There are benefits to being stuck on the couch with a virus: my favorite is the permission to take a few consecutive hours to read, without feeling guilty about not doing something else (there’s always something else). So today I finished Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg. It’s been sitting on my to-read shelf for a while, because who can turn down a book that wonders what would have happened if the Roman Empire never fell?
Not me, that’s for sure. I love a good alternate history. (Alternate historical fantasy too, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)
I haven’t read any other Silverberg to my knowledge, but I recognized the name and I’m always looking to get to like an author that’s new to me. So that plus five years of studying Latin and a fondness for speculative fiction meant I was geared up for a really good read.
And I mostly got it. Once I got in the habit of subtracting 750 years or so from all the chapter heading dates so that I could compare the alternate timeline to this reality’s history, there were some really fun comparisons and contrasts to be drawn. Would certain events still happen, and if so, when? Discovery/attempted conquering of the New World, exploration of the islands in the Pacific, trade agreements with Asia, those are all practically givens given what we know of the Roman Empire’s sense of manifest destiny. But what about movements towards alternate forms of government, huge sociopolitical upheavals on the models of the French or Russian revolutions? What about attempts towards independence? Development of certain major world religions? Minds like Leonardo daVinci or Einstein? And is there a way to measure which of these historical paths is ‘better?’ And better for whom?
Do you sense a trend in these questions at all? Because I did, and much as I enjoyed Silverberg’s well-researched and imaginative answers to them, there were entire swathes of stories I felt were *completely missing.*
Let me give you a hint: in eleven chapters, told by eleven different narrators at different eras in this expanded ‘eternal Rome,’ there was one female narrator, living in Venice, mostly interested in contemplating how willing she was to be seduced by the newest Roman proconsul, or was she more interested in being the one doing the seducing. Aside from offering a ‘provincial’ point of view, she influenced the narrative not at all, barely witnessing the events of the era, let alone being part of them. There were maybe two or three other female characters of any note in the whole book, seen primarily through the lens of their desirability to the narrators.
In a book spanning approximately 2,000 years of history.
Should I have been surprised? Probably not. Original copyright on my edition said 1989, male author, clearly more interested in telling a story about how the delayed development of Judaism was a key factor in the stagnation of the world. (Now, that ending I was surprised by, but I can go with it, at least to a point.) Invisible privilege is a thing, and I guess I’d rather believe the author was oblivious than that he was deliberately exclusionary.
Should I be as disappointed as I was? Am I oversensitive because of who I am and what I read? Wasn’t the Roman Empire pretty male-dominated anyway?
1) Yes. 2) It’s an unfortunately short step from ‘oversensitive’ to ‘hysterical’ and that leads us to all sorts of Victorian places I don’t want to go. and 3) Not really, which is partly why I was surprised and partly why I was disappointed.
Look up at the cover of this book. There’s a rocketship. I picked this book up at a sci-fi/fantasy convention last year. This is a genre that has given me and readers and watchers like me princesses that don’t want to be rescued from dragons, and spaceship captains that fall in love with the female souls of their ships, and female spaceship captains that bring their crews home across unfathomable distances through hostile territories, and senatorial princesses that rescue frozen smugglers with a kiss while in the middle of leading a rebellion, and dozens of other situations in which the contributions of half the society are recognized by the other half. Take the person who has steeped in these stories and mash her together with someone who has also read I, Claudius, and you get someone who expects that the fearsome, ambitious, clever, savvy, and otherwise remarkable women of ancient Rome will at least have a mention for the role they played (and could have continued to play) in things like determining succession in the Empire, and influencing elected politicians, and discussing strategy with military commanders.
They existed historically. They’re nowhere in this book, even in the parts that line up perfectly with our own history. (You know who else doesn’t get a voice? Slaves. Any of the cultures the Romans trade with. Any of the plebians or non-Roman citizens. Positive queer characters, even in a universe where the Greco-Romans run the Eastern Empire for a while.)
And yes, I am *sensitive* to the issues of representations of women in books and other media. I’m influenced by what I choose to read and who I choose to follow in the vastness of the internet (Hi, Book Smugglers and Stellar Four and Seanan McGuire and others). I recognize that not every book can tell *everyone’s story,* because that would be either too many stories, or none at all. But if you’re trying to give us a picture of an alternate world, how hard is it to give us a little more about half the population? This book has 449 pages, and it couldn’t even pass the Bechdel test. But there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive, because being sensitive is being aware, and being aware and critical of what you read makes you a better reader, and a better reader is a better writer, and someday I will be writing my alternate history epic and I will remember this book.
And I will try to do better.