Picture it: The year is 23 BCE, just outside Rome on the west bank of the Tiber River. Senator Aulus Terentius Varro Murena is about to launch a republican coup against Imperator Augustus Caesar.
And then, an entire Marine expeditionary unit from 2007 suddenly appears.
Soon they will join with Murena to fight against Caesar.
Sounds like a movie, right? One with a lot of explosions and swelling music and death-defying stunts, where The Rock plays the heroic Col. Miles Nelson up against Jason Statham's scheming Augustus Caesar?
It's not (I wish) but it is a super popular Reddit post.
It was kicked off by a post on r/AskReddit: "Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?"
One respondent, u/Prufrock451, took a whack at it. He really took a whack at it.
I highly recommend going to the link directly and reading the entire thing if you want to get a sense of what this was.
It turns out this chef d'oeuvre was the work of one James Erwin, a pretty ordinary guy who lives in Iowa and works at an insurance company in Des Moines.
He is also very, very into history.
"I used to run a website, which was murdered by Wikipedia, called 'Footnotes to History,' where I collected little you know tidbits about countries that don’t exist anymore," he told Amory and Ben.
It's his hobby — he's done a ton of research on military history and secessionist movements in the U.S. He also has a degree in history.
His wife, Jessica, says he's the kind of guy you want on your trivia team:
"We would be hanging out with friends or something, and he'd say 'Name a country.' And then someone would name a country, and he would tell you like a really obscure story about something that had happened there," she says. "He has this knack for finding these cool stories from history and telling them in a way that's really interesting."
It may not surprise you to learn that James has been on Jeopardy three times and won twice.
The day he wrote what's been dubbed "Rome, Sweet Rome" was a normal day. A boring day, even. A Wednesday.
"I was eating the most boring lunch imaginable," James says. "I was eating a Lean Pocket — not even a Hot Pocket. Just a Lean Pocket, which is, you know, it's just like, cardboard with gravy. You know, just sitting there, browsing Reddit on my lunch hour and I came across this prompt."
"...But writing it, I knew, I just knew something was going to happen with it. Like I could actually feel like this tingle in the back of my head and like my fingers were getting a bit tingly," he says.
"I put it out there and I thought, 'That was great. That was really great! That was fun. I'll get 100 upvotes now and then I'll finish my Lean Pocket and do more screenshots this afternoon'," he says.
He hadn't even finished the story, but it was already catching fire. By 5 p.m. that day, he had already been contacted by several big websites saying if he finished the story at their site, they'd pay him a "pretty insane" amount of money. He got offers from producers and talked to people in Hollywood. It was big.
Erwin even went on the BBC to debate with Adrian Goldsworthy, a historian who specializes in Roman history, who is kind of a Big Deal in historian circles. Erwin calls him "a giant of academics being pulled in to comment on this nerd's lunchtime fantasy."
Also, people on Reddit loved it. Someone made soundtrack music!
There's a movie poster!
Someone else made a trailer, cutting footage from different military movies together with creative voiceovers!
Oh and also, there is a specific subreddit for it, of course: r/RomeSweetRome
So this was a lot, for Erwin. His story had taken on a new life of its own, and he was in the middle of the complex world of movie-optioning and script-writing.
He was trying to get up to speed on how to write a screenplay while writing a screenplay. And he had his regular full-time job, and his wife and one-year-old son.
There was some interest from Warner Bros., but he didn't want to uproot and move his whole family to Los Angeles.
And he didn't want to give away the whole thing in case it does get made into a movie or book, so he stopped posting updates on Reddit, disappointing some Redditors.
In the meantime, he wrote a science fiction novel called Acadia, and went with a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. He got 15,000 orders when he launched it in two days.
Where is his screenplay, you wonder?
"I believe it's in that crate from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The one on the giant warehouse," Erwin cracks.
Realistically, it's on a shelf somewhere. And if some director or actor got really excited about it, then maybe it would get made. There's been some nibbles, but nothing solid yet.
Erwin is still writing, and he's enjoying it again.
"As the as the seventh anniversary of 'Rome, Sweet Rome' has come up, I have begun thinking more about just taking pleasure in the writing again. And not letting my anxiety get the better of me. Not feeling like everything I do has to live up to or be measured against those first few pages that I got attention for me."
Thanks to artist Joe DiDanato, aka u/StabYourFace, for this week's artwork. You can visit his website at http://didonatodesigns.com.