My two favourite things in this world are Romans and science fiction (and my cat, who is named after a Roman). Because I am bad at career planning and apparently never want to be financially stable (financial stability is for squares), I made Romans my profession. I spend a lot of my time thinking about, talking about and writing about Romans and so obviously I also like to read about imaginary science fictional Romans in my spare time too. And now I’m going to tell you about them.
Romans and images of ancient Rome are incredibly common in modern science fiction, so common that if I began to list them all we’d be here all day. Just think about Panem in the Hunger Games series (from Panem et circenses, bread and circuses) where everyone in the decadent capitol has a Latin name. This isn’t so surprising when you think about it. The Roman empire underpins most western ideas about civilisation and empire, about decline and fall and decadence and stoic morality. The entire structure of American governance is based on the Roman model. Practically every big building in London is based on the model of a Roman temple. The British Empire modelled itself on the Roman empire. And so did the Nazis, with their eagles and monuments and iconography. So when it comes to thinking of sci-fi models, the Romans are fairly obvious as an inspiration.
There’s three broad categories of sci-fi Romans: Space Romans, The Rome That Never Fell and Time Travel. There are some works that transcend boundaries, and in recent years there have been a lot of amateur works that seem to be starting a new trend: Rome Rises Again. I know about this one because a guy on OKCupid once sent me 2000 words of his novella about Rome Rising Again In Space as an attempt to chat me up. I still have it somewhere.
Probably most common type of sci-fi Roman is the Space Roman. They’re so common they have their own page on TVTropes. The TV Trope refers to any kind of alien society that bears an unusual, and frankly unlikely, resemblance to an ancient society on earth for no good reason other than coming up with new alien civilizations is really hard. The classic of this genre is the Star Trek (original series) episode Bread and Circuses which ticks all the boxes that you need to tick to show that this is Rome: gladiators, people called something ending in -us, slaves, Christians, a lot of nice white columns, and a swooning girl for Kirk to seduce. Such things are vital for the more thumpingly obvious versions of Space Rome.
The most thumpingly obvious of all the thumpingly obvious Space Romans is the brilliant Red Rising Trilogy which happily rips off both Romans and the Hunger Games to have Space Triumphs for the ArchGovernor of Mars Nero au Augustus overseen by the wicked empress Octavia who has undermined the senatorial oligarchy to rule all by herself. Obviously the Red Rising trilogy is brilliant because it’s basically Space Romans with guns and the rulers are literally golden and that’s ridiculous and wonderful. Notably, however, the Space Rome of the Red Rising trilogy is a dystopia, defined by its impossibly rigid class structure, eugenics, slavery and war. All the things we like least about the real Romans.
At the other end of the sci-fi spectrum we have the more subtle versions of Space Rome, which tend to be big empires that have gone decedent and wrong. The classic of this type is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, where his Galactic Empire was famously based on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, Gibbon thought that Christianity weakened the spirit of the Romans so they couldn’t fight barbarians properly, but still. He made for an interesting sci-fi series. What Asimov mainly took from Rome was the idea of a huge, old empire that had become arrogant, bureaucratic and corrupt. From the start of the first Foundation story, Trantor (Space Rome) is home to the emperor and bureaucrats and nothing else. It is unable to feed itself and completely dependent on its empire, from which it is increasingly distanced in terms of culture and contact. Eventually Trantor is sacked by a barbaric rebel, the emperor flees and Trantor declines. The parallels to Rome, to be honest, require you to have at least read the Wikipedia page on Gibbon.
The same cannot be said for the second type of sci-fi Romans: the alternative history Roman Empire That Never Fell. Think Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy, Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg, Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove et cetera et cetera. In these, the empire in its entirety keeps going, running half the world, and culturally—somehow— does not change at all from the early Imperial period of Augustus at the turn of the 1st century CE.. Everyone is called Maximus and Flavia, does crucifixions all the time and eats nothing but dormice. In some, the world never has an industrial revolution because slavery keeps everything ticking along. In others, despite the slavery thing (apparently no one wants to get rid of slavery. It’s such a good narrative device), the Romans get fancy technology and spaceships. I always enjoy these ones because the Romans couldn’t last more than two emperors before people started getting murdered and only got to four before random generals started throne grabbing. Plus the borders of the empire were pretty much never peaceful, so this is the kind of Roman wishful thinking I like a lot. The Romans probably would too.
The other kind of Rome That Never Fell is the Bit of Roman Culture That Survives. The most recent of these is probably Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series which are fun and involve a country founded by breakaway pagans in the fourth century and whose culture has remained unchanged for 1600 years apart from the fact that women gained equality (because it’s fiction so shush). The earliest is, I think, Tarzan and the Lost Empire, where Tarzan finds both a remnant of the Roman Empire and a monkey companion in the African jungle. Naturally it has a character called Maximus (which might be the law for Roman themed fiction?) and is racist as hell.
Time Travel Romans
The third type of sci-fi Roman tends to be equally as silly, but does often engage in some research, is the Time Travel Romans. Recently I read Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii which offers a neat twist by bringing the Romans into the present (sort of kidnapping a load of Pompeii residents and hiding them in a north African desert for reasons I won’t spoil), but most send someone back to the Roman past. One that got a lot of attention was Rome, Sweet Rome, a short story that started as a reddit comment and will apparently become a film, by James Erwin. This involves 2000 US Marines being sent back in time and having to fight some Romans. Harry Turtledove liked the Romans so much he also co-wrote a time travel novel (Household Gods) where a women who tires of modern life accidentally goes back in time to Roman Austria and finds out that the ancient world was sort of appalling.
In amongst these, of course, there are sci-fi Romans of the trashiest and most bizarre sort. Like Ranks of Bronze by David Drake where some Roman soldiers get sold into space slavery by some aliens and proceed to kick the life out of other aliens because they are so good at war that they can even do war in space better than everyone else. Or Empire of the Atom which straight up steals the plot of I, Claudius and puts it in space. And also the Space Roman Empire worships atoms. Or Warlords of Utopia, where a Roman from the Rome That Never Fell tries to stop the Nazis with a magic universe jumping bracelet.
I am always happy with a sci-fi Romans book because I know that I will pretty much be guaranteed some ridiculous violence, an orgy and and an emperor and I am, frankly, easily pleased. But I also read the sci-fi Romans because what people do with the past is interesting, the way that creators construct new versions of Rome is interesting, what people know or think they know about the Romans is interesting. But for more on that, you’ll have to talk to me at parties.