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Roman Masculinity and Sexuality
By Violetta Vane
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
The above is a choice piece of raunchy Latin graffiti preserved for the ages when Vesuvius exploded and covered Pompeii in ash in 79 CE. Sexuality is one of the most difficult topics to explore historically, since it’s often left out of the record, but in the case of ancient Rome, we’ve got a lot of records. Love poetry, sacred writings, brothel tokens, even filthy graffiti. Put them together and cohesive worldviews begin to emerge.
The ancient Roman view of masculinity is at once strikingly familiar and totally alien. On one hand, it’s had a profound impact on eurocentric and Anglophone countries. Our word virile, for example, comes from the Latin word vir, for man. Virtue comes from the word virtus. To be a man is to be good. Not being a man is... well, not good. That cultural paradigm is still pretty strong today. Curse words for weak and bad are connected to femininity, and so on.
On the other hand, when Europe became predominantly Christian, that brought a very different way of thinking about what it meant to be a “good man”. Original sin... linked to women. Sex being sinful, meant for procreation instead of recreation. The Apostle Paul said that women should be silent in the church; this was a huge change from the ancient world, in which women frequently held public religious posts that also carried worldly power.
The Roman acceptance of gay sex—at times, very enthusiastic acceptance—is another difference. At all levels of society, from filthy graffiti to high-flown love poetry, it’s simply... not a big deal. The Romans had no conception of “gay” or “straight” as sexual identities, and insofar as their conception of sexuality overlaps with ours, we can assume a baseline male bisexuality.
So being a “good man” certainly didn’t preclude having sex with men. But there were many, many qualifications. Penetrative sex was manly; receptive sex was feminine and shameful. Sex was an unequal power transaction. An ideal relationship was modeled on the Greek form, with a powerful older man having sexual relations with a less powerful youth... or child, since pedophilia wasn’t condemned. Male slaves, like female slaves, had no honor to protect or potential to be shamed. The Romans recognized the concept of rape, absolutely, but it simply didn’t apply to slaves, or applied only as property damage.
It was a fairly brutal worldview.
Just like today, however, people still fell in love and worked out relationships and identities that didn’t fit the official, socially-sanctioned model. Lesbian sex, also derided (a woman having sex with a woman was unnatural, perhaps because they usurped male privilege by doing so), nevertheless existed. Men who took on the mannerisms of women existed, had their own subaltern culture and were called cinaedi, a term of derision.
One frequently offered example of how these social codes worked—Julius Caesar and the king of Bithynia. There was a widespread rumor that the younger Julius had a serious relationship with the king and basically seduced him into leaving Rome the kingdom of Bithynia in his will. The rumor was a big deal because Julius was supposed to have engaged in receptive sex. Playing the woman, in other terms. So it was shameful, and often brought up by his political enemies. But there was also a grudging respect, because even if he did lose honor, at least he got paid bank for it... a whole kingdom!
The difference in worldview is hard for modern readers to wrap our heads around. Some of our preconceived ideas about sexuality fit perfectly; others are wildly off base. As authors, we started off with a pretty firm grounding in the history and psychology of the setting, but we did learn and change a few things about character psychology along the way. It helps that the hero of Mark of the Gladiator, Anazâr, is himself a foreigner to Rome. He’s lived there as a slave and a gladiator long enough to absorb its culture, but still finds much of it new and strange.
Anazâr has a sexuality that would more or less fit the modern identity of “gay”. He’s simply not interested sexually in women. That becomes a plot point fairly early on. But social relationships with women, especially the female gladiators he’s hired to train, are crucial to survive the dangerous intrigue that envelops them all.
The two sexual relationships with men that he enters into could not be more different, and the choice he makes between the two is also ultimately a choice about being a “good man.”
All week, leave comments on our blog tour stops for a chance to win all three books in our M/M urban fantasy series Layers of the Otherworld. All you have to do is leave a comment with your email whenever you see us touring. One comment = one entry, so be sure to check us out every day! The more you comment, the better your odds! On December 3rd (that’s one week after Mark of the Gladiator’s release!), we’ll draw one lucky winner to receive Cruce de Caminos, The Druid Stone, and Galway Bound in the ebook format of their choice. Bonne chance!
About Heidi and Violetta
Two unlikely friends and co-writers, Heidi Belleau is a wholesome small-town history nerd from Northern Canada and Violetta Vane is a former academic with a sketchy past from the American South. Together, they write sex-soaked multicultural M/M romance and urban fantasy. You can visit them online at HeidiBelleau.com and ViolettaVane.com, or reach them on twitter as @HeidiBelleau and @ViolettaVane.
About Mark of the Gladiator
After an inconvenient display of mercy in the arena, the gladiator Anazâr is pulled from the sands and contracted to nobleman Lucius Marianus to train his new stable of female gladiators. His charges are demoralized and untested, and they bear the marks of abuse. Anazâr has a scant two months to prepare them for the arena, and his new master demands perfection.
Anazâr is surprised by how eager he is to achieve it—far more eager than a man motivated only by self-preservation. Perhaps it’s because Marianus is truly remarkable: handsome, dignified, honorable, and seemingly as attracted to Anazâr as Anazâr is to him.
But a rivalry between Marianus and his brother sparks a murder conspiracy, with Anazâr and his gladiatrices caught in the middle. One brother might offer salvation . . . but which? And in a world where life is worth less than the pleasures of the crowd or the whims of a master, can there be any room for love? As a gladiator, Anazâr's defenses are near impenetrable. But as a man, he learns to his cost that no armor or shield can truly protect his heart.
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