Isaac Asimov’s trilogy of Foundation (1942 - 1944), Foundation and Empire (1945) and Second Foundation (1948 - 1949) was famously inspired by Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776 - 1789). There are, however, no Romans in Asimov’s fix-up epic, only a galactic empire populated by cigar-chomping 1940s New Yorkers. While this empire does indeed fall, it holds the seeds of a new empire hidden within it. This is intended to shorten the period of barbarism which must “necessarily” follow a collapse.
It was, perhaps, the grand sweep of imperial history which attracted Asimov more than the actual events which led to Rome’s collapse. After all, Foundation and its sequels follow their historical model only in the loosest sense. Certainly, it’s a curiously inept re-imagining -- there was nothing inevitable about the Dark Ages; nor were they in fact “dark”. And Rome may have considered herself the height of civilisation at the time, but she was by no means the only civilisation.
Asimov was not alone in plundering Rome for inspiration. AE Van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom (1946 - 1947) and The Wizard of Linn (1950) are allegedly based on Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius (1938). While the life of van Vogt’s hero, the mutant Clane, may follow in broad aspect that of its Roman original, the titular empire is already barbaric, and the aliens at the gates offer only a puzzle for Clane to resolve. The two books are written with van Vogt’s characteristic failure to plot logically, resulting in an absurd adventure in which the resolution seems to be reached more by accident than by design.
Well-known to British men of a certain age is the comic strip The Trigan Empire (1962 - 1985). Written by Mike Butterworth for Ranger and Look & Learn magazines, and beautifully drawn by Don Lawrence, the strip recounted the history of the titular empire on the planet Elekton. The empire itself visually resembled a mix of Roman and Greek styles -- except for the rockets and jet aircraft, of course -- and Trigan City was rebuilt with astonishing speed after each disaster or invasion. While the stories were often nonsense, and the background never really convinced, it remains a highlight of science fiction in the graphic form.
The Roman Empire has also proven fertile ground for alternate history. Phillip Mann’s A Land Fit for Heroes tetralogy -- Escape to the Wild Wood (1993), Stand Alone Stan (1994), The Dragon Wakes (1995) and The Burning Forest (1996) -- posit a present day in which the Roman Empire still holds global sway. Britain is a provincial backwater, ruled from Roman garrison towns, its native population resident in a primordial forest which covers most of the land. Although not an especially plausible world, Mann’s writing lifts the series above its central conceit. Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna (1989 - 2003) also posits an alternate present in which the Roman Empire survives to the present day. Like those early sf novels inspired by Rome, Roma Eterna is a fix-up. It is not considered one of Silverberg’s best works. More recently, Ken MacLeod opens his BSFA Award-nominated The Restoration Game (2010) with a prologue set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire conquers the Solar System. The reader is only given a glimpse of this world as the main plot of the novel concerns the fight for independence of an invented ex-Soviet client state.
To be honest, alternate history seems no more enamoured of Rome than it does any other period in history. It is space opera -- when it is not re-fighting battles of the Second World War, that is -- which so often looks to the Roman Empire for inspiration. Perhaps it is simply the default setting for “empire” for a white American male. The British Empire, after all, was the enemy once, and not so long ago.
Looking back from the twenty-first century, the Roman Empire as a model is understandable in science fiction, especially during the genre’s first few decades. It played to the prejudices of those writing at that time. A well-educated man would have studied, or been aware of, the “classics” -- Roman and Greek -- and so a certain academic, historical and literary cachet already attached to their empires. No one would have dreamt of writing a space opera based upon the empires of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, or, heaven forbid, the Ottomans or Islamic Caliphates. The last was seen as food for fantasy anyway, as it seemed to be represented in western culture only by One Thousand and One Nights.
Yet the Roman Empire was a brutal regime, which conquered a greater part of the known world of the time, from England in the west to the Rhine in the north, the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates in the east to Thebes in Egypt in the south. It conscripted legionnaires from the nations it conquered, and later handed out parcels of land -- irrespective of existing ownership -- to army veterans, no matter where they originated. In this way, it spread throughout Western Europe its language, which eventually evolved into the various Romance tongues. Why Britain remained resistant to this linguistic conquest has never been satisfactorily explained.
The concept of an all-encompassing empire appears with mind-numbing regularity in space opera. Said empires must also be decadent, must also contain within them the seeds of their own destruction. But it is not axiomatic that young must triumph over old, nor indeed that old necessarily means decadent. Perhaps buried somewhere in the American psyche -- science fiction is a US genre, after all -- is an ineffable belief that the vigour of the young and new must always overcome the decadent and entrenched old, a rationalising of their own bloody conquest of the North American continent and a sop to feelings of insecurity over their lack of history or culture when compared to old and sophisticated Europe (the rest of the world, of course, never figures into the equation). Unlike most epic fantasies, space operas are not about preserving the old ways but about tearing down the gates and razing all those institutions which the barbarians, with the righteousness of the outsider, find morally reprehensible. Yet when the barbarians sacked Rome, on three occasions between 410 and 546 CE, they looted and murdered, razed buildings and destroyed art, and took much of the population to be sold as slaves. This is hardly the behaviour of enlightened liberators. But then, the US has always had an odd relationship with the word “liberation”...
History notwithstanding, space opera’s use of the Roman Empire as an inspiration seems to comprise chiefly: big empire, becomes decadent, falls after much fighting. The science-fictional equivalent of Rome’s infamous lead plumbing is also part of the package -- recreational drugs, the use of robots which render humans (or aliens) incapable of anything, addictive virtual realities... It doesn’t take long before the centre cannot hold, before the barbarians begin gathering at the empire’s rim. If there’s anything consolatory to be had in this, it’s only because the barbarians are cast as the true sons of Man, the true heirs of nobility. (The barbarians may be egalitarian -- unlike the empire -- but they’re neither diverse nor gender-neutral.) The old empire needs to be destroyed, it should not suffer to live. New is better, sophistication is just decadence by another name. Progress is the true ambition of Mankind and the province of hardy men of action, not effete sophisticates. Too much art, ironically, is a sure sign of degeneracy. As is too much history.
And those who don’t know their history, it seems, are doomed to misrepresent it in genre fiction.
Ian Sales reviews other people's fiction for Interzone, and wishes more people would review his own stories. He reviews DVDs forVideoVista, but has yet to make a movie himself. He has had stories and poems published in several magazines and anthologies, and is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency. You can find Ian online at http://iansales.com, or follow him on twitter @ian_sales.
Second Foundation cover art copyright © Chris Foss.