The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Creating alternate histories are no small matter, especially when your series of books features a different version of the Roman Empire landing in North America. Now in Eagle and Empire, the third book of his Clash of Eagles series, Alan Smale talks about the challenges of writing different past — and making more history as one goes along.


I’ve long had a fascination for books that tear up the world and patch it back together differently, for really large alternate histories; not picking my way gently forward as changes begin to ripple from a point of departure deep in the Napoleonic Wars, say, but witnessing the far-downstream effects of a giant splash. Those are the tides I’m riding with the Clash of Eagles trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives in its more-or-less classical form through to the thirteenth century, and is now trying to open up Nova Hesperia – North America – with substantial assistance from the seafaring Norse who “discovered” it first.

The point of departure for my alternate timeline is way the heck back in 211 A.D., with Geta defeating his malevolent brother Caracalla after a decade-long firestorm of a civil war that nearly splits the Empire. As Emperor, Geta then ushers in extensive reforms. His actions unwittingly ward off the Crisis of the Third Century while strengthening the Empire against “barbarian” invasions, and, sure, I have Appendixes in the Clash of Eagles books laying out the details. But my characters don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing the dusty events of a thousand years past – they’re much too busy running around and dodging pointy missiles and trying to stay alive.

So, let’s review: in Clash of Eagles, Gaius Marcellinus and his legion march in from the Chesapeake Bay and get their rear ends handed to them, first by the Iroquois, and then by the warriors of the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now. For Book One, the Big Idea was: “Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height.” In the second book, Eagle in Exile, Marcellinus is – as you might guess – largely separated from Rome and from his new Cahokian home base. There’s a coup in Cahokia, and a vicious despot replaces the more measured and even-keel Great Sun Man who originally kept Marcellinus alive.

Before you know it, Marcellinus is cast out with a handful of friends, navigating the untamed Mizipi River on a Norse longship, fighting off threats from all sides. The Book Two Big Idea: “wild adventure in an ancient North America, in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear.” (Suffice to say that Marcellinus’s attempts to help always have unforeseen consequences, and also that his loyalty to Rome is not so easily tossed aside.)

Okay, so welcome to Book Three, Eagle and Empire. More legions have marched into Nova Hesperia by way of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by the Emperor Hadrianus III himself. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the Mongol Horde is landing on the west coast and crossing the Rockies. Having had his plundering ambitions in Asia thwarted by the solid power of Rome, Genghis Khan has set his sights on the brave New World, and so one aspect of the Eagle and Empire Big Idea is “a titanic confrontation between the Mongol Horde and the legions of Rome on the Great Plains of North America,” a terrain which naturally benefits the nomad horsemen of the Khan.

Needless to say, the various nations and tribes who were already living on the Hesperian continent have their own very strong opinions about all this, and have continued to take independent action. Cahokia is now first among equals of a great Hesperian League, an alliance between disparate tribes that in the past sometimes made war with each other and sometimes simply ignored one another, but who are now forced to work together to resist the dual (and dueling) forces stomping all over their various territories. Other tribes cast their lot with Genghis, for various reasons, and so the stage is set for all manner of internecine carnage.

But now let’s home in on the human element, the soul of the story, behind all the cut and thrust and steel and shine.

Geopolitics aside, Marcellinus has a basic and central conflict between his old life as a Roman general , and his new life of family and community in Cahokia. He has friends and loved ones, duties and responsibilities, and many of these people and factors are at odds with one another. He has sworn several oaths he can never break, but even some of those oaths collide.

The three Cahokian children who were tasked with learning the outsider’s language back in Clash of Eagles have grown up to become influential in Cahokian society by the time Eagle and Empire begins. Tahtay is now War Chief of Cahokia, and a leading figure in the Hesperian League. Kimimela is a warrior and budding clan chief; she’s Marcellinus’s adopted daughter, but spends more time opposing him and working around him than chatting cheerfully with him by the camp fire. And then there’s young Enopay, not at all martial but empathic about people and an all-around smartypants: as a sometime-admirer and sometime-manipulator of key Romans, he also has his part to play in how this all resolves.

So another Biggish Idea that threads through Eagle and Empire is the complex interaction-space between all these different people (and peoples), their differing beliefs and motivations, and the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nature of Marcellinus’s challenges as a somewhat loyal Roman and eventually-decent human being, deep in the midst of this continent-wide upheaval.

And if you do read the books, and we meet up in the bar at a con sometime, maybe we’ll talk about what the world of the Clash series might look like after another thousand years has gone by and the events of Eagle and Empire are, in their turn, buried in the distant past. I have a few ideas about that too, of course…


Eagle and Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Alan Smale”

  1. Oh wow, I literally finished the first book in this series yesterday! It’s really damn enjoyable and that lovely thing when you find an alternate history that doesn’t load up on world building and forget about characters and a story. I already grabbed the second book and I’m raring to go on it.

    (And for military history enthusiasts, there’s a bit in the first book involving observation balloon and a version of chinese lanterns that’s just damn lovely.)

  2. This sounds soooooo cool. Gonna pick up the first book in the series right now.

  3. One thing I appreciate about these books (as opposed to a similarly premised book, set in, IIRC, the 5th century, and written about thirty years ago) is that you base the Native American cultures on what actually existed during the time the book is set, as opposed to just transposing idealized versions of (mostly plains) 19th century cultures centuries earlier.

  4. I enjoyed the first two quite a bit. I took the first one out from the library, and honestly I didn’t think I’d like it all that well (I am fairly indiscriminate at the library, because free), but I breezed right through it. I will definitely be picking this one up. The native characters are quite well done, and the inter-cultural ethical quandaries Marcellinus has to negotiate are compelling plot devices that don’t seem contrived.

  5. How does the author avoid the issue of eastern hemisphere diseases sweeping through populations without any protections?

  6. Influenza, measles, and smallpox were, presumably, not any less virulent in the 1300s than they were in the 1500s, is my point.

  7. You had me sold from the concept for the first book. Suffice to say, Mr. Smale, that you have a direct line to my wallet.

    I’d like to know, though, how the Mongols got their horses and other useful kit to America? The Ikh Mongol Uls was a continental power that flopped at every sea invasion it tried. I can buy that the Americas have already gotten immunity to smallpox and measles off-screen in a more stable and gradual fashion thanks to earlier and more sustained Viking contact, but as cool as it sounds you do need a good reason for Temujin to send his armies overseas when he could be crushing Iran, Russia, Poland, or India. In OTL, the Great Khan wiped out something like 75% of Iran and Afghanistan, rendering the area’s population significantly below what tech and resources should have allowed into the 20th century, in a matter of months. But Japan saw off two straight Mongol-led invasions with ease. Also, crossing the Rockies with the Mongol kit isn’t going to be fun; sure, the Mongols could breeze through the cold, but the treacherous terrain and the Mongol reliance on herd animals would be a problem. They didn’t really get into India OTL either, at least not until Timur i-Lang, but he was working with a different angle of attack, different power base, and different tech, plus there are some solid passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan that aren’t really there in the Rockies.

    Furthermore, the Mongols were not above biological warfare in any way. Any diseases that the Native Americans haven’t met yet are going to be catastrophic

    What does South America look like? One of my favorite timelines is Guns of the Tawantinsuyu, where Cham Cham develops gunpowder and bronze, then gets conquered by the Incas, so Pizarro’s goons get captured, tortured until they spill the goods on iron and cannons, and the Tawantinsuyu kick Spanish ass up and down the continent, culminating in the Sapa Inca allying with England to fuck with the Spanish. It had a whole timeline ending in the alt-21st century. I hope that the Incas are coming together about on time and will royally kick some Roman butt!

  8. Weird side note about the cover: Close-up on eye-lashes is so often coded female that it took a few minutes for me to notice that the person was wearing a war-helmet and war-paint, and also maybe a 5 o’clock shadow – not a harem-hair-adornment and harem face paint.

    Roman warrior almost certainly =/= female.

  9. Immunity via the Norse, with contact beginning in (roughly) 1000 CE, wouldn’t have helped, based on the historical mortality rates in Mexico, Central America, and both North and South America from 1500-onward. Estimates are just that, given the realities of time and record keeping, but I’ve read estimates that mortality was 90 percent among some of the worst-hit indigenous societies in the Western Hemisphere. As late as the 1600s, societies as distant as the Natchez and the Shawmut were essentially wiped out, IIRC, in some cases before any contact with Europeans, via diseases that were carried from one native center to another by people on foot.

    The point is, I don’t think one can hand wave away pandemics of Eastern Hemisphere diseases in the Western Hemisphere once trans-oceanic contact was made …

  10. If contact begins SUPER early, like 900 AD early. populations would recover from the initial wave in North America at least by 1200 AD. Though, Cahokia would likely be very different from OTL. Also, they WILL still have problems with bioweapons, but the late epidemics OTL were mostly among more remote peoples who hadn’t had much contact with Eastern diseases.

    I’m more questioning the whole Genghis Khan bit here, tbh.

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