Before asking the question, let me give you some background. I am a big fan of Roman history, everything from the gladiators of the Colosseum to the writings Seneca, and the other day I was thinking to myself, "What if it just didn't end?" Sure, by no means is this an original thought, but then I started thinking about the possibilities that would've came with this scenario, such as a lack of the Dark Ages, bringing about better technology faster. So in this scenario I'm working out in my head, the Romans are at this point, in the future, space-faring and have a large, light-years wide empire.

So my question is (please forgive the long-mindedness) what would it have taken not only for the Roman Empire not to collapse, but in fact to expand globe-wide? What would the timeline or history looked like?

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    $\begingroup$ Most probably it would have required either that JC never became emperor and that the Republic was preserved, or that it soon (next 40 years) reverted to a republic. Not sure if that undermines your "empire" requirement, but other so-called empires do just fine without dictators styling themselves as "Emperor". That would allow them to focus outward on external threats/issues, instead of the infighting and constant coups that history gives us. Even then, it just makes it possible, not necessarily likely. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 19 '20 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO for a moment I had thought the JC in your text was Jesus Christ, not Julius Caesar :D $\endgroup$ Nov 19 '20 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ is this also when they still intact or already split in half? or already using christian believe as main religion? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Nov 19 '20 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun Realistically, a surviving Roman empire would likely have ceded and gained territory many times over the millennia. I interpret the question to allow for either of the Western or Eastern empires to be the progenitor of his modern day empire, if circumstances would allow that. But by then, I don't see any scenarios where it's possible. Divergence probably has to have occurred prior to the split. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ This has been, in one form or another, a somewhat popular question on this site (search results). If that particular duplicate doesn't suit your needs, there are several to choose from. Stack Exchange lists similar questions while you're writing yours. Did none of those in the search appear on that list? $\endgroup$ Nov 19 '20 at 17:01

I don't think you have a way out of the fall of the empire.

There are concurrent reasons for the fall of the empire, so it's hard to isolate just one and let the entire building in place. Moreover, you can't simply say "well, if Antonine plague didn't happen then...", since that it's independent of the social constructs.

However I think the late republic put itself into a mouse trap with the strong army it built to found the empire.

Once the empire started with Julius Cesar taking the power, all emperors built their power on the support of the army: as long as the army was happy and paid, the emperor was safe, else he would be dead. Remind that the army at that time was made of professionals who, at the end of the service, were supposed to be rewarded with land. Discounting for the fallen in action, one can sustain such a system only with a continuously growing empire, else the emperor will be forced to confiscate the land of the citizen to allocate the veterans (like it actually happened), creating disgruntled masses of former land owners.

but without a strong army you can't build an empire, and, despite being excellent in engineering, the logistic of the roman army was far from being suitable for supporting an expansion further away than it did in real life.

So it is a sort of catch 22: you need a strong army to keep the empire safe, but a strong army will make the empire unstable in the long run.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay, this is the stuff I'm looking for. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Nov 19 '20 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Your criticisms are valid, but narrow. If these things are problems, then any change that might have had the army rewarded with something other than land might have avoided that particular trap. Cash being the obvious substitute. While that itself causes other problems, none of those are insurmountable either. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO, cash? That leads to inflation, and disgruntled soldiers because their salary is worth less and less over time.... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica That only depends on the health of the economy itself, which Rome was pretty well known for in the ancient world. It's not foolproof, just plausible. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO A salary can be lost or wasted, like we see with mercs and soldiers starting in the middle ages. But fighting for a plot to retire to was a really lucrative option! Far better than mney! $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:43

The Empire Was Intrinsically Unstable

If you stop to think about it, Julius' conquest was equivalent to Patton being sent to Africa, and coming back at the end of the war to invade.

It speaks volumes to the social rot that was already present in Rome at the conception of the Empire that this army of "sons of Rome" didn't care about marching on their own homeland, which was commented on by numerous people throughout the pre- and post- Empire

What Was the Rot?

The Roman sphere consisted of a broad demographic of non-Roman Italians, who were non-citizens. This led to the Social War, where these people took up arms to take citizenship by force.

Soldiers were paid in tips (basically whatever they were able to seize during warfare). Although, on paper, only citizens could join the legions -- because of how much the situation sucked, exceptions were commonplace. In an effort to keep the army solvent, high commander Marius allowed individual generals to take over the chore of paying their soldiers.

The government was beyond bankrupt, paying soldiers with promises of land that the government did not own (and which Augustus later simply seized from citizens).

What Did This Do?

By partnering with a wealthy banker and an established military leader, Julius Caesar was able to (on paper) make himself the richest person in the world (almost all of it was debt). By using his very real army to seize the government, he was able to seize the things he wanted.

Augustus made some almost prescient decisions, staying ahead of the political game, but keeping control of all that wealth, and the private army. Wisely, he exerted most of this control subtly, through ambitious intermediaries.

Tiberius never wanted the job, and basically retired after only 14 years on it. He allowed the social, financial, and military monopoly that his step-grandfather built, and his step-father maintained to erode; leading to a series of bloody power grabs : Caligula holding power for only 3 years. His two successors only holding power for a decade each. Then 4 Emperors in the span of two years.

After Tiberius eroded this power monopoly, there was never again an Emperor serving for Augustus' 40 years (although a few, like Constantine, came close at 30 years).

How to Make the Empire Last

Tiberius needs to care about the job. Augustus was a brilliant man, outsmarting many savvy politicians who were decades more experienced than himself.

I'd like to assume, based on this, that Augustus picked for the job of future Emperor someone who had the right skills and temperment. The only thing missing is that Tiberius never bought into the ideal of Empire.

So, imagining a Tiberius who cared :

  • He would have adopted, like Augustus wanted, the role of "exceedingly rich and powerful citizen-servant of Rome", and would have used much of his wealth and power charitably to build and maintain infrastructure.
  • He would have seen the growing tension between Christians and Romans and took some formal position
  • He would have continued Augustus' practice of encouraging the ambitions of the political class, manipulating the Senate behind the scenes
  • He would have swiftly picked and trained a successor who was not necessarily related to him, and worked tirelessly to - by increments - transfer all of the wealth, titles, and command legally to the new heir.

An invested Tiberius, when he died, would have passed along to Roman citizens 62 years of stable rule (40 years of Augustus', plus his own 22). Two generations would have grown up not knowing the instability and chaos of pre-Empire Rome.

Augustus had dealt with an Empire that didn't pay it's soldiers, and couldn't pay it's debts. Tiberius' reign could have put to rest the lost love for Rome brought about by the Roman governments' misbehavior for the last several decades.

Now, if Patton went to Africa at the head of the army, they would not have his back if he chose to invade Washington.

This stability could have been lost by successors, just as the Republic had originally lost it.

Growing Into Space Rome

The Dark Ages, we've started to discover, really weren't that dark. Rome collapsed, but Roman cultural influence continued in the former Roman provinces. Global trade continued, even though it was not supervised by Roman authorities.

A stable Empire would have remained "Julian"

The problem Rome always had, since before Julius, was that the government did not bring in enough money to cover the cost of the services it supposedly provided. Rome was always broke.

A stable succession of "super wealthy and powerful 1st citizen-servants" would need to have presciently solved this problem.

I can imagine inventing banking before the Templars (1100 AD) would have been a good start. Other investments that could have added value to the Roman bottom-line would have been an early invention of Hospitals (340 AD), sewage systems (Paris - 1370 AD), dedicated police and investigative forces (Paris - 1667 AD), the specialization of psychiatry as a discipline (1900s AD, but ideas were around since BC).

Space Rome

The Antikythera mechanism dates to 150 BC, indicating that both sophisticated computing and automation pre-dated the Empire. Without so much political churn, these ideas could have been re-discovered way ahead of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 1830s.

Provided the Emperor could continue to figure out how to provide enough wealth to keep everything stable (and grow a technological society).

The Library of Alexandria, containing all of this information and more, may not have been burned in this more politically and economically stable climate. Using the stars for navigation also pre-existed Rome, so the idea of a spherical Earth was already around, even if nobody applied math to it.

There's no particular brilliance in using alcohol as rocket fuel. If the Empire had trade routes along the silk road, they would have picked up the idea for rockets (222 AD).

With that, everything would be in place for a stable Rome to be shooting for the stars in the 200 ADs. There would have to be a compelling reason for the "1st citizen-servant" to pay for the development, but there are lots of possible reasons.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that the Romans would have been shooting for the stars in the 200 AD's even if they had been handed a Chinese rocket and the exact recipe for gunpowder. Gunpowder rockets might well be able to shoot someone or something very high into the air but are not comparable with modern solid rocket propellants and would not get into orbit. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Nov 19 '20 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ Also... rockets in 222 AD? China did not invent Gunpowder Rockets until the 1200s. In 222AD Greek Steam Powered rockets had already been around for a few hundred years; so, I can see them looking to those for inspiration, but they don't need the silk road for this. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the simplest modern rocket fuel is Kerosene which was invented in the 9th century Persia, but even this would not do it without liquid oxygen to make it burn energetically enough. Since people did not learn to refine liquid oxygen until the late 1800s, you won't really be able to get rockets much ahead of schedule for any other reason than Rome not falling hopefully accelerating innovation between these two points in time. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 18:34

People often say that the decline of the Roman Empire is a complex problem (barbarian invasions, population decline, economic decline, famines, fall of the Republic, etc.), but pretty much all of those problem can be traced back to the Social War (aka Marsic War) fought in 91–88 BC. Up until this point, the Roman Republic had been very stable because the socii insured that Rome could alway raise large and loyal "Roman" armies to exert their influence. This close alliance of Italian city states proved to be so strong that no conquered Roman territory believed they would gain anything by rebelling. But in the Marsic War, it was these closest allies themselves who rebelled. Rome won this war, but they conceded full citizenship to the socii to try to re-establish a loyal core of city states to help them run their empire, but in the process inadvertently sent the message across the Empire that rebellions can pay off. In the the 40 years that followed, Rome experienced 7 more civil wars culminating in Julius Caesar's rebellion that toppled the Republic.

The problem though was not that Caesar overthrew the Republic, but that his rebellion set off an even worse domino effect of civil war. Between Caesar's war and the eventual fall of Rome, the Empire experienced approximately 70 more major rebellions/civil wars, and an equally startling number of assassinations and other userptions as various leaders constantly vied for control and/or more rights within the Empire.

When you look at the Imperial Era in this context, you realize that the fall actually began long before Rome stopped expanding. The constant civil wars can pretty much explain every other reason a person can give as to why Rome fell including why Rome's Legions became weak enough to be challenged by barbarian invaders.

What You Need to Change

It's so simple, it's sad really. All you need to do to stop this whole chain of events is to have Rome give full citizenship to the socii without a rebellion. If Rome would have had its own version of Martin Luther King or Gandi preaching peaceful protest instead of armed rebellion, the socii may have been able to lobby Rome into giving them full citizenship. Then the message across the empire would have been that A: The Italian core city states are stronger and more united than ever so don't even think about rebelling, and B: Violence is not the right path to earning more rights within the Empire.

Eventually Rome could assume a more organized and peaceful system of statehood where the conquered provinces would come in as territories of Rome with very few rights, but through meeting certain criteria over time, they could become fuller members of Rome until finally being able to earn full citizen state rights just like the socii had Post-Marsic War. The the rivalries within Rome's territories would no longer be to prove who is strong enough to resist Rome, but who is loyal enough to become part of Rome.

How this impacts the Space Age

Once You've eliminated all this internal strife, Rome's economy and therefore sciences would thrive instead of regress. By the Late Republic just before things started to go horribly wrong, Rome's technology was very comparable to that of the 13th century. It could be argued that there were a couple of important discoveries that happened between ~100BC and ~1200AD, that Rome did not have, but Rome was far more organized than any 13th century European nation and had many other important discoveries that would not re-emerge until much later; so, I'd imagine these factors would balance out quite a bit. My best guess is that if their technological growth, politics, and economy remained more or less stable from ~100BC moving onward that space flight may have been obtainable as early as 600-700AD.

  • $\begingroup$ "Maric" war? That's a very unusal name for what everybody else calls the Social War. (And they do that because the Romans themselves called it Bellum Sociale; a proper translation would be War of the Allies, or War of the Associates). In fact, I had to look at the dates to realize that for some strange reason you were using a personal invented name for a rather famous war. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ I prefer the "Marsic War" because it is more specific. Sure, if we are already talking about Romans, we know what the Social War is, but if you just open up a conversation saying, "Hey let's talk about the Social War", most people assume you are talking about class conflict in general. It's kind of like the difference between saying, "The Dark Age" and the "Geometric Period", yes most people know it by the "The Dark Age", but then have to ask which dark age you are talking about. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That said, I do see you point... changed it to show both names... and changed a spelling typo... Yes the other name is the Marsic not Maric War. Sorry about that. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, yes, Marsic War. That makes sense. "Maric" made think of C. Marius, and while he did play an important role in the war I was at a loss imagining a reason why the war would be named for him, as his role was not that important. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 19 '20 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ LOL, yes the only thing more confusing than a typo that makes no sense is a typo that almost makes since. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 18:07

One of the simple contributions to the fall of Rome wasn't the size that became unmanageable, but a matter of health. Romans used lead for it's plumbing (it was so well known for this that in modern science the elemental symble for Lead (Pb) derives from the Latin word for lead, Plumbum which is where we get the word Plumbing.).

It's widely speculated that mass lead poisoning of the Roman empire lead to it's downfall as the citizens were being exposed to lead from an early age (One piece of evidence often cited at this time are Roman cook books from this period of time. The recipies listed included massive amounts of salt. An inability to taste salt is often an early sign of Lead Poisoning and the fact that recipies required ever increasingly saltier meals as ruin approached is cited as evidence this is what happened). Essentially, if they had another material for their pipes, Rome might not have fallen.

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    $\begingroup$ "It is widely speculated" only in among the blissfully uninformed. The Romans used lead for cold water pipes; that's not all that dangerous, and was actually the common practice well into the 20th century. Where do you think that English word plumbing comes from? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 19 '20 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ Also, much of Rome still uses those original lead pipes to this day. If they can go 2000 years without significant corrosion, and still pass modern safety evaluations, they were probably still better for your health than drinking from the river. Also, in the city of Rome, people had much longer life expectancies than the rest of the ancient world with people often living into their 70s-80s; so, even if they were poisoning themselves a little bit, they were certainly still doing a better job of staying healthy than anyone else. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19 '20 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @hszmv Thanks so much for the answer, but I don't quite think that's it. I mean, I ate lead paint chips all the time as a kid and I turned out fine... In all seriousness though, is this a legitimate theory? $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Nov 19 '20 at 19:56

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