Triplanetary 10 – Chapter 3: The Fall of Rome
Welcome to the read! In this post I’m going to deviate from my standard format where I reproduce all the text and occasionally interject my commentary, because I tried that and it’s not working for me for some reason. Instead, it’s going to be more selective excerpts for illustrative purposes.
First, the chapter title is the Fall of Rome, which is a dramatic and recognizable tagline that usually refers to events in the 5th century CE, and is not really justified by the activities of the chapter, which takes place during the reign of Nero, about 400 years earlier. The established conceit is that Nero is an Eddorian puppet and his actions put an end to any hopes of a return to a less tyrannical form of government, but calling that ‘the fall of Rome’ requires hopelessly conflating Rome and republicanism. It’s a big stretch just to not have to come up with a more original chapter title.
Second, it’s a gladiator story.
“But what have you, Livius, or any of us, for that matter, got to live for?” demanded Patroclus the gladiator of his cell-mate. “We are well fed, well kept, well exercised; like horses. But, like horses, we are lower than slaves. Slaves have some freedom of action; most of us have none. We fight—fight whoever or whatever our cursed owners send us against. Those of us who live fight again; but the end is certain and comes soon. I had a wife and children once. So did you. Is there any chance, however slight, that either of us will ever know them again; or learn even whether they live or die? None. At this price, is your life worth living? Mine is not.”
The theme of slave gladiators seeking their liberty is by now very familiar, indelibly pressed into popular culture by Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. The Spartacus narrative seems to have been fairy popular even before 1948, though, with novels based on those events published in 1933 and 1939. It seems that just as the author could count on an audience’s interest carrying through a short spy thriller for the Atlantis segment, he could count on it carrying through a short gladiator story for this segment.
Patroclus has Captain Phryges’ protagonist coloring: red-bronze-auburn hair and gold-flecked tawny eyes. Patroclus is a Thracian, and Livius comments: ‘from your build and hair and eyes you descend from Spartacus himself,’ and this combination raises a question. That very specific coloration is supposed to be the mark of a particular Arisian-cultivated bloodline, last seen heading to North America. How did it cross the Atlantic to show up in Greece? It seems like the author was cheating so he could ‘follow’ this bloodline down through history, while at the same time having it show up wherever he wanted.
Also, note that Patroclus is established as having fathered children already, so he can die without compromising the Arisian plans.
Anyway, Patroclus recruits Livius into a gladiatorial conspiracy to assassinate Nero, and the motive isn’t well-established. It’s part of a broader revolt that includes slaughtering the gladiators’ owners at a party, and Patroclus has a personal reason for going after the commander of the Praetorian Guard, but the reasons for including Nero among the targets are just kind of left out. I guess it’s vaguely implied that the noble members who are providing the weapons and armor are using the gladiators for a political assassination, but it’s pretty vague. It bugs me because a line or two of dialogue could clear that right up, and when the story’s about a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the motive for the crime is kind of an important detail.
Something I want to delve into a bit is that Patroclus seems to be deliberately written as less than usually relatable for a pulp protagonist. Here he is talking about getting rid of the Emperor’s secret agents, and sounding much more like a pulp villain than a hero.
‘Many of his spies among us have died; most, if not all, of the rest are known. They, too, shall die. Glatius, for instance. Once in a while, by the luck of the gods, a man kills a better man than he is; but Glatius has done it six times in a row, without getting a scratch. But the next time he fights, in spite of Nero’s protection, Glatius dies.’
An actual surprise for me was to see that the author was willing to have both Patroclus and Livius be completely and matter-of-factly unsympathetic towards Christians. A lot of this kind of fiction, pulp and otherwise, was justified by making them at least tangentially Christian stories, and Christian sympathies were shorthand for ‘good guy.’ But check out this exchange.
“The prisons and the pits are so crowded with Christians that they die and stink, and a pestilence threatens. To mend matters, some scores of hundreds of them are to be crucified here tomorrow.”
“Why not? Everyone knows that they are poisoners of wells and murderers of children, and practitioners of magic. Wizards and witches.”
Nero did persecute Christians, whom he blamed for causing the Great Fire of Rome, so it’s not ahistorical to see them here, although ‘some scores of hundreds’ seems like an inflated number for dramatic purposes. What is ahistorical are the specific things Livius is accusing them of, which are not, AFAICT, actual Roman-era anti-Christian prejudice. They are what are charmingly referred to as antisemitic canards. Wikipedia tells me that Roman folk scares about Christians cast them as specifically cannibalistic (because of their Communion ritual) and incestuous (because of their referring to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’). Well-poisoning and child-murder, on the other hand, are particularly signature accusations against Jews, with origins in the medieval period. The only place I recall seeing Jews accused of sorcery is in the film Borat, but I can easily believe it’s another canard, it’s a very convenient way to blame someone for something they had no visible method of accomplishing.
Now, I believe that the author is making a risky ironic statement about bullshit religious persecution, by subjecting the historical antecedents of his audience’s majority religion to the exact same false accusations that had been leveled at Jews by Christians for hundreds of years (keeping in mind he was writing in 1948). The problem is that in the period in question, most Christians were Jewish, and it could also be read as the author thoughtlessly or maliciously backdating these antisemitic canards by over a thousand years and also validating them as the beliefs of his heroic duo. I don’t believe that’s the case, and here’s why:
Skipping ahead a little (past a fight scene I will get to), Patroclus and Livius have both won their bouts, and eaten, and come back to watch the crucifixions. And instead of them losing their lunch at the horror, or anything similar, we get this paragraph:
And, if the truth must be told, those two men enjoyed thoroughly every moment of that long and sickeningly horrible afternoon. They were the hardest products of the hardest school the world has ever known: trained rigorously to deal out death mercilessly at command; to accept death unflinchingly at need. They should not and can not be judged by the higher, finer standards of a softer, gentler day.
I don’t see paragraphs like this nearly often enough. A lot of entertainment either set in or inspired by the bad old days seems written specifically to wallow in the bad behaviors allowed or encouraged by less-enlightened societies without even implicit condemnation, so it’s really refreshing to see explicit condemnation. Even though it’s the narrator commenting in a distracting way, I think that a lot of readers might have been somewhat distracted at that point anyway, because the preceding paragraph is a description of a mass crucifixion, albeit not a graphic one.
So I think it’s obvious that Patroclus and Livius are not intended to be sympathetic, especially in their views on Christians, despite being the main characters of this fragment of the story, and in that light their demonstrated anti-Christian prejudice is intended to be the bullshit that it in fact is. It’s just a shame there’s any room for interpretation at all, and the author would have been on much firmer ground if he’d stuck to historical anti-Christian tropes. I should mention that there’s a lot of attention to other historical details in this part of the story, so there clearly was at least some research involved.
The question that’s raised in light of the rest of the series is: how sympathetic are the future-folk, like Kimball Kinnison, supposed to be? That’s something I’ll bring up again when their various monstrosities are performed.
Patroclus’ fight scene is really quite good, including pre-fight strategizing, and generally showing that he has cunning and forethought as well as strength and skill. My criticism is that it’s completely disconnected from the plot and could have been skipped entirely at very little loss, except that gladiator stories must have a gladiator match in them, apparently. The stakes we’re given are that is he loses, Patroclus is certain to get the death-signal and not be able to participate in the uprising; but he’s still just one of many and it seems like the uprising could plausibly continue without him. If it were crucial to the assassination plot that Patroclus be the overall champion of the games because only the champion would get special access to the Emperor or something, those would be some relevant stakes, but we’ve been specifically told that all surviving gladiators get the relevant invitation. Or he could have been matched against Glatius, the spy mentioned above, and the fight gotten more emphasis as a battle of wits, with Glatius’ various treacheries matched against Patroclus trying to make an execution look like an accident of battle, and the stakes would still have been plot-relevant because the plan couldn’t proceed with the spy in their midst. It’s still good, it just sort of obviously could have been better.
Something that gets established before and after the fight, is that Patroclus believes he’s invincible due to protection from the god Jupiter, and this is almost-mirrored in Livius, who appeals to many different gods for aid until he feels that he’s found a willing patron. This comes up again in a moment.
The plan goes off more or less as planned – or so it seems. Most of the gladiator’s owners die, but Patroclus was delayed by ‘misfortune,’ and meets a high-ranking member of the conspiracy, who was in position to stab Nero, but was inexplicably paralyzed and sent running, presumably by Gharlane’s mental powers. Patroclus is daunted, but depends on his divine protection and goes to try the murder himself, cutting a path through the emperor’s protectors. And then this happens:
And Nero, sitting at ease with a beautiful boy at his right and a beautiful harlot at his left, gazed appreciatively through his emerald lens at the flaming torches; the while, with a very small fraction of his Eddorian mind, he mused upon the matter of Patroclus and Tigellinus.
Should he let the Thracian kill the Commander of his Guard? Or not? It didn’t really matter, one way or the other. In fact, nothing about this whole foul planet—this ultra-microscopic, if offensive, speck of cosmic dust in the Eddorian Scheme of Things—really mattered at all. It would be mildly amusing to watch the gladiator consummate his vengeance by carving the Roman to bits. But, on the other hand, there was such a thing as pride of workmanship. Viewed in that light, the Thracian could not kill Tigellinus, because that bit of corruption had a few more jobs to do. He must descend lower and lower into unspeakable depravity, finally to cut his own throat with a razor. Although Patroclus would not know it—it was better technique not to let him know it—the Thracian’s proposed vengeance would have been futility itself compared with that which the luckless Roman was to wreak on himself.
Wherefore a shrewdly-placed blow knocked the helmet from Patroclus’ head and a mace crashed down, spattering his brains abroad.
* * * * *
Thus ended the last significant attempt to save the civilization of Rome; in a fiasco so complete that even such meticulous historians as Tacitus and Suetonius mention it merely as a minor disturbance of Nero’s garden party.
It’s not nearly as elegant as his work with Atlantis, where no hero even got close to Gharlane’s meat-puppet, and no one person was ever in a position to thwart the vast processes he put into motion. Nevertheless, this is another example of heroic individuals putting forth their finest effort, only to fail miserably in the face of Eddorian ability.
It is good to see something of Gharlane’s plan for Tigellinus and a glimpse of just how terrible Eddorian domination is, where they craft nightmare lives and deaths for people out of ‘pride of workmanship.’
Alas, we don’t get a denouement about how the noble patrons of the conspiracy were closet republicans whose failure and executions damaged and discredited their movement beyond recovery. That would have gotten as close as anything could to validating this chapter’s title. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this event being just a run-of-the-mill assassination attempt, but it would have been stronger story if it was also tied into the larger narrative.
The denouement we get is this:
The planet Tellus circled its sun some twenty hundred times. Sixty-odd generations of men were born and died, but that was not enough. The Arisian program of genetics required more. Therefore the Elders, after due deliberation, agreed that that Civilization, too, must be allowed to fall. And Gharlane of Eddore, recalled to duty from the middle of a much-too-short vacation, found things in very bad shape indeed and went busily to work setting them to rights. He had slain one fellow-member of the Innermost Circle, but there might very well have been more than one Master involved.
There’s a fair amount to unpack here. So, we’re skipping ahead to more-or-less the modern day, which is not long enough for the Arisian plan to bear fruit… so the Arisians agree that modern civilization must be allowed to fall? That doesn’t follow, until we also get the information that Gharlane is back. That’s just sloppy, it should very clearly be 1) Gharlane’s coming back to kick over our anthill, 2) We still aren’t in a position to stop him, 3) Welp, I guess the latest round of not-sucky human society is over, then.
Also, Gharlane has killed one of his peers, presumably for the crime of messing with him discussed in the first part of the chapter, and… huh? On the surface, it definitely gives him more stature, he has now killed more of the bad guys than anyone else we know of. Look a little deeper, and that’s badly undermined because of how wrong he got it. He killed the wrong thing, and not only does Gharlane he not know he made a mistake, he’s hot on the trail of further mistakes to make. I can buy his making such an error once and retaining credibility, because maybe he killed the guy just to make sure everyone else knew he wasn’t fucking around. Persisting in his paranoid delusion just makes him seem a bit pathetic.
Anyway, that’s the third and final chapter of Book One: Dawn. Next up is Book Two: The World War, where we’ll presumably find out how Gharlane murders the twentieth century, and whether Hitler is involved.