a man of modern sentiments and virtues, seeing the inhuman outcome of a scientifically planned society in all its self-indulgent vice. Vice corrupts the people, and they are enslaved into a genetic caste system run by alpha-rank superintelligent plutocrats as technological peasantry, whose only task is to work and consume.
Indirect reference.

(1939) LEST DARKNESS FALL by L. Sprague de Camp

Forestalling the Fall.
After H.G. Wells, this is the seminal time travel story to depict modernity as able to forestall the woes of antiquity, in this case the Fall of Rome. Double entry bookkeeping, the printing press, and telescope saves the day, not to mention a thorough memory of Procopius. It is a version of CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, but without a nasty spirit of Mark Twain mocking better men than himself.
As such, it is every schoolboy’s daydream to save civilization with a dollop of inside knowledge of the future, some modern tech, and a lot of grit and elbow grease.
Set in the Roman Empire. Direct and obvious reference.

(1948) NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell

Soviet England.
Orwell’s black comedy depicts the conditions of soviet government he saw overseas in his day, transplanted to England in within one generation to come.
Big Brother reflects Rome only indirectly, in the same way that the Third Reich reflects the Second and First Reich, which is the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which in turn is the heir of the Roman Empire in the West.
Indirect reference, or none.

(1948) Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

Future Dark Ages.
A city of immortals is trapped in the stasis of perfection, living without crime, discontent, or ambition, only to be broken free by the curiosity of the first new birth in countless years, who seeks to find the exit to the utopia.
Ironically, the utopia is not the culmination of the previous civilization, but a craven retreat from its collapse, as the spirit of man was found wanting when faced with the challenge of and infinity of stars. The tale ends in a renaissance.
Something of the spirit of Rome’s fall, slumber, and rebirth is present, but no direct reflections or tropes are here.
Indirect reference.

(1950) THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury

Days of Conquest.
This is a collection of short stories set during the colonization of Mars. The colonists are haunted, and often killed, by the ghosts and remnant of the Martians, here depicted as eerie and elfin beings, more akin to melancholy childhood memories than anything one can name. It is, if anything, a meditation on the sorrow and regret of conquest, as if telling the Fall of Rome from the point of view of a barbarian who only, too late, realizes what a horror he had made of it.
No reference.

(1953) CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C. Clarke

A Gnostic Fantasy.
Here the Earth is invaded by Liberals, who act for the benefit of those they conquer, and exterminate them to make way for the more evolved soviets. The Liberals here look like cartoonish devils complete with bat wings and goat horns, and they put a stop of wars and toreadors and all animal cruelty. They gently lead mankind to extinction, to be replaced by posthuman psionic hive-mind nudists, that finally destroy the Earth. The posthumans literally dissolve the whole material globe into nothingness, and go off to join the Pleroma, the absurd bodiless and godless heaven of the Gnostics, here called the Overmind. Sadly, the cartoonish devils cannot follow the posthuman nudists into the nothing-world, but only serve as midwives aiding lesser races into ghosthood.
No reference.

(1953) THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester

Telepathic Detective story.
No reference.

(1953) FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

After the Fall.
The society is depicted as corrupted by luxuries, television, and a desire never to offend. The only way to end offense is to end dispute, and disputes are caused by too much thinking, a bad habit enabled by books. Fireman, instead of putting out fires, burn books.
This cautionary tale is usually misremembered as dystopian, but it is not a fascist government, but the idle masses themselves, who insist on a realm without intellectual content.
The end of the book explicitly describes the condition as a Dark Ages, with bookish men memorizing books in parallel to how medieval monks preserved ancient learning in the scriptorium.
Direct reference.

(1953) MORE THAN HUMAN by Theodore Sturgeon

A tale of Man After Man.
The assumption here is that the next step in human evolution will be a gestalt or combination mind cooperating across many bodies.
No reference.

(1956) THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester

Twilight of Corruption.
This is a tale of vengeance ending in a one-man overthrow of society. The society is luxurious and corrupt as Rome at her height, but the book is based more closely on COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Dumas.
No reference.

(1959) A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

After the Fall. Literally.
This is a tale of monks in a scriptorium preserving the knowledge of the ancients after the Fall, but in this case, the fall to follow a Nuclear Armageddon. The parallels to the Catholic Church are blatant and could not be more clear. This is not a church like unto the Roman Catholic Church: what is portrayed is the one, true, apostolic and catholic Church.
Direct and Obvious Reference.

(1961) STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert A. Heinlein

Twilight of Corruption, Inverted Messiah.
This is Heinlein’s disgusting wet dream of a world without monotheism nor monogamy. The Federation world-government is depicted as corrupt, but it is more a Chicago machine-politics corruption, without the orgies or gladiatorial games typical of Roman corruption.
The Martian named Smith comes to earth from heaven, with no knowledge of sex or money, preaches free love and socialism, and establishes a Gnostic cult. He has psionic powers, so he performs miracles, such a killing policemen, and killing prisoners in jail, and making the clothing vanish from sexy women.
He is the least convincing messiah of all literature, as he heals no sick, raises no dead, saves no poor. He does offer his flesh for his followers to eat, but as literal cannibalism, not spiritual. He is martyred by stoning in a mock-biblical fashion, and turns into a cartoonish angel, complete with halo and feathery wings, in an absurd godless heaven.
Direct Reference. This is Heinlein’s version of the Nativity and Passion, a very Roman story indeed.

(1962) THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick

After the Fall to the Third Reich.
And alternate history tale where the allies lost World War II.
As above any reference to the Third Reich, by the same logic as in the game “Seven Degrees from Kevin Bacon” can be said to refer to the First Reich, which is the Holy Roman Empire. The term “fascism” itself comes from the fasci of Rome, the emblem of strength through unity, and the symbol of the Lictor, the power of the state to punish with beatings or beheadings.
But this is an indirect reference at best.

(1965) DUNE by Frank Herbert

Roman Empire in Space.
This should count, since the Byzantine Empire is the Eastern Roman Empire, and the plot here is the Byzantine intrigues retelling the tale of the Fall of Constantinople to the Paynim, who in this case control the Spice that allows for space travel, much as modern Oil Sheiks control the oil that controls motor trade by land and sea.
The false messiah here again heals no sick and raises no dead — the Bene Tleilaxu raise Duncan Idaho as a ghola in the sequel, but that does not count — but the false messiah does fill the role of Prophet and war leader in the footsteps of Mohammed, but not Christ. The religion here is a manmade fake, as in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION.
Otherwise, it is a bit of Roman history set in space, with an homage to “swords and spaceships” style romances popular in the pulps of earlier days — e.g. the Linn novels of A.E. van Vogt.
Direct Reference.

(1966) ‘Flowers For Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes

The gain and loss of intelligence.
One of the sweetest and saddest short stories in science fiction, but it concerns the rise and fall of one man, not of empires and civilization.
No reference.

(1968) STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner

Silly Malthusian Scare-story.
Depicts a corrupt society, but it is the corruption of pre- Giuliani New York, complete with trash collector strikes and nightly riots. Here the Fall is pending due to overpopulation, not barbarian invasions. But the parallel to civilizational collapse cannot avoid reminding one of Rome.
Indirect reference, or none.

(1969) THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Woman’s Tale.
This is a story of how to develop communal understanding across sexual divides, in a world where all man are both sexes monthly.
The book is exquisitely feminine in theme, mood, language, and lack of plot or conflict. It is the sole book having not a single reference, direct or indirect, to the Roman Empire.
Even the intergalactic community of the Ekumen — despite that this is a Roman term referring to the Known World — is decentralized and non-imperial, apparently non-governmental in any way. It is precisely the type of government a woman would design, one where a material spirit arranges harmony and cooperation through patience. Force is never used nor needed.
I assume women just do not think that much about the Roman Empire.

(1970) RINGWORLD by Larry Niven

Among the Ruins.
Like Victorians visiting sites in North Africa, find remnants of aqueducts and amphitheaters they cannot restore nor repair nor understand. It is the seminal “Big Dumb Object” story. However, none of the other appurtenances of a Roman setting are present, e.g., there are no monk in a scriptorium busily recording the secrets of the fallen Ringworld technology on scrolls, nor medieval knights.
The only church depicted is sort of a cargo cult who thinks the ring overhead is an arch — which is odd, because in a world with no horizon, one glance would show the ground underfoot curving upward continually. There is no way to be deceived on this point.
So the Ringworld is a fallen civilization, but not a Roman flavored one.
Indirect reference, or none.

(1973) RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke

Among the Ruins. Which are intact.
Here the Victorians visit an interstellar O’Neill colony, but it is fully operating, not in ruins, but apparently unoccupied. The builders are absent, no first contact is made, nothing of the higher technology is discovered. The travelogue format allows for no character development whatsoever, and the only false tension is political, coming from those who regard Rama as the threat. The name Rama sounds a bit like Rome, but that is that.
No reference.

(1974) THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY by Isaac Asimov

The Roman Empire in Space.
Here the empire is foredoomed to fall, but the time period of the fall can be remarkably shortened if a foundation is established as a scriptorium of monks to preserve the science of mankind in an encyclopedia.
In this version of the perennial tale of using technology to save civilization from downfall (always a favorite theme among schoolboys) the future version of Karl Marx, known as Hari Seldon, actually has discovered the scientific basis of history, and can actually make accurate predictions, as opposed to the real Marx, who was dead wrong about everything.
In Asimov the scriptorium of monks evolved in planned stages into a fake church with fake high-tech miracles, a merchant empire, a military power, a despotism, a renewed republic.
The parallels to Rome are blatant to the point of senselessness.
Direct reference.

(1974) THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman

Viet Nam War in Space.
There is corruption back on Earth seen by our soldier, who is turned into Rip van Winkle by Einsteinian time-dilation during deployments in far star systems. This is due to overpopulation and homosex, and is more akin to the real corruption happening in America during the communist inspired youth movements and sexual revolution of the Crazy Years than it is to the orgies and gladiatorial games of Rome.
No reference.

(1975) THE DISPOSSESSED by Ursula K. Le Guin

An ambiguous utopia.
A mathematician from a poor but honest socialist utopia visits his sister world, a corrupt straw-man capitalist society, and nothing much happens.
This book is again, entirely feminine in theme and approach. The government of Anarres is a communist anarcho-syndicalism, where no families are permitted, all women are whores and all children are bastards raised by the state, and even one’s name is assigned by computer randomizer.
The author at least has the decency to portray the utopia as being imperfect, subject to corruption — the main character is stubbed by his superior in a girlish fits of jealousy, even though the superior is a man.
Albeit it is not even contemplated, even in theory, but any of the characters, what would happen if Napoleon, Caesar, Washington, Christ, or even a man of ordinary decency and common sense were to arise on the world, and orchestrate a revolt.
The author simply assumes all the men are womanly, and will follow the general gist of the social consensus.
As with other novels in this cycle, the government is a vague idealize cloud of pink and puce, an emotional sentiment, not a real thing with real men in it.
No reference.

(1977) GATEWAY by Frederik Pohl

Among the Ruins.
This time, the Big Dumb Object is an abandoned spaceport, complete with ships that will carry anyone fool enough to step inside to some unknown pre-set destination or another elsewhere in the galaxy. Volunteers play Russian roulette to find worlds worth revisiting. The main character has psychological problems and his therapist is a computer.
No reference.


No reference.
Not sure if this really counts as a science fiction book, but be that as it may.

(1984) NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

Twilight of Corruption.
The corruption here is the marxist-strawman-argument version of anti-capitalism during the Reagan Years, when all the talking heads were yodeling that Japanese zaibatsu, that is semi-socialists government-industry syndicates, would take over the world, and usher in an age of black markets and cybernetic misuse. The mood and theme come from the English punk rock scene, so much so that the genre spawned by Gibson was called Cyber-Punk.
But I cannot recall a single centurion, proconsul, gladiator, or anything else Romanesque in this work, or in this genre.
No reference.

(1985) ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card

Sparta in Space.
The alien invaders here are a hive mind, not meant to be a symbol of anything particularly Roman. The earthlings have a repressive government that strictly curtails population numbers — no doubt they perused STAND ON ZANZIBAR  by Brunner, and were spooked into a stupid and evil Chinese-terror style child quota policy.
But the book takes place, not in Rome, but in Sparta, among the agoge, the harsh training camp to which children after seven are sent.
Unlike at Thermopylae, the Spartans defeat the Persian swarm in this case.
No reference.

(1989) HYPERION CANTOS by Dan Simmons

The first half is  Canterbury Tales in Space, but the second is the Evil Roman Church in Space.
The parallel here is undisguised. The main antagonist is a member of the Swiss Guard, the evil Pope’s personal superhuman shock troopers. These soldiers are so badass that when the mission calls for it, they endure spaceship accelerations that crush and kill them, and then, when arriving at the target, are revived from the dead by alien cruciform symbionts controlled by the Evil Roman Church in Space. They are trying to mug the main character, a female messiah named Aenea, who will eventually perish as a martyr, broadcast her dying thoughts to mankind, and encompass the downfall of the Empire.
Direct and Obvious Reference.

(1992) DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis

After the Fall.
A lame retelling of L. Sprague de Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL, but one where everyone fails, everyone dies, and nothing happens and nothing is solved. This book won awards. Not sure why.
Direct and Obvious Reference.

And there you have it! Count them up: the number of times the Roman Empire is directly or indirectly brought to mind in these stories is more than half. Even if the estimate given above is generous, that is still a startling number.

Science fiction writers are not really meant to predict the future. But if we were, the prediction that the current civilization will pass away is an easy one to make: just wait long enough, and it is sure to pass.

That the downfall of the West will mirror the prior downfall of the West is also an easy prediction, because while other societies fell for various different reasons, whatever fate or flaws brought down Rome are essentially the ones we share with our forebears.

But for better or worse, accurate prediction is not our calling as sciffy writers. (If it were, so far, only Jules Verne has done a good job). Our calling, when we do our work honestly, is to hold a mirror up to nature, which, in the science fiction genre, means making a commentary either (if we are parochial) about the nature of our current society, exaggerated Gulliver-like into a future world or extraterrestrial space; or (if we are cosmopolitan) about the eternal verities of the human condition.

And tall tell stories about clean-limbed fighting men of earth conquering decadent planets to win the hand of lovely redskinned nudist space-princesses, of course.

But I submit that anyone, even a muggle writer (that sad breed who confines their writing to things present and real) who holds a mirror up to the modern day will see the last days of Rome before her fall, with the barbarians within the gate, mobs bemused by bread and circuses, and feckless leaders fiddling while the fires rage. Because such are the days in which we now live.

And whoever lifts the mirror to write of the cosmopolitans and eternal themes, the nature of man, the Four Last Things, the fate of worlds, will also see the Empire of Rome, as the finest example of what pagan men can achieve, or Christian man can revive from the dead.

For that is the eerie sequel to the fall of the Empire — that she died and returned, and all the glories of Rome were preserved into the modern age, without (at first) her corruptions, vices, and idolatries.

But those old gods have returned, and we have not yet seen the saints by their martyr’s blood once more flood them into oblivion. Thor was a vile god and deserves no finer fate than to be resurrected by Jack “King” Kirby as a cartoon superhero to amuse our children.

As with all things true and fine, the habit of menfolk to ponder the Roman Empire will no doubt — and before I am finished typing this sentence — be denounced by the Pinko Satanist Pedophiles of our self-anointed Cultural Elite to be doubleplus ungood thoughtcrime and subject to the Two Minute Hate: you are a racisgenderhomosexenophobic fascist even for mentioning Rome.

They only play one tune on their harpy pipes.

And one does not need to be a science fiction writer to make that prediction, only a man.