Saturday, June 28, 2014

History, Slavery and He Is Worthy by Lisa Henry

It's my pleasure to welcome Lisa Henry the author of He Is Worthy, a m/m story set in Imperial Rome. One of the characters is a Germanic captive and slave. (Sorry, Aenor! Bructeri, not German.)

History, Slavery, and He is Worthy.

I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction.

History is every story ever told, after all, and people have been motivated by the same things since the beginning of time: greed, love, ambition, lust. In that sense, history is only the window dressing. It’s us, it’s always us, whatever silly clothes we’re wearing.

But that’s also an oversimplification, because people from different time periods also have fundamentally different philosophies. In the past, people could go to an arena and watch other people get ripped apart by wild animals. Great entertainment. Tell you what, I’ll save the seats. Bring the kids!

Sometimes, the challenge in writing historical fiction is in taking those very foreign beliefs, stuffing them in characters, and hoping readers will still give those characters a chance. The two big issues I faced when I was writing my historical He is Worthy, set in Imperial Rome, were the age of consent, and slavery.

In Ancient Rome, a boy was considered a man at fourteen. It wasn’t uncommon for girls to marry at twelve or thirteen. In modern society we consider that abhorrent, and rightly so. But in most ancient societies the same standard does not apply. In fact, it took until the Victorian era for “childhood” to be romanticised as a time of innocence and purity. And then, only for the emerging middle classes. Working class kids? Get ’em down the mines or up the chimneys while they’re still small enough to fit.

Aenor, one of my main characters in He is Worthy, is chosen to be a pleasure slave for Nero. He’s nineteen; he could still be a boy by our definition, but certainly not by Nero’s. So I made his age something to be remarked upon, something to be unhappy about.

The master sighed, narrowing his eyes at Aenor. “And make him . . .” He waved his hand. “He’s too old for pretty. Make him look strong. He’s hardly a keeper, but I’m sure he can put on a good show.”

The age of consent difficulty neatly sidestepped, I then turned to the issue of slavery. The Roman Empire was built on military expansion and the acquisition of slaves. Slaves were forbidden from wearing uniforms, it’s said, because if they looked around and realised their superior numbers, they could easily overthrow their Roman masters.

Slavery in the ancient world was not seen as a moral issue. It followed one rule only: might is right. People weren’t made slaves because of ethnicity or some of the more ludicrous pseudo-scientific theories thrown around in the 1800s that basically justified slavery as white is right.

Aenor, a Bructeri tribesman, is a slave because he and his cousins ran afoul of some Roman legionaries. Aenor hates Romans, but he hated them long before they enslaved him. And while his enslavement is unjust – Aenor committed no crime – Aenor certainly never rails against the institution of slavery. A world without slavery would be a totally foreign concept to him, as it would be for any occupant of Ancient Rome.

One thing I wanted to do in He is Worthy was to show that there was no standard way of treating slaves in Imperial Rome. Many slaves were educated, wealthy, and dressed as well as their masters. Aenor initially mistakes such a slave, Callistus, as his master. Many slaves, of course, were brutalised. The pleasure slave Nero pampers as his favourite – Sporus, a real historical figure – reminded Nero so much of his dead wife that he castrated the boy and then married him.

At the other end of the scale are the slaves owned by my other main character, Novius Senna. Senna is a Roman nobleman.

[Senna] told himself he didn’t enjoy pointless cruelty, not even against slaves. His father had raised him to treat slaves fairly. They weren’t cheap, after all, especially the pretty ones. Why buy them just to sacrifice them to strange pleasures? To use a slave to the point of injury or death made bad economic sense.

But there’s more to Senna that the economic rationalisation:

The children in the atrium belonged to the household slaves. They were slaves themselves. They played in the atrium because Senna didn’t care, or pretended not to care. He liked to hear the sound of laughter filtering through the house, even though Felix, his secretary, always shooed the children away when he found them there.
Get away with you, little monkeys! If the master finds you here, he will have you whipped!

Slavery, in Ancient Rome, could be inherited. If your mother was a slave, then you were a slave. It could also be brought about by war, or imposed as a punishment by the judicial system. In a world where everyone’s life could be short and brutal, to be a slave was not necessarily a worse fate than any other. Children were sometimes left on the side of the street to be claimed as slaves. The lucky ones would be fed, housed, educated and valued as investments. The unlucky? They were probably no worse off than living in the slums anyway.

Slavery may be repugnant to our modern ideology – although let’s not pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore – but the Romans weren’t the first, or the last, to build an empire on it. In the scope of the millennia, it’s probably more unusual to live in a world where most people believe in crazy things like personal freedom and human rights. 

Most importantly when it comes to history, I think that we can’t judge it from our modern standards. It’s not that simple. What we can do, though, is learn from history. Always.  

Thank you for joining me today, Lisa! As a bit of a history geek, I enjoy learning more about history from fellow enthusiasts.

But don't think that Lisa only writes historical fiction such as He Is Worthy. Dark Space, one of my favorites she has written, is a SciFi. And of course, there is The Island, a contemporary.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spartan Myths - The Spartan Boy and the Fox

A story I remember my mom telling me when I was a kid was about a Spartan boy and a fox. I pretty much believed it word for word and could only think how brave (and later how stupid) that boy was.

The story goes like this:
"In the case of another boy, when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying that it would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said, 'Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.'" – Plutarch, Moralia circa 100 AD

And again:
"The boys make such a serious matter of their stealing, that one of them, as the story goes, who was carrying concealed under his cloak a young fox which he had stolen, suffered the animal to tear out his bowels with its teeth and claws, and died rather than have his theft detected. And even this story gains credence from what their youths now endure, many of whom I have seen expiring under the lash at the altar of Artemis Orthia." – Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus from The Parallel Lives circa 100 AD

Plutarch was the earliest reference to the story I could find and he lived several centuries after the story originated. I'm sure the tale circulated with other sources and by word of mouth, but to my knowledge none are still extant.

How much of this was myth and is there a kernel of truth in there?

The kernel of truth:
When Spartan boys joined the agōgē at the age of seven, they were kept on short rations and expected to steal what else they might need. At first, this sounds not only harsh but also encourages thievery. But as might be expected of the Spartans, that wasn't what they were trying to teach.

As an army that paid little concern to logistics, preferring to live off the land, Sparta expected the warriors to be able to forage and take what they needed from the conquered peoples. They also wanted first-in scouts to be undetectable so stealth was prized. As with their marriage customs, the expectation that the children would feed themselves through theft encouraged stealth. As did the beatings the boys earned if they were caught at it.

The floggings at the altar of Artemis Orthia are discussed in a previous post. But by Plutarch's time, the rite of passage had become such a popular blood spectacle that an amphitheater was built to accommodate the spectators. Youths (boys and young men) were beaten until they bled and it wasn't uncommon for them to die. The deaths could have been prevented if the youths had chosen disgrace and walked away. But they would have lost their status as Spartiates if they had made that decision. So they were more than capable of accepting death before disgrace. A concept that modern peoples have some difficulty with, but was not unheard of then.

Syn tai e epi tai! With it or on it! The parting words of the Spartan women when their men went to war. In other words, the warrior should return with his shield, showing he hadn't thrown it down to run from the fight. Or on it, as his body was borne home.

With this kind of ingrained training and expectations of honor vs disgrace, what choice did the Spartan boy have?

The myth? You will have to decide that for yourself.

My take on it? Propaganda for sure. But very likely with a basis in fact. The Spartans weren't known for lying or making up stories. Laconic derives from their practice of saying only what needed to be said.

Embellished over the centuries? Undoubtedly, but not by the Spartans.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Taming Theron Blurb

Alone, Andreas toils on a remote farmstead for a Spartan overlord. When a kryptes enters his world, Andreas fears for his life. The dread warriors stalk and kill helots—like Andreas' father—as part of their training.

To save himself, Andreas must tame the fearsome warrior.

Andreas is torn as what began as simple self-preservation turns into attraction. Yearning for the company of someone other than his ferret Ictis, he decides to trust the Spartan warrior and risk the fate that claimed his father.

Born to rule by the sword, Theron sees the world as his and acts accordingly, taking everything Andreas offers and reaching for more.

Can a lonely state-owned slave and an elite Spartan warrior find common ground? And if they do can even the gods save them from the terrible price Sparta extracts from men who desire their own sex?

Photo Credit: <a href="">mharrsch</a> via <a href="">Compfight</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Spartan Myths - Spartan Women Had to Dress like Men to Catch a Man

Lycurgus urged the Spartan girls to engage in wrestling.
Here they urge the boys to fight.
A bit of malarkey I ran into the other day, insisted that Spartan wedding traditions were proof that Spartans were gay. On the surface, that kind of statement is absurd.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While Spartans did practice pederasty, which most people point to as their main proof of homosexuality, the practice in Sparta was purely platonic mentorship. Unlike Crete or Athens where the practice was often sexual.

In Sparta, the older man, or mentor, was considered to stand in as a foster father for the youth. They did not court the boys, as occurred elsewhere. Instead, the boy asked them to be their mentor. As a foster father, any sexual activity between the man and boy would be tantamount to incest and punished as such. The pair would be required to commit suicide or go into exile to erase the stain on Sparta's honor and to a lesser degree, their own.

This prohibition extended to any males seeking the arms of another man. Possibly because Spartans were slowly dying out and needed to increase their population to refill their ranks. Either way, the Spartans were some of the more homophobic people in ancient Greece.

Now for that wedding tradition.

Young women in Sparta had to be at least 20 years old to wed. While in the rest of Greece thirteen-year-old girls were routinely given to men up to more than twice their age. The Spartan maids cut their hair and dressed as men before going to their own bed on their wedding night. Not as one person postulated, because the Spartan men couldn't stand to touch a woman.

The young warrior had to sneak into the bed with his new wife and be gone before dawn the next day. In fact, that was the pattern of the early years of their marriage, until at age 30 he could have a home other than the barracks. Then the couple could live together for the rest of their lives.

The sneaking around was good practice for a warrior. Men who were caught visiting their wives were likely teased for not being stealthy enough, not for desiring a woman.

The Spartans were surrounded by a culture, and had probably shared the same culture at one point, that believed marriage by capture to be the norm. So much so that the tale of Hades kidnapping Persephone was a myth designed to legitimize the practice and give it the godly stamp of approval.

The practice of cutting the woman's hair may have started as a way to prevent a bride from being kidnapped on the eve of her wedding. Later, this practice likely became a rite of passage. A visible sign that she had left childhood behind, as such she would have been proud of her newly shorn hair. It also allowed men to tell at a glance who was recently wed (her hair would be short for a couple of years) and they wouldn't court another man's wife.

As you can see, putting a modern spin on an ancient and often misunderstood culture while ignoring what the people themselves did or said about the subject is misleading to say the least.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spartan Myths - Spartan Warriors Embraced Homosexuality

I run across this photo or something similar every so often and want to say, "That's the Thebans!"

The Sacred Band of Thebes, consisting of paired erastês and erômenos, was founded by commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and fell to Philip of Macedon in 338 BC.

Greece in general, and Sparta specifically, was not the haven of homosexuality that many people wish to portray it as.

Crete, Athens, Corinth and Thebes practiced pederasty. A homosocial institute that encouraged love in a myriad of forms between an older man (erastês) and a youth (erômenos). The terms carry certain connotations that directly or indirectly influence modern views on this relationship.

The mentor, or erastês, is intended to be an older man who guides the youth through the upper echelons of society. This was a form of social networking. Erastês means "lover". This has been taken to imply a sexual relationship. Especially as erômenos means "beloved". These are not so much descriptions of the individuals as titles for their place in the relationship.

Were all pederastic relationships sexual? I doubt that was the case, as the majority of men now, and likely then, identify as straight/heterosexual. That's nothing more than statistics. Were there bisexuals and bi-curious individuals? Without a doubt, but once again not to the exclusion of straight individuals.

In ancient Greece, men, regardless of their sexual identity, were expected to marry and produce offspring. They married her and got their heirs. Then they had mistresses, went to brothels, and of course boys were an option.

Even then, there were strict rules on who, when and how. Who: Young men of the upper classes. Wouldn't do to have commoners hobnobbing with their betters. When: The youths must be beardless. Once he grew facial hair, he was no longer acceptable. He was now an equal and if the relationship continued, he lost that standing and became "womanish". How: Intercrural, where the older man places his penis between the thighs (literally, not figuratively) and rubs off on the youth. Penetration was only for inferiors, i.e. women and slaves.

So that is pederasty in the Hellenic world.

Sparta was always a bit different, but they really began to march to their own drum under Lycurgus the Lawgiver. He set up their entire social order to make them the best warriors the Hellenes ever knew.

The two kings were usurped by his ephors, becoming primarily generals and priests. All children underwent the agōgē, a strict method of schooling that produced elite warriors and strong-minded women. He changed pederasty to more of a foster father/son relationship, the titles employed to "inspirer" and "hearer", and made sexual love between the man and youth punishable by exile or suicide.

Xenophon of Athens, the only contemporary source, sent his sons to participate in the Spartan agōgē. He categorically denied any sexual aspects to the relationship in Sparta.

Aristotle further claims that the lack of homosexuality in Sparta was responsible for the deplorable way the Spartan women acted. They were literate and schooled in mathematics, song and dance, and participated in athletics. All purviews of men. Thus they were considered outrageously outspoken by the rest of the Greek world.

I'm not saying that homosexual relationships didn't occur in Sparta, I'm sure they did--after all, I've just written a series of novels based on the idea of a forbidden love set in Sparta--just not out in the open like elsewhere in Greece. And look at my previous post about Apollo and Hyacinth, a Spartan prince. Just remember that is a "survival" of an older system that was supplanted by the Spartan view of themselves.

I suspect that the more prevalent form of pederasty may have been practiced in Sparta until someone who later came to power had a very negative experience and chose to stamp it out of their society.