Alternate history has always fascinated me. I suppose this should come as no surprise, since anyone who reads my blog can easily see that I enjoy both historical fiction and science fiction, but based on my reviews for the former, plus my reviews of nonfiction history-focused books, some might assume that I hold history sacred: something that cannot be touched, cannot be manipulated, no matter what. The truth, however, is that I enjoy a good tale of alternate history – enough that a good friend and I have engaged in it before, building an alternate reality of the Borgias and Renaissance Italy. And besides, as the host of the podcast Hardcore History often says, very few historians can resist playing around with “what if?” questions, though most of them are disciplined enough not to let such speculation spill into the more academic corners of their lives.
Despite this interest, however, I I do not often pick up alternate history stories, mostly because very few of them really interest me enough to want to spend money and time on them. Most of the time, I pass over alternate history novels because a lot of them don’t engage with a historical period I’m interested in reading about. I see plenty of alternate histories based around the Industrial Revolution and onwards, but those periods hold very little interest for me except under certain specific circumstances. On the other hand, I would happily spend money and time on an alternate history of Renaissance Italy, or of the ancient world, but those tend to be few and far between, or are sufficiently obscure that I do not really encounter them at the usual places I go to for books.
Which is why I rather think it was sheer dumb luck that brought Alan Smale’s Clash of Eagles, first in the series of the same title, to my attention. There are a handful of websites that I go to when I’m looking for new things to read, and one of those websites brought up Clash of Eagles as something to read. While the cover is not usually one that would call my attention, I was sufficiently curious enough to look at the blurb, and that, in the end, is what sold me on it.
Clash of Eagles takes place in the year 1218 – per the calendar of those who follow the cult of the Christ-Risen, one of the five major religious cults worshiped by Rome’s citizenry. For this is not history as we know it, but an alternate version where the Roman Empire did not fall and remains whole instead of being split between East and West and falling to the Visigoths. In this alternate reality, Rome has consolidated its hold over Europe, and is expanding eastwards to brush up against Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The current emperor, Hadrianus, has vowed to expand the reach of Rome until the sun can never set upon it, and seems well on his way to accomplishing that vow.
And so Rome looks towards the setting sun – far to the west, out across the ocean, to a whole new land dubbed Nova Hesperia. Following rumours of gold and treasure beyond imagining, the 33rd Legion, led by Gaius Marcellinus, sets out to discover – and subjugate – this new land for the glory of the Empire. They think it will be no different than the other wars they have fought, the other conquests they have made. It may be hard going at first, but they are confident that Rome will be triumphant, as it has always been, and always will.
But that is not how things turn out. The land is harsher than they expected, and the natives more dangerous still. So when the 33rd Legion is destroyed and Marcellinus is captured in a battle against natives using techniques never before seen in Europe, the Roman general has no other choice but to learn how to survive in this strange and deadly new world.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I picked this book up is because of the blurb, and that was because of the concept. I rather like the idea of reading about a Roman Empire that was not divided, mostly because I tend to imagine how it would have handled threats like the Mongols and interacted with the Chinese. I also wonder if it would have set up a global empire the same way real-world European powers did: crossing the oceans and setting up colonies all over the world. But the Romans were not exactly famous for their sailing prowess, so perhaps they might not have? Or they could have, and maybe much sooner than the real-world European powers did because there would have been no “Dark Ages” when the knowledge of the ancient Romans and Greeks was lost.
Clash of Eagles certainly manages to suggest just how great Rome could have become had it not fallen apart, as this excerpt shows:
Strictly speaking, they weren’t yet Roma’s Norsemen. The Imperator Titus Augustus had shut down the Viking raids on the coasts of Britannia thirty years ago, gobbling up Scand for the Imperium and acquiring every Dane and Geat and Sami clear up to Ultima Thule. But these days a nation had to live loyally within the Pax Romana for two hundred years before its people were granted full citizenship.
… Roma had reined in its expansion in the first place because of the high cost of defeating the Khazars and the eastern sultanates. And now Hadrianus was trying to expand the Imperium even farther into the east at precisely the moment when the Mongols and Turkic tribes were swooping westward into Kara Khitai and southward toward the Chin Dynasty. … Let the nomadic Mongol Khan swallow all that and try to administer it. Roma should hold its current line in the sultanates around the Ganges, which Temujinus—or Chinggis, or however he wanted to be addressed these days—had shown no ambitions toward. Eventually the Mongol Khanate would overreach itself and crumble, and that would be Roma’s moment to march eastward again. In the meantime, the real estate from Hispania to the Himalaya and from the barren northern ice to the fetid jungles of Aethiopia Interior should surely be enough Imperium for anyone.
The excerpt paints a rather good image of how big this iteration of Rome has gotten, but where it fails is that it does not quite explain how Rome got to that point in the first place. There are reasons, after all, that the Roman Empire split into two and then fell apart, and readers who are familiar with that part of ancient Roman history will likely want to know what specific thing changed to create the version of Rome presented in this novel. That explanation, unfortunately, is not given within the context of the novel itself, and is instead relegated to an appendix section at the end of the novel. While I understand that there may have been narrative-related reasons for shifting all that information to an appendix instead of incorporating it, I still wish that it had been included in the story itself. At the very least, it would have made certain other bits of information included in the story itself (such as how Rome managed to bring the Vikings into their Empire) make a lot more sense, instead of leaving the reader scratching his or her head until the very end.
Still I suppose doing that makes sense, since this novel is about how the ancient Roman Empire might have gone about conquering North America – which leads me to the latter half of that statement. Now, I cannot say for certain whether or not the author has correctly portrayed the Native American cultures mentioned in this novel. For one, what the tribes mentioned in this novel were like pre-Columbus was likely very different from the way they are now, and one of them (the Cahokia) is extinct. For another, I am no expert in the the histories of the many Native American tribes, though I am aware of the deep suffering they experienced at the hands of white colonial powers. Therefore, I cannot say for certain if the author is really correct in their portrayal – I can only have trust that the author has done his due diligence in his research, and that his portrayal is respectful of that research. At the very least, he has an appendix section that tackles the deviations of his writing from the history he has researched, so readers can distinguish which parts are made up and which are based on historical research.
What I do take issue with, though, is the characterisation – or rather, the seeming lack thereof. The novel is narrated by Marcellinus in third-person limited, so the reader does get to know him quite well, but in terms of development, he falls a little short. He does grow somewhat in this novel, but the full impact of his growth may only become truly relevant in the subsequent books of this series. While I am rather disappointed that Marcellinus’s growth as a character is not fully expounded upon in this novel, I realise that this is only the first in a series, and so he has plenty to time to come into his own.
I am more bothered by the other characters’ lack of development. I suppose this might be a flaw of the narrative technique used, but I do wish the reader was given an opportunity to see things from the other characters’ perspective. The way things stand in the novel, they feel more like walking set pieces that come and go as Marcellinus (or the story) needs them to, which is a supreme waste of all these potentially fascinating and complex characters who could make this story feel more well-rounded. This is especially true for the Native American characters, since they could provide a necessary counterpoint perspective to Marcellinus’s Roman (Imperialist) take on most things.
As for the plot, it’s not quite as action-packed as some readers might think. There are two major battles that occur in this novel – the first happens near the beginning, and the second happens towards the end. This means that there’s a huge stretch in between that might be a bit boring for some readers who are not interested in Marcellinus’ adaptation and integration into his new circumstances. I found that middle stretch entertaining enough, but it is rather one-sided, since there are no Native American narrators to round things out. I think that, had there been other narrators in this story besides Marcellinus, that middle stretch would be far more entertaining and enjoyable.
This lack of story and development from the perspective of the Native American characters also severely limits the potential themes that could have been explored in this novel. It is easy to understand the ideas that Marcellinus puts forward; they have been thoroughly explored and expounded upon by Classics scholars for years, and will continue to be explored and expounded upon by Classics scholars for many more years to come. But giving the Native American characters their own plot lines and their own character development would have created an opportunity for additional thematic complexity. It could have, for example, opened up avenues for tackling themes related to imperialism and colonialism – topics which would have been relevant in the world of the novel, but more importantly are relevant to the real world itself, given how Native Americans struggle to hold onto their culture and their land (for example, the issue regarding the Standing Rock pipeline).
Overall, Clash of Eagles has an interesting premise and is entertaining in its own way, but it does have two crucial weaknesses. First is the lack of Native American narrators, who might have provided an interesting foil for Marcellinus’ narration of events, as well as created a whole host of complex characters that would have opened up interesting avenues for thematic exploration. Second is the lack of explanation regarding how the Roman Empire has managed to stay standing long enough to get to North America in the first place. This is addressed in an appendix, but I think integrating that information into the story itself would have been much better, since there are plenty of tidbits of information scattered throughout the story that can leave the reader scratching his or her head – or, if the reader is less patient, give up on the story entirely. Perhaps these issues are addressed in subsequent books, but after reading this book I am not quite sure if I wish to spend time reading the others. Perhaps another time.