Culture Spotlight: Medieval Steampunk

Steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy that presupposes the cultural domination of steam technology in the Victorian Era as the Age of Enlightenment spreads across the globe. But technological breakthroughs are curiously fragile things. How would this fantasy universe change if we had taken different technological forks in the road? What if steam power had arisen a little earlier in our hypothetical history?

A steampunk Roman Empire is a popular variant. At first glance the idea seems almost within the realm of possibility. Heron of Alexandria experimented with the applications of steam at the height of the empire. He invented a spinning toy. Of course, technological innovation does not always go hand in hand with practicality or
wide spread adoption if the foundations to support the advancement are crumbling or nonexistent. After all, the Incas had discovered wheels. This didn’t lead to their society used roads and carts. The wheels were relegated to little toys because when you live on the side of a mountain, wheeled carts don’t work. This doesn’t mean Incas couldn’t grasp the concept of a wheel or how they worked.

But could steam power have worked for Romans? Possibly. The societal framework was there. Romans were famous for adapting new technologies and being ruthless cultural appropriators. As they explored (ahem, conquered) the world, they took and improved upon what worked and discarded what didn’t. Many Roman innovations, in particular their architecture, still survive today. However, while their engineering and mathematics were impressive, their understanding of physics and the natural world was . . . lacking.

Much of this can be laid at the feet of Aristotle, whose teachings Rome appropriated from the Greeks. Part philosopher, part natural historian, Aristotle was the go to guy for understanding how the world worked. Unfortunately, many of his theories were misguided or flat out wrong. Until the Age of Enlightenment encouraged philosophers and scientists to question their assumptions of how the world worked, practical steam engines would have been impractical because while the principles were known, societal acceptance was likely, and the technological prowess was theoretically possible, the conceptual framework was nonexistent. An advancement in understanding physical science was required to herald the advancement of steam power technology. So, in our fantasy timeline, Victorian Steampunk makes sense.

It is so frustrating that almost all the pieces were there. So what if we travel to an alternate fantasy universe where society’s understanding of the physical world kept pace with technological innovation? And maybe a little magic here and there to smooth the rough edges. What if this universe’s analogue of the Roman Empire never collapsed and advanced into the early Medieval Period (which one could argue the offshoot Byzantine Empire technically managed to accomplish.) But instead of a flagging misunderstood offshoot empire limping along until it gets ravaged by the crusades, our empire is ascendant, at the forefront of innovation, and the technological center of the world. The stage is set for a Medieval Steampunk Roman Empire: an Iron Empire.