Why the Roman Empire fell has been the subject of academic debate and investigation for centuries. Gibbons monumental ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ is the most well known work on the subject but there have been many other books since then which have investigated various aspects of the collapse of Rome and have attempted to explain the reasons behind it. One of the dominant themes encountered in these books is that of whether the fall was inevitable. With hindsight, it is generally possible to point to long term social or economic trends, or overwhelming external pressures to shoe that Rome was powerless to prevent its collapse.
But was it inevitable? In the western world we tend to look upon either the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric or when Odoacer deposed the last Western Emperor in 476 as the end of the Roman Empire. However in the East the other half of the Empire continued to live and prosper. Constantinople remained as the capital of an Empire that survived for another thousand years – more than twice as long as the combined Empire had been ruled from Rome. To history it became known as the Byzantine Empire after the ancient town of Byzantium upon which Constantine the Great built his new capital. Yet throughout its existence, its Emperors and its people thought of themselves and referred to themselves as Romans. In them the Roman Empire continued, with an unbroken chain of Emperors until the last, Constantine XI died defending the walls of Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
If the Empire lasted another thousand years after the city of Rome fell, why not fifteen hundred or two thousand?
The Eternal Empire Time line
In the sixth century, the eastern Empire under Justinian the Great attempted to re-conquer the Western provinces from the Germanic tribes that occupied them. Africa fell quickly and a few enclaves in Southern Spain were established but it took a twenty year war to dislodge the Ostro-Goths from Italy and the peninsular was devastated. At about the same time the eastern Empire was ravaged by a plague that decimated the population reducing both the manpower pool for the army and the economic base to support a war of expansion. Justinian’s re-conquest ground to a halt.
This is the point at which the alternate history in ‘The Eternal Empire’ diverges from what really happened. The Ostro-Goths in Italy succumb to the armies of Justinian as quickly as the Vandals had in Africa. There was no plague in the East to sap the resources of the Empire, and after Italy Spain was retaken from the Visi-Goths and eventually Gaul from the Franks. By the end of the sixth century Roman armies once again patrolled the Rhine.
With the Western provinces united with the East, the long war with Sassanid Persia at the beginning of the seventh century does not drain the Empire as it did, and consequently allows a more effective defence against the armies of Islam that burst out of Arabia so soon after the peace with Persia. Syria and Palestine are still lost to the Arabs (the Empire still loses the Battle of Yarmuk) but Egypt is held. The armies of Islam concentrate more on the East and conquer most of India instead.
The Turkish migrations of the tenth century that led to the eventual demise of the Byzantine Empire are unable to penetrate into Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey) and instead head through the Caucasus into Southern Russia. The Ottoman Empire establishes itself in what is today south-east Europe and the Ukraine having its border with the Empire on the Danube.
The New World is discovered by Roman Explorers in the sixteenth century but only North America is colonised, population pressures (and competition) not being so acute as historically occurred. The Aztec, Mayan and Inca Empires suffer the historical depredations caused by their contact with diseases from Europe but are allowed time to recover and maintain their own civilisations. In the eighteenth century the Roman colonies in the New World revolt over taxation and imperial interference, declaring their independence. The United Provinces are formed with a government modelled after that of Republican Rome.
In Europe the German tribes beyond the Rhine develop into a number of States, the largest of which is Saxony in northern and central Europe, and there are regular wars between the Germanic States and the Empire. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries do German and Roman fight together to halt the Turkish advance into Europe.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Rhine and the Danube are still the borders of the Roman Empire in Europe. Asia Minor is Roman province with a Greek speaking population, and Syria and Palestine are part of the Arabian Caliphate. Egypt has changed hands between the Arabs and the Empire half a dozen times in the past twelve hundred years but is once again a Roman province but with a large Moslem Minority. Railways criss-cross the Empire linking distant provinces like the old Roman roads used to. Motor vehicles and air planes are relatively recent inventions and although they are fairly common they are not widespread.
In 1920, the Roman Empire is the dominant nation in Europe.
|Dates||Alternate History of the Novel||Actual History|
|530-540||Eastern Empire recovers Africa and Italy from Vandals and Ostrogoths. The speed of the re-conquest, especially in Italy has a powerful effect on other Germanic tribes occupying the West. Most still nominally acknowledge the Emperor in Constantinople as the sole ruler of the Empire and many make representations to avoid the fate of the Vandals and Ostrogoths.||The re-conquest of Italy bogged down into a 20 war that devastated the peninsular. The Lombards invaded and confined the Byzantines to a number of enclaves.
Attempts to retake Hispania are also unsuccessful with just a few footholds along the coast.
The plague which spread throughout the empire crippled the finances and manpower, limiting the ability to either expand or consolidate.
|540-560||Southern Gaul re-occupied and Southern Hispania retaken from Visigoths by Eastern Roman armies. Constantinople fosters intertribal warfare amongst occupying German tribes in rest of old Empire. Units of defeated Germanic tribes posted to Eastern Empire and plunder from Imperial victories used to fill treasury.|
|560-590||Through a series of treaties, alliances and campaigns the rest of Gaul and Hispania is brought back under Imperial rule. Increased trade and security help to re-establish and secure the acceptance of central control.|
|590-600||Imperial forces cross channel and recover Britannia for the Empire. Anglo-Saxons driven out, exterminated or assimilated. Hadrian’s wall rebuilt and the province garrisoned by a combination of Eastern troops, local levies and remnants of Germanic tribes shattered during the re-conquest.|
|600-620||Great war with Sassanid Persia. Syria, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt overrun and occupied for several years before the Empire finally defeats the Sassanid’s. Troops recruited from the re-conquered Western Empire make up a significant portion of the Imperial forces in these campaigns but the Empire is weakened and the treasury empty.||War with Persia occurred and exhausted both nations, the only ‘superpowers’ of their day in the Middle East. Rome/Byzantium finally won but at great cost.|
|620-635||Period of consolidation and downsizing of military. Rhine frontier re-established and fortified. Series of religious persecutions as the hierarchy in Constantinople attempt to impose orthodoxy on the various strains of Christianity around the reunited Empire. A number of serious revolts in the west lead to the Emperor forcing the Orthodox Patriarch to take a more tolerant line.||Egypt, Syria and Palestine, which had under Persian control for many years are re-occupied by the Byzantines who take a strict line against non-orthodox Christian denominations.|
|635-700||Islamic Conquests. Arab invasion destroys Imperial field armies in Syria leading to conquest of Syria and Palestine. Invasion of Egypt goes badly for the Empire at first but troops from Gaul and Hispania arrive to stiffen the garrison of Alexandria which holds out during a 5 year siege and acts as a foothold for contesting Arab control. Much of Asia Minor is devastated by raids and campaigning armies but eventually the Arabs are restricted to the area of Syria and Palestine. Revenues and manpower from the Western half of the Empire prop up Constantinople during this time and allows the Pope to obtain greater religious freedom for the Catholics.
Checks on the Moslem attacks in Egypt divert the Arabs to the East where Persia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and India are overrun.
Controlled immigration from beyond the Rhine frontier introduced as a formal policy in 645 with groups of around 400-500 people resettled in depopulated areas in Hispania, Italia and the Danube basin. From around 685 a number of these groups were also given land in Asia Minor as military settlers in areas bordering the Moslem states.
Bulgar tribes put pressure on the Danube frontier begins to build but no serious loss of territory occurs.
|The Arab Islamic invasions see the permanent loss of Syria and Palestine as well as Egypt and the rest of North Africa.
European provinces of the Empire (the Balkans south of the Danube) remain intact but under pressure from the Bulgars who make an appearance in the scene.
Frankish state begins to emerge in France/Germany
|700-750||Continuing conflict with Islamic states and a series of campaigns in Egypt culminates in the battle of the Nile in 743 where two Arab armies are destroyed. All of Egypt back under Imperial rule for first time in nearly a century. About 35% of the population is Moslem and the majority of the native Christians are regarded as heretics by the Orthodox Church. Only intervention by the Emperor holds persecution of non-Orthodox in check.
Empire allows Bulgar migration across the Danube whilst it concentrates on recovering Egypt. Bulgars allocated territory in Moesia and Pannonia but under Imperial laws.
|Spain conquered by Islamic armies. Bulgar threat to Empire in Europe grows.
Islamic invasions checked at Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Franks.
Constantinople besieged on a number of occasions but eventually recovers enough to hold on to Asia Minor. Arab pressure begins to subside.
First period of Iconoclasm within Empire (730-787) leading to unrest, division and infighting.
|750-800||Period of weak Emperors, civil wars and loose central government. Bulgars slowly establish an independent state within the Empire. Provincial governments in Western Empire begin developing feudal structures whilst powerful families in Eastern Empire flout Imperial laws and authority whilst Armenia gains de-facto independence.
Serfdom within a feudal structure takes hold in a number of areas as a more practical and economically viable alternative to slavery.
The weakness of the Arab states (fighting amongst themselves) and no major pressures from across the Rhine avoid any immediate crisis for the Empire.
|800-900||Period of Civil wars started by Western Governors challenging the control of Constantinople and the preferment of Greek and Orthodox civil and military officials. Border defences are denuded as armies support rival claimants to the throne leading to invasions and raids across the borders throughout the Empire. There is a period of de-facto division of the Empire into East and West but the West is fragmented with no co-operation between provinces and eventually the East retakes rebel provinces and re-establishes central control.
Viking Invasions begin from 825. Raids on Britannia and Gaul begin leading to major invasions in the North of Britannia during the civil wars. Reinforcements from Gaul and Hispania check the attacks together with a major fleet building programme to control the seas. In 898, following the ascension to the throne of Basil I, Roman fleets attacked Viking towns and villages throughout Scandia for the first time destroying boats, crops, shelter and food stores just before winter. This was repeated each year until Viking raids end as a major threat.
Rise of a charismatic Arab leader in 895 briefly unites the Arab states and sees an invasion of Egypt. After three years of inconclusive campaigns, drawn battles and unsuccessful sieges the Arab coalition falls apart with no changes to borders.
|Second period of Iconoclasm (814-842) leading to more religious strife within the Empire.
Regular wars and continuous border raid between Empire and Arabs but no significant loss of territory by either side.
In Europe the Bulgars increased their hold on territory carving out their own State within the Empire.
In western Europe Feudalism takes hold and the Empire of Charlemagne holds sway for much of the period
|900-1000||Time of the ‘Warrior Emperors’. Bulgar Empire crushed and assimilated over a period of 45 years and five wars. Half of the surviving Bulgarian population moved to Asia Minor, Egypt or North Africa as Military Settlers. Armenia is brought into the Imperial sphere of control as a Client Kingdom and eventually incorporated as a province.
Empire takes advantage of Arab disunity to invade Syria and Palestine. Damascus is sacked and Jerusalem occupied but cost of permanent occupation is judged too high and a peace treaty leaves Arabs in control but with heavy annual tribute and privileges for Christians in Moslem territory.
|From the last quarter of the 9th Century the Empire, under Basil I began a period of expansion.
The Bulgarian state was crushed and Byzantine armies inflict many defeats on Arab armies .
Byzantine military power is at its peak but following the death of Basil I, the military is starved of funds and reduced by an administration more scared of military coups than external enemies.
The arrival of Nomadic Turkish tribes, hungry for land and more aggressive than the settled Arab states upset the ‘status quo’ that had existed in the region for 200 years. The battle of Manzikert saw the Byzantine military crushed followed by a 10 year civil war during which the Turkish tribes occupied the heart of Asia Minor destroying the economy and driving the population off the land.
|1000-1100||Nomadic Turkish tribes arrive in Middle east in large numbers, subjugate Arab States and launch major raids into the Empire. Major defeats of Imperial Armies at hands of Turks.
Series of Orthodox- Catholic Wars throughout the Empire threatens a major religious and political schism between the East and Western halves of the Empire. The new threat of the Turks enable Emperor Michael IV to get the Patriarch and the Pope to agree the Concordat of Athens in 1059 giving equal status to Orthodox and Catholic and freedom of choice (between Orthodox and Catholic rites) to all citizens.
In 1093 the Arabs rise in revolt against the Turks and with support from Roman armies drive them out of the Middle East. Turkish tribes turn North and flood into the Caucasus and then the southern Steppes displacing and assimilating many of the Slavic tribes already there.
|1000-1200||In Germania the majority of the tribes gradually unite into distinct nations the largest of which are the Saxons who initially establish a feudal Kingdom from the Rhine to the Elbe. Roman armies suffer a series of defeats against the Saxons leading to formal recognition of Saxony as a legitimate state.
Turkish tribes unite under the Seljuks and establish the Sultanate of Slavia running from the Danube frontier with the Empire, along the Black Sea coast, the Dneiper and Don basins and the Caucasus mountains. Paizinak, Avar and Kuban tribes are all integrated into this new Seljuk Empire.
|The period of the Crusades. Medieval Europe begins to settle into recognisable states.
In Spain the struggle to eject the Moors from the peninsular begins
|1200-1450||The Crusades. Constant warfare with Turks which becomes a bitter religious war following the rise to power of the Ottomans who replace the Seljuks and declare a jihad against all Christians. The European provinces of the Eastern Empire across the Danube are regularly devastated, Churches desecrated and Christian populations massacred or driven out. Saxony, Prussia, Poland and Burgundia are also attacked with Burgundia and Poland conquered and occupied by the Turks. The Christian nations of the West realise that they must act together and the Patriarch and the Pope declare a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks.
In 1389 a combined army of Romans and Saxons inflict the first major defeat on an Ottoman army in over 100 years at the Battle of Pressburg in Burgundia whilst the Imperial Fleet sweeps all Turkish ships from the Black Sea and raid coastal regions. By 1440 the Ottomans are cleared out of Roman provinces, Burgundia regains its freedom and Poland is incorporated into the Saxon Kingdom. A brutal policy of extermination against the Turks by the Crusading nations removes the Ottomans as an immediate threat but leaves a legacy of hate between the two sides that is still felt to the present.
The Crusade period sees the first extensive use of cannons and bombards in sieges and set piece battles.
|Rise of the Ottoman Empire.
100 years war between England and France.
Italian city States become dominant in trade
|1450-1600||Age of Exploration. The ending of the Crusade against the Ottomans allow the Empire to focus on expanding its trade. Prohibitive tariffs by both the Turks and Arabs to goods from the East lead to Imperial support to find alternative routes to China and the Spice Islands
Imperial expeditions circumnavigated Africa and established bases along the coast which traded with local tribes and in some cases become new colonies. Formal diplomatic relations are formed with the Mogul Empire, Chinese Empire, Japanese Empire and the Kingdom of Siam and trading posts established.
An expedition across the Atlantic to find a short route to China discovers the New World. Bases and colonies are established in the Northern region and expeditions to the central and South encounter the Mayan and Aztec Nations. Trading bases are established which bring diseases to the natives who are decimated. Fear of plagues and other diseases lead the Romans to abandon contact for decades which allows the Mayans and Aztecs to recover and remain independent.
In the later part of the 15th Century population pressures and a rise in religious persecution lead to increasing levels of emigration to ‘Nova Roma’ as the New World became known, and new Imperial provinces are formed from these colonies. Conflict with indigenous tribes becomes inevitable as colonists begin to move inland leading to the deployment of Imperial forces to ‘Nova Roma’ to support the expansion and protect against the Aztec and Incan Empires.
Firearms become common place in armies from mid 16th century replace close quarter weapons as the primary equipment of Imperial forces.
|Ottoman Empire expands in the Balkans.
New World discovered.
Portugal and Holland become major trading nations
Spain becomes major European power funded by New World gold.
Beginning of the Wars of Religion following the Reformation.
Russia begins to unify
|1600-1700||Period of the Schism War. Emperor Manual IV, a fanatic believer in both the divine right of the Emperor as God’s Vice Regent on Earth and of Orthodoxy as the True Faith repudiates the Concordat of Athens and makes Orthodoxy a prerequisite for administrative and military appointments. This touched off a series of civil wars and wars of secession with some areas of the Empire independent of Constantinople for decades at a time. The Ottomans and Arabs take advantage of the Empires disarray with the Turks annexing Moesia and the Arabs overrunning Egypt and declaring it part of the Moslem World. Saxony supports rebels in the Germania Provinces and recognised them as independent States.
The inability of the different provinces of the Western Empire to cooperate coupled with the accession of Constantine XX who once again acknowledges the Concordat lays the groundwork for what comes to be known to History the ‘Second Re-conquest’. By the end of the 17th century most of the rebel provinces were back under Imperial control; only the Germania Provinces, Egypt and Moesia are still occupied by either rebels or foreign forces. However the re-conquest has left Constantine XX with a large army of veteran Legions and the confiscation of the wealth of rebels a full treasury.
A by-product of these wars was the formal abolition of slavery which had been in decline for centuries primarily due to economic reasons although there was a growing movement within the Churches well. It was replaced by a rigid ‘class’ system with non patrician citizens being allocated to one of 3 classes according to birth, job and wealth.
|30 years war.
English Civil War.
Austria-Hungary takes lead in wars against Ottoman Empire.
England and France lead European nations in expanding overseas trade and colonisation.
Russia expands to control areas of Asia and Europe
|1700-1800||From 1700 to 1703 Imperial forces subjugated the rebel Germania provinces and delivered decisive defeats to the Saxon armies that supported them. The Imperial navy played a significant role by blockading the Saxon ports and raiding coastal Saxon cities.
Following the peace of Minden in 1704, Imperial armies moved onto the Ottoman Turks crushing their armies in a series of campaigns along the Danube in 1705 and 1706, bringing the Moesian provinces back into the Imperial fold. From 1707-09 followed the Arab States with the veteran armies of the Empire besieging Damascus and the Imperial fleet supporting an amphibious invasion and liberation of Egypt.
By 1710 the frontiers of the Empire had been re-established but at a high cost. The economy was in ruins, the military bloated and the treasury empty. Taxes were raised, troops demobilised and trade tariffs put on anything that could raise money. By 1720 the Imperial treasury was beginning to look healthy but there were regular riots at the high cost of food and level of taxes and there was no indication that this would change.
It was in the provinces of Nova Roma that the resentment of the fiscal burden was the greatest. Since the original colonisation the new provinces had grown at a tremendous rate and in terms of development colonial cities were on a par with any in the Empire except Rome, Constantinople or Alexandria. Trade was a major part of the colonial economy and imports from the Empire in terms of luxury goods and new technologies were regarded as critical to the future growth and development of the colonies. The high taxes and trade tariffs hurt the colonies and encouraged resentment of rule from Constantinople that had started during the Schism Wars of the last century. The abolition of slavery was also a grievance since the wholesale use of slaves had been key to generating much of the wealth from the mines and agricultural estates of the New World as well as cheap labour to build the colonies.
As Colonial Provinces, Nova Roma colonies were ruled by an Imperial Governor who was not answerable to any civic body elected by the colonists. Representations for relief of taxes and tariffs were ignored and the mood of the colonists grew angrier culminating in a wave of anti-Imperial demonstrations and riots in 1726. Fearful that this presaged a new round of rebellions most of the Governors acted with a heavy hand and ruthlessly suppressed any sign of disloyalty using Imperial troops and the secret police.
Eventually a full scale rebellion broke out in 1728 with the colonies declaring independence from Constantinople in 1729 as the United Provinces of New Rome, modelling their constitution on the old Roman republic with two Consuls as their ruling magistrates and effectively reinstating slavery by creating a class of serfs below that of the Patricians and the 3 classes of citizens. The War of Independence (or the Colonial Betrayal as it is referred to in Imperial History books) lasted until 1737 when all remaining Imperial forces were besieged in coastal cities. The Imperial Fleet was unable to guarantee to supply them in the face of a new war with Saxony, the Ottomans and the Arabs who saw this as an opportunity for revenge of their earlier defeats. The peace treaty of Nova Londinium, the capital of Nova Britannia, the largest of the colonies recognised the independence of the United Provinces. The only Imperial possessions left in the New World were the islands to the South where Imperial Loyalists moved following the treaty and which the Empire continued to refer to as Nova Roma.
This, the first permanent loss of territory to the Empire in over 1000 years was a major shock and manifested itself in renewed activities elsewhere. The colonies in Southern Africa which had been neglected were now the focus of attention and expanded northwards. The island colonies left in the New World were developed as major military bases and given preferential tariffs to develop their industry and agriculture. Relations with the newly independent United Provinces were strained and Imperial resentment barely concealed.
|War of Spanish Succession.
War of Austrian Succession.
Emergence of Prussia as a major power.
Seven Years War.
Colonial wars mainly between England and France.
Industrial and agricultural revolution begins in England.
American War of Independence.
Poland partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia.
|1800-1900||A period of significant social and economic change throughout the Empire and the World. Limited political representation within the Empire begins in 1832 with the establishment of the Plebeian Assembly together with a restructuring of the Senate. Initially limited to property owners the franchise is gradually extended during the century to all male citizens of the 1st and 2nd class. Political parties form and elections for the assembly are fought on party platforms. The Emperor still holds supreme power through control of the Army and appointment of Executive positions but the Empire is too large and complex to effectively rule without the Assembly and Senate.
Industrialisation takes off leading to an increased urbanisation and large numbers of factory workers and miners who are more socially militant than rural labourers. Pressure for social change builds and industrial unrest becomes epidemic in the 1860’s and 1870’s before legal, economic and social reforms deal with the worst abuses.
The problems of distance and communication with Imperial territory beyond Europe and the Mediterranean are the driving force behind the deployment of lighter than air transport (Airships) and by the 1860’s there was a global network of Airship ports around the world. The invention and development of steam and internal combustion engines were eagerly embraced as further means of promoting trade and the technological superiority of the Empire. Heavier than air craft were a reality by the 1880’s and the Imperial Air Service linking all the provinces and major cities of the Empire worldwide is set up in 1898. The military uses of air power were acknowledged quite early and experiments in aerial reconnaissance and bombing are undertaken by the Imperial Army.
The extensive Roman road network is supplemented by the new railways and by 1880 70% of all the railway mileage in the World is to be found within the borders of the Empire. Imperial engineers and Capital are in great demand throughout the globe as other nations industrialise.
International trade expands following a gradual reduction of protectionist policies and tariffs as merchant interests gain influence in the Imperial Assembly and Senate. Income from trade becomes a significant portion of Imperial revenues and a key driver in the Empires Foreign Policy.
During the middle of the century a common view develops that this is a new Golden age of the Empire and there is a revival of the trappings and forms of Imperial Rome of the 1st and 2nd Centuries – the last ‘Golden Age’ of Pax Romana. Provincial names revert back to the period of Augustus and the Legions in the army regain their old titles and their Eagles.
The Mogul Empire, after a century in decline finally collapses in 1811 and fragments into a number of states, the largest of which are the Muslim Caliphate of Rajputna and the Hindu State of Mahrata. The Empire seizes the opportunity to take control of Ceylon through the support of local rulers before eventually formally annexing the island in 1863 as a Colonial Province.
In Southern Africa major gold and diamond fields fuel an expansion of the colony and more tribal regions to the North are conquered and incorporated into the Imperial domains. Limited self government is granted to the South African colonies in 1872 following a series of wars with the Moslem states in East Africa in which Colonial forces play a key role in the victories.
Following a series of minor conflicts in the early part of the century, relations between the Empire and the United Provinces gradually improve and the trans-Atlantic trade greatly benefits both sides. There is still anti-Imperial rhetoric in the United Provinces Senate and unofficial support for the Republican Party in the Empire whilst there are claims that Constantinople is supporting the indigenous natives in their opposition to continual expansion of the United Provinces. However neither party see any profit in a war and disputes are quickly resolved.
In 1890 following a period of diplomatic incidents and rising tension, Saxony declares war on the Empire and invades across the Rhine. The Saxon armies are comprehensively defeated in a short bloody war that saw the first major use of aircraft and armoured landships. The ensuing peace treaty is humiliating for Saxony and sees the border Duchies reduced to Imperial client states and limits placed on the Saxons military.
Slave trade banned.
South American Colonies gain independence from Spain.
Industrial revolution across Europe and Americas.
Erosion of serfdom and growth of representative democracy.
Railways become common place.
American Civil War
Unification of Italy and Germany
Age of Colonialism
|1900-1920||An economic boom period fuelled by increasing consumer demand, increasing productivity, speculation and an abundance of credit comes to an end in 1918. A combination of bad harvests and the failure of a number of banks due to corruption, fraud and bad loans cause a crisis of confidence leading to a contraction of trade, consumer spending and production. A recession begins which affects most of the world but especially the Empire with its dependence on exports and trade.||Anglo-German Naval Arms Race
Entente Cordial between Britain and France