Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck and the Fall of Rome

I’m guessing that more than a few of you are avid followers of Ron Moore’s complex space saga, Battlestar Galactica. A remake of a somewhat cheesy Star Wars rip-off of the same name that first aired thirty years ago, the re-imagined version — immersed as it is in post-9/11 fears and paranoia — has been one of the most compelling and thought-provoking programs on television.

With the show now drawing to a close, I thought I might take a break from the latest gossip about the new NASA administrator to write about it. Today’s topic: parallels between the 12 colonies and the Roman Empire.

Moore’s saga closely parallels the collapse of the Western Roman Empire between 376 and 476 A.D. During that century, Rome was undermined from both within and without by “barbarian” tribes who rose up against the masters who exploited them.

The collapse begins on the banks of the Danube, where an enormous group of Visigoths suddenly appeared seeking sanctuary. They had been driven from their homes by the nomadic Huns, who had been steadily moving westward throughout the fourth century.

The Eastern Roman Emperor Valens – seeing the Visigoths as fresh troops for his overstretched Legions – agreed to let about 200,000 of them settle in what is now eastern Turkey. And the name of the province? Thrace.

Assimilating any large group of immigrants is a delicate challenge – one that the Roman authorities badly fraked up. Corrupt officials exploited the Goths, stealing their possessions, selling them dog food to eat, and auctioning off their children into slavery.

By 377, they had pushed the Goths too far. They rose up against their oppressors, seized control of Thrace, and ran amok in the Balkans. One Roman army after another was defeated.

Valens – who had been preoccupied by battles with the Persians in the East – led his legions against the rebels. It was a disaster. At the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378, the Visigoths defeated his army and slew the emperor. His body was never found.

The catastrophe was the beginning of a series of barbarian revolts and incursions that would lead to the complete collapse of the Western Roman Empire. One after another, the western provinces — poorer and more difficult to defend than their eastern counterparts – fell into the hands of the barbarians. By the time the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, abdicated in 476, the western empire had been replaced by barbarian kingdoms and a blended Roman-barbarian culture.

The story has a direct parallel to the uprising of the Cylons against the human masters who had exploited them, the subsequent defeat of Colonial forces, and the eventual creation of a human-Cylon society that BSG has depicted during its last season.

Moore chose wisely in naming his pivotal character, Kara Thrace, after the Roman province where the empire began to unravel. (Her mother is named Socrata, another Roman name.) In Kara, we see the struggle of the Colonial warriors – and the Romans Legions – to recover from a deep blow from which they can never fully be made whole.

Is Starbuck human, Cylon or a hybrid? Her very existence – after having died in the hell of a gas giant – is the embodiment of the struggle to reconcile human and Cylon cultures. Somehow, she must find a way to live in peace with herself – and with the Cylons she had long sworn to destroy.

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the greatest dramas in history. Moore’s reimagining of this pivotal turning point for humanity has been mesmorizing. I can’t wait to see how it ends.