Wednesday, 18 December 2013

August

Although my favorite book of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series is Volume 8, Worlds' End, my favorite, most frequently reread, individual story is "August" in Volume 6, Fables And Reflections. Two characters converse for a day in the Roman market place; their conversation encapsulates the past and the future of Rome.

The Romans, like the French in the Sandman story, "Thermidor," had overthrown a king and founded a republic, becoming SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the People of Rome. Julius Caesar, like Oliver Cromwell, became a republican dictator but refused a crown. Augustus Caesar, disguised for a day as a beggar, is both Imperator, Commander of state and army, and Pontifex Maximus, "greatest bridge-builder," Chief Priest. In our time, this second title has been held for over a millennium and a half by the Bishop of Rome - we speak Latin-derived languages and still live in the shadows of Julius and Augustus.

As Pontiff, Augustus read prophecies of two possible futures:

after a few hundred years, the Romans will be overcome by barbarian invaders and strange gods;
for ten thousand years or more, the Roman Empire will rule the Earth.

We learn why Augustus destroyed most of the prophetic books, halted Imperial expansion and steered history towards the first alternative. There is a human reason, concerning his adoptive father, Julius, and a divine reason: Terminus, god of boundaries, asked Morpheus to intervene in Augustus' dreams. We learn how Augustus conceals his plans from the Olympians and the divine Julius - he plans when he is a beggar, beneath their notice.

Instead of prophetic books, Poul Anderson imagined a science fiction writer "...in the Rome of Augustus Caesar..." - Anderson, Past Times (New York, 1984), p. 189. Wanting to set a story a thousand years hence, this innovative author imagines three possible futures:

the Empire will continue to expand until it includes the whole world;
as current policy suggests, expansion will halt and the Imperial boundaries remain as they are;
Rome will fall to barbarians, leaving only "...ruins and wilderness." (p. 190)

Gaiman's Augustus knew that Anderson's second imagining was not a viable option:

"Our empire...my empire...is based on military conquest. As long as new countries are being conquered, as long as the legions have new territories to conquer...then Rome will live." - Fables And Reflections, p. 119.

Thus, by halting expansion, he deliberately caused the Fall. He conceals his own human reason from his companion but hints at the divine reason. Before "Our Empire...," he says, "It is a matter of boundaries." After "...then Rome will live," he adds, "Terminus is the only god to whom Jupiter must bow."

Anderson says that what really happened was a fourth, unpredictable, alternative: a heretical offshoot of a religion in a remote part of the Empire transformed both Romans and barbarians and generated new civilizations. I would say, rather, that slave-owning society collapsed under its own weight, that feudalism grew in its ruins and that a single new god presided over the Fall, the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. But, however we describe this lengthy historical process, it was indeed unpredictable.

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