What if the Roman Empire had experienced an Industrial Revolution? That's the compelling hook of Helen Dale's two-part novel, Kingdom of the Wicked: Rules and Order. Drawing on economics and legal history, Helen's story follows the arrest and trial of charismatic holy man Yeshua Ben Yusuf in the first century — but one with television, flying machines, cars, and genetic modification.
In this episode of Faster, Please! — The Podcast, I dive into the fascinating world-building of Kingdom of the Wicked with Helen. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
James Pethokoukis: Your Kingdom of the Wicked books raise such an interesting question: What would have happened if Jesus had emerged in a Roman Empire that had gone through an industrial revolution? What led you to ask this question and to pursue that answer through these books?
Helen Dale: There is an essay in the back of book one, which is basically a set of notes about what I brought to the book when I was thinking. And that has been published elsewhere by the Cato Institute. I go into these questions. But the main one, the one that really occurred to me, was that I thought, what would happen if Jesus emerged in a modern society now, rather than the historic society he emerged in? I didn't think it would turn into something hippy-dippy like Jesus of Montreal. I thought it would turn into Waco or to the Peoples Temple.
And that wasn't necessarily a function of the leader of the group being a bad person. Clearly Jim Jones was a very bad person, but the Waco story is actually much more complex and much messier and involves a militarized police force and tanks attacking the buildings and all of this kind of thing. But whatever happened with it, it was going to go badly and it was going to end in violence and there would be a showdown and a confrontation. And it would also take on, I thought — I didn't say this in the essay, but I thought at the time — it would take on a very American cast, because that is the way new religious movements tend to blow up or collapse in the United States.
And so I was thinking this idea, through my head, “I would like to do a retelling of the Jesus story, but how do I do it? So it doesn't become naff and doesn't work?” And so what I decided to do was rather than bring Jesus forward and put him now, I would put us back to the time of Jesus — but take our technology and our knowledge, but always mediated by the fact that Roman civilization was different from modern civilization. Not in the sense of, you know, human beings have changed, all that kind of thing. We're all still the same primates that we have been for a couple of hundred thousand years or even longer. But in the sense that their underlying moral values and beliefs about the way the world should work were different, which I thought would have technological effects. The big technological effect in Kingdom of the Wicked is they're much better at the biosciences and the animal sciences. They're much weaker at communications. Our society has put all its effort into [communication]. Their society is much more likely to put it into medicine.
To give you an idea: the use of opioids to relieve the pain of childbirth is Roman. And it was rediscovered by James Young Simpson at The University of Edinburgh. And he very famously used the formula of one of the Roman medical writers. So I made a very deliberate decision: This is a society that has not pursued technological advancement in the same way as us. It's also why their motor vehicles look like the Soviet-era ones with rotary engines. It's why their big aircraft are kind of like Antonovs, the big Ukrainian aircraft that we've all been reading about since the war has started in Ukraine. So, in some respects, there are bits of their culture that look more Soviet, or at least Britain in the 1950s. You know, sort of Clement Attlee’s quite centralized, postwar settlement: health service, public good, kind of Soviet-style. Soft Soviet; it's not the nasty Stalinist sort, but like late-Soviet, so kind of Brezhnev and the last part of Khrushchev. A few people did say that. They were like, “Your military parades, they look like the Soviet Union.” Yes. That was deliberate. The effort has gone to medicine.
It's an amazing bit of world-building. I was sort of astonished by the depth and the scale of it. Is this a genre that you had an interest in previously? Are there other works that you took inspiration from?
There's a particular writer of speculative fiction I admire greatly. His name is S.M. Stirling, and he wrote a series of books. I haven't read every book he wrote, but he wrote a series of books called the Draka series. And it's speculative fiction. Once again, based on a point of departure where the colonists who finished up in South Africa finished up using the resources of South Africa, but for a range of reasons he sets out very carefully in his books, they avoid the resource curse, the classic economist’s resource curse. And so certainly in terms of a popular writer, he was the one that I read and thought, “If I can do this as well as him, I will be very pleased.”
I probably didn't read as much science fiction as most people would in high school, unless it was a literary author like Margaret Atwood or George Orwell. I just find bad writing rebarbative, and a lot of science fiction struggles with bad writing. So this is the problem, of course, that Douglas Adams famously identified. And one of the reasons why he wrote the Hitchhiker’s books was to show that you could combine science fiction with good writing.
In all good works of speculative fiction of the alt-history variant, there's an interesting jumping-off point. I would imagine you had a real “Eureka!” moment when you figured out what your jumping-off point would be to make this all plausible. Tell me about that.
Well, yes. I did. Once I realized that points of departure hugely mattered, I then went and read people like Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle. The point of departure for him is the assassination of Roosevelt. I went and read SS-GB [by] Len Deighton, a great British spycraft writer but also a writer of speculative fiction. And in that case, Britain loses the Battle of Britain and Operation Sea Lion, the putative land invasion of the UK, is successful. And I really started to think about this and I'm going, "Okay, how are you going to do this point of departure? And how are you going to deal with certain economic issues?"
I'm not an economist, but I used to practice in corporate finance so I've got the sort of numerical appreciation for economics. I can read an economics paper that's very math heavy because that's my skill based on working in corporate finance. And I knew, from corporate finance and from corporate law, that there are certain things that you just can't do, you can't achieve in terms of economic progress, unless you abolish slavery, basically. Very, very basic stuff like human labor power never loses its comparative advantage if you have just a market flooded with slaves. So you can have lots of good science technology, and an excellent legal system like the Romans did. And they reached that point economists talk about of takeoff, and it just never happens. Just, they miss. It doesn't quite happen.
And in a number of civilizations, this has happened. It's happened with the Song dynasty in China. Steve Davies has written a lot about the Song dynasty, and they went through the same thing. They just get to that takeoff point and then just … fizzled out. And in China, it was to do with serfdom, basically. These are things that are very destructive to economic progress. So you have to come up with a society that decides that slavery is really shitty. And the only way to do that is for them to get hooked on the idea of using a substitute for human labor power. And that means I have to push technological innovation back to the middle republic.
So what I've done for my point of departure is at the Siege of Syracuse [in 213-212 B.C.]. I have Archimedes surviving instead of being killed. He was actually doing mathematical doodles outside his classroom, according to the various records of Roman writers, and he was killed by some rampaging Roman soldier. And basically Marcellus, the general, had been told to capture Archimedes and all his students and all their kids. So you can see Operation Paperclip in the Roman mind. You can see the thinking: “Oh no, we want this fellow to be our DARPA guy.”
That's just a brilliant leap. I love that.
And that is the beginning of the point of departure. So you have the Romans hauling all these clever Greek scientists and their families off and taking them to Rome and basically doing a Roman version of DARPA. You know, Operation Paperclip, DARPA. You know, “Do all the science, and have complete freedom to do all the…” — because the Romans would've let them do it. I mean, this is the thing. The Romans are your classic “cashed up bogans,” as Australians call it. They had lots of money. They were willing to throw money at things like this and then really run with it.
You really needed both. As you write at one point, you needed to create a kind of a “machine culture.” You sort of needed the science and innovation, but also the getting rid of slavery part of it. They really both work hand in hand.
Yes. These two have to go together. I got commissioned to write a few articles in the British press, where I didn't get to mention the name of Kingdom of the Wicked or any of my novels or research for this, but where people were trying to argue that the British Empire made an enormous amount of money out of slavery. And then, as a subsidiary argument, trying to argue that that led to industrialization in the UK. … [So] I wrote a number of articles in the press just like going through why this was actually impossible. And I didn’t use any fancy economic terminology or anything like that. There’s just no point in it. But just explaining that, “No, no, no. This doesn’t work like that. You might get individually wealthy people, like Crassus, who made a lot of his money from slavery.” (Although he also made a lot from insurance because he set up private fire brigades. That was one of the things that Crassus did: insurance premiums, because that’s a Roman law invention, the concept of insurance.) And you get one of the Islamic leaders in Mali, King Musa. Same thing, slaves. And people try to argue that the entirety of their country’s wealth depended on slavery. But what you get is you get individually very wealthy people, but you don’t get any propagation of the wealth through the wider society, which is what industrialization produced in Britain and the Netherlands and then in Germany and then in America and elsewhere.
So, yes, I had to work in the machine culture with the abolition of slavery. And the machines had to come first. If I did the abolition of slavery first, there was nothing there to feed it. One of the things that helped Britain was Somerset’s case (and in Scotland, Knight and Wedderburn) saying, “The air of the air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe.” You know, that kind of thinking. But that was what I realized: It was the slavery issue. I couldn't solve the slavery issue unless I took the technological development back earlier than the period when the Roman Republic was flooded with slaves.
The George Mason University economist Mark Koyama said if you had taken Adam Smith and brought him back to Rome, a lot of it would've seemed very recognizable, like a commercial, trading society. So I would assume that element was also pretty important in that world-building. You had something to work with there.
Yes. I'd read some Stoic stuff because I did a classics degree, so of course that means you have to be able to read in Latin. But I'd never really taken that much of an interest in it. My interest tended to be in the literature: Virgil and Apuleius and the people who wrote novels. And then the interest in law, I always had an advantage, particularly as a Scots lawyer because Scotland is a mixed system, that I could read all the Roman sources that they were drawing on in the original. It made me a better practitioner. But my first introduction to thinking seriously about stoicism and how it relates to commerce and thinking that commerce can actually be a good and honorable thing to do is actually in Adam Smith. Not in The Wealth of Nations, but in Moral Sentiments, where Adam Smith actually goes through and quotes a lot of the Roman Stoic writers — Musonius Rufus and Epictetus and people like that — where they talk about how it's possible to have something that's quite base, which is being greedy and wanting to have a lot of money, but realizing that in order to get your lot of money or to do really well for yourself, you actually have to be quite a decent person and not a shit.
And there were certain things that the Romans had applied this thinking to, like the samian with that beautiful red ceramic that you see, and it’s uniform all through the Roman Empire because they were manufacturing it on a factory basis. And when you come across the factories, they look like these long, narrow buildings with high, well-lit windows. And you're just sort of sitting there going, “My goodness, somebody dumped Manchester in Italy.” This kind of thing. And so my introduction to that kind of Stoic thinking was actually via Adam Smith. And then I went back and read the material in the original and realized where Adam Smith was getting those arguments from. And that's when I thought, “Ah, right. Okay, now I've got my abolitionists.”
This is, in large part, a book about law. So you had to create a believable legal system that did not exist, unlike, perhaps, the commercial nature of Rome. So how did you begin to work this from the ground up?
All the substantive law used in the book is Roman, written by actual Roman jurists. But to be fair, this is not hard to do. This is a proper legal system. There are only two great law-giving civilizations in human history. The Romans were one of them; the English were the other. And so what I had to do was take substantive Roman law, use my knowledge of practicing in a mixed system that did resemble the ancient Roman system — so I used Scotland, where I'd lived and worked — and then [put] elements back into it that existed in antiquity that still exists in, say, France but are very foreign, particularly to common lawyers.
I had lawyer friends who read both novels because obviously it appeals. “You have a courtroom drama?” A courtroom drama appeals to lawyers. These are the kind of books, particularly if it's written by another lawyer. So you do things like get the laws of evidence right and stuff like that. I know there are lawyers who cannot watch The Wire, for example, because it gets the laws of evidence (in the US, in this case) wrong. And they just finish up throwing shoes at the television because they get really annoyed about getting it wrong.
What I did was I took great care to get the laws of evidence right, and to make sure that I didn't use common law rules of evidence. For example, the Romans didn't have a rule against hearsay. So you'll notice that there's all this hearsay in the trial. But you'll also notice a mechanism. Pilate's very good at sorting out what's just gossip and what is likely to have substantive truth to it. So that's a classic borrowing from Roman law, because they didn't have the rule against hearsay. That's a common law rule. I also use corroboration a lot. Corroboration is very important in Roman law, and it's also very important in Scots law. And it's basically a two-witness rule.
And I did things, once again, to show the sort of cultural differences between the two great legal systems. Cornelius, the Roman equivalent of the principal crown prosecutor. Cornelius is that character, and he's obsessed with getting a confession. Obsessed. And that is deeply Roman. The Roman lawyers going back to antiquity called a confession the “Queen of Proofs.” And of course, if confessions are just the most wonderful thing, then it's just so tempting to beat the snot out of the accused and get your bloody confession. Job done.
The topic of the Industrial Revolution has been a frequent one in my writings and podcasts. And one big difference between our Industrial Revolution and the one you posit in the book is that there was a lot of competition in Europe. You had a lot of countries, and there was an incentive to permit disruptive innovation — where in the past, the proponents of the status quo had the advantage. But at some point countries realized, “Oh, both for commerce and military reasons, we need to become more technologically advanced. So we're going to allow inventors and entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas, even if it does alter that status quo.” But that's not the case with Rome. It was a powerful empire that I don't think really had any competitors, both in the real world and in your book.
That and the chattel slavery is probably why it didn't finish up having an industrial revolution. And it's one of the reasons why I had to locate the innovation, it had to be in the military first, because the military was so intensely respected in Roman society. If you'd have got the Roman military leadership coming up with, say, gunpowder or explosives or that kind of thing, the response from everybody else would've been, “Good. We win. This is a good thing.” It had to come from the military, which is why you get that slightly Soviet look to it. There is a reason for that. The society is more prosperous because it's a free-market society. The Romans were a free-market society. All their laws were all sort of trade oriented, like English law. So that's one of those things where the two societies were just really similar. But in terms of technological innovation, I had to locate it in the army. It had to be the armed forces first.
In your world, are there entrepreneurs? What does the business world look like?
Well, I do try to show you people who are very commercially minded and very economically oriented. You've got the character of Pilate, the real historical figure, who is a traditional Tory lawyer, who has come up through all the traditional Toryism and his family's on the land and so on and so forth. So he's a Tory. But Linnaeus, who he went to law school with, who is the defense counsel for the Jesus character, Yeshua Ben Yusuf, is a Whig. And his mother was a freed slave, and his family are in business in commerce. They haven't bought the land.
A lot of these books finished up on the cutting room floor, the world-building. And there is a piece that was published in a book called Shapers of Worlds: Volume II, which is a science-fiction anthology edited by a Canadian science-fiction author called Ed Willett. And one of the pieces that finished up on the cutting room floor and went into Shapers of Worlds is a description of Linnaeus's family background, which unfortunately was removed. You get Pilate’s, but you don't get Linnaeus's. And Linnaeus's family background, his dad's the factory owner. The factory making cloth. I was annoyed with my publisher when they said, “This piece has to go,” and I did one of those snotty, foot-stamping, awful things. And so I was delighted when this Canadian publisher came to me and said, “Oh, can we have a piece of your writing for a science-fiction anthology?” And I thought, “Oh good. I get to publish the Linnaeus's dad story in Shapers of Worlds.”
And I actually based Linnaeus's dad — the angel as he's referred to, Angelus, in the Kingdom of the Wicked books, and his personality is brought out very strongly — I actually based him on John Rylands. Manchester's John Rylands, the man who gave his name to the Rylands Library in Manchester. He was meant to be the portrait of the entrepreneurial, Manchester industrialist. And to this day, authors always have regrets, you don't always get to win the argument with your publisher or your editor, I am sorry that that background, that world-building was taken out of Kingdom of the Wicked and finished up having to be published elsewhere in an anthology. Because it provided that entrepreneurial story that you’re talking about: the factory owner who is the self-made man, who endows libraries and technical schools, and trains apprentices, and has that sort of innovative quality that is described so beautifully in Matt Ridley's book, How Innovation Works, which is full of people like that. And this book as well, I've just bought: I've just bought Arts and Minds, which is about the Royal Society of Arts. So this is one of those authorial regrets: that the entrepreneur character wasn't properly fleshed out in the two published books, Kingdom of the Wicked book one and book two. And you have to get Shapers of Worlds if you want to find out about Linnaeus's industrialist dad.
Is this a world you'd want to live in?
Not for me, no. I mean, I'm a classically trained lawyer. So classics first, then law. And I made it a society that works. You know, I don’t write dystopias. I have a great deal of admiration for Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, who are the two greatest writers of dystopias, in my view, in contemporary, and not just contemporary fiction, probably going back over a couple of hundred years. Those two have really got it, when it comes to this vision of horror. You know, the boot stamping on the human face forever. I greatly admire their skill, but those are not the books I write. So the society I wrote about in Kingdom of the Wicked is a society that works.
But one of the things I deliberately did with the Yeshua Ben Yusuf character and what were his early Christian followers, and the reason I've taken so much time to flesh them out as real characters and believable people [is] because the values that Christianity has given to the West were often absent in the Roman world. They just didn't think that way. They thought about things differently. Now some of those Christian values were pretty horrible. It's fairly clear that the Romans were right about homosexuality and abortion, and the Christians were wrong. That kind of thing. That's where they were more liberal. But, you will have noticed, I don't turn the book into Gattaca. I try to keep this in the background because obviously someone else has written Gattaca. It's an excellent film. It's very thought provoking. I didn't want to do that again. It's kept in the background, but it is obvious — you don't even really need to read between the lines — that this is a society that engages in eugenics. You notice that all the Roman families have three children or two children, and there's always a mix of sexes. You never have all boys or all girls. You know what they're doing. They're doing sex-selective abortions, like upper-class Indians and Chinese people do now. You've now dealt with the problem of not enough girls among those posh people, but they still want a mixture of the two. You notice that the Romans have got irritatingly perfect teeth and their health is all very good. And people mock Cyler, one of the characters, because his teeth haven't been fixed. He's got what in Britain get called NHS teeth. He hasn't got straightened teeth, because he genuinely comes from a really, really poor background. I have put that in there deliberately to foil those values off each other, to try to show what a world would look like where there are certain values that will just never come to the fore.
And as you mentioned, industry: how those values also might influence which areas technology might focus on, which I think is a great point.
I did that quite deliberately. There is a scene in the first book in Kingdom of the Wicked where Linnaeus — who's the Whig, the nice Whig, the lovely Whig who believes in civil rights and justice and starts sounding awfully Martin Luther King-ish at various points, and that kind of thing; he’s the most likable form of progressive, Stoic Roman ideas — and when he encounters a child that the parents have kept alive, a disabled child, which in his society would just be put down at birth like Peter Singer, they have Peter Singer laws, he's horrified. And he doesn't even know if it's human.
I actually wrote a piece about this couple of years ago for Law & Liberty, for Liberty Fund. I did find that people wanted to live in this sort of society. And I just sort of thought, “Hmm, there are a lot more people out there who clearly agree with things like eugenics, Peter Singer laws, a society that has absolutely no welfare state. None.” There are people who clearly find that kind of society attractive. And also the authoritarianism, the Soviet-style veneration of the military. A lot of people clearly quite like that. And clearly like that it’s a very orderly society where there are lots of rules and everybody knows where they stand. But even when the state is really, really very powerful.
I deliberately put a scene in there, for example, where Pilate’s expectorating about compulsory vaccinations — because he's a Roman and he thinks compulsory vaccinations save lives and he doesn't give a shit about your bodily integrity. I did try to leave lots of Easter eggs, to use a gaming expression, in there to make it clear that this is a society that's a bit Gattaca-ish. I did that for a reason.
I don't know if there's a sequel in mind, but do you think that this world eventually sort of Christianizes? And if this is what the world looks like 2000 years ago, what would that world look like today?
I haven't thought of the answer to the first one. I must admit. I don't really know the answer to that. But in the second one, I did discuss this in quite a bit of detail with my then partner. And she said, “I honestly think that with that sort of aggressiveness and militarism, they will finish up conquering the planet. And then it'll start looking like a not-nice version of Star Trek. It won't be the Federation. It will be much more likely to be Khan and the Klingons and they'll start looking really, really Klingon basically.” That was her comment at the time.
Like a more militaristic version of Star Trek.
Yeah. But sort of very militarized and not the Prime Directive or any of that. Obviously Star Trek is very much an American conception of Americans in space. My Romans in space would look much more like the Centauri out of Babylon 5 or the Klingons in Star Trek. They would be much more aggressive and they’d be a lot more ambiguous…
I don't know how much of a Star Trek fan you are, but of course there's the mirror universe, which kind of looks like that. We have the evil Kirk and the evil Spock. There's still advance, but there's like a Praetorian Guard for the captain and…
All of that. Yes. I hadn't really thought about the first question, but the second question I thought, “Yeah, if this persists into the future, imagining a hypothetical future, then I think you are going to be dealing with people who are really, really quite scary.”
Apparently you're not working on a sequel to this book, but what are you working on? Another book?
Yes. I'm actually being pursued at the moment by a British publisher, who I won't drop into it because otherwise, if I say the name, then I will never, never be forgiven. And then they will insist on me writing a book. I'm never going to be the world's most super productive novelist. I think that I may finish up in my life writing maybe another two. I look at Stephen King. That man writes a door stopper of a book every time he sits down to have a hot meal. Incredible. How does he do it? I'm not that person.
Helen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Thank you very much for having me.