The Old Bastard’s Tale
I used to wonder when the Romans knew the empire had fallen.
No doubt, there were those who saw the writing on the wall when the legions were forced out of Caledonia. I imagine them in the marketplace, shouting out their arguments to passers-by: over-extended communications, unsustainable economies, rampant incompetence in the political class.
They were right, of course, but the majority passed them by, dismissing them as crazy, disgruntled, unsettled. Sad to think these early prophets died never knowing they were right because the forces they saw moved like glaciers; slow but unceasing.
By the days of bread and circuses, when the beginning of the end was obvious to any historian looking back, how many Romans were too distracted by the spectacle to notice? But maybe that is ungenerous. Maybe they could feel the ground sinking beneath them. Maybe they had that same nameless feeling in their guts that something wasn’t right. Maybe they, too, were afraid to look the void in the face. What is latin for: “oh well, what can one person do about it?”
No doubt there were those even at the Sack of Rome who said “No worries. Just a little setback. It’ll all work out in the end. Nothing to get worked up about.”
And, of course, they were right, too. Things changed, but things always change. So the cities emptied and people moved back to the land. The cities were rundown and unsafe anyway. There were fewer trades and more farmers, but did the world really miss a few wine merchants and some exotic goods peddlers?
There was still happiness and good times. People still fell in love and had babies. They still worried about trivial things and celebrated hollow victories. Travel was hard and danger nearby, but life goes on.
There had always been poverty, violence, hard times. There were places you didn’t want to be, forgotten places where “decent” people figure whatever happened to people there, well, they probably deserved it. Maybe the only thing that changes when an empire falls is who the bad stuff happens to. When it happens to those people, the empire stands. When it happens to people like you, suddenly the empire is over.
It isn’t so much that the empire falls, you just find yourself on the other side of the frontier.
I imagine if you were standing on the outside to begin with, the fall of the empire might even be good news. The violence is always highest in the borderlands between two competing rulers. Once the empire recedes and the borderlands move on, things soften and get easier. The rigidity of the old systems collapse and there’s less of everything: less division, less us vs. them, haves and have-nots. Catastrophe is the great leveler.
Now I wonder when I knew the empire had fallen. Looking back, it feels surreal. It seemed to happen so quickly but I only saw it from behind. Did I wake from a dream, or fall into a nightmare? Was all of that a fantasy or is this a paranoid delusion? It seems impossible that then and now can both be real. Or is it here and there?
And so I sit here, stranded on a rock in the sea wondering how the hell we got here, wondering where to go from here, sending out coded messages in bottles, hoping to find other survivors, other clues. Hoping to make sense of this bad dream…
Consider this an invitation to a cooperative writing experiment. This is just the start of a shared story. Are you an apocaloptimist? If so, add your part of the tale — a fictionalized account of the journey into apocalypse and through to new hope (maybe). Just add it as comment on this story.
You can introduce a new character or continue the story of an already introduced character — which means anyone can take on your character and add to their story — you don’t get complete control of your characters. (Please start your story with a title that includes the main character’s name so we can easily connect the storylines.)
The only rule is the “yes, and…” of improv — you have to accept the world as created by previous authors as the starting place.
Let’s see what kind of story we can create together.