My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 20 October 2013—1 November 2013
In the Aeneid, Virgil wrote: “To Romans I set no boundary in space or time. I have granted them dominion, and it has no end.” What if that was true? What if the Roman Empire had never fallen? What if it had been eternal? Robert Silverberg wrote a collection of short stories around that theme. The stories start in A.D. 450 and continue through A.D. 1970, covering 1500 years of Roman history.
We see the attempted colonization of North America (Nova Roma), the civil wars between the Roman and Greek halves of the Empire, the crazy emperors, and the purges. The stories are well written, as you’d expect from Silverberg. They focus on many different time periods, physical locations, and characters. Historians, court functionaries, soldiers, and provincial royalty. In fact, that was the second flaw I noted with this collection—very little focus on the common man of the Empire. They mostly focused on people of high position or people who interacted with the high and mighty. There was only one story that dealt with the commoners.
The largest flaw was right at the beginning of the book. Silverberg obviously knew that he needed a framing device to illustrate how and why his Rome was different from our Rome. He starts by having a Roman historian (in A.D. 450) deliver a monologue to a friend.
The monologue concerns a thought experiment in which the Hebrews (“you do know who they are, right?) weren’t just an obscure people group but had instead escaped Egypt, founded a nation, and eventually generated a major world religion that took over the Empire, leading to its gradual weakening and ultimate collapse.
Yes, that’s right. Our entire history (an unlikely chain of events in itself) is recast as a thought experiment that one Roman just happens to think up for a book he’s planning to write. Once the stories get started, that matters a lot less. But it was an incredibly clunky way to start the book.
Overall, this was an entertaining book, page turner in parts. There were certainly some interesting characters and events in it. It is intriguing to speculate about all of the ways that history might have been different if the Roman Empire had never fallen, if we’d never gone through a medieval “dark ages”, and if Western Civilization hadn’t moved its center to Western Europe and North America.
If that interests you, definitely consider reading Roma Eterna. Otherwise, rest assured that you’re not missing a must-read book.