by Robert Silverberg
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Over the last several years, Robert Silverberg has built up a world predicated on the idea that the Jewish exodus from Egypt failed with the result that neither Christianity nor Islam arose and the Roman empire never fell. The ten tales which make up this world have now been collected in a book entitled Roma Eterna, which allows those without access to the varied magazines and books which contained the original stories to read them, and those with access to those volumes to have all the stories in a single, chronologically ordered volume.
Spanning a period of nearly 1500 years (from AD 449 to AD 1970), the stories tell of the continuation of the Roman empire as it discovers the new world and various technologies, facing trials never faced by the actual Roman empire (or its Byzantine successor). Each story introduces a new cast of characters and situations, with Silverberg allowing culture and history to clearly continue between the stories.
The quality of the stories is consistently high, with characters becoming fully realized in relatively few pages. Even then, the characters take a backseat to the amazing historical world Silverberg has created. Even if the reader doesn't fully buy into the point of divergence Silverberg has selected, or the way his world diverges from ours over the centuries, it is still presented as a fully realized and intriguing world, similar, yet very different from our own.
Silverberg has added a brief prologue which spells out the alteration to history that he is about to embark on. Although it provides background to the stories which follow, it is brief, weak, not particularly plausible, and doesn’t really add anything necessary for the enjoyment of the tales which follow, most of which are strong, although the final story, “To the Promised Land,” does ask the reader to strain their credulity more than most.
Even if Silverberg’s point of divergence isn’t plausible, the overall ebb and flow of history is. Rome’s expansion is neither consistent or smooth. Rome and Constantinople rise and fall in relationship to each other and the surrounding civilizations, whether the Germanic tribes of the earlier stories to the Arabs and Aztecs they eventually come into contact with.
One of the strengths of the various stories in Roma Eterna is the exploration they allow Silverberg of historiography, rather than the specifics of the world. Including characters such as Pisander in “Getting to Know the Dragon.” Pisander is an historian/architect who not only reports on the world he lives in, but also on the methods used for that reportage.
A reader looking for a completely plausible alternate history will quite possibly be disappointed in the stories which comprise Roma Eterna, however, a reader who is looking for a good story (or several good stories) and is willing to accept Silverberg’s general outline of history, will find an inviting and interesting world which looks at causality and our own history in a sidewise fashion.
|With Caesar in the Underworld||Getting to Know the Dragon|
|A Hero of the Empire||The Reign of Terror|
|The Second Wave||Via Roma|
|Waiting for the End||Tales from the Venia Woods|
|An Outpost of the Realm||To the Promised Land|
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