Romans and steampunk?

CoverToday, I don’t only have a guest, I’m actually swapping blogs with Daniel Ottalini, another ‘Roman nut’ but with a difference… 

Daniel Ottalini is the author of The Steam Empire Series, a fantastical Roman and steampunk story brought to life in his debut novel, Brass Legionnaire. Daniel has been an avid reader all his life, starting at the grand old age of three. It’s always been his dream to write a novel and Brass Legionnaire was the winner of the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition’s 2013 eBook Awards for best Action Adventure Novel.  Daniel’s second book, Copper Centurion, was published in May 2013. When not writing in his miniscule free time, Daniel is a full time teacher, part-time tutor, and full-time video-game aficionado. He also enjoys many outdoor activities such as soccer and hiking.

Over to Daniel…

Before I begin, let me say that it is an honor to be swapping blog postings with Alison today. You see, when I first started writing Brass Legionnaire, I clung to the idea that it was unique; special amongst the wide variety of Victorian era steampunk as an alternate history featuring Romans and their fancy steampunk arsenal. Discovering someone who has not only created a world where Roman culture and ideas have survived in addition to an actual Roman state (not Italy, as much as it pretends to be!) was a wonderful experience.

There is a reason that Europe has been a centerpiece of technological and cultural development in our history. Whereas the Muslim empires became great through their increased access to trade, technology and the exchange of ideas through various means, Europe went the opposite direction. War.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, it splintered into a haphazard variety of petty kingdoms, dukedoms, tribal areas and successor kingdoms. This complete diversity, and lack of overwhelmingly powerful successor kingdoms, as had happened to Alexander the Great’s empire, ensured that there was not one powerful area able to control the others. From this conflict grew the lust for new technologies to bash your opponent’s head with. Countries could be attacked, but it was difficult to conquer. The geography of Europe makes this so. Think about who, after the Romans, was able to conquer Europe? Charlemagne? Napoleon? Hitler? Never since Roman times could one civilization conquer, subsume and influence the others for such a long period of time. The closeness of European nations makes keeping technology secret impossible, while the geographic barriers – rivers, mountains, terrain and even weather (I’m looking at you, Mother Russia!) prevents those same forces from maintaining control through force of arms alone.

This is why steampunk is considered so very English/British, and not French or German or Russian. Each of those countries has been conquered by outsiders, whereas England, with the Channel separating it from the troubles of the mainland, has remained protected since 1066. Thus, England, especially Victorian England, benefited from the spread of technology, while also being safe from the consequences of it. Which leads us to another point.

What if Rome had not fallen and allowed the creation of an independent England?

Could a Rome, more concerned about external foes, have embarked on a massive technological research project? Many examples of medieval technology – crossbows being a prime example – could have been created using ancient technology and some small advances in materials. Small advances lead to bigger ones. All it takes is a hefty treasure chest, which the Romans definitely had.

So Rome could have become the technological superpower it is in my novels. The challenge in writing is not to create Rome itself, but to create a Rome where the technological advances make sense, not just tacked on to make a book ‘steampunk.’

To build steampunk into your world, you must first examine your world. What are some creatures your characters fear? Hold holy or important? Aztecs would hold eagles in awe, Chinese the dragon. My Romans? The same creature that terrified and awed them since the Punic Wars – the African elephant. Take that, make it machine and not animal, and voilà, a creature that makes sense and is connected to Roman history.

I’ve tried really hard to keep my technology in pace with the time period. Imagine if there had been no Dark Ages? Without that, technology would have continued to advance. And yet, my Romans are not running around with machine guns or repeating rifles for two reasons.

First, the natural tendency for such a large empire is to become complacent. Even fighting several wars, if you win the wars with the technology you have currently, why bother to develop new weapons or machines? That’s the problem my Romans are currently facing, which will be revealed in the upcoming novella Antioch Burns.

Second, the Romans themselves were traditionalists, but also rampant technology stealers. The gladius, trademark Roman weapon, is originally Iberian, not Roman. The development of heavy cavalry armies is a Persian and barbarian idea, not Roman.

So my Romans have stolen an idea (gunpowder) but adapted it to meet their current weapons – ballista and scorpions – not develop muskets or cannon. Why create something new when you can modify something that works perfectly?


So, to summarize the talking points and actually make sense for all of you:

  1. Understand your culture. What it fears, what it loves.
  2. Match your technology to your culture and time period. It helps even more if you can use a famous inventor who created or had similar ideas to design your technology (which is why so many steampunk authors have Tesla building lightning guns for their characters).
  3. Make your enemies smart, not cardboard cutouts. In Copper Centurion, my second novel, their opponents, the pseudo-Viking Nortlanders, have their own mechanical beast – the mechwolf. Needless to say, it surprises the Romans, who have a slight superiority complex, and creates some major challenges for their men as they march north.
  4. Use technology wisely. Technology does not, and should not, replace the human part of your story. I use technology to move people, to assist people, but never replace the human element. In the end, it is down to the one guy or gal making the decision.

When in doubt, read a history book. They are full of great ideas. Alternatively, play a video game such as Civilization or Total War. These games offer endless opportunities to create something new (Just imagine if the Byzantines had conquered Mecca and burned it to the ground using paratroopers? Or if the Chinese had stopped the Mongolian invasion at the gates of Peking with fully functional cannons, not measly fireworks?).

Alternate history allows us to play in a large playground. But just because it can be alternate, doesn’t mean you can forget the history.

Well said, Daniel! Thank you for a terrific post with great tips that can be used by writers in many genres apart from our own, especially mainstream historical fiction.


Daniel’s latest book, Copper Centurion, Part II of the The Steam Empire Series, published last month, is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK. Part I, Brass Legionnaire is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK

Find out more about Daniel at






Update 2022: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

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