Our books today are the three in Kirk Mitchell's "Procurator" series, based in an alternate history of his own devising, one in which Pontius Pilate listened to the cautions of his wife and spared the life of Jesus Christ, thereby assuring the Empire two thousand years more of life. The series started in 1984 with Procurator, continued in 1986 with New Barbarians, and petered out in 1989 with Cry Republic, and the three books star Germanicus Agricola, who gradually rises from the procutatorship of the first book to the height of power in this unfallen Rome. Germanicus is an old-fashioned stand-up hero, an action-ready military man with a nimble brain and a Jim Kirk sense of humor.
Mitchell teams Germanicus with a trusty German aide and a series of interesting women who serve as love interests, and Mitchell enjoys a great David Drake-style ability to write action well, to keep his plots (Germanicus against the Muslims, Germanicus against the Aztecs, Germanicus against the Japanese, with lots of internecine machinations thrown in along the way) constantly bubbling.
The central idea is a bit odd - but then, all 'what if Rome didn't fall' central plot ideas are a bit odd, since they usually misunderstand the causes of that fabled event rather fundamentally, as Mitchell (I'm guessing wilfully, since his straight-up Roman historical novel A.D. Anno Domini, in addition to being really good, shows that he knows his Roman history quite well) does here. With all due respect to Gibbon, Christianity didn't bring about the downfall of the Empire, as Mitchell's Pontius Pilate scenario implies - slavery did the deed, as it would certainly have done for the British Empire and 19th century America, if those countries hadn't learned (with differing degrees of reluctance) from the Roman example.
But that's not important, as Mitchell must know perfectly: he barely touches on this central conceit before bolting onward to his slam-bang stories. These books are enormously enjoyable page-turners full of great plot developments, great characters, and, sprinkled here and there, some great insights into the actual Roman experience, as when Germanicus and his lady-love Colonel Crispa are eating an improvised meal in an abandoned room:
She slowly nodded, eyes glistening, then let her gaze drift over the food on the table. "This is what it is to be Roman, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Always sitting down to someone else's table."
"Yes," he said simply. He had long since stopped trying to deceive himself.
In New Barbarians, Germanicus gets drawn into a war between Rome and the Aztec Empire, and at the climax of that book he finds himself burdened with more authority than any man has carried in long centuries. Mithchell is practiced enough to know the moment is right for a bit of comic relief:
"Now that the war is done," he [Germanicus] said in a tired but firm voice from his curule chair, "it is time to rebuild and reshape ..."
Suddenly, in the space that separated Germanicus from the assembly, a jaguar padded across the floor. This greatly alarmed the Anasazi headsmen for, as Germanicus later learned, they were convinced the animal was Tizoc's ghost. It halted, glared at Germanicus, who steeled himself to betray no fright, and then continued on its way out of the lord general's feasting chamber.
"One of our first orders of business," Germanicus broke the unpleasant calm, "will be to repair the walls of the royal menagerie."
There was tentative, then boisterous, laughter.
But probably the best moment in the whole series (I guess we have to call it a trilogy, since it's unlikely Mitchell will be returning to it, although he should - in the twenty years since he wrote these books, the whole sub-genre of alternate histories has blossomed beyond imagining) comes toward the end of the third book, Cry Republic, when Tora, a character from the other side of Rome's world, measures his distance from the city of Germanicus by how distant the echoes become:
The garrulous Bithynian sailors who had conveyed him across the Pontus Euxinus to the principality of Colchus repeated all the latest rumors about Antonius Nepos, Claudia Nero, and the "most likely rotting" Germanicus Agricola. But the taciturn muleteers who conducted him over the towering Caucasus Mountains seemed remarkably unaware of the turmoil in the empire on which they bordered, and one of them spoke for the first time in two days to ask: "Who be this Autun Neppo you revile?" To avoid any Roman agents in Parthia, Tora crossed the Hyrcanian Sea on a barge loaded to the gunwales with tin ore, and when he landed on that citiless shore claimed by no country, he no longer heard the word Rome in any variation. A week farther to the east, a holy man, who claimed to be the most widely traveled member of his impoverished tribe, admitted that he had never heard of Rome, but he was familiar with "the Empire of the Eagle," having met a ten-foot-tall stranger from that land. The caravanners Tora joined soon after were aware of the "Men of the Eagle" but had never heard of an empire by that name. However, these squat, sepia-complected men with slightly-tapered eyes had been well briefed about the latest happenings in the Serican Empire. They had even referred to it by its proper name: the Xing Dynasty.
At that moment, while lurching atop a musty-breathed camel with his and the beast's combined shadows stretching out across the late afternoon sands, Tora realized that he had turned the corner of the world.
And now on a breathlessly hot morning, departing on the back of a pony from the sprawling and fly-ridden mud city on the Xing frontier, he smiled at what the women of the shining black braids and joined eyebrows had told him: They had never heard of the Men of the Eagle, but they knew of beasts half-eagle and half-human who resided in the same nest the sun used at night. These beasts were called Rumahn.
These books are fantastic fun reading, but they're frustrating too - not only because they're all out of print (needed you to even ask?) but because they automatically get you dreaming about other novels in the series - Germanicus against those Xing, for instance, or Germanicus - and his allies, one imagines - against an alien invasion of Earth, etc. In lieu of those never-to-be-written subsequent volumes, I'd settle for one gorgeously-produced fat trade paperback collecting these three volumes, maybe with a new introduction by Mitchell, if he's still willing and able. I'd buy it.