Romanitas by Sophia McDougall

This post was inspired by the recent Nine Worlds convention, where my favourite panel was on Historical Headcanons. One interesting thing we learnt was just how close Rome came to having an industrial revolution, and after that I thought “wouldn’t that be a cool premise for an alternate history?”, and later that day I happened to pick up Romanitas!

imageThe Sacred Way, cleared for the procession to pass, closed inexorably behind it, like a syringe filling with black ink.
The mourners were not all from Rome or even from Italy. From all across the Empire, they ad come: from Mexica, India, Gothia, Gaetulia — so many thousands who must have had to struggle for time, and the cost of travel, and beds in Rome, so that they could cut themselves free to be sucked here as on an inward tide. Here, at the very centre of it, Leo and Clodia lay.

It’s 2004, and the Roman Empire has never fallen. In London, Una, a young slave who can hear the thoughts of those around her, is watching an Imperial funeral on a giant TV screen, and planning the rescue of her brother Sulien, a convicted slave due to be crucified in the morning. Meanwhile, the heir to the Roman empire, Marcus Novius, is about to learn that the recent car accident that killed his parents may not have been an accident after all, and his life is now in danger. All three characters must go on the run, trying to find a haven for escaped slaves hidden in the Pyrenees.

This is a fast-paced, exciting read, as we alternately follow Marcus trying to adapt to life on the run, and Una and Sulien getting used to their new-found freedom whilst trying not to be caught and executed as escaped slaves. They soon meet each other and form an unlikely team, and the awkward interactions between them at are particularly well drawn.

The aspect of this book I liked the most was the setting. The point of divergence for this particular alternate history is 192 AD, when the Roman Empire began to decline. In this history, the Empire continued to expand, eventually including North Africa, most of Russia, India, South America and most of North America. I was interested to read the author’s alternate timeline in the back of the book, showing how her imagined modern Rome had evolved from the Empire we know. I really liked the depiction of the Imperial family as modern-day celebrities, with all Roman citizens fixated on their lives.

Obviously, one aspect of Roman life that has remained is slavery, which pervades everything. Slaves are the backbone of this Roman society, they have no rights, and yet it’s their hard work on which the technological advances of the Empire are built. It transpires that Marcus’s father was intending to abolish slavery when he became Emperor, and this was the reason for his murder. And Una and Sulien just want their freedom at any price. This is the central fight that drives the book, and probably the closest thing it has to a theme.

The other aspect of the Roman empire I was expecting to be addressed was colonisation, and this barely comes up at all, but Romanitas is the first book in a trilogy and it appears that this will be a major theme in the second book, when war with Japan over North America looms. Overall, I liked the way that by putting the trappings of Ancient Rome in a modern context, we see that Ancient Roman society really wasn’t so different from our own.

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