Understanding of an alternate history is given context by comparisons with our timeline (OTL). The real world is the golden standard and model against which all plausibility is measured. As the only known world, OTL is an objective arbiter of what can happen in any timeline. Its science is the science of other worlds, its history is the backdrop to a point of divergence and its events are the parallels to alternate happenings.
A proper and thorough comparison does not work on a merely chronological level. If I compared what happened in 1912 in the Alternate Timeline to events of OTL in 1912 then I would make a useless comparison. Apples to oranges as the idiom goes. But if I look at feminism in the ATL modern age and put it against feminism in our world then fundamental differences between the histories are illuminated. This is the comparison that I desire.
Points of Divergence
Three major events separate the Superpowers world from Our timeline.
- An Athenian boy was born in 165 CE
- A Maya boy was born in the city-state Calakmul in 394 CE
The Athenian's name was Gaius Correlus Sulla. His parents died from the Antonine Plague in 172 and Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome at the time, adopted him off the streets a year later. Under imperial tutelage, Sulla grew into a strong, intelligent man who took over after his father's death in 180 (same as OTL). His rule extended Rome's Golden Age for another two hundred years, giving the Empire time to establish itself as a permanent state on the face of the Earth.
The Maya was Quich'en Ch'onle Mayapan. Living a normal life in his hometown, the boy was of an unusual intelligence, like a da Vinci of his day and age. Over a 20 year period in the 5th century, Mayapan invented cement, toothpaste, gunpowder, paper, the wheel, the windmill, the crane, the water screw, ore extraction, and a water-driven children's toy. His genius brought fame to himself and his city. By 431 he took control of his home city in a coup d'état and soon a multitude of city-states joined him. The union he founded is already the most powerful state in the New World by virtue of its size and population. Its ethnic homogeneity and revered government would ensure a stable history up to the present day.
Why did Rome not Fall?
One of the most striking and detailed differences between this alternate timeline and real events is that the Roman Empire never fell. In 476 of OTL, the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, conceded Italy to Odoacer, its first barbarian king. Although the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian would reclaim Rome for a short time, Western Europe soon became the site of conflict between Germanic and Gallic tribes that eventually created a civilized Europe through rediscovery and invention. The Eastern Empire would persist until crushed by Arab caliphates then Turkish empires, finally disappearing for good with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This often marks the true fall of the Roman Empire.
Focusing on the Western Empire, numerous weaknesses can be seen to have contributed to the decline and fall. Some of these were distinct events while others were demographic trends but it seems fair to say that they all had their role in the fall of Rome, with no single factor having a dominant influence.
Some alternate histories that have Rome continue to survive don't account for these factors, leaving their resolution unmentioned and the challenges they instigated never coming into conflict with the Alternate Rome. This alternate history covers the first few centuries after the POD in detail in order to explicitly show how these threats could have realistically been avoided had Rome only had better leadership. Some are more obvious than others but they are all worth consideration.
Here are some factors that may have led to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in OTL. Every one of these issues is mitigated, alleviated, or avoided by the Alternate Roman Empire:
- The practice of an emperor passing on power to a mature and capable successor was broken by Marcus Aurelius. His biological son Commodus succeeded him instead of a carefully chosen adopted son. Commodus was murdered for his brutality and incompetence, leaving the emperorship to arbitrarily pass to Pertinax. A precedent of forcefully revoking power from emperors was set and new emperors had no long tradition legitimizing their reign. These norms meant that the empire would be subject to regular civil wars.
- Once the empire had converted to Christianity, its populace and leadership may have slowly shifted from caring about their present lives to preparing themselves for the afterlife (Gibbon, 1788). This loss of interest would have left the empire with less ability to deal with threats to its stability, aggravating other factors that contributed to its fall.
- After the Edict of Caracalla, every free man in the empire acquired the same citizenship as Romans. Caracalla did this to increase the tax base and increase the number of available legionaries. As a result, the composition of the Roman army shifted from people with deep-seated interest in the empire (i.e. Romans) to people who only cared about the empire as long as it served their interests (i.e. Germans). Dependency of the defense of Rome on barbarians and removal of the incentives for Romans to join the army weakened the military ability of Rome to defend itself and made it inevitable that control over the empire would go from Romans to the non-Romans who composed the army.
- Upwards of 20-25% of the Roman army was devoted to addressing Persia, draining the military capacity of the empire and occupying forces that could have gone toward maintaining territory in Gaul, Hispania, and Germania. Having to devote more forces to the eastern border is also a possible reason for splitting the empire.
- Although the fall of Rome largely refers to the loss of territory to Germanic and Arabic armies and rulers, it also refers to the transformation of Roman culture and values by exposure and integration with Germanic culture. When the legal distinction between Romans and non-Romans was lifted, the dominance of Roman culture became less secure. Roman culture had always been changed by exposure to new cultures but this transition meant the disintegration of those aspects of the culture that promoted empire building and loyalty to a colonial power.
- Lack of education for aristocrats and a gradual loss of entitlement as the Roman elite combined to permit the integration of foreign people into the ruling elite which contributed to the transformation of Roman culture and to the transition from Roman rulers to Germanic rulers.
- There were significantly more foreigners in the empire than Romans. By one estimate, the population of the empire in 1 AD was 46.9 million people but the population of Italy was only 6.8 million or around 14.5% (Russell, 1958). This only favored Italy less as the centuries passed, with new territories and immigration from Magna Germania. An imbalance of a ruling population to its colonies is an unstable situation. Combined with geographic proximity to non-Romans, the difference may have contributed to the transformation of Roman culture toward that of its majority Germanic and Gallic population.
- People living in provinces other than Italy and Greece ceased to desire and recognize Roman authority. This loss of respect for the emperors and Senate was precipitated by regular civil wars, unclear leadership, inflation of national currency, overtaxation, and abuse by foreign invaders. For some combination of these reasons, residents would have reached a point where the replacement of the Western Emperor and Senate by Germanic kings was a welcome change.
- Overtaxation was required to pay tribute to Germanic kings, to rebuild the armies from losses in both civil and external wars, and to pay tribute to soldiers and the Praetorian Guard for their loyalty. These costs were wasteful and continuously as well as repeatedly required as the empire declined. People were especially overburdened by how their taxes arbitrarily and rapidly changed depending on the needs of a far away government.
- Inflation of the denarius came from a wide variety of economic factors and eventually resulted in the collapse of the monetary economy (i.e. a return to barter and subsistence living). Debasement of currencies was the primary cause of inflation, with the denarius going from >95% silver in 14 AD to 76% silver in 180 AD and eventually 48% in 241 AD. Other currencies suffered similar debasement over the centuries.
- The introduction of price controls and tariffs for products traded within the empire led to artificially low prices and scarcity of necessities in cities. In the face of inflation and food scarcity, urban residents gradually emigrated to the countryside, resulting in the aforementioned demonitization and obviously depopulating Rome as well as other major cities.
- Emigration from cities to the countryside reduced the amount of long-distance trade. The result was a decline in how connected distant provinces were and a separation of the empire into disconnected regions. Such a situation made the transition to regional kingdoms a gradual and inevitable process.
- Sometime after the Antonine Plague in 165 AD, population steadily fell from epidemics of smallpox and measles. Cities were even more severely depopulated by disease than the countryside, worsening the decline of cities. There was neither widespread nor pervasive enough access to doctors to handle a large sick population. Furthermore, medicine and the understanding of sickness had not even reached the point where effective procedures for dealing with pandemics could be mounted (e.g. something as simple as trying to quarantine the sick). Weakened by disease, both the Western and Eastern Empires were less able to prevent foreign powers from conquering their territory.
- Before the depopulation of cities, the empire suffered overurbanization, possibly from farmers outcompeted by slave labor and oppressed by high taxes. Cities became overpopulated to the breaking point of the available water and food supply infrastructures, precipitating the depopulation that shortly followed.
- An empire as large and complex as that of Rome is difficult to maintain. Under ideal circumstances where the population is content and government revenue sufficient, this is only a challenge, but when other factors put pressure on this system, the empire cannot be maintained. Pressure for the government to overtax the populace and to debase the currency may have come in part from the sheer size and complexity of the empire. Certainly, it was difficult to tax a population when the government lacks information on people's wealth, numbers, and location, only exacerbated by using tax farmers to collect taxes rather than directly (and fairly) collecting taxes through some branch of the government. However, such a system was impossible under the prevailing lack of demographic information and of cheap communication.
By reading through the detailed timeline of this alternate history, one can find how these problems and more could have been overcome by the Roman Empire through better and more consistent early leadership.
[The following sections are outdated but are still relevant to the earlier draft of the modern world of this alternate history.]
Minor Differences - Rome and OTL's Western Society
- Handheld torches are sticks which shine a light in all directions like a lamp. The closest thing to our flashlights is the laser pointer, invented in 1912.
- Escalators aren't built in subways or shopping centers. Those that exist don't have railings.
- Almost 10% of caucasian Romans suffer from gluten intolerance.
- Street signs are almost impossible to find in cities and are placed on a necessary basis on highways. Lines painted into the road to delineate driving lanes can't be found anywhere. Likewise, the Romans have yet to invent the traffic light, other countries using equivalent systems of their own.
- Instead of calling "bullshit!" on a disbelievable story, Romans tend to yell "Pseuda!" to call out the liar.
Explorers of the mind, world, and nature have endless repositories of knowledge ahead of them. Millennia of discoveries are possible given the vastness of what lies before humanity to discover. Disparities in the temporal position of discoveries is a firm indicator of an alternate timeline's degree of divergence from Reality.
- Viking Settlers discover Groenland in 957 (986)
- Viking Settlers discover the New World in 1123 (1001)
- Europeans discover the New World in 1143 (1492)
- Americans discover Africa in 1421 (n/a)
- Europeans discover Australia in 1439 (1606)
- Europeans (Vikings) round the Cape Horn in 1507 (1525)
- Europeans begin to conquer India in 1566 (1765)
- Discovery of gunpowder in 419 (c. 900)
- Invention of the periodic table in 1211 (1869)
- Discovery of tungsten in 1363 (1781)
- Discovery of titanium in 1573 (1791)
- Discovery of radio waves in 1531 (1892)
- Acknowledgement of radio waves in 1715 (1892)
- Discovery of the electron in 1844 (1896)
- Discovery of the nucleus in 1875 (1911)
- Proposal of the neutron in 1876 (1920)
- Discovery of the proton in 1880 (1917)
- Proposal of wave-particle duality in 1883 (1924)