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.