The Romans & Embryo Selection
Give pagan Romans CRISPR and polygenic screening and all the rest, what would they do with it?
Written by Helen Dale.
June 1st was the fifth anniversary of my last novel’s publication. Normally, this is the sort of thing authors enjoy, especially given most books have the shelf life of yoghurt and end up remaindered inside a year.
From the beginning, however, something about the popular response troubled me.
Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I later became a lawyer to pay the bills), so I’m aware pagan Rome had different values from those now present in the modern, industrialised West.
I set out my vision in a piece for The Cato Institute:
I tried to conceive of a world where a society unlike ours produces the ‘progress and growth’ template all others then seek to follow. It is commonplace to point out that Roman civilization was polytheistic and animist, while ours is monotheistic but leavened by the Enlightenment; that Roman society was very martial, while Christianity has gifted us a tradition of religious and political pacifism; that Roman society had different views of sexual morality, marriage, and family structure. In short, I had to imagine an industrial revolution without monotheism.
Thanks to the contents of my author’s postbag, it soon became clear a lot of people wanted to live in the world I’d created. Even at five years’ remove, I still get the occasional letter or email expressing various forms of undying affection for my characters, my world, and their morality.
The Roman Empire was not the modern European Union, despite occupying much of the same territory. Its peoples looked like us, and its rulers spoke a language most of us could learn relatively easily. They seem like us, especially their flamboyant writers, lawyers, artists, generals, and politicians. But apart from obvious distinctions—slavery, a taste for cruel entertainment, saucy interior design—they were morally different all the way down.
I gave my Romans modern science and technology to head what I call “P. J. O’Rourke objections” off at the pass. “In general, life is better than it ever has been,” O’Rourke wrote in All the Trouble in the World. “If you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: dentistry.”
Roman morality. Our dentistry.
Yet the idea that I’d created an ideal vision would not go away. It even turned up in serious reviews from reputable outlets. People liked everything from the way I’d organised society to the role of the military to the system of governance to the stable, orderly rituals of Roman religion to the way the health service was run.
There were times when I wanted to shout did you not notice the authoritarianism? Did you not notice the eugenics? Did you not notice the medical experiments on POWs? Did you not notice the torture? (A few people—mainly professional reviewers—noticed the torture.)
Kingdom of the Wicked is not a dystopia—I don’t write them. The society it depicts works. I wrote it that way for a reason.
The planet’s two great legal systems developed in two European civilisations: Rome and England. Their global provenance is not only due to both peoples conquering great empires. It’s also because they worked: they did things no other legal regime did before them, and many others are still incapable of doing now. If your country has a functioning legal system, it’s because people in the past copied all or most of its law from either England or Rome.
And not just high-minded things like the presumption of innocence or the rule of law. Things like consumer protection, limited liability, commercial loans, maritime law, the law of trusts, remedies that take the form of performance as well as damages. Incredibly, these developed independently of each other. The English common law did not borrow from Rome. When it first emerged, Roman law was lost.
Because of these striking similarities, it’s easy to forget the extent to which Roman morality differed from ours. England, when it turned its hand to law-making, was a Christian civilisation. Rome very much was not.
When I wrote Kingdom of the Wicked, I did things like include a scene where a rather admirable Roman advocate loses his lunch when he first meets a particular witness. The reason? The Jewish couple he’s talking to have kept their spina bifida-afflicted son alive. So seldom is this done at home, he doesn’t even know whether the child is human.
After Kingdom of the Wicked was published—when I had to explain this scene (and others like it) to interviewers in Australia and the UK who knew nothing of Roman law—I said things like, “basically, they had Peter Singer laws.”
Peter Singer, of course, is notorious for ranking animals above humans—at least some of the time—and for paying admiring obeisance to a legal system that was not only superior as law to much of what came after, but which also (and notoriously) ranked incapable humans with unwanted animals.
Roman law permitted killing both animals and humans for sport (the jurist Gaius provides guidance on drafting gladiator hire-purchase contracts) while encouraging parents to kill ugly or disabled children. It was, in modern terms, eugenicist. True, Roman eugenics differed from Spartan eugenics in that the decision was left to parents and not mandated at the state’s behest, but the distinction is one of degree, not kind.
This distinction even has a name. Romans practiced liberal eugenics. Spartans—where an official inspected your newborn baby—engaged in state-sponsored eugenics. Roman civilisation lasted considerably longer and was more prosperous than Spartan civilisation. Freedom of choice, however grim, once again won the day over central planning.
Give pagan Romans—with that morality—CRISPR and polygenic screening and all the rest, what would they do with it?
Novelists want to write books that people will read (well, this novelist does). In Kingdom of the Wicked, I use the Roman state and private sector’s exploitation of genetic technology as background radiation. I admire GATTACA as a film, but when I came to write my books, other people had already told that story.
Nonetheless, the Roman military in Kingdom of the Wicked has biomechanoids and fighter pilots that can see in the dark. A Roman soldier with snaggle teeth is the subject of amused and mocking comment from his comrades. When—as a small boy—a character from the imperial periphery goes on holiday to Italy, he notices that among families with three children, two girls are always followed by a boy. Families with three children (regardless of sex) attract significant government subsidy.
Meanwhile, Roman citizens are trim and fit. Roman popular culture—while it has outstanding production values and employs musically gifted casts—is stylistically predictable in a way that echoes the structures familiar to us from, say, Bollywood. I did this partly because we talk about “Indo-European civilisation” for a reason. Christianity came to Europe via Judaism, a foreign, Middle Eastern import. The Continent’s stock religions were closer to historic Vedic religion. Not for nothing did anthropologist Louis Dumont call India’s caste system Homo Hierarchicus.
However, I also did it because—given the choice—not only do parents not want a disabled child; they don’t want a depressed child, a schizophrenic child, or a bipolar child. Yet among those serious mental illnesses, the second has genetic overlaps with creativity. Remove all the schizophrenics from a population and you’ll likely lose most of its artists, too. Roman high school students are all still reading The Aeneid, a book already sixty years old in the period when Kingdom of the Wicked is set. Only some of this is because the society in question is artistically conservative.
Although I began my career as a fictioneer, since 2018 I’ve written political commentary for newspapers and magazines in various countries. Often this draws on my legal experience. And like most lawyers, I’ve met a great many people from all walks of life and come to appreciate the great diversity of the human race. Unless you’re a lawyer reading this, I’ve probably met more people who’ve been jailed than you.
People who argue over whether, say, polygenic screening or aborting Down Syndrome foetuses is eugenics or not often fail to grasp that different societies (and individuals) can hold different but coherent ethical frameworks because they prioritise different values. Maybe they even have different conceptions of those values.
“Freedom” means different things in different countries and cultures, for example. In America the right to own a firearm is a core component of liberty; in Britain it isn’t. In Britain there’s strong resistance to ID cards and banning items of clothing. Meanwhile, in France ID cards are accepted, and niqabs are illegal. Legal practice taught me that most people have several sets of value-scales and if you ask them to set those scales off against each other the response will be a form of moral dumbfounding.
This reality is why people who argue against, say, voluntary euthanasia or polygenic screening don’t trouble to buttress the moral logic underlying their claims: that all life is precious, while suffering victims have much to teach us. That said, those who argue that differing values can be reduced to one super-value (like utility or happiness) and plotted on the same scale—and are thus easily compared—finish up saying things like Value A has X units of super-value Alpha, value B has Y units of super-value Alpha and wonder why their opponents call them everything from Nietzschean to Nazi.
The moral contrast between us and the Romans represents value shifts over time. Reaching back to a morally different past is excellent moral education but not necessarily excellent moral guidance. On this point, the man who taught me jurisprudence at Oxford, Professor John Gardner, used to quip, “when you want to know if something is cruel, don’t ask a moral philosopher.”
Roman law—both because of its legal greatness and its moral foreignness—forces us to confront hard questions like: given people are factually unequal, how do we treat like cases alike? Reading the Roman jurists is also to be reminded that one legal principle taught to generations of law students—often in their first lecture—remains as true as ever.
There is no necessary connection between law and morality.
Helen Dale is Senior Writer at Law & Liberty, a Liberty Fund-owned magazine. She won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford and Edinburgh. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction. She writes for various outlets, including The Spectator, The Australian, Standpoint, and Quillette. Subscribe to her Substack here.
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