terça-feira, 18 de novembro de 2008

A First Rate Roma Aeterna - Review of the Procurator Trilogy, by Gérson Lodi-Ribeiro

• Procurator
by Kirk Mitchell. Ace Books (1984). 234 pp. US$ 5.99. ISBN: 0-441-68029-1 (paperback).

• New Barbarians
by Kirk Mitchell. Ace Books (1986). 296 pp. US$ 5.99. ISBN: 0-441-57101-8 (paperback).

• Cry Republic
by Kirk Mitchell. Ace Books (1989). 267 pp. US$ 5.99. ISBN: 0-441-12389-9 (paperback)

Once upon a time, some twenty years ago, alternate history wasn't so fashionable as it is today. In that time, when Harry Turtledove didn't use to write alternate history yet (in the early 1980's he was rather wr iting sf short fiction and historical fantasy novels, as his original Videssos tetralogy), na American author, Kirk Mitchell published Procurator (1984), the first novel of an alternate history trilogy, where the Roman Empire survived until present day.

Although it is a "Roma Aeterna", this ATL created by Mitchell doesn't qualify as a "Roman World State". Because, with the exception of Germania, Parthia and the Roman provinces in North America, this alternative empire occupies roughly the same borders it filled up in its OTL's apex.

The point of divergence was in 9 A.D., when the Roman legions commanded by governor Publius Quintilius Varus defeat the German army led by Arminius in the Teutoburg Wald. Once conquered and pacified, Germania becomes a province so prosperous and loyal as Greece or Gaul.

Some years later, as Germania stayed quiet and pacific, Varus' victorious legions were transferred to the rebellious province of Judea. Stronger and more confident in that province, the Romans succeed in putting down the Hebrew rebellions without any difficulties. Pontius Pilate even indulged in sparing Jesus Christ's life, so avoiding the emergence of a new religious martyr and, of course, the very birth of the Christianism.

Without the explicit barbarian menace in the Northern Europe, and also without another, subtler and more insidious threat presented by Christian's faith, the Empire barely survives up to the present day. Once conquered, Parthia becomes the more western province the Roman world. Armorers begin to manufacture gunpowder and firearms some centuries ago. Finally, at the present (circa 2,750 years after Rome's foundation), a genius-emperor establishes the fundaments of scientific method, applying the resulting technology to build steam engines.

Thanks to the innovations of this monarch-scientist, the Empire finally has its Industrial Revolution, finishing two millennia of social deep-freezing. Less than one quarter of a century later, electric bulb and internal combustion engine are invented. Huge pipelines are built to pump petroleum from Arabian and Parthian oil fields to the Italian refineries, in order to keep Roman main industrial complex running, in an Italian Peninsula whose population is nearly 200 million.
Roman steamships arrive in North America. The Romans turn the Viking settlers they found in Nova Scandia (New Scotland in OTL) their vassals and created two new provinces in Eastern North America.

However, there are more than mere barbarian cultures outside Roman borders. In the Far East, the Serican Empire (from Latin, meaning "Silk Empire"; a.k.a. alternate Chinese) seems to be more prosperous and advanced than the Roman Empire. While in America, at the south of the Roman province of Nova Baetica, the Aztec Empire is still flourishing seven centuries after its foundation. Aztec fast pace industrialization begins to upset both the Roman settlers and their vassals and allies.
This is the complex alternate scenario where Mitchell's first novel begins. Thus, Procurator is an alternate present novel.


Germanicus Iulius Agricola, a distant cousin of the emperor-scientist Fabius, is the procurator referred in the first novel's title. In the alternate Roman meaning of this term (though not in the OTL Roman meaning), "procurator" is a military governor appointed directly by Caesar to rule a province far from Rome or a province which administration is particularly troublesome. In the present case, Germanicus is the procurator of Anatolia (a region corresponding to present-day Turkey in OTL), one of the more eastern provinces of the empire.
The most serious matter in Roman Anatolia is the upheaval caused by a religious fanactical sect , whose priests have the power to kill their enemies with the sheer force of their will. Those priests incite the Anatolian population to rebel against Roman yoke.
Even more serious than the mysterious homicides themselves (both Roman military and Anatolian citizenry who sympathize with Roman rule are murdered by the will power of the religious leaders), the incentive given by the priests to terrorist groups threats to paralyze empire's industrial complex, as those groups intend to cripple the Great Artery, the huge pipeline which carry the Anatolian oil to Italy.
Germanicus counts on two colonels to help him to overcome the crisis. Both of them are from barbarian stock, though supposedly Romanized: Marcellus, a sensuous and vibrant Parthian; and Crispa, a beautiful and self-restrained Scandian female officer. Mitchell establishes a charming triangle among these three characters, where Crispa has to choose between her true love towards the Roman procurator and her strong physical attraction by the Parthian colonel. This emotional struggle worsens, becoming an authentic conflict of opposite fielties, as these three characters align differently in the political plot schemed by the very empress to kill not only her husband, but also all the members of Iulius clan who are still loyal to the emperor.
Aiming to cut the rebellion by its roots, Germanicus and his army travel east by rail-galley (train) to a military base in Eastern Anatolia, in the very frontier between the Roman Empire and the Barbarian World. Once there, Germanicus meets Poppaeus, probably the most corrupt and degenerate commanding officer of the whole empire. The religious sect adepts members erected their holy sanctuary city in Agri Dagi, a high mountain near the Roman base. Commanding a small platoon, the procurator climbs the mountain. The rebels kill all the platoon members, but Germanicus, who is taken prisoner.
Once in the holy city, the procurator meets the Zaim, the highest priest of that sect. These two men - not only enemies, but truly aliens to each other - succeed in establishing a link made of mutual respect and confidence, and they become friends in the end, so creating a bridge of understanding between their different worldviews, which had seemed to be contrary and irreconcilable before their meeting. Mitchell was very ingenious in the building of this gradual evolution, from mutual incomprehension towards sincere friendship and acknowledge of the existence of deep common interests among Romans and Muslims, in spite of the different ways of living which separate them.
However solid, this friendship between Germanicus and the Zaim is not enough to avoid the severe rebel attack against the Roman base. An attack that blows almost simultaneously to the coup d'état led by the regicide empress. These twin conflicts - one inside and the other outside the Roman base walls - prepare the reader to the real climax of this first novel.

As second novel of Mitchell's trilogy, New Barbarians (1986) answers the question every AH buff already asked sometime, especially those who love the Roma Aeterna scenarios: what if the Roman settlers in America engage in a confrontation against the Mesoamerican civilizations? Although this answer was already outlined by several authors , it was never accomplished so masterfully before as Mitchell did in this second novel. In my opinion, it is the title of the trilogy. By the way, it's an interesting exception, because second novels are usually the weakest of most trilogies.
In its essence, New Barbarians is an alternate war novel. It is the story of the modern warfare between a Roman expeditionary force (outfitted with sand-galleys, armored combat vehicles larger and more versatile than OTL tanks) and the Aztec army (equipped with rifles and cannons). However, this novel is also a love story of sorts: the story of the affair between two lovers belonging to different worlds. Germanicus, now Roman emperor, falls in love with (and has his passion responded by) Alope, the former Anasazi ambassador in the court of elderly tlatoani Maxtla III, in Tenochtitlán.
A treacherous Aztec attack against the Roman province of Nova Baetica (roughly equivalent to the U.S. from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi, except Florida) forces Caesar Germanicus to declare war to the Aztec Empire.
After being defeated in a great naval battle in Mare Aztecum (Gulf of Mexico in OTL), the Roman fleet's remaining ships finally succeed in disembarking the expeditionary force commanded by Germanicus in Otacilium, Nova Baetica's capital.
In spite of having been planned as a mere defensive action conceived to expel the Aztec invaders from Nova Baetica, the conflict escalated fast to a total war, as Caesar watches with his very eyes the ritualistic human sacrifices of his legionaries, who were POW in the Aztec camps. So motivated, Germanicus allows Alope (to whom he is already enamored) to convince him to destroy the "evil empire".
Searching for allies, the Romans join to the braves of the Anasazi Confederation in a combined effort to take the war to its bitterest conclusion, in the very walls of Tenochtitlán - a vaster and more populous metropolis than Rome itself, and also a very well protected city, thanks to its almost inexpugnable insular location in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
Obviously, once started the campaign is much more arduous than it had been anticipated by naive Roman senators, when they endorsed the declaration of war. For this alternate Aztec Empire owns technology almost so advanced as the Roman one. Besides, as the Romans discover only after capturing Tora, a Nipponic military advisor, the impressively fast technological progress of the Aztecs is due to Serican Empire's support. It seems that the Sericans are inciting the Aztecs to wage war against the Romans. However, in spite of all their technological and military prowess, the Aztecs are still tangled by their ancient ritualistic practice of human sacrifices, which had characterized this culture in OTL's 16th century.
The climax of New Barbarians occurs in the Battle of Tenochtitlán.
On the whole, this novel is full of battle scenes of the exact kind every Roma Aeterna buffs always craved to read: the fiery struggle between the Roman legions and the Aztec troops.

In Cry Republic (1989), the last novel of Mitchell's Roma Aeterna trilogy, emperor Germanicus Iulius Agricola Aztecus is overthrown by a coup d'état led by his very Praetorian Praefectus (commander of the Praetorian Guard, the elite bodyguard of a Roman emperor, approximately the size of a legion). The coup was motivated by Caesar's intention to restore the Republic, after two millennia of imperial rule.
In an occasion when the Southern Italy is afflicted once more by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Praetorian Praefectus Decimus Antonius Nepos, a Lusitanian-born Roman, joins forces to his lover Claudia Nero, a Messalina distant relative of Germanicus, in the attempt to overthrow from power the last Iulian emperor.
Germanicus is rescued at the eleventh hour by Centurion Rolf - the same Romanized German who has played the role of personal guardian angel to Germanicus since the times the latter was procurator - and by his Nipponic counsellor Tora. The Nipponic helps the dethroned emperor to flee from Rome to Illyria (OTL Albania) aboard an aircraft prototype purchased in the Serican Empire.
After aiding in the escape of Germanicus and Tora, Rolf evades to the ancient Teutoburg Wald sanctuary, in Germania's heartland. Once in the Wald, the former centurion receives the visit of a supposed ancestral deity, who urges him to claim the title of king of the Marcommani. As king, Rolf summons other German tribes to join the Marcommani in order to fight a war of attrition against the imperial legion that are loyal to the usurper couple.
Having been betrayed and almost captured several times, Germanicus finally travels aboard a merchant galley from the port of Corinth to the archaeological site of the ancient Troy.
Thanks to Anatolian Zaim's helping hand, Germanicus is carried safe and sound from the Anatolian shore to the province of Judea. In Jerusalem, he meets the only Roman general still loyal to his republican ideals who had survived to the political purge perpetrated by Nepos and Claudia.
Counting on the support of the Roman legion stationed in Judea and its Jewish auxiliary garrisons, Germanicus starts a counteroffensive to fight against usurpation. The following struggle spreads gradually along all the Roman provinces of North Africa and Middle East, which are reconquered by the increasing power of the forces that are loyal to Germanicus.
Those loyal provinces are not match, however, to the armored legions that Nepos has at his disposal. So, as a desperate measure, backed on the moral authority of last member of the clan who had ruled the Roman World for two millennia, Germanicus not only proclaims the Republic in abruptu, but also signs the universal manumission, freeing at once all the slaves in Urb et Orbis.

As a whole, Kirk Mitchell's trilogy presents high quality alternate history, at least as good as the trilogies written by more renowned & recent authors - as Harry Turtledove and S.M. Stirling - who would explore the AH genre in the following decades. Besides enjoying the status of precursor, thirteen years after its conclusion, the trilogy started with Procurator remains by far as the best Roma Aeterna ever written.

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