Sunday, August 01, 2010

Review: Romanitas

My interest was piqued when I saw a copy of Sophia McDougal's Romanitas in the, soon to be closed, Crofton Park library (thanks Labour Mayor!). Based on the idea of an alternative history where the Roman Empire survived into the 'modern' world Romanitas is one of those fanciful 'what if' novels that can work out so well.

McDougall's writing chipped along nicely enough to keep me reading to the end, but this was despite my better judgement. I was by turns annoyed by the book, then annoyed at my annoyance and then went back to being just plain narked at the wasted opportunity of such a great idea.

The thing is if you're going to imagine a world where we took a different fork in the road you can't introduce things that make no sense, you really shouldn't just import loads of liberal assumptions from today's world because the point is to take us into a world where Roman minds interact with modern technology and you mustn't swap between Romanisation and modern ways of speaking when it suits you, the writing was far too sloppy.

I'm all for suspending disbelief, which is why I felt occasionally churlish for not being too forgiving, but an alternate history that contains magic? I mean why? Can we, in all honesty, say that if the Roman Empire had lasted another millennium and a bit some people would have developed weird powers for no reason, or is the author saying that magic was real in Ancient Rome?

Add to this the magic was basically a lazy device to get the main characters out of fixes and defined every single significant moment of the book. As such every plot turn relies upon the author saying "And poof! they escaped in the nick of time."

I'm all for the fact that there are cars, planes and TV's despite the fact that the industrial revolution may well not have happened under the Roman system. The Romans discarded many technical innovations (like water wheels) because they had no need of them due to the amply available slaves.

Why spend time, energy and resources on labour saving devices when labour is so plentiful and cheap? In this sense Roman society was a profoundly conservative one when it came to technology but not engineering - but transporting Rome to today would make no sense if you then make time stand still so yeah - give the Praetorian Guards rifles, take your best shot.

What does irritate me however was the profoundly liberal view that many of the characters had towards slavery. Certain characters see slavery as a moral ill that can simply be unproblematically disbanded. A potential future Emperor, who hopes to abolish slavery if he ever gets the chance seems to think that slavery is some sort of bad manners and the economic centrality of slavery under Rome is not mentioned even the once.

Personally I think if someone from a powerful family had plans to abolish slavery they might have thought about how this might be done, at least in passing. The fact is that if the Romans at any particular period had decided to do away with slavery their entire economic system would have collapsed and the Empire ceased to exist - anyone who sought to challenge it's existence (almost always slaves) understood that the Empire and slavery were of a piece and inseparable.

However, as it turns out, in the book slaves don't seem to have much of an economic function anyway as the only slaves we seem to come across are runaways. So we don't even have this to help us gain a sense of place. We're certainly given no notion as to why those who oppose slavery do so, or where they get these ideas that are so out of step with mainstream Roman thinking.

Also the research seemed a little sloppy to me. We have crucifixion, the praetorian guard and a bit of poisoning but, it seems to me, that Roman society makes up more than that.

For example one character is put on trial for killing his wife - this means that the status of Paterfamilias must have gone as a husband is no longer entitled to do with his wife and kids as he pleases - no doubt reforms instituted by Sylvia Pankhurstius. Fine, but at least give us a character saying "Oh, you can't do that sort of thing these days!"

If you're in a forgiving mood Romanitas might be tolerable - but then again it might put you out of sorts altogether. I'm not sure I'll be bothering with the sequel Rome Burning, which actually makes me a little sad as, done well, it could have been glorious.


Conor M. O'Brien said...

"economic centrality of slavery under Rome is not mentioned even the once"

Actually, it is - I believe a comparison is made between the Roman and Nionian empires, and that Rome is only ahead due to tis vast slave population.

I totally agree re the magic aspect. I mean, COME ON.

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks Conor. I must have missed the reference!