‘Star Trek’s First Major Enemies – The Romulan Breakdown
Before the Klingons, before Khan Noonien Singh, and before the Tholians, the Enterprise deals with its first truly complex foes: the Romulans.
Star Trek: The Original Series features tons of baddies. Kirk and company face off against everything: evil gods, arrogant super men, and computers run amuck. However, in the episode “Balance of Terror,” Kirk faces aliens as cunning as they are dangerous: the Romulans. A Romulan captain destroys Federation outposts along the neutral zone with their vastly superior firepower. And thanks to cloaking technology, Kirk finds himself in the impossible situation of fighting an enemy he cannot see.
“Balance of Terror” is the first time audiences meet the Romulans. They leave such an impact that the Romulans appear again and again for decades after. But who are the Romulans? Where do they come from? What is their history? And how do they change over the course of multiple Star Trek shows? Let’s break down everything you need to know concerning Star Trek‘s first true nemeses.
Vulcans v. Romulans: An Origin
To understand the Romulans you first have to understand the Vulcans. And the Vulcans permeate the cultural zeitgeist enough that most people know who Mr. Spock is and his whole vibe: logical, green blood, rocks a bowl-cut yet is still very hot, et cetera. However, while the Vulcans are the high-minded logical leaders of the Federation, the relevant story here is not who the Vulcans are, but rather who they were before there was a United Federation of Planets.
The reality of the Vulcans is that they are extremely emotional. Before logic became the watchword, the Vulcans were actually extremely violent and aggressive, so much so that they became a danger to themselves. Then, in 370 AD a philosopher named Surak rolls up and basically says, “hey, we should stop being a bunch of hyper-violent lunatics, maybe?” This ushers in a reformation towards a new culture of pure logic. And everyone digs rejecting all emotion! Except…
One group of Vulcans called “those who march beneath the raptor’s wings” reject Surak’s teachings. A huge war breaks out and it’s a century-long atomic horror that results in the people against Surak’s teachings leaving Vulcan entirely. Those who survive a long journey finally settle on two worlds: Romulus and Remus. Essentially, what you need to know is that the Romulans and the Vulcans are basically the same group. The big difference is that the Romulans do not reject emotion.
But that’s just the start.
Romulans, Secrets, and the Zhat Vash
What we do not know about the Romulans far outweighs what we do know. And that is kind of intentional, especially if you consider one thing we absolutely do know: the Romulans are extremely secretive, even with one another.
A great example of Romulan secrecy appears in the Star Trek: Picard official tie-in novel “The Last Best Hope” by Una McCormack. In that story, we find out that Romulan homes do not always have a front door. And when they do, it is a false door. The actual entrance to Romulan homes is always obscured. In the case of wealthy Romulans, there may even be an elaborate garden maze involved.
There is a Romulan bedtime story whose reality helps explain Romulan secrecy. Romulans tell their children about a group called the Zhat Vash who will take them away if they are bad. Even the Tal Shiar, the other Romulan secret organization, is afraid of the Zhat Vash.
The real Zhat Vash is an organization that discovers a psychic message on the planet Aia. The message reveals that a past civilization created an artificial intelligence that ultimately wipes out almost all organic life in the universe. Worse, that A.I. is waiting in an alternate dimension to wipe out organic life again. This secret is passed down from one generation of Zhat Vash to the next but is otherwise kept secret from all other Romulans.
As a result, artificial life is banned by Romulus even though almost no Romulans know why. And they just go along with it! Because Romulans love secrets.
Romulans and the Alpha Quadrant
Our active knowledge of Romulan history picks back up in the 22nd century. At this point in Star Trek history, the Enterprise NX-01 is grooving across the cosmos, making friends and building relationships. And while the Romulans have a certain amount of respect for humans and their embracing of emotion, they are significantly less into the idea of the Alpha Quadrant all being buds in an official capacity. Mostly, though, Romulans just hate the Vulcans and would only consider engaging with them if it means forcefully taking over Vulcan.
So to that end, Romulus tries to mess with the Alpha Quadrant vis a vie Vulcan. First, a Romulan operative named Talok works with Vulcan Administrator V’Las in order to unwittingly trick him into destabilizing Vulcan and their place in the Alpha Quadrant.
A group of Vulcans called the Syrrannites oppose an attack on the Andorians which V’Las believes is necessary. Talok makes it seem as though the Syrrannites are responsible for a bombing the Romulans are actually guilty of. The goal is to set Vulcan and Andoria against one another and destabilize both Vulcan and that entire region of space. The Romulans also try to pit the Tellarites and the Andorians against each other through automated drone strikes.
Ultimately, though, these attempts fail. Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, and Tellar all ultimately joined forces to build what eventually became the United Federation of Planets. But this is only the end of the first passive conflict between Romulus and the Alpha Quadrant.
Open Warfare and the Resulting Cold War
After failing to ruin Alpha Quadrant’s peace from afar, Romulus changes tactics. From 2156 to 2160, the Romulans engaged in active combat against the Federation. There are many casualties on both sides. Eventually, an armistice is reached after the Romulans get absolutely whipped by the Federation alliance. A neutral zone is established where neither Federation nor Romulan ships may enter. There are, however Federation outposts along the border between the two spaces.
Despite the conflict and the tenuous peace, nobody knowingly sees the Romulans’ faces during this time. In other words: with the exception of a few Vulcans, no one is aware that the Romulans and Vulcans look the same, and, in many ways, are the same race. This mystery remains for over a century. All that changes in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Balance of Terror”.
Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise NCC-1701 discover that someone is destroying Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. It turns out that the someone in question is a Romulan captain. During these events, we find out that the Romulans have extremely powerful (albeit short-range) weapons and the ability to cloak their ships. Kirk is able to best the Romulan captain and stave off a larger conflict. However, the Romulans are seen for the first time and basically everyone loses their minds over the fact that Romulans are basically just evil Vulcans.
The Next Generation and Unification
A Cold War between the Federation and the Romulan Empire continued through the 24th century. However, there are moments of potential peace and temporary alliance. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise NCC-1701D works with the Romulans on multiple occasions. However, the most significant event involving the Enterprise D involves a crew member of the original Enterprise NCC-1701 – Spock.
Despite ongoing aggression between Romulans and Vulcans, there are some Romulans learning the ways of Surak on Romulus. As a result, Ambassador Spock breaks with Federation tactics and sneaks over the Romulan border. There, Spock attempts to foster the ways of logic on Romulus. More than that, Spock intends to attempt a reunification of Vulcan and Romulus.
Unfortunately, while Picard attempts to aid Spock in unifying the two fractured peoples, Romulan leadership uses peace efforts to attempt war with the Federation. A Romulan leader named Sela nearly manipulates Spock and the Vulcans into allowing a Romulan war armada to invade Federation Space. And while that plan fails, so too do immediate efforts towards unifying Vulcan and Romulus.
Ultimately, Spock remains on Romulus and the first true potential for peace between Romulans and the Federation is built.
The Dominion War
There are a lot of instances throughout the 24th century that bring Romulus close to peace with the Federation. Arguably the most notorious, temporary peace occurs during the war between the Dominion and the Federation.
The Dominion, led by a group of shapeshifters known as the Founders, gains access to the Alpha Quadrant after a stabile wormhole opens between the Alpha and Gamma quadrants. With their army of Jem’Hadar soldiers and an ability to imitate Federation leadership, the Founders easily take the upper hand in an all-out war against the Federation. The only way for the Federation to survive is by convincing the Romulans to join the fight on the Federation’s side.
Captain Benjamin Sisko tricks the Romulan Empire into believing that the Dominion plans to attack Romulus after they are done with the Federation. There are no such plans, but Sisko’s ruse causes the Romulans to form a temporary alliance with the Federation. However, once the Dominion is defeated, the alliance ends. Romulus and the Federation basically return to the status quo.
Nemesis and the Destruction of Romulus
The Romulans have tons of ideas for how to topple the Federation. One plan involves cloning Captain Jean-Luc Picard so that the clone can infiltrate Starfleet and destroy it from within. The Picard clone is created, but the plan is never executed because of a change in leadership. However, the resulting clone, named Shinzon, eventually takes control of Romulus after killing every member of the Romulan senate.
Picard (now captain of the Enterprise E) is able to work with Romulan dissenters and defeat Shinzon, which results in potential peace negotiations once again opening between Romulans and the Federation. Unfortunately, less than a decade later, tragedy strikes Romulus when its sun goes supernova thus destroying the entire planet including all nearby worlds and star bases.
Jean-Luc Picard mounts a rescue attempt to save as many Romulans as possible. However, during these attempts, a group of synthetic beings destroy the Federation’s shipyards. Starfleet leadership bans synthetic life and abandons all attempts to save the Romulans. The irony is that the Romulans are responsible for the synth attack. In an effort to prevent biological genocide vis a vie A.I., the Zhat Vash usher in the death of most of their own people.
Star Trek: Discovery and Ni’Var
As of this writing, we do not know what happened to Romulans in the centuries following the destruction of their home world. However, we know their eventual future in the 32nd century. In the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, the USS Discovery permanently travels to the year 3188. Once there, the crew discovers that the planet Vulcan is now called “Ni’Var”. The name change follows the reunification of the Vulcan and Romulan people.
While Vulcans and Romulans cohabitate, they still remain somewhat at odds. For example, when Discovery requests that Ni’Var rejoin the Federation, Romulans and Vulcans debate heavily over the decision. And ultimately, Ni’Var rejoins the Federation. But it’s clear that conflict between Vulcans and Romulans continues, albeit peacefully, on Ni’Var.
Romulan Influence on the Kelvin Universe
Spock attempts to save Romulus using a highly volatile material called Red Matter. Spock’s attempt fails. However, it causes his ship and the Romulan mining vessel Narada to be hurtled through a black hole. The Narada arrives on the other side of the Narada in the past—the 23rd century to be exact. There, the Narada encounters a ship called the USS Kelvin which includes a crewmember named George Kirk.
Captain Nero of the Narada, infuriated by the destruction of Romulus and his ship’s resulting time travel, takes his rage out on the Kelvin. The ship is destroyed with George Kirk still aboard. Kirk’s dying actions involve saving his pregnant wife and temporarily incapacitating the Narada.
These events trigger the creation of an alternate universe dubbed the Kelvin timeline. And while Romulus still exists in this version of events, Nero destroys Vulcan.
Ultimately, there are tons of things we do not know about the Romulans—they are very secretive! However, just in case they do reappear in the various points of the timeline we see in the current crop of Paramount Plus Star Trek shows, now you have the basics. As the Romulans say: Jolan Tru. May you be filled with peace. But also, if you have to, punch the other guy in the nose.