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What if the Romans had an Industrial Revolution?
Answering this question happens when a novelist also knows about Roman law & engineering design
A lot of you (as in, several hundred) subscribed to this substack because you liked what I thought was quite a niche post about the Roman law of slavery.
I had in mind writing my next piece about a niche area of property law to do with car thefts (and don’t worry, that’s still coming), but thought leaping forward in time 1900 years would disappoint my new & enthusiastic Roman law fans.
What follows, then, blends both Roman law AND leaping forward in time. It’s the Author’s Note from my second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked Book I: Rules, which is the first book in a two-part series. Both books are what is called “high concept” in the trade.
That is, I set out to answer the question that forms this essay’s headline.
Kingdom of the Wicked had a long gestation—some thirteen years.
Two years after The Hand that Signed the Paper was published, I began to research and write an historical novel set during the reign of Vespasian (AD 69–79). The idea was good and I had lots of research available. A local television station even flew me to Italy, allowing me the time and resources to do further research, in exchange for appearing on one of their programmes.
There was one problem: the book I started to write (and by that stage, there were 40,000 words) was very bad. I persisted for a while, thinking I could draw on what I hoped was a developing literary skill to ‘iron out’ the wrinkles. Unfortunately, the manuscript turned out to be all wrinkles, so I abandoned it. The idea of some sort of Roman-era book never went away, however, and when Kingdom of the Wicked came to mind, demanding to be written, I knew the book I originally wanted to write was the wrong book. This, I hope, is the right one.
In between writing the two novels, I became a lawyer, and, consequently, Kingdom of the Wicked is a product of legal, rather than historical, theological, or scientific imagination. This isn’t to say that history, theology, and science aren’t important in the world I’ve written, but to highlight that the book began with law. Let me explain.
While I was in my second year at Oxford, a friend asked me if I’d seen Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ . I had to admit I had not, and at his suggestion watched it. Leaving the immense controversy and success of Gibson’s film to one side, at its conclusion I found myself thinking about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s trial and execution from a lawyer’s perspective. I realised I hadn’t read them for many years, and certainly not since qualifying in law. ‘If I were counsel, how would I make a plea in mitigation…’ is a favourite parlour game, although more commonly applied to errant footballers and wayward celebrities, not religious figures.
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What struck me at once was the attack on the moneychangers in the Jerusalem Temple. All four Gospels record it, and their combined accounts do not reflect well on the perpetrator’s character.
Jesus went in armed (with a whip) and trashed the place, stampeding animals, destroying property and assaulting people. He also did it during or just before Passover, when the Temple precinct would have been packed to capacity with tourists, pilgrims, and religious officials. I live in Edinburgh, a city that has many large festivals—religious and secular. The thought of what would happen if someone behaved similarly in Princes Street during Hogmanay filled my mind’s eye. This was not a small incident.
It seemed obvious to me that Jesus was executed because he started a riot. Everything else—the Messianic claims, giving Pilate attitude at trial, verbal jousting with Jewish religious leaders—was by the by. Our system would send someone down for a decent stretch if they did something similar; the Romans were not alone in developing concepts of ‘breach of the peace’, ‘assault’ or ‘malicious mischief’. Those things exist at common law, too.
I shared this insight with my friend, and he suggested rather wryly that while Pilate was locking up the ringleader, perhaps the disciples were each subjected to an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO). I laughed, but I also started thinking. How, I wondered, would we react to Jesus Christ if he turned up now?
My answer was not one I liked very much: I thought we’d mistake him for a terrorist. There was a period in the sixties and seventies when Jesus was conceived of as a bit of a hippy, certainly a pacifist. But the figure belabouring the ancient world’s equivalent of bank tellers with a whip did not look like a pacifist to me. Then there was his politics: socially conservative (he railed against divorce), redistributive, even socialist (he railed against the rich), egalitarian (he railed against the treatment of the poor). He wasn’t too impressed by the Great Satan of his day, the Roman Empire, either. His Judaean contemporaries referred to the Roman Empire as ‘the kingdom of the wicked’, whence the title of this book.
For a little while, I thought of transplanting Jesus to Britain or the US and watching the story unfold (and unravel) as I told it, but every single version that played out in my head turned into Waco or the People’s Temple. Those stories are terrifying and confronting by turns—as well as fascinating—but they are not the stories I wanted to tell.
Finally, instead of bringing Jesus forward in time and placing him in modernity, I thought to leave him where he was and instead put modernity into the past. What, I wondered, would have happened had Jesus emerged in a Roman Empire that had gone through an industrial revolution? Other things being equal, what would modern science and technology do to a society with very different values from our own? Would they react with the same incomprehension that we do when confronted by religious terrorism? I did not know the answers, but I suspected that writing a book based around the idea of a Roman industrial revolution might help me develop some answers, if not the answers.
This meant I tried to conceive of a world where a society unlike ours produces the ‘progress and growth’ template that all others then seek to follow. It is commonplace to point out that Roman civilisation was polytheistic and animist, while ours is monotheistic but leavened by the Enlightenment; that Roman society was very martial, while Christianity has gifted us a tradition of religious and political pacifism; that Roman society had different views of sexual morality, marriage, and family structure. In short, I had to imagine an industrial revolution without monotheism.
I could not stray too far from ‘the West as we know it’, however, for while we may have lost ancient Rome’s ancestor worship, multiplicity of gods and goddesses, candy-coloured religious art (Roman statues and temples were brightly painted, as they are in Hinduism) and filial piety, Europe in particular has kept much of its law, and the great bulk of Roman law was conceived of and employed by polytheists. Sometimes this non-Christian heritage is obvious: the toleration of homosexuality, abortion and concubinage, easy divorce, the importance attached to appointing an heir whose job it is to undertake regular ritual appeasement of ancestral spirits.
Sometimes, however, Roman law is different from the English common law only in its details. It also provides an orderly way of resolving disputes over everything from who owes money to whom, to who sideswiped whom. Both systems (and, in the context of human history, neither Roman law nor common law have any serious rivals as legal systems) were clearly developed by peoples with a genius for intelligent legal organisation and the ability to change bad law and retain good law. Both systems show a sophisticated understanding of the gains to be made from trade and the embedded nature of private property.
How, then, to create this mixture of familiar and foreign?
The best speculative fiction persuades you that its alternative world is real. It does this by constructing plausible points of departure from actual history, ‘our timeline’. In The Man in the High Castle , Roosevelt is assassinated and replaced by a nonentity. In SS-GB, Operation Sea Lion is successful. In Pavane, Elizabeth I is assassinated and the English Reformation doesn’t get off the ground. While I am more interested in working out the way people relate to each other and to society rather than in the intricacies of interlocking technical developments, I have been as careful as I’m able in constructing my points of departure.
My industrial revolution has its origins when Archimedes survives the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC and is treated to a Roman version of ‘Operation Paperclip’ (the American retrieval of scientists from defeated Nazi Germany). As a consequence he (or his students) develop calculus and a variety of practical military technologies. In keeping with Roman militarism, the first place the new technologies manifest themselves is in warfare. They then propagate. We know that the Roman general Marcellus was furious when Archimedes was killed contrary to his specific orders, and also that Archimedes was close to developing calculus (with its immediate and obvious practical applications). There are lots of reasons why you’d want to graph a curve.
The rationale for pushing technological innovation of this type back to the Middle Republic—rather than having it occur later—is that industrialisation is predicated on using machines as labour-saving devices. While Roman-era scientists later developed designs for things like steam engines (Heron of Alexandria) and built fabulous mechanical instruments (the Antikythera machine), they did so in a society that had been flooded with vast numbers of slaves (the late Republic and early Principate), and large-scale chattel slavery and industrialisation are simply incompatible.
Chattel slavery undermines incentives to develop labour-saving devices because human labour power never loses its comparative advantage. People can just go out and buy another slave to do that labour-intensive job. Among other things, the industrial revolution in Britain depended on the presence (relative to other countries) of high wages, thus making the development of labour-saving devices worthwhile. The Antikythera mechanism is a thing of wonder, but it is also little more than a clockwork executive toy; no wonder the great lawyer Cicero had one. It’s just the sort of thing I can imagine an eminent silk having on his desk in chambers.
Rather than science and technology being deployed to amuse and entertain, operating at most as an adjunct to labour power, I used Archimedes to give the Romans what a friend of mine calls a ‘machine culture’. That is, machines become part of everyday life, and many individuals participate in the development of further innovations. This means that the abolition of slavery becomes a live issue.
Slavery—and its near relative, serfdom—have been pervasive in even sophisticated human societies, and campaigns for abolition few and far between. We forget that our view that slavery and slavers are obnoxious is of recent vintage. In days gone by, people who made fortunes in the slave trade were held in the highest esteem and sat on our great councils of state. This truism is reflected in history: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade met for the first time in 1787. It had just twelve members—nine Quakers and three Anglicans. And yet, in 1807, Parliament passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Quaker role in abolition was so vast it is difficult to overestimate. And in the context of both Christianity specifically and human religion more generally, the Religious Society of Friends is theologically distinct. Who in antiquity could perform the Quakers’ role?
In the end, I lit upon the Stoics, and came to admire many aspects of their philosophy when researching Kingdom of the Wicked. Ancient Stoics shared many characteristics with Quakers, apart from a common dislike of slavery. They were thrifty and hard working. They thought that people should participate in public life and so improve it. They were successful in trade and commerce, elevating prudence to an art form. Their ideas influenced Adam Smith when he came to write The Wealth of Nations. Of course, there are important differences: Stoicism is intensely martial, and influential modern Stoics (Admiral James Stockdale comes to mind) are often in the military. Stoics did not accept the existence of an afterlife. They were pantheists who considered suicide in the face of suffering or oppression to be virtuous.
At the same time, we know that the Romans didn’t think some people were ‘naturally servile’, which is at the heart of Aristotle’s argument in favour of slavery. The Roman view (consistent with their militarism) was always ‘you lost, we own you’. Roman law—even in its earliest form—always held that slavery was ‘contrary to nature’. Human beings were naturally free; slavery was a legally mandated status, however cruelly imposed. It is also important to remember that ancient slavery was never race-based. No Roman argued that slaves were lesser forms of the human. Middle- and upper-class Roman children educated at home by slaves who were manifestly cleverer than them (not to mention mum and dad) knew this, intimately. These factors allowed me to yoke Stoicism to the sort of enlightened economic thinking that led to the repeal of the Corn Laws and the promotion of free trade in Britain. The Quakers and the Whig free traders were on the same side. Often they were the same people: David Ricardo, the theorist of comparative advantage, was a ‘Quaker by convincement’. The prudent and thoughtful Stoics made useful Quaker analogues.
Both before and after Quakers agitated for the abolition of slavery and free traders advocated the repeal of the Corn Laws, England and then Britain witnessed the long struggle between Crown, Courts and Parliament for supremacy. Parliament eventually won, but not without bitter conflict and much loss of life. There were periods when it could easily have gone another way. This is important to remember because in Roman history we know that a similar struggle did go the other way, and that their society became increasingly autocratic over time. Augustus gave himself powers roughly analogous to those of Charles II (although both rulers exercised authority judiciously). By the time of Diocletian, the emperor’s powers were akin to those of Charles I. Further down the line, Constantine could reasonably be mistaken for Henry VIII (including the major religious transformation).
Because the Constitution of the Roman Republic—like Britain’s Constitution—was unwritten and ordered according to constitutional conventions, I have always seen it as more Westminster than Washington, despite Washington’s extensive borrowings from Rome (right down to the electoral college, for example). This means that when depicting constitutional change in response to social shifts and economic growth in Kingdom of the Wicked, I must admit to adapting a fair bit of British constitutional history (including elements from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and later movements, such as Chartism).
The broad historical outline of the implosion of the Roman Republic remains (you cannot have that much power and wealth floating around without the lads wanting a piece of the action). However, the rough political distinctions of the late Republic (between Populares and Optimates) later harden into something approaching political parties, much as it took time for Britain’s rough political alliances to coalesce into Whigs and Tories.
The system that emerges in my early Empire is less autocratic and more constitutional, with an Emperor executive combined with a representative (but not democratic) legislature, the Senate. The latter is elected by census citizen suffrage and retains its Republican property qualification for admission. I have also retained the Roman tendency to draw a sharp distinction between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to doling out rights. Westminster blurs legislative, executive and judicial functions in ways most Americans find discomforting; so did Rome, which is why I conceived of other senior Roman magistracies coming to form the cabinet, and the non-imperial consul taking a role akin to that of prime minister. The main difference between Westminster in its long evolution and my modified Roman system is my use of census suffrage. Census suffrage is the opposite of equal suffrage, meaning that the votes cast by those eligible to vote are not equal, but are weighted differently according to the person’s rank in the census (for example, people with high income have more votes than those with a low income, or a shareholder with more shares in a company has more votes than someone with fewer shares). Suffrage may therefore be limited, usually to the propertied classes, but can still be universal, including, for instance, women or ethnic minorities, if they meet the census.
I did this for two reasons. First, the Romans themselves often made use of male census suffrage, as well as setting property qualifications on holders of high public offices. Second, the status of women in ancient Rome in the first century BC and the first century AD was higher than it was, say, in nineteenth century England. Both married and single women retained ownership and control over their property; married women could initiate divorce and retrieve their dowry (indeed, a divorced man had to repay his ex-wife’s dowry before he paid any other creditors). There are records of Roman women in trade, commerce, law and scholarship. The Romans were also well aware of the ‘no taxation without representation’ principle. In 42 BC, the Second Triumvirate attempted to enact a law taxing Rome’s wealthier matrons in order to help fund the Republic’s many wars. Led by a prominent lawyer, Hortensia, Rome’s women objected on the basis that until they were given seats in the Senate and a role in the affairs of state, they should not be taxed for poor decisions that other people had made without consulting them. The Triumvirs backed off, instead increasing the taxes levied on men.
To my mind, it would not take much technological and social change for an economically hard-pressed government to go the other way, enfranchising women in order to tax them. After all, governments are almost incurably addicted to revenue. The corollary, of course, is ‘no representation without taxation’, which is why I can imagine the Romans enfranchising propertied women before they enfranchised the poor—the opposite of what happened under the various Reform Bills, where women were last in line.
This quirk of gender attitudes (no one knows why Roman women had such high status; Roman society was thoroughly militaristic and male dominated in other respects) meant that two of the biggest battles fought by first- and second-wave feminism respectively (married women’s property rights, then unilateral no-fault divorce) were already ‘settled’ matters. Add reliable contraception and industrialisation to a society like that and who knows what would have happened to the status of women.
In order to give some substance to Roman cultural difference—the status of women being one component thereof—I made use of Roman religion. Or, rather, Roman religions, as it emerged. They had hundreds to choose from. Those enumerated in Kingdom of the Wicked are but a tiny sample. Edward Gibbon’s statement that the ‘various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful’ is an accurate summary, although it ignores the fact that some Roman magistrates could be religious, too, just not in ways we would necessarily recognise.
Laid over the top of this plethora of religious practices was the Roman civil religion, which was ornate, public, characterised by elaborate parades, animal sacrifices and festivals, and, it would appear, similar to the system of State Shinto that prevailed in Japan before 1945. Like the Japanese, the Romans had a strong sense of filial piety, and even used similar images (a young man carrying an aged parent on his back) to express it. They worshipped before a god-shelf (in Latin, lararia; in Japanese, kamidana) with identical conceptions of the numinous (gods of place, gods of the hearth, the ancestors, the Imperial Household). You didn’t have to accept a shred of the civil religion as ‘true’, but you did have to do your ‘bit’. It was about ritual, not content. Even out-and-out atheists did their ‘bit’.
In order to depict a plausible modern paganism (one that doesn’t resemble much of what passes for paganism now, which one classicist friend derides as ‘fluffwicca’), I relied on some excellent classical scholarship. I read hundreds of articles, but two books that brought paganism alive for me—and also showed how different Christianity was, even when it pinched aspects of paganism, such as the cult of the saints and Mariolatry—were Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians (1986) and Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (1997). Both convey how paganism was alive and central to the way people lived their lives.
I’ve taken some guesses at religious culture, based in part on trying to conceptualise the sort of music that would accompany mass pagan ritual. Both MacMullen and Lane Fox emphasise the importance of music and dance to pagan tradition, and its heavy use of percussion (which the early Church Fathers hated with the same intensity as the Puritans hated the English theatres). Christianity has in large part exiled the joyous from its tradition. (This is possibly why evangelical Christianity does so well; it takes Larry Norman’s question seriously. ‘Why does the devil have all the good music?’). I did get the distinct impression that Christians turned up the treble, while pagans turned up the bass. When Camille Paglia describes rock music as ‘pagan’, I think she’s right.
I’ve also had fun portraying a pagan society that is strongly pro-family. It’s important to remember that once upon a time, polytheists and their filial piety, law and order, joyous rituals, and civic virtue were the conservatives. This meant taking parts of Augustus’s actual pro-family legislation and tweaking it in ways in which I imagine he’d approve. Some bits, however—like the payments he made to parents of three children—I’ve hardly changed at all. I’ve added things like income splitting (which reinforces the sexual division of labour) and citizenship perks, because they’re the kind of incentive-based policies that tend to work in light of modern economic research. I have also preserved the pagan sexual double standard. Technology may attenuate it, but some form of double standard (it manifests differently in different cultures) seems to be culturally universal.
Finally, there is the effect differing religious and cultural values have on technological progress. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that medicine and biology are the Johnny-come-latelies of science. We knew a great deal about physics and chemistry, while we were astonishingly ignorant of biology, with the inevitable corollary: as our economies exploded in the eighteenth century our lives nonetheless remained, for the most part, nasty, brutish, and short. A disproportionate chunk of our scholarly endeavours were poured into communications. Women were still dying in childbirth in droves at the time Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for the telephone. In the society I have depicted, by contrast, the lack of a religious prohibition on medical and biological speculation (as well as the absence of a moral code that draws much of a distinction between humans and animals) means that my fictional Romans have directed their scientific and technical resources towards medicine and biology. They are brilliant doctors and geneticists but, as with Britain in the ’60s, there are only three channels and all those sign off just after midnight. After playing the National Anthem, of course.
If religion is something that sets us apart from the Romans, then—as mentioned—law brings us closer together. At its heart, Kingdom of the Wicked concerns a trial, and workable trial procedure depends on the rule of law. In my experience, many writers concerned with alternative worlds do not build believable legal systems; it is always disturbing to see developed and sophisticated fictional societies resorting to trial by battle, or having no mechanism for the enforcement of contracts. Much as it may be painful to admit, law has a reasonable claim to being the second-oldest profession. People may indeed want to ‘kill all the lawyers’, but building civilisation without us is surprisingly difficult.
Because the Romans produced some of the world’s greatest lawyers, and because we know a lot about their law (it forms the basis for every legal system in western Europe save England’s and Ireland’s), I made a deliberate decision to depict a functioning legal system in Kingdom of the Wicked. I am qualified in both Scots and English law and have ransacked both systems for legal ideas, something for which I will no doubt have to apologise to professional colleagues on both sides of the border.
Procedurally, however, I have used the adversarial method characteristic of the common law, rather than the inquisitorial method now used on the Continent. This is for two reasons. First, my initial training and practice was in a common law jurisdiction. I have seen a lot of trials, and have an understanding of the cut and thrust of a common law trial. Second, the Romans themselves used a mostly adversarial procedure. I am convinced that, absent the introduction of inquisitorial methods via Canon law, a non-Christian, industrialised Rome would have retained its adversarial practices.
I have, however, gestured towards three characteristics of Roman law that set it apart from common law. First is the capacity of judges to investigate matters on their own motion. This explains why Pilate is able to source evidence independent of counsel, something considered most improper at common law. Next is the importance Cornelius attaches to obtaining a confession, and the lack of procedural safeguards for the accused. To a Roman lawyer, a confession is the ‘Queen of Proofs’, while his common-law counterpart always suspects that confessions come about thanks to the judicious application of lengths of rubber hose. Finally, there is the absence of a rule against hearsay, something that is peculiar to the common law.
Of course, in addition to being a fictional contrivance, the system depicted is far from perfect. There is no legal aid for non-citizens. The prosecution is not independent. It allows an application to court seeking a warrant for torture—a system devised by Augustus and criticised by the Roman jurist Ulpian—a regime reanimated in recent times in controversies around the use of torture as part of America’s ‘War on Terror’. I wanted to expose the bones of a society where the rule of law contends for mastery with the rule of men, with lawyers, soldiers, civil servants, and businesspeople constantly pulled in both directions.
In depicting an evolving system based on what I know of both common and civil law I have relied heavily on arguments first articulated by economist and legal scholar F.A. Hayek in volume one of his Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973), a short book called Rules and Order.
Hayek argues that law is constitutive of civilisation and arises originally by custom; legislators do not make it, although it can take on statutory characteristics over time. Those customs that enhance individual and community survivability prosper; others are allowed to fall into desuetude. Hayek calls this process ‘spontaneous order’, with a clear nod to biological evolution. Law, if it is to work, undergoes heritable change over generations in the same trial and error fashion. Things I have shown evolving over time—a Roman law version of the limited liability corporation, to take one example—are speculative, but it is informed speculation. Industrialisation requires the ability to spread risk, and some of these risk-spreading mechanisms were already present in Roman law. Cato the Elder, for example, underwrote shipping contracts with 49 other investors. Roman partnerships (as they do in Scots law) already had separate legal personality. Limited liability, I am sure, would have soon followed.
Kingdom of the Wicked is also what Oxford University and the Institute for Humane Studies got instead of a DPhil in law. I was reading for one after completing my Bachelor of Civil Law there. Producing a novel made it clear legal academe was not in my future (novels are great, but law faculties prefer 120,000 words on … law). My IHS scholarship ran out (as they do); I went back into practice, continuing to write at night after work, using some of my more flamboyant colleagues and clients as raw material. Yes, it’s true — do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you (or at least send you up as high as a kite).
I was pleased I could still write fiction. After the book I started in 1996 crashed and burned, I decided that novels probably weren’t for me. I also continued to get a great deal of abuse — even while overseas — and had no desire to add to it. However, there’s no escaping the fact Kingdom of the Wicked demanded to be written.
There was a long period where I came home from work — whether tutoring or working as a corporate solicitor — and simply sat down and wrote. For hours. The completed manuscript was 300,000 words long and — as my publisher said — simply had to be divided into two books, otherwise only a hardback edition was viable.
My comments have strayed a long way from the story of Jesus and the moneychangers in Jerusalem’s Temple, but context is useful, if only to illustrate some of the things that interested me when I started writing. I am wary of attempts to distil books into a single theme, but if there is one thing that exercised my mind while writing Kingdom of the Wicked, it is the relationship of the two missionary monotheisms, Islam and Christianity, to science, technology and the western use of a form of religious tolerance that a pagan Roman would recognise but for a long time was in abeyance, in both the West and elsewhere. Rather than attempt to say how that relationship should work in so many words, I used fiction to explore my own confusions, doubts and concerns.