Counter-factual History.

What might have been had the Romans developed the steam engine? By the late 3rd century AD, all of the essential elements for constructing a steam engine were known to Roman engineers: steam power – Hero’s aeolipile, the crank and connecting rod mechanism in the sawmills and marble quarries, the cylinder and piston in metal force pumps, non-return valves in water pumps and gearing in water mills and clocks. Suppose that the Roman Empire emerged, as it did, from the crisis of the third century with all its administrative and military institutions changed, bureaucratic, rigid, and constantly geared for war, with its capital no longer in Rome but in Constantinople – and with steam power. (Such a development might have occurred not in Italy, but in the Eastern Empire – the stirrup was first put into wide use there, and reserves of coal and other minerals are available without deep mining in, for example, Dacia, Moesia and Thracia – present-day Romania and Bulgaria.)

Hosted by

The rise of an entrepreneurial middle class – not possible under an economy based on slave-power – might have avoided the fragmentation of the Western Empire because of the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc., which could no longer be solved by acquiring more territory, slaves and resources. The deterioration of the Eastern Empire into a form of state socialism where monetary taxation was replaced with direct requisitioning, individuals were forced to work at and remain in their given occupations, farmers were tied to the land, as were their children, and workers and businesses were organised into guilds and collegia which were de facto organs of the state, controlling and directing their members to work and produce for the state. (Marx, Lenin and Mao would have approved.)
Imagine, then, a third Century Rome like Great Britain in the late 18th Century where the advances in technology which would drive the industrialisation and expansion of the 19th were almost at the point of general utility. Increases in productive capacity might have solved the problems of meeting the cost of Empire and generation of a real surplus might have enabled the development of a real market/trading economy. With a solid economic foundation the Empire might have endured, avoiding the fragmentation of most of Western Europe and, therefore, most of the strife and conflicts of the ages of feudal and nation states. An extended market and polity across Western Europe and, in time, extending into Eastern Europe, might easily have been developed, with the centre of gravity of industry and transport being in Central Europe where the Danube makes an easily navigable route for steam-powered vessels. With such a large, diverse and potentially prosperous market, perhaps the acquisition of cross-continental Empires might never have been necessary, replaced by trade links with China and India – already nascent in the 3rd Century, and a possible gradual expansion of Roman Africa.
In the realm of science and technology, where might we be with a century and a half head start? In a bit less than a couple of Centuries, (in the West,) we have gone from wind and muscle power to the power of elemental particles. From lives of drudgery, disease and poverty to long and mainly disease-free lives of extended leisure, and riches and personal power beyond the dreams of ancient kings. Our individual potential has expanded from concentrating on survival to limits only of our own imagination and application. How far could we have come with an extra dozen or so Centuries of wide-spread development opportunity?

13 thoughts on “Counter-factual History.”

  1. 5,4,3,2,1…. err.

    Why the Romans never went to space. They did not have zero.

    That would have been a more realistic discovery/adoption within mathematics and would have transformed society enormously.

    You might just as well ask what will the world be like 1500 years from now. One can safely say that it will be nothing like what we can possibly imagine. In any event, had the Romans invented the steam engine, none of us would be around – at any point.

  2. The thing is, Sipu, zero’s time would have come as it did in actual history. Also, all of the great shifts in social development have come about because of some game-changing technology. The Indians had zero BC, and the Mayans from the 3rd Century and neither of those cultures went into space, nor did the Arabs of the 7/8th Century – you can’t build a space vehicle using slave-power.

    Also, where it is difficult to predict future development – look at predictions thirty years ago for the future of computers, or 20 years ago for the future of the internet – it is easier to speculate about what might have been.

  3. What might have been? — Except for a few slight changes and innovations there would have been no other great difference. This is because Rome just like every other Empire before or since suffered from one great flaw….

    They thought they were better than everybody else simply because they were more powerful and totally forgot that other more powerful people existed, not only that; they never bothered to look out for them thinking military might would be enough to keep everybody subjugated.

    This is and has been the flaw in all empires including the American one.

  4. IS; that reminds me of a recurring theme in Ian McKewan’s Saturday. It’s about a guy who is going through a bit of a personal crisis in the weeks after 9/11, and one of the things he keeps saying to himself, every time he steps into the shower or makes a cup of coffee or does any of the little things we take for granted, is ‘when Rome has fallen…’ as he anticipates the demise of the American empire, and all the freedoms and the luxuries we have got used to in Western civilisation.
    Cheery little anecdote for a Monday morning!

  5. Too simplistic by far, IS. The Romans were well aware of other powers. Carthage they destroyed and the Persian Empire was a constant threat in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. The rest of your premise is also flawed. Just one example; Imperial Naval Budgets of the late 19th Century. Hit the books, mate.

  6. Claire – Let’s face it girl, the American empire has fallen, it is now on its last legs and dying a slow death. The true empire that will rule the world is now rising, albeit, slowly. Australia!

    Just a soon as we beat the Germans at soccer, we’ll take over the world 😦

  7. Bravo – Not simplistic at all, the Romans had taken the best military might in the world and defeated them only to be held back by nomads and ignoramuses from the north. After that it was all down hill, none of their great inventions, technology or military might could help them defeat a people who had no idea of civilisation nor wanted any part of it (except their land)

  8. Bravo – Think Afghanistan and the American fight against the Taliban. no amount of new technology can defeat them and the Taliban don’t want civilisation as we know it. The same with the Romans, they might have had it all and maybe even more but the it was the rest of the world that brought them down, new ideas or developments within their quarters would not have helped them.

  9. I did mention Hero’s aeliopile in the text. That, along with the other bits and pieces is what might have made steam power possible. It’s the effects that could have been interesting.

  10. What-ifs are fun. I guess the Chinese would have nicked the technology and bankrupted the Roman factories.

Add your Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: