Things could have turned out very differently. Rome’s path didn’t have to end with its sack in the 5th century. It could have industrialized, become a locked-down military state or burned its star far before the traditional date of its collapse. Here are some possible alternate histories of Rome:
1. Tarquin Wins the Revolution
The last king of Rome was a ruthless tyrant called Tarquin. He was hated by much of Rome and eventually they rebelled against him. Tarquin mustered together a collation from the surrounding states to take back his crown. The fighting was so fierce that Brutus, the leader of the rebellion, was killed in battle. Tarquin came very close to winning.
Had Tarquin put down the revolt, the Senate would never have formed and the Romans would have continued to be ruled by kings. As we know from the Roman Empire period, kings are a crap shoot. Some are good, but most are in the range between mediocre to terrible.
Without the incredible leadership shown by the Senate in the early centuries, Rome might have remained a regional power, eventually being incorporated into either the Greek or Carthaginian sphere’s of influence.
2. Hannibal Marches on Rome
After the battle of Cannae in 216BC, the Romans were shattered. Hannibal could have marched on the city of Rome. If he had, he would have found it almost entirely empty of men–he had killed them all.
While the city had large walls, the Romans were in shock and may have capitulated. Even if they fought on, laying siege to Rome would have sent a clear message to the Italians: Hannibal was in charge. Whatever help the Romans hoped to receive would have instead gone straight to Hannibal.
Rome was an institutional threat to Carthage and Hannibal could not afford to let the city survive. They would have destroyed Rome. Italy would have become a Carthaginian province. The Mediterranian would have been divided between the Greek states to the east and Carthage to the west.
With increased contact, the Carthaginians would have taken on more of Greece’s culture, and it is likely the Greeks would have been inspired by the art and religion of Carthage. It would have been a very different world.
3. Julius Caesar Lives
Julius Caesar dreamed of following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. He wanted to march against the Parthians and perhaps even conquer as far east as India. He was making plans for this adventure when he was assassinated by the Senate.
If Caesar had survived his assassination, he would have purged the Senate. This would have left it nothing more than a wet noodle in his hands. Caesar would have been a virtual emperor, as powerful as Augustus.
The civil wars that followed the death of Caesar were catastrophic to the Romans. They bled them white. Had Caesar lived, these civil wars would never have happened and all those men and resources could have been used for conquest. This would have given Emperor Caesar an incredible army. Under the veteran leadership of Caesar, it would have been a power like no other on earth.
The conquest of Parthia and India would have poured wealth into Rome beyond the city’s wildest dreams. It would also have resulted in a train of slaves that could have ballooned the population of Italy. While Rome would have become a cosompolitan city of 1-2 million, it would also have been made up mostly of slaves. With slaves being so cheap, paid labor would have been unwanted.
Between an ultra-rich oligarchy, a destitute citizenry and a massive population of slaves, revolution may have been inevitable.
4. The Roman Senate Survives
After the murder of Julius Caesar on the Senate floor, the Roman world was catapulted into civil war. Eventually, Octavian won this long and terrible war and thus became the first emperor. But it didn’t have to turn out that way. Had the Senate won the civil war, it would have continued to rule as it had for centuries.
The Senate had become an ineffective governing body, which is why there was so much support for people like Caesar. The Senate was a highly conservative oligarchy that was only interested in enriching its members. It whiped out the small farmers, amalgamating them into massive estates. It refused to enact land reforms that would help the mass of poor.
Had the Senate continued to rule, it may have ground the empire down, which would likely have resulted in another civil war. Instead of entering the Golden Age of Augustus, the Romans may have seen a quick collapse in the first century.
5. Commodus Dies Early
Edward Gibbon, the author of the seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes Commodus as the reason Rome began to collapse. Commodus undid almost everything good that had been done for the empire by his Father, Marcus Aurelius. He ended the war with the Germanic tribes early and rushed to Rome where he treated the treasury as his own personal bank account.
Had Commodus died early, perhaps in one of his gladiatorial matches, Marcus Aurelius would have given the purple to an able general. Things would have turned out very differently.
Over the next few decades, the empire would have been extended to perhaps the edges of Poland, or even further. This would not only have brought wealth to the empire, it would have pacified the very tribes that would one day march on Rome. When the Huns poured in from Central Asia, they would have faced not only the Romans, but also the Germans–a deadly united front.
6. Diocletian’s Legacy Continues
By the time of Diocletian (ruled 285-305 AD), the Roman Empire was in terminal decline. This was known as the ‘Crisis of the 3rd Century’. Inflation was about as bad as it was in Weimar Germany and people had reverted to bartering rather than using money. The army was hit particularly hard. A soldier couldn’t even afford a new shirt with a year’s salary.
Diocletian changed everything. He re-invented the entire economic system creating a proto-feudalistic society. Everything was locked down, from prices to social standing. While these measures were draconian, they also put the brakes on the decline.
Unfortunately, Diocletian did not plan his succession well, and after he stepped down, the empire was thrown into civil war. All the good he did was virtually undone within a few years.
Had Diocletian planned his succession better, history would have turned out very differently. The empire would have lumbered on like a giant medieval empire. Paganism would have played a dominant role for the foreseeable future. Over time, the empire may have risen from the crisis in a position of strength, ready to take on the barbarian invasions of the 5th century.
7. Constantine is Defeated
Contstantine (ruled 306-324 AD) was the first emperor to accept Christianity. Before his seminal Battle of the Milvian Bridge, legend tells us that Constantine saw the image of the cross. Throughout his reign, Constantine gave clemency to the Christians and allowed them to come out of the shadows. They quickly became a powerful force in the empire.
The early church was very different than your neighborhood religion. It was radical and read a literal translation of the Bible. For instance, the early Christians believed the earth was flat and that Jerusalem was the centre of the universe, and they shut down anyone who thought otherwise. They believed the end of the world would happen at any moment, and this made them extreme.
When this early radical form of Christianity took root in the Roman Empire, the illiterate mob saw science as the enemy. They burnt books, and even whole libraries. The Library of Alexandria was it’s most famous casualty. Science and philosophy were all but silenced and eventually Plato’s academy was shut down.
Had Constantine been defeated at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the empire would not have accepted this radical form of early Christianity, and the world would have been very different. Paganism would have continued to be the dominant religion. Science and philosophy would have thrived. Even the Great Library would have survived. With scientific knowledge remaining an important aspect of society, we may have avoided many of the worst accesses of the Middle Ages.
With experimental science a featured part of every city, Perhaps an industrial revolution would have come to the Roman Empire.