There is an exciting new group on Goodreads especially devoted to m/m fiction in ancient Greece and Rome – The House of Dionysus.
A few days ago, one of my fellow mods Kayla, opened a topic asking me why my latest short story, The Education of Gaius had such a strong ‘BDSM’ theme. Did we actually know anything about such practices in ancient Rome? It was a good question and I considered my answer with care.
One honest answer, of course, is that I simply wanted to write about kinky sex in ancient Rome and hoped that there would be a few readers out there who would enjoy the combination too.
A more detailed answer involves both the development of the character of Gaius, my main protagonist, and an exploration of what we can know about ancient sexual attitudes along with the range of generalisations we can safely make about the perimeters of human behaviour. Part of the reason, then, for the strong ‘BDSM’ theme is the character of Gaius himself.
In Gaius and Achilles where we first meet him, Gaius becomes involved in a carefully negotiated consensual relationship with his slave Achilles in which their sexual expression includes impact play, bondage and conscious playing with the tropes of dominance and submission. In that book, I hint that Gaius previously suffered guilt and confusion with regard to his urges to dominate and inflict pain on his lovers, in contrast to his otherwise notably gentle and considerate persona. I also mention that he went through a process with his friend and former lover Tiberius which helped him to come to terms with his urges in a safe and constructive way. In a sense then, The Education of Gaius is an exploration of the hints dropped in the earlier book.
The question of BDSM in the ancient world as in other times and places is an interesting and complex one. Of course, what we understand by the modern term BDSM is highly culturally specific. It represents a conscious development over the last few decades of carefully reflected upon practices and attitudes. However, there is plenty of evidence that games involving pain, power, restraint and submission have been part of the sexual repertoire of human beings of all times and cultures. The Indian sex manual The Kama Sutra famously details various kinds of impact play along with suggestions for keeping it safe (don’t poke your concubine’s eye out with scissors!) Ancient Greek vases show men flagellating their sexual partners with slippers, while Roman erotic elegy glories in rough sex with bites and bruising seen as desirable tokens of passion.
What we don’t have here, of course, is any evident ethics of consent or equality. Graeco-Roman society, as we know, understood itself in terms of patriarchal hierarchy – man/woman, citizen/slave citizen/prostitute. Writers such as Ovid treat rape as a joke, and informed consent is not seen as sexy or important to the elite producers of these texts and images.
Nonetheless, I do not think it’s beyond the legitimate scope of a writer of fiction to speculate that people of the ancient world who were frequently involved in such activities in a consensual relationship might spontaneously develop rules and codes to ensure that such erotic games proceeded safely and to the satisfaction of all parties. After all, the concept of the ‘safeword’ is closely related to signals used in contact sports and even children’s games to end play when one person has had enough. I remember myself as a child playing chasing games and the like and the potential for upset being avoided by players saying ‘if I say this, I’m only pretending but if I say – then that means I’m not playing any more.” It would be instructive (and entertaining) to research the literature surrounding Victorian erotic flagellation practices to make a comparison with contemporary BDSM in terms of how safe and consensual play was negotiated, though such literature was of course mostly written for titillation and more often depicts fantasy-based scenarios of non-consensual activity rather than the actual behaviour of participants.
I have come across some intriguing research and speculation about the ancient Etruscans’ attitudes to sexuality. Apparently, these ancient peoples who ruled over part of Italy before the Romans had a reputation as decadent experts in all things erotic. When this is combined with the discovery of an erotic flogging scene in an Etruscan fresco, it inspired me to make the mischievous and somewhat tongue-in-cheek leap of suggesting that Gaius’ mentor Tiberius might have developed such an in-depth praxis for such consensual erotic play by way of his mysterious Etruscan origins. Even the other protagonists take this with a pinch of salt and suggest that instead he made it up as he went along.
Here is an interesting speculative exploration of the Etruscan evidence –http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/th…
In short, I would contend that while there obviously wasn’t a BDSM scene as such in Ancient Rome, the underpinning sexual and emotional drives were evidently there in some form, and it is not beyond the legitimate territory of a work of historical fiction to imagine that some individuals and groups might have come up with some shared attitudes and mutual understandings for safe and enjoyable play.