Home > Alternate history, History, Society, What-ifs > What if the Roman Empire Never Fell?

What if the Roman Empire Never Fell?

It is a common enough refrain, especially among those who would look at out modern world and decry that our progress is not enough, that were it not for the fall of the Empire (and the coming of the Dark Ages), we would have full colonies on Mars by now. Certainly, the loss of much metallurgical, engineering, building, historical and agricultural expertise following the fall of the Western Roman Empire was drastic and impacted on the inhabitants of Western Europe in a negative way and the lack of political unity created war-torn, unstable conditions that would be unimaginable today.

With that said, let us examine what the consequences would be of a resurgent Roman Empire, one that maintained its control over Western Europe and held it together, much as Eastern Asia has been held together by China for nearly four millennia.

The main issue I want to address would be technological and scientific. While it would be incorrect to call what the Greeks and Romans did science, they made a number of breakthroughs, mathematically and engineering-wise that would later form the basis of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.  There are those that would argue that the potential material progress that 1500 years of uninterrupted development would bring you would be astounding. Enough to put us in outer space a thousand years ago, surely, and certainly further than where we are now.

But is that really true?

The trouble with all this is that we can’t just run the clock back, tweak a few things and let it go again to see the results. Not only would that violate a lot of ethical precepts, it is also currently impossible. What we can do, however, is to look at an analogous civilisation that encompassed the same scope in power, wealth and influence as Rome but did survive into the Modern Age – China.

Imperial China and Imperial Rome were more or less contemporaneous, even if China itself is a good deal older. You could make the argument that Rome at its foundation was a continuation of earlier Greek and Latin society, even if Roman ethnic identity was, relatively speaking, new. At any rate, the unification of Italy under Rome and the unification of China under the Qin dynasty happened more or less at around the same time and their periods of greatest territorial expansion also occurred on similar timeframes.

What then, did over two millennia of cultural continuity and (relative) stability do for the Chinese? Well, it made them the richest, most powerful, most technologically and culturally accomplished state in world history, right up until the Renaissance. That’s an extra thousand years’ worth of uninterrupted progress the Chinese had over the Romans.

During those thousand years, Chinese inventors had birthed into the world gunpowder, the printing press, paper currency and compasses, among a slew of other technologies and areas of knowledge that are much more mundane, yet crucial to the building, mining and pottery industries. Even the principles of mechanical clockwork were known to Chinese scholars and craftsmen.

What had pointedly not happened, however, was an industrial revolution. Things instead stayed more-or-less stable, with occasional hiccups and forays into these areas at the behest of various emperors.  Unfortunately, any golden ages of learning and progress to be had came and went at the whim of the man sitting atop the throne.  If a particular emperor was interested in exploration and learning, much progress was made under his patronage.  If his successor wasn’t so much inclined to scholarly pursuits, well, things stagnated.

The big change to this pattern and the reason we all grow up expecting change and progress to be an inevitable part of everyday life is because we were born a few centuries after the Industrial Revolution.  Once technology was taken out of the hands of the hereditary members of guilds and cloistered scholars and put into the hands of the mercantile classes, competition and a cash economy led to an explosion in technological innovation that has continued unabated to this day.

When wondering why this happened (or didn’t happen) we need to examine a myriad of facets, too numerous to get into fully without writing a whole book on the subject, each interacting in various ways. A major aspect was the mobility of the workforce.  By killing off much of the population and causing labour shortages, the Black Death in the 14th century had revolutionised European labour relations such that serfdom as it had existed was dead. Thanks to the haphazard forms of medieval government, bargaining was able to take place at a more or less local level. Arguments with your local landlord or baron would go thusly:

“I want more pay.”

“Well, you can’t have it.”

“Fine.  I’ll just go over to the neighbouring landlord. He’s offering me more money and better rights. Good luck finding someone to plow that field for you!”

Because each lord was then in competition with each other for the few workers who were still alive and Western European central authority was generally weak, there wasn’t all that much that could be done other than for each lord to relent and allow the peasants more freedom.  Various kingdoms even passed laws to restrict the movement of peasants off the land with varying degrees of success.  In Western Europe, as each king was less a sovereign and more just the nominal leader of a gaggle of squabbling minor warlords, little could be done to stem the tide.

Workers now had more rights, could come and go as they pleased and had the option of changing jobs and seeking higher wages for the first time in nearly a thousand years. This was crucial to the industrial revolution because it allowed people the legal freedom to move to the cities to find work en masse when industrialisation happened.  When the population recovered, these legal freedoms remained in place and the workforce surplus could then be funneled into the burgeoning industrial sector, which then ramped up the engine of technological progress at an exponential rate.

Critically though, this did not happen everywhere.  In China and even in what remained of the Roman Empire, a strong central authority was able to act as a stabilising force against the winds of change brought on by the Black Death and thus, the workforce remained much as it had – tied to the industries of its forbears. In Imperial Rome, just as in Medieval Europe, a man was required by law to undertake the same occupation as his father had.  This started out as an attempt by the emperor to maintain the status quo as much as possible, to make taxation simpler for his bureaucracy to assess, to protect vital industries in key provinces and to ensure that the army always had recruits.

Essentially, the continued reign of the Caesars would have meant that the industrial revolution could never have taken place.  Areas within the Empire rendered empty by plagues would be repopulated by imperial edict and, as had been imperial policy during Late Antiquity, people from outside the borders of the Empire would be invited to settle in the regions suffering the most.  What little bargaining power an English peasant farmer could glean after an outbreak of the Black Death would then be offset by the forced relocation of thousands of Norweigan, German or Swedish immigrants brought in to the local county on the orders of the man who wore the purple.

Without the conditions that allowed the Industrial Revolution to happen, Western Europe would today be part of a sprawling empire built on the backs of a vast population of peasants ruled by a small cabal of wealthy aristocratic landowners and their imperial masters.  Yes, the cities would be grander than those in pre-industrial China or Medieval Europe, having aqueducts, sewers, and indoor plumbing in most homes, but the level of development would be far behind what it is today, perhaps something akin to 17th century Europe.  The fastest mode of transportation would be a horse and the time it took to send a message from one end of the Empire to the other would be counted in weeks, not milliseconds.  Guns, cannon and the printing press would still be around, introduced to the Empire after long delay from their Chinese roots and a rudimentary form of science might be extant, but without mass industrialisation, iPhones and rocket ships would be absent from the scene.

The Americas and Australia may have remained uncolonised by Europeans and developed in isolation or they may have been contacted instead by Arab or Chinese adventurers.  Instead of churches at the centre of every Latin American town, there might have been mosques instead as part of a Pan-American Caliphate.  Or, if first contact with Eurasia had been limited only to trade with China, the Aztec Empire may have gained horses or modern weaponry and in so doing change the geopolitical landscape of the Americas forever.  An imperial equivalent to Hernan Cortes or Francisco Pizarro would then be chased back to his ships by thousands of horsemen wielding the latest in Chinese-made guns and supported by Chinese-derived cannon.  Australia may still be majority Aboriginal or it could have become a Chinese or Arab colony.  Africa might be very different, with many areas throughout the interior of the continent retaining their traditional character and with a variety of majority Muslim nations to the north and west, though some of these may have been re-christianised by later emperors.

The English language would not exist, replaced instead with a highly modified derivative of Vulgar Latin.  It would probably be similar in many ways to modern Italian, though with different regional accents, and its speakers would call it, without caveats or qualifiers, Latin.  However, as is the case with Middle English and Old English, modern speakers would only be able to understand the words of Virgil and Cicero with considerable difficulty and perhaps some training.

Protestantism would likely not exist either, in its place a near-universal adherence to the State Church of the Roman Empire (the split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity having never taken place) with pockets of Arianism, Nestorianism or some other offshoot in different places at the margins of the Empire.  The State Church would, of course, be subject to the authority of the Emperor and it would be he who would likely have the final say on matters of faith, having retained in his own person the title of Pontifex Maximus, so there would be no Pope.  Society at large would probably still be very religious and the Middle East, especially Jerusalem, would be a bone of contention between Rome and whatever Muslim empire ruled the region.

The rise of Islam could probably not be stopped by the Roman Empire, even with its western half intact, though its hold on places like Spain, and much of North Africa, would have been a lot less secure with a united Western Empire as an adversary, so Morocco and Libya might today be majority Christian nations and Spain would have far less interesting architecture.  The Eastern Empire may have held on to Constantinople and Turkey as we know it today may not exist (or exist, but in a completely different place), in its place the easternmost extent of the Roman Empire that speaks either our hypothetical Modern Vulgar Latin or some form of Modern Greek.  The Balkans and Eastern Europe both would have a much more Greek character even than today.

In the end, it is my belief that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution that followed were unique events in human history that were far from inevitable.  The first birthed Science into the world as a field of study separate to things like philosophy, mathematics or rhetoric and the second accelerated the change that might have come of it.  I very much doubt that having an emperor still sitting on the throne in Rome, Ravenna, Milan or Constantinople could have brought it about.  Certainly, having an emperor sitting on the throne in China all that time did not.

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