Julius Caesar is not the subject of science fiction as often as the emperors, but references to him are frequent and when he appears in his own SF novel, John Barnes’ Caesar’s Bicycle (1997), his keen intellect and capacity for military/political strategy make him the prime candidate from the ancient world to realize the potential of technology and use it to change history, for the better.
Romans appear in the science fiction primarily through stories about parallel universes or alternate histories, whereas Greek gods, heroes, and historical characters are found in a wider variety of science fiction sub-genres. Indeed, in the first parallel universe story by Murray Leinster (“Sideways in Time” ), it is the appearance of Romans in the 20th century that signals time is out of balance. Likewise, one of the classics of early alternate history is L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Falls (1939/41), which introduces technology into late antique Rome to change history. Most alternate history SF featuring the Romans begins after the time of Julius Caesar, as do the recent novels by Robert Silverberg (Roma Eterna ), Sophia McDougal (Romanitas , Rome Burning , Savage City ), and David Drake (The Legions of Fire , Out of the Waters ). The same evocative blend of political intrigue, lust for power, moral decadence, slavery, etc., that makes imperial Rome inviting for the cinema (Wyke, Projecting the Past ), makes it irresistible for SF. The future(s) envisioned, however, are usually the epitome(s) of the military imperialist state, now on an inter-planetary level.
Julius Caesar is spared association with the worst of Rome’s vices in SF partially because he represents the republican ideal and not a later imperialism. In Caesar’s Bicycle, Mark Strang must travel to another timeline to assassinate Caesar in 49. If he is successful, he will bring an end to war across all timelines, the ascendance of Romans to become the rulers of the universe, and an easing of restrictions that will allow for tourism across all timelines for all people. There will be complete peace and harmony. But Strang cannot believe he should kill Caesar, a good man: “...just to begin with, every Latin student in thousands of timelines is going to hate me.” (94) Indeed, Caesar shows himself remarkably adept at using new technology creatively, beyond the expectations of even the more technologically savvy agents sent from the future. Of the numerous Romans who use new technology in recent SF stories and novels, Caesar best understands the potential of science to advance his and the Roman cause.
The characterization of Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic illustrates the popular appeal of a republican political system over empire. Caesar becomes the pivotal figure between republic and empire and thus can be seen as the key to a future of peace vs. a future of war and aggressive imperialism. However, the complexity of Caesar’s character carries both positive and negative potential in SF. As with the most widely known representation of Caesar in SF, actually a blend of Caesar and Augustus, Senator Palpatine in Star Wars, there is great danger that this brilliant political and military strategist may be evil.
Caesar’s Bicycle reverses the usual trajectory of SF alternate histories featuring the Romans by focusing on the potential of Julius Caesar to be good. It reimagines the future of the universe with the Romans as rulers, when the Roman Republic never became the Roman Empire and the Republic never fell.