Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.

A Random Research Note

“We ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever.” Cicero, De Oratores, Book III:XXXIII 

https://pages.pomona.edu/~cmc24747/sources/cic_web/de_or_3.htm
aeneid
DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty

Manius Manilius, whoever he was*, is represented in this passage by Cicero as a patron: an important position and concept in the hierarchical structure of the Roman social contract.

In the Roman world, a patron-client relationship was a form of noblesse oblige, although with the loyalty and support of the client expected. Based on the Roman ideal of ‘fides’, loyalty, the patron – (the word derives from ‘father’) – the head of a high-status family, dispensed advice, loans, and influence to his clients – men of lower status, in exchange for political support, respect, and sometimes the physical presence of their clients for protection.

In Empress & Soldier, we see this in action when Salvius, Druisius’s father, goes to ask his patron for help in acquiring certain licenses he needs as a merchant. He takes his oldest son (Druisius) with him, as part of his education. They go early in the morning, are admitted to a waiting room, where they and the others waiting are seen in order of their social status. I based this on the salutatio, the morning greeting of clients to their patrons, and also the opportunity to ask the patron for a favour.

By the late Roman Empire, the patron-client relationship had changed quite a bit, to a more self-serving relationship between the two. But one of the advantages of writing a fictional world is I can pick and choose what aspects of history I want to use and adapt – and so I’ve kept patronage in my city of Casil to reflect patronage in the Roman Republic.

(The identity of Druisius’s father’s patron is important to the story, by the way, but I’m not about to reveal that yet!)

* an orator and jurist of the Roman Republic, c 150 BCE, actually.

Lucius Primus’s Unauthorized War

A Random Research Note

Look back over the past, at the empires that rose and fell, and predict the future.  Marcus Aurelius (or Catilius, in my fictional semi-parallel world.)

There are – as there are in almost all multigenerational sagas – two areas of focus in my books: the personal arcs of my characters, and the political/social background against which those character arcs unfold, and by which they are challenged and tested and developed. In Empress & Soldier, the work-in-progress, the political plot will (perhaps) be foremost, and, as I currently envision the book, it will take place over about a 15-year period. A different challenge for me, the writer, in part because my knowledge of Roman political history outside the major events in Roman Britain and a few highlights elsewhere is fairly limited.

This entails a lot of research…which I’ll be sharing in random bits as I learn something that will feed the plot of the book. I’m doing this as much for me as anyone – this way it’s written down somewhere I can find it again 😊 – but perhaps it will entertain or enlighten someone, or provide me with feedback that will be useful! 

Map

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The Odrysian Kingdom, which existed from the early 5th century BC at least until the mid-3rd century BC, was one of the most powerful of its time. Throughout much of its early history it remained an ally of Athens; eventually, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, would conquer it. But in the early part of the common era it was under Roman control, and in one jurisdiction, there was a proconsul governor named Lucius Primus.

According to Dio (54:3:2) Lucius Primus (or he might have been Marcus Primus) stood trial in 22 CE for starting a war against the Odrysae. The Odrysae were Thracian, and Thrace had been an important ally of Rome, especially in the Battle of Actium. Why Lucius Primus started this war I haven’t yet been able to find out, but apparently it was ‘unauthorized’ by Augustus. (Starting a war against allies doesn’t appear at first glance to be a good move on a governor’s part.)  He swore he had Augustus’s approval; Augustus said he didn’t…and Lucius Primus was eventually executed.

The event is mentioned by Dio because it’s important in Augustus’s gradual expansion of power: the jurisdiction Lucius Primus governed was a senatorial province, and it should have been the senate that decided the governor’s fate without Augustus’s interference. That’s not what caught my attention. In furthering the history of my fictional world, I need a reason for my antagonists (a family) to have a grievance against the Emperors. So I think this little bit of history will serve as a template. A governor who starts a war he shouldn’t have, a trial and execution….and then imagination can create a son who, exonerated because he was either too young or serving in another province (haven’t worked out the timelines yet) nurses his grievance and plans a long, multi-generational game of revenge – a game he trains his nephew in as well.

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Release Day Reality

My sixth book is out today.

The cat just loudly deposited a hairball on the rug. Her retching woke me.

The dishwasher needs emptying; the birdbath filling.

My day planner tells me I have a guest post due today, reading to do for a book review, and various tasks related to my volunteer job as editor of our community newsletter, as well as feedback notes to write for a first-time author I’m mentoring.

In other words, the world hasn’t stopped because I have a new book out, and, you know, that’s ok.

Brian and I will go out for ice cream at our favourite place by the river a little later today, to celebrate. (Normally, we go out for a meal, but as it’s also our 40th wedding anniversary this week, we’ll do that on Friday.) Friends are sending congratulations. I am suffused with the sense of accomplishment and pleased with the book’s reception so far. It’s the sixth book in a series; there will be a small spike in sales this week, and then it will trail off, to be purchased as people work their way through the first five. Six years and six books into the life of an indie author, I know it’s a long game.

Next week I’m taking a holiday, travelling a couple of hours north to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, for a few days walking and birding, leisurely brunches on outdoor patios, some pleasure reading, and whatever else catches my fancy. After this short break. Heir will take up some of my time – guest blogs, interviews, a blog tour, perhaps some readings, but it’s out in the world, no longer mine alone but belonging too to its readers, to make what they will of it. Both the next two books – Empress & Soldier and Empire’s Passing – are nudging me: work needs to start in earnest there.

As it will. Alongside dishwashers to empty, and meals to cook, and community work…and hairballs.

Gaffes in Historical Fiction by Mercedes Rochelle

Historical Fiction authors have all experienced it…blissfully writing away, unaware that we have just committed an anachronism. And chances are, we won’t even know until a reviewer calls it to the world’s attention—months, or even years later. Oh no! 

I hate to admit it, but outside of my knowledge of historical events, I don’t know everything about everything historical. Trust me: it’s a tall order (according to the OED, earliest use of this phrase was 1893). Not every animal or plant was native to England (or America!). Sometimes they were introduced later than the period we are writing about. One time a reader penalized me for having Canute the Dane eat a rabbit because he said they were brought over with the Normans. D’oh! I looked it up and discovered a Roman recipe (in England) for rabbit, so they must have brought over the little buggers. That doesn’t excuse me, unfortunately. It never occurred to me to look up the origin of rabbits in England.

One little slip like giving King Alfred a tomato can wreak havoc with an author’s credibility. Potatoes are another bone of contention, as are turkeys, sugar, and chocolate, to name a few. Such foods may have existed but may not have made their way to England until late in the period. Not everyone agrees on the timing.

So where is the fine line between innocent errors and unforgiveable lapses? Laurence Olivier had Henry V in armor hoisted onto his horse with a crane-like contraption. He was warned against this inaccuracy by his historical advisor but preferred the dramatic effect. This gaffe is imprinted on our cultural memory!

Henry V (Signet Classics) (c) 1998

What about language? Idioms are another trap for the unwary. When I am writing, I run etymonline.com in the background, as well as phrases.org.uk. There are certain words and phrases that wouldn’t have been used in the early days. You can’t explode before the use of gunpowder. Can you really be nervous before the discovery of nerves? Of course, etymology is only a guide; the first known use of a word would be in writing. But I doubt if it would be in general use verbally for more than a century or two previously. So if a word was first discovered in 1650, for example, I would hesitate to use it in 1400. The trick is being cognizant of an anachronistic word in the first place.

Bottom line? The writer is going to make mistakes. We can’t forgive ourselves, but maybe our readers will cut us some slack (first use mid-1900s).

Mercedes Rochelle is a historical fiction author. Her latest release is The Usurper King; find all her books here.

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Wings of Wax and Feather

Colm pointed to the gulls hanging in the sky. “Birds fly. Why can’t someone make wings so people can?”

“You know the tale of Vikar, whose father built wings of wax and feathers.”

“That’s a story,” Colm said, a little impatiently. “About setting our ambitions neither too high nor too low. I mean really fly.”

Empire’s Heir

The legend of Icarus, which has come down to us from Greek mythology, is often interpreted as a warning not to set our goals too high. But Daedulus, Icarus’s father (Vikar, the name used in Empire’s Heir, is from the Etruscan name for Icarus, Vikare) warns his son against flying both too low, too close to the sea, where the waves might take him, and against flying too high, where the sun’s heat will melt the wax of the wings. A warning, as Colm says, not to set our ambitions too high or too low.

As I biked to and from the farmers’ market this morning, I contemplated what this meant for authors, or indeed, for any artist. At the market, I bought veggies from local farmers, and artisanal cheese, and looked at hand-made cards and jewellery; outside, I listened to buskers and took photos of the street art. So much art, so much talent…how do we as artists set our ambitions, so that neither the waves of despair nor the often-brief sun of recognition destroy us?

The Fall of Icarus, 17th century, Musée Antoine Vivenel. Public domain.

There is, of course, no one answer. Knowing why we create art, what purpose it serves in our lives, can help us understand where our flight path is. I write for the love of words, their cadence and rhythm and sound, for the look of them on the page, to explore ideas, and to tell my characters’ stories. Structure challenges me intellectually, a puzzle to solve. I love both the constraints and the freedom I grant myself in writing.

I have to remind myself of this, more often than I like. Our society tends to equate value with money, and more and more with celebrity. But the quiet satisfaction I find from the words of a reader who loves my books, or a review that appreciates my prose or worldbuilding, help keep me at the right height for my wings, although I will not pretend I don’t feel the desire for the sun, nor the darkness of the depths.

But these are my wings, my fragile construct not of wax and feather but of dreams and love. All my art has to do, in the end, is satisfy me, not pay my bills. This is only my flight path, not a judgement of other artists with different needs and different goals. But when I look up from my computer, from social media and sales charts and review stats, and take some time to consider and remember where writing has taken me – and, more importantly, what it has given me – I think I’ll keep flying for as long as I can.

Featured image: Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), public domain.

Fantasy and Me: From Puck to Aslan

In the previous installment of this occasional series, I wrote about Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and mentioned the influence I perceived it had on later works. Today, I’m going to focus on its influence on one series: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.

‘Have you ever heard me use that word yet?’ said Puck, quickly.

‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills,” but you never say “fairies,”’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’

‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’

‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan.

Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling

“Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve”, of course, is how Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia series, refers to the children Peter and Edmund,  Susan and Lucy. 

“Down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones, and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Yes, but, you may be saying – it’s coincidence. It could be, except for something else:  the Narnia’s children’s last name is Pevensie.  In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pevensey – the Pevensey Levels (which is a real place, and Pevensey a real town), the Manor of Pevensey, and the Lord of Pevensey – are an important part of the story.

Antique Prints of Pevensey Sussex
Pevensey Castle, Sussex. Engraver & Publisher:
G. Rowe, & G. Wooll, High Street, Hastings

Why?  Pevensey is referred to as ‘England’s gate’ in Kipling’s story (it’s where William the Conqueror landed in 1066), and perhaps it was nothing more than the idea of the wardrobe in Narnia also being a gate between countries (or worlds.) You could perhaps argue that Lewis was attempting to replace Kipling’s ‘People of the Hills’ as the oldest, lost mythology of England with Christianity. Or maybe it was completely unconscious. Writers borrow, often without knowing they are.

I was – full disclosure here – never a fan of the Narnia books. I was not fond of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or the child’s version of A Pilgrim’s Progress I had, either. I didn’t like being preached at as a child (or adult), even subtly. What I did – and do – like is the continuity, the fantasy stories of one generation influencing the next, and the next.

Next time, a look at Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which I still re-read every few years.