Features, Fiction

What if the Industrial Revolution Happened to Rome?

My novel Kingdom of the Wicked — Rules took me 13 years to write. It has been a long time between drinks. Rules isn’t all of it, either. Book II, Order, comes out in March, so apologies for the cliffhanger.

However, rest assured I haven’t gone all George R.R. ­Martin on you. Everything is ­written, with only final editorial to complete.

I’m aware many people neither expected nor wanted me to write anything after The Hand That Signed the Paper. To those who wanted me to shut up and go away, I’m here to tell you while I went away (I have become one of those irritating expatriate British-Australians), I have no intention of shutting up.

Two years after The Hand That Signed the Paper was published in 1994, I began to research and write a historical novel set during the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian. A local television station even flew me to Italy, allowing me the time and resources to do further research, in exchange for appearing on one of its programs.

There was one problem: the book I started to write was bad. I persisted for a while, thinking I could draw on what I hoped was developing literary skill to iron out the wrinkles. Unfortunately, the manuscript turned out to be all wrinkles, so I abandoned it.

The idea of some sort of Roman-era book never went away, however, and when Kingdom of the Wicked came to mind, demanding to be written, I knew the book I originally wanted to write was the wrong book. This, I hope, is the right one.

In between writing the two novels, I became a lawyer, and, consequently, Kingdom of the Wicked is a product of legal, rather than historical, theological, or scientific imagination. This isn’t to say that history, theology, and science aren’t important in the world I’ve written, but to highlight that the book began with law.

Let me explain.

While I was in my second year at Oxford, a friend asked me if I’d seen Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. I had to admit I had not, and at his suggestion watched it. Leaving the immense controversy and success of Gibson’s film to one side, at its conclusion I found myself thinking about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s trial and execution from a lawyer’s perspective. I realised I hadn’t read them for many years, and certainly not since qualifying in law. ‘If I were counsel, how would I make a plea in mitigation…’ is a favourite parlour game, although more commonly applied to errant footballers and wayward celebrities, not religious figures.

What struck me at once was the attack on the moneychangers in the Jerusalem Temple. All four Gospels record it, and their combined accounts do not reflect well on the perpetrator’s character.

Jesus went in armed (with a whip) and trashed the place, stampeding animals, destroying property and assaulting people. He also did it during or just before Passover, when the Temple precinct would have been packed to capacity with tourists, pilgrims, and religious officials. I used to live in Edinburgh, a city that has many large festivals. The thought of what would happen if someone behaved similarly in Princes Street during Hogmanay filled my mind.

It seemed obvious to me Jesus was executed because he started a riot. Everything else — the Messianic claims, giving Pilate attitude at trial, verbal jousting with Jewish religious leaders — was by the by. Our system would send someone down for a decent stretch if they did something similar; the Romans were not alone in developing concepts of breach of the peace, assault or malicious mischief.

In response, my friend suggested wryly, while Pilate was locking up the ringleader, perhaps the disciples each copped an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO). I laughed, but I also started thinking. How, I wondered, would we react to Jesus Christ if he turned up now?

My answer was not one I liked very much: I thought we’d mistake him for a terrorist. There was a period in the sixties and seventies when Jesus was conceived of as a bit of a hippy, certainly a pacifist. But the figure belabouring the ancient world’s equivalent of bank tellers with a whip did not look like a pacifist to me. Then there was his politics: socially conservative (he railed against divorce), redistributive, even socialist (he railed against the rich), egalitarian (he railed against the treatment of the poor). He wasn’t too impressed by the Great Satan of his day, the Roman Empire, either. His Judaean contemporaries referred to the Roman Empire as ‘the kingdom of the wicked’, whence the title of this book.

For a little while, I thought of transplanting Jesus to Britain or the US and watching the story unfold (and unravel) as I told it, but every single version that played out in my head turned into Waco or Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. Those stories are terrifying and confronting by turns—as well as fascinating—but they are not the stories I wanted to tell.

Finally, instead of bringing Jesus forward in time and placing him in modernity, I thought to leave him where he was and instead put modernity into the past. What, I wondered, would have happened had Jesus emerged in a Roman Empire that had gone through an industrial revolution? Other things being equal, what would modern science and technology do to a society with very different values from our own? Would they react with the same incomprehension that we do when confronted by religious terrorism? I did not know the answers, but I suspected that writing a book based around the idea of a Roman industrial revolution might help me develop some answers, if not the answers.

This meant I tried to conceive of a world where a society unlike ours produces the ‘progress and growth’ template that all others then seek to follow. It is commonplace to point out that Roman civilisation was polytheistic and animist, while ours is monotheistic but leavened by the Enlightenment; that Roman society was very martial, while Christianity has gifted us a tradition of religious and political pacifism; that Roman society had different views of sexual morality and marriage.

In short, I had to imagine an industrial revolution without monotheism or the Scottish Enlightenment. I could not stray too far from the West as we know it, however, for while we may have lost Rome’s ancestor worship, multiplicity of gods and goddesses, candy-coloured religious art (Roman statues and temples were brightly painted, as they are in Hinduism) and filial piety, Europe in particular has kept much of its law, and the great bulk of Roman law was conceived of and employed by polytheists.

Sometimes this non-Christian heritage is obvious: the toleration of homosexuality, abortion and concubinage, easy divorce, the importance attached to appointing an heir whose job it is to undertake regular ritual appeasement of ancestral spirits.

Sometimes, however, Roman law is different from the English common law only in its details. It also provides an orderly way of resolving disputes over everything from who owes money to whom, to who sideswiped whom. Both systems (and, in the context of human history, neither Roman law nor common law have any serious rivals as legal systems) were clearly developed by peoples with a genius for intelligent legal organisation and the ability to change bad law and retain good law. Both systems show a sophisticated understanding of the gains to be made from trade and the embedded nature of private property.

How, then, to create this mixture of familiar and foreign?

The best speculative fiction persuades you that its alternative world is real. It convinces you to suspend disbelief. It does this by constructing plausible points of departure from actual history.

In The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick), Roosevelt is assassinated and replaced by a nonentity. In SS-GB (Len Deighton), Operation Sea Lion is successful. In Pavane (Keith Roberts), Elizabeth I is assassinated and the English Reformation doesn’t get off the ground. While I am more interested in working out the way people relate to each other and to society rather than in the intricacies of interlocking technical developments, I have been as careful as I’m able in constructing my points of departure.

Kingdom of the Wicked is also what Oxford University got instead of a DPhil in law. I was reading for one after completing my bachelor of civil law there. Producing a novel made it clear legal academe was not in my future (novels are great, but law faculties prefer 120,000 words on … law). My scholarship ran out (as they do); I went back into practice, continuing to write at night after work, using some of my more flamboyant colleagues and clients as raw material. Yes, it’s true — do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.

I was pleased I could still write fiction. After the book I started in 1996 crashed and burned, I decided that novels probably weren’t for me. I also continued to get a great deal of abuse — even while overseas — and had no desire to add to it. However, there’s no escaping the fact Kingdom of the Wicked demanded to be written.

There was a long period where I came home from work — whether tutoring or working as a corporate solicitor — and simply sat down and wrote. The completed manuscript was 300,000 words long and — as my publisher said — simply had to be divided into two books, otherwise only a hardback edition was viable.

My comments have strayed far from the story of Jesus and the moneychangers in Jerusalem’s Temple, but context is useful, if only to illustrate what interested me when I started writing.

I am wary of attempts to distil books into a single theme, but if there is one thing that exercised my mind while writing Kingdom of the Wicked, it is the relationship of the two missionary monotheisms, Islam and Christianity, to science, technology and the Western use of a form of religious tolerance that a pagan Roman would recognise but for a long time was in abeyance in the West and elsewhere.

Rather than attempt to say how that relationship should work in so many words, I used fiction to explore my own confusions, doubts and concerns.


Helen Dale became the youngest winner of Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked Book I – Rules, has just been released. Book II is forthcoming in March 2018. She lives in London.


This article was previously published in The Australian

Filed under: Features, Fiction


Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award in 1995, read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and was previously Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published by Ligature in October this year.


    • Sarfka says

      Good question – and I think anyone writing a historically hypothetical book like this would need to have come up with their own answer. Anyway, in fact if you Google it you will find plenty of debate. What strikes me is that as in various other empires, like the Chinese or Ottoman, labour was so tremendously cheap that there probably wasn’t much motivation for the kinds of mechanisation that would save a great deal on labour costs. Also, the agricultural and industrial revolutions had a lot to do with the expansion of credit (from approx 1600) and while the Romans had quite fancy financial systems they never came up with credit mechanisms (starting with double entry) capable of hugely expanding economies in the modern way.
      Not that we know, obviously, what might have happened in Roman civilisation if it had not been so hugely disrupted by the barbarian invasions that it set off itself by its very success and over-stretch, and finally by the Muslim assault on its mediterranean heartlands – for despite whatever nice things you can say about Islamic civilisation at its height (mid-Medieval), all the evidence is that in the first centuries it shattered trade and communications in the med. and left a great trail of destruction in Roman North Africa.

    • Years ago I read an article somewhat related to this topic. I can almost quote it verbatim. The writer asked the question, why did Rome create such an advanced civilization with their innovations in government & engineering—and then plateau? The answer, he wrote, was slave labor. Continuing on he said slavery is bad for a society (obviously). In addition to all the harm that it does morally & spiritually it’s a disincentive to innovate. Why go to the trouble & expense of inventing the steam-shovel when you can just point at the ground and order slaves to start digging?

      As an aside, by 1861, in America, the number of patent applications from free-states numbered in the low thousands, from the slave-states less than one-hundred.

      Yeah, I sometimes sit back and thank of what Rome (and/or Greece) might’ve accomplished if just a few things had been different. If they’d had some charismatic emperor who came to realize that slavery was holding Rome back. Add the Golden Rule; add the Scientific Method; some Lockes & Humes to conceive & articulate the idea of the worth of the individual and the various human rights. They had the concept of a very simple steam-engine, the Aeolipile, and used gears, but no one put two-and-two together.

      There’s a writer by the name of Steven Saylor who writes historical fiction about ancient Rome. I’ve read and recommend _Roma_ and _Empire_. In those books he said that Rome couldn’t conceive of any other way to increase wealth, i.e. grow the economy, except by military conquest. That was just the natural order of things from their point of view.

      The day-to-day brutality described in those books amazed me. I knew that slaves, criminals, enemies of the state (as defined by whoever was in power) and captured soldiers were treated very harshly but Saylor’s descriptions of the day-to-day brutality took it to a whole new level.

      I am, of course, looking at it through the lens of modern sensibilities but that mentality just blows my mind. “That tribe on the other side of the mountain has something of value. Let’s go take it. And if we have to slaughter every man, woman and child to do it then so be it. In fact, I’m bored. Let’s just slaughter them all anyway.” That mentality really comes through in those two books.

      • Slavery never held Rome back, that’s what Christian heuristic wants us to believe. Slavery is immoral, but this has nothing to do with innovation.

        The Greeks had slaves, their civilization lasted 2000 years. Romans had slaves, their civilization lasted 1500 years. The Persians had slaves,their civilization lasted over a thousand years. India has a cast system, and it’s still here. Islam is fine with slavery, and is on the way up.

        Modern Democracy as we know it, is less than 70 years old and is mostly an accident of history. It will end just like its predecessors. Far quicker I might add.

        Democracy? A true Democrat is busy writing a 5 page essay on the costs/benefits of Socrates conviction, while his house is burning.

        Democracy? Justin Trudeau is a genuine democrat. He would have sent Socrates to the gallows, just as his people asked him to.

        Democracy? Give me a break.

  1. Julius says

    “All four Gospels record it”. Let it be remembered that the gospels are myths. There may or may not have been one or more notable Jesus figures doing such stuff around the time. But there’s also a sound argument that no such real world person existed, and that the gospels are an aggregation of mythical stories of a supernatural being, blended and bended into a story of an earthly figure.

    • Itsastickup says

      Nonsense, Julius. There are speculations that Jesus may not have existed.

      And as for the Gospels being myths, show us your time machine, and we’ll jump in and check it out for ourselves; which is, after all, the only way to get to the facts outside of a supreme being revealing one (which ironically is just what Christian’s claim is the authentic nature of ‘faith’, and not Bertrand Russell’s presumptuous redefinition “Belief without evidence”).

      If you don’t have a working supreme being up your sleeve to bypass the need for a time machine, then I suggest you qualify your statements.

      • Julius says

        Well, we can call them speculations if you like. As long as we’re agreeing that the gospels are pretty damn poor evidence of there being such a character doing such things (leaving aside the preposterous wizardry). I’d love to see some evidence that he existed. But absent convincing evidence I’m accepting that both sides are pretty much speculation.

        • Abu Nudnik says

          You’re dead wrong. If there was no such character, we obviously couldn’t talk about him. The real issue is what does such a character represent? Facts are not important when living in a world of meaning. The religious world is not interested in the world of things and how they work but in beings and how they interrelate. The world is what it is. Our moral life changes the meanings, and uses of the things of this world, and its beings. That’s what religions exist for. I’m going to anticipate your stating that it exists to control people, the stock response. If so, two cheers for religion! Man out of control is not a pretty sight. Even worse is the control demanded as a result of chaos.

          • Julius says

            “If there was no such character, we obviously couldn’t talk about him”. Do you really want to stand by that statement (and reinforce a perception of some religious apologists’ abject incapability of logic)?

            Religions aren’t “for” anything. They’re historically contingent, cultural and psychological artefacts, coming in a vast array of forms, adhered to to vastly varying degrees, have vastly differing meaning to different individuals, and have vastly differing consequences.

  2. Itsastickup says

    One of the themes in the Old Testament is of God taking the hopelessly small or outnumbered and helping them conquer. At one point the prophet tells the military leader that God is demanding that he face the 10,000 strong philistines (I don’t remember the exact details) with only 300 men, sending the rest of his force home.

    That being the case, the same pattern as we see played out in the New Testament would presumably have happened, with somewhat different accidents, in a modernised Rome leading to the same result: by far the historically biggest religion that has ever existed from a mustard seed of one carpenter/machinist from a backwater town and a rag tag of working class men.

  3. Who knows, maybe if there had been an industrial revolution over 2000 years ago we would be now exploring far flung galaxies and regenerative medicine would have developed to the point of making us immortal. It’s a reminder that societies always face choices and that we should not mess up our current opportunities.

  4. Jeff York says

    Edit, third paragraph: “…and *think* of what Rome…”

  5. Federico G. M. Sosa Valle says

    “Rules and Order” is the subtitle of the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty, by F. A. Hayek. I’m glad you got inspired by him!

      • Federico G. M. Sosa Valle says

        I rejoice to meet another “Hayekian lawyer”!

      • The Cato institute? Really? The same guys who support free market theory for health care, despite all evidence to the contrary?

        Hayek is a con man used by basket case conservatives in order to patch the gaping holes in their economic theory.

        The necessary and sufficient element of an articulated conservative economic theory is the confidence fairy. That’s all it takes.

        Even A. Smith never made it to real world, verifiable proofs.

  6. Fascinating idea, but why then? It seems to me that if an Industrial Revolution were to happen it’d more likely be in Byzantine times, under pressure from the Caliphate, suffering labour shortages and with far more of the underlying structures in place. Or is it more that “Rome in the time of Jesus” is an easier sell for such a book?

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